What if the Women of the Bible Had All Been Feminists?

June 26, 2007

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Lately I’ve been enjoying Amy Richards’ Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. I’ve been meaning to read something by Amy ever since I heard her speak this spring, and Manifesta hasn’t been letting me down. Amy is the brain behind the Ask Amy advice column at Feminist.com, and a long time proponent of equal rights and empowerment for women. As a male who has lately begun to come to grips with all the varieties of sexism and patriachy present in the conservative Southern town in which I was raised, Richards’ writing is truly a breath of fresh air.

While Manifesta does everything from summarize the history of feminism to describe what still needs to be done by the so-called Third-Wave of feminism and outline resources for community activism, it also has some hilarious moments. Since a healthy chunk of the examples of sexism I can recall from my upbringing involve religion, I particularly liked the section where Richards and Baumgardner (the coauthor) raise a question: “How would Biblical history have been different if the women had been feminists, and had gotten together for a good girl talk now and then?”

After the ladies loosen up around the table, Mary Magdalene would begin by talking about sex workers’ rights, and returning belly dancing to its origin as an exercise for giving birth. Leah and Rachel would resolve their longtime sisterly competition by ditching Jacob, the man their father married them both to, and agitate for women to be able to inherit their own property. Rather than being synonymous with evil, Jezebel would be lauded for her business acumen. Hagar would receive palimony and child support from her lover, Abraham. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, might even befriend Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s slave; at the very least, she would empathize. Bathsheba, tired of looking for love from a poetic boy who couldn’t commit, would have the presence of mind to leave King David. Delilah would teach them about orgasms and exhort her friends to make sure they got what they needed in bed. Lilith would be full of first wives’ club advice for Eve, and Eve would be pontificating about the politics of housework. Eve would also recognize that she had been framed, and refuse to take the Fall for her man or her God. Ruth wouldn’t be saying “Whither thou goest, I will go” to her mother-in-law or anyone anymore; she’d be blazing her own trails. Meanwhile, they’d all begin to question why the hell Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when her husband was busy offering up their virgin daughters to the marauders. (And why the hell she didn’t have a name.)

Man, I wish I wrote that. I mean, woman


Quote Mining

June 22, 2007

I really should be working on a research project. But I’m not.

Just came across this great piece on Behe’s misleading quote-mining in the End of Evolution–the first thing that really struck me about the book. The misrepresentations are really oustanding.

Also, this blog has an excellent list of reviews/ criticisms of Behe’s new ‘work.’ Cheers.


The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind (I)

June 19, 2007

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Having recently finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale (and already posting about it here and here) I feel inclined to offer a brief book review, and then delve into one of the most fascinating recurring themes in the book.

The Ancestor’s Tale tells the history of life. That’s pretty broad. So the questions are how to pick a starting point and what to focus on? The format of the book is unique, beginning with homo sapiens (an understandable bias) and working its way backward in chronological time. This structure constantly reinforces the concept that evolution is not “intentional” or “progressive” in certain specific senses; if the clock was wound back and history was played out with even the slightest variations, any specific species (including humans) probably wouldn’t have evolved, or would be very different. So, viewing evolutionary history frontwards always carries the risk of seeing species evolving “toward” the present, and evolution simply is not directional in that sense. Dawkins calls this misperception “the conceit of hindsight”: We evolved, therefore we were meant to evolve. Not so.

The narrative structure of the book is therefore intentionally counterintuitive, and it’s something that Dawkins handles well. The reader is constantly reminded of this special caveat for evolutionay thinking, as intended by the author. That said, Dawkins also adds narrative wit by paralleling the Ancestor’s Tale to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, albeit loosely. Going back in time the narrative slowly picks up more characters. Beginning with humans, then picking up modern species that represent groups that diverged from ‘our line’ at some point in the past; chimpanzees, gorillas, the other apes, Old World monkeys, New World monkeys, more primates, rodents, laurasiatheres, xenarthrans, marsupials, monotremes, sauropsids, amphibians, and so on, back to the dawn of time.

