Evolutionary psychology, sexual dimorphism, and ideology

(Note to non-biologists: “sexual dimorphsim” refers to any trait or behavior that differs between the sexes, like the ornamented tail of the male peacock, the brighter color of the male painted bunting—and of many birds—and the bower-building behavior of male but not female bowerbirds.)

There are some science-friendly folk (including atheists) who simply dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology in humans, saying that its theoretical foundations are weak or nonexistent. I’ve always replied that that claim is bunk, for its “theoretical foundations” are simply the claim that our brains and behaviors, like our bodies, show features reflecting evolution in our ancestors. While some evolutionary psychology studies are weak, and I’ve been a critic of them, the discipline as a whole is growing in rigor and should certainly not be dismissed in toto.

Those who still do, though, should answer this question:

Why are human males, on average, bigger and stronger than females?

This is true not only in our species, but in our three closest relatives: chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, as well as in most primates (there are a few exceptions, like gibbons).

The most obvious answer is male-male competition: our male ancestors competed with each other for females, and bigger bodies made for more successful competitors. That size difference can be useful in both direct physical competition (as in mule deer!) or simply in dominance, like establishing territories, or even in showing you have “better genes”.  (In fact, mate choice based on size may still operate in humans if females prefer bigger or taller males as opposed to smaller ones like me.) And if males competed for females, that reflects a difference between the sexes in reproductive strategy—that is, in behavior.  Finally, if the physical result of this behavioral difference remains in our species, why would the behavioral difference itself not remain as well, with males competing for female attention? Various psychological and sociological studies in fact show this to be the case in modern humans.

The theoretical underpinnings of the behavioral difference have long been understood and supported with data: the difference in parental investment that usually makes males less discriminatory in choosing mates than are females (sperm is cheap; pregnancy and suckling expensive). The theory also makes substantiated predictions. One of them is this: in those species (both primate and nonprimate) in which males have a larger variation among individuals in reproductive success (i.e., those having “harems” versus those that are more monogamous), the species having more variation (more “polygynous”) should show a bigger size difference between males and females. For in those species in which a male can garner lots of females, leaving a lot of males as chaste bachelors, there will be stronger selection for males be larger. And that is what we find.

So those who dismiss evolutionary psychology wholesale must still explain why in every human society males are on average larger than females. (The answer probably doesn’t involve an ecological difference between the sexes in our ancestors, as such ecological differences don’t seem to exist in our closest primate relatives.) And if you admit that those differences in body size reflect ancient evolution, why do opponents of evo-psych claim that the differences in behavior that produced the physical dimorphism are no longer with us?

This is not to justify any sex differences in behavior as “right” or “moral.” That is the naturalistic fallacy.  But the left-wing opposition to evolutionary psychology as a valid discipline in principle, especially when it involves differences in sexual behaviorseems to me based more on ideology than on biology. Ideologues cannot allow any possibility that males and females behave differently because of their evolution. Such people think that this would buttress the view that one sex would be “better” than the other.

But what evolved does not mean what’s right or what’s inevitable; and everybody with two neurons to rub together knows that. Humans may have evolved to be xenophobic and even violent towards members of “outgroups,” but we have the ability through culture and learning to overcome such a tendency. And, in fact, overcoming xenophobia happens to be both more useful and more ethical in a world of wide interactions between people and nations—interactions much different from those experienced by the small social groups of our African ancestors.

Biology is not ideology, but neither should ideology dictate biology.


Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ glossolalia

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a special habit of American Christians, though other Christians in other countries use it too.  Both Dan Barker and Jerry