Dawkins also does a good job of discussing various evidences for differing viewpoints and current controversies, clearly demarcating that which is widely agreed upon (chimpanzees are our closest modern relative), often instances in the (evolutionarily) recent past to the uncertain (the order of the rooting of the tree for mixotrichs, archae, and eubacteria), often more distant in evolutionary time.

That said, I liked the book. A recurring point that stood out to me was “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Dawkins often referred to cases where our need to categorize, group, and name things which may in reality fall in a continuum, not discrete categories, gets in the way of the most accurate descriptions.

Names are a menace in evolutionary history. It is no secret that paleontology is a controversial subject in which there are even some personal enmities. At least eight books called Bones of Contention are in print. And if you look at what two paleontologists are quarreling about, as often as not it turns out to be a name. Is this fossil Homo erectus, or is it an archaic Homo sapiens? Is this one an early Homo habilis or a late Australopithecus? People evidently feel strongly about such questions, but they often turn out to be splitting hairs. Indeed, they resemble theological questions, which I suppose gives a clue to why they arouse such passionate disagreements. The obsession with discrete names is an example of what I call the tyranny of the discontinuous mind….

He then offers some excellent examples, which I shall write about soon.


The Edge of Intelligent Design

June 13, 2007

I wrote a little about reviews of Intelligent Design advocate Michael Behe’s new book, The Edge of Evolution, in Behe Does it Again. And then the other day I had the chance to sit down in a bookstore and read a good chunk of the book. The combination of my lack of support for what Behe is doing and my own academic-induced poverty led me not to buy the book.

Behe’s writing’s gone downhill. Gone are the well-worded explanations of biochemical mechanisms. Edge seems to be written in a quicker, outline sort of format with lots of little headlines and even less mass under each heading than with Darwin’s Black Box, his previous book.

Having just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale, it’s really interesting to contrast his heavily detailed, frequently-exampled work with Behe’s, which relies on a very few examples to make a point. Jerry Coyne, writing in The New Republic, has an excellent review of The Edge of Evolution (reposted here) which suggests the title of this post and also has a nice introduction to evolutionary biology, if you need it.

Read the rest of this entry »


If You Don’t Like to Think About AIDS, Don’t Read This.

June 10, 2007

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece recently entitled “Save the Darfur Puppy.” I think he was going for getting a reaction with the title, and it worked, at least with me. You’ve probably notice that the media loves stories about endangered species–always cute, cuddly ones, never rodents–because people are moved by these stories. On the other hand, a crisis like the genocide in Darfur is unlikely to get airplay commensurate with its magnitude. And likewise with AIDS, which despite being of tragic scale–two or three flaming World Trade Centers full of people dying every day–rarely hits the news, in part because it’s the same old, depressing story, every day.

So, when I saw that Truthdig had an interview called “Stop Ignoring AIDS and Africa,” I gravitated light-wards. The piece is an interview of Stephanie Nolen, the author of a new book called “28: Stories of AIDS in Africa” which tells one narrative of a (real, actual, living and breathing) human being with HIV in Africa for every one million of the estimated 28 million living with the virus. I certainly plan on reading this book, but here’s what really caught my eye–this picture:

And its caption:

Bongos, an 8-year-old HIV-positive boy, waits in a hallway at the Sparrow Rainbow Village medical clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa, in November 2005.

This really hits home, because I volunteered at Sparrow back in 2005. They do incredible work, and my few weeks there were extremely moving. Sparrow is an orphanage and adult hospice–a “village”–where those with HIV are cared for. The corridor in the background is the central part of Sparrow’s administrative center, which connects some of the hospital rooms (for the sickest patients), a kitchen, administrative offices, and even a makeshift morgue. Because most of the patients there receive some level of antiretroviral treatment Sparrow is really, sadly, one of the best places to be in Johannesburg if you’re a kid with HIV.

Here are some compelling quotes from Nolen’s interview on Truthdig:

You show people a picture of one sad-looking puppy and everyone runs for their wallet, and you tell them that 30,000 children die a day of diseases that can be prevented for less than a buck and nobody gives a rat’s ass. I don’t know what it is, what that says about us as a species, but I certainly know from a long time reporting about HIV in Africa that it’s true.

On narrating an issue where the statistics are numbing:

Their lives could not look more different in some ways than the lives of an American or a Canadian. But when you sit down in the little counselor’s booth in Malawi or Lusaka and they say to you, “You have AIDS, you’re going to die,” that doesn’t feel different than it would if you were in America. And it’s getting people to realize that those people had all—sure, they’re Africans—but they had all those same expectations around their lives. They want to graduate from high school, they want to start a little business, they want to, you know, persuade that really cute girl they’ve been eyeing for a long time to go out with them. It isn’t any different. You’ve really got to go, go really micro to make people understand that story, to get them past the numbers.

On finding stories of progress:

You know, I think we get very often this perception of it being a grim story where not very much changes…We also don’t hear that huge progress has been made in responding. There were, for example, when I started reporting on this full-time, there were fewer than 100,000 people on treatments and today there are 1.5 million in Africa. And everybody said, “You can’t do it, there’s no way you can treat in Africa.” Well, that’s a 13-fold increase in four years, and those people have better survival rates on treatment than most Americans on treatment do. So lots of victories.

On money and broken promises and the real roadblock to widespread treatment programs (trained health care professionals):

And there’s a lot more money available than there was….They need about $6.8 billion to meet those proposals, and they have, you know, like, $1.85 in change. Constantly, countries promise money and don’t deliver or don’t promise anything like what’s needed to respond. So we need money. I think, even more than money, these days we’re realizing that there are some more intractable problems that are going to need more creative solutions. So you can use that money to fly in boxes and boxes of pills. You can’t fly in nurses, doctors, pharmacists. I mean, you can fly in a few, but not enough to meet the needs of a whole, continent-wide healthcare program, right?

On the underlying economic inequalities that drive the epidemic:

You know, I meet lots of young women who’ve been given information about HIV but who are selling sex down at truck stops because their parents have died, they’re raising their siblings and that’s the only option that they have. So, you know, they say, “Fine, we’ve been told about HIV in the safe-sex textbooks, but HIV might kill me in five years or 10 years and we’re all going to starve to death next week if I don’t do this.” So, you can address some of the obvious things around prevention, but unless you change the factors that drive people into risky behavior, then you haven’t achieved very much.

And, a bit further afield, but still in Africa, on Darfur and the war in Uganda:

And, you know, it’s also interesting to talk about Darfur because, yeah, there are probably 300, 350,000 dead there and a lot of people displaced, but it is in fact a far smaller conflict than the war in northern Uganda which has been going on for 21 years. You have four times as many people displaced in northern Uganda. You have four times as many people dead. Well, when did we last hear about that one, right? I mean, Darfur is suddenly sexy because George Clooney goes there and, meanwhile, the war in northern Uganda that relies almost entirely on child soldiers … you don’t hear about that one.

On Bush’s PEPFAR program (providing treatment for AIDS in Africa):

Well, you know, I’ve done a lot of call-in radio lately where people call up and are yelling about the Bush administration letting people die, and here they are, spending all these billions of dollars in Iraq. Why don’t they do something in Africa? So I say to people, “Well, guess what? Actually the $15-billion, five-year program to intervene for AIDS in Africa, that the Bush administration dreamed up, has been the single greatest response to the pandemic ever.” And then there’s kind of silence on the end of the phone, you know?

And its problems:

…They’re saying a group that’s going to get U.S. funds to distribute condoms or put AIDS programs in schools or care for sick people, has to sign a piece of paper condemning sex work. And that’s like crazy moral language that just has no place in a place where people are selling sex to eat.

I like Stephanie Nolen. And I like Truthdig.

(If you’d like to learn more about or donate to Sparrow, please do so!)


Not the Only Farmers in the Field

June 7, 2007

I’ve been delighting in the sheer breadth of information provided by Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale. It’s unfortunate that my biochemistry degree hasn’t required me to take a zoology course, but even if I had had a thorough zoological training, I think there would still be a number of species presented in The Ancestor’s Tale that would surprise me. Here’s a neat example: the leaf cutter ant.

Just as humanity did at the time of our Agricultural Revolution, ants independently invented the town. A single nest of leaf cutter ants, Atta, can exceed the population of Greater London. It is a complicated underground chamber, up to 6 meters deep and 20 meters in circumference, surmounted by a somewhat smaller dome above ground. This huge ant city, divided into hundreds or even thousands of separate chambers connected by networks of tunnels, is sustained ultimately by leaves cut into manageable pieces and carried home by workers in broad, rustling rivers of green. But the leaves are not eaten directly, either by the ants themselves (though they do suck some of the sap) or by the larvae. Instead they are painstakingly mulched as compost for underground fungus gardens. It is the small round knobs or “gongylidia’ of the fungi that the ants eat and, more particular, that they feed to the larvae…When a young queen ant flies off to found a new colony, she takes a precious cargo with her: a small culture of the fungus with which to sow the first crop in her new nest.

So, there’s complex, city-sustaining agriculture for you. Now how about keeping cows:

Several groups of ants have independently evolved the habit of keeping domestic ‘dairy’ animals in the form of aphids. Unlike other symbiotic insects that live inside ants’ nests and don’t benefit the ants, the aphids are pastured out in the open, sucking sap from plants as they normally do. As with mammalian cattle, aphids have a high throughput of food, taking only a small amount of nutriment from each morsel. The residue that emerges from the rear end of aphid is sugar-water–‘honeydew’–only slightly less nutritious than the plant sap that goes in at the front. Any honeydew not eaten by ants rains down from trees infested with aphids, and is plausibly thought to be the origin of ‘manna’ in the Book of Exodus. It should not be surprising that ants gather it up, for the same reason as the followers of Moses did. Btu some ants have gone further and corralled aphids, giving them protection in exchange for being allowed to ‘milk’ the aphids, tickling their rear ends to make them secrete honeydew which the ant eats directly from aphid’s anus.

I bet you never thought you could read a book on biology and get a lesson on ants that involve sBiblical history and graphic sex. Cheers!


The Kite Runner

June 5, 2007

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My parents gave me a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for Christmas, and it’s a tribute to the crazily-high-busy-ness quotient of the past semester that I just now got to it.

Hosseini immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan and became a physician, a profession he only gave up after the success of his novels. The Kite Runner is his first novel, and runs in a sort of parallel to his own life. Amir, the main character, grows up in Afghanistan and ends up fleeing to the U.S. during that country’s decades of violence.

The Kite Runner is one of those excellent books where fiction may give one a better introduction to a reality that nonfiction ever could. The characters are imaginary, but in a sense they are very real, telling stories about their country’s history, its culture, its religion, its prejudices, and its wars. Amir is an upper-class Pashtun who has a conflicted friendship with Hassan, the son of his father’s Hazara servant. Much of the book centers on Amir’s guilt over an incident from his childhood and his struggle to redeem himself.

It’s not perfect though. At times I thought the coincidences–such as in meeting the same characters repeatedly, unexpectedly–veered away from realism. The book could have used a few more characters not vital to the plot to flesh it out, but this doesn’t interfere too much. If you want to know more about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner is probably an excellent first book to draw you into a world that is otherwise utterly foreign. And maybe reading it will help humanize the people of Afghanistan, in a way that Americans desperately need.


Behe Does It Again

June 3, 2007

Be wrong, that is.

Michael Behe (of Darwin’s Black Box fame) has a new book coming out called The Edge of Evolution. While I haven’t read his new book yet, one can ascertain from the title that this will be another “God of the Gaps” argument: Look, here’s a gap that science hasn’t explained (yet), therefore God did it. Behe’s new line will surely be: Look, here’s the ‘edge of evolution,’ the things that haven’t been explained just yet, so therefore God is proven.

If he had just done that in his last book, it would have merely been bad theology or very bad philosophy. But, the whole thing was based on (possibly intentional) factual errors. Behe makes broad, sweeping claims about the dearth of research on molecular evolution. Here’s one:

There has never been a meeting, or a book, or a paper on details of the evolution of complex biochemical systems.

He is very obviously playing to the ignorance of his readership. Unfortunately, this is something one can do when writing books about biology that will have a primarily religious audience (that’s not a slam–it’s a call for religious conservatives to learn more biology). Talk Origins has a nice listing of books and articles on molecular evolution, including those on complex biochemical systems. The present list has 22 books and ~203 peer-reviewed articles on many of the subjects that Behe has claimed he searched for evolutionary explanations for but failed to find: the immune system, blood coagulation, flagella, actin, cell membranes, the citric acid cycle, glycolysis, amino acid biosynthesis, photosynthesis, vision, etc.

To the biologically educated it should be quite apparent that Behe, as a biologist, has found a thrilling new lifestyle as a celebrity within the conservative Christian community, not to mention a profitable book market, by disregarding the amazing amount of research being done by other scientists and publishing popular works making extravagant claims. And because scientists are at the forefront of uncovering the complexity of life, research on the origins of those complex systems is often several years behind the discovery of them. So a biochemist like Behe is well-positioned to write books about the current ‘edge’ of research, point to a (real or imagined) lack of satisfactory explanations, and claim it as evidence for belief. This is bad theology, and very bad science.

ERV, who does some interesting research on drug resistance in HIV, has an article called Good Virus, Bad Creationist that dissects on of Behe’s arguments from The Edge of Evolution, revealing how he takes basic misunderstandings about a field he should (if he were really keeping up with the literature) be familiar with, but is apparently not.

There are really only a few conclusions one can make about Behe. If you think of any other options, let me know:
1) He honestly doesn’t understand the science he’s writing about, or fails to do his research, so the misunderstandings stem from this.
2) Similar to #1, but his ideological/theological leanings blind him from reading the scientific literature objectively (quite possible).
3) He understands that there are scientific explanations for what he’s writing about, and purposefully disregards the facts because he knows (the vast majority of) his readers will never check the facts independently (and on that he’d probably be right).


The Age of the Impossibility of Disbelief

June 3, 2007

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In her excellent book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong takes an interesting detour on the language of belief and doubt. She describes how the proliferation of religious choices may have made faith more difficult, not less:

Indeed, by the end of the sixteenth century, many people in Europe felt that religion had been gravely discredited. They were disgusted by the killing of Catholics by Protestants and Protestants by Catholics. Hundreds of people had died as martyrs for holding views that it was impossible to prove one way or the other. Sects preaching a bewildering variety of doctrines that were deemed essential for salvation had proliferated alarmingly. There was now too much theological choice: many felt paralyzed and distressed by the variety of religious interpretations on offer. Some may have felt that faith was becoming harder to achieve than ever.

So did people respond with atheism, or something else?

Yet in fact a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at this time were so great as to be insurmountable. From birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. As Febvre points out, God and religion were so ubiquitous that nobody at this stage thought to say “So our life, the whole of our life, is dominated by Christianity! How tiny is the area of our lives that is already secularized, compared to everything that is still governed, regulated and shaped by religion!”

I wonder, what dominates our own lives in such a way that we cannot realize? How shackled is our thinking by the commonplace? It’s a fascinating line of questioning.

Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time. Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration. As Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as “absolute,” “relative,” “causality,” “concept,” and “intuition” were not yet in use. We should also remember that as yet no society in the world had eliminated religion, which was taken for granted.

So, what things enabled people to visualize a world without God, and develop a secular existence? And what things encouraged them along that path? I think the religious wars of Europe and, as Armstrong mentioned, the overwhelming variety of religions from which to choose, both made religion in general seem less desirable. I’m not enough of a philosopher to name pivotal events in that movement that made a secular worldview possible, but in the field of science, Darwin was certainly one of the key turning points. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

But the question remains–what else is holding us back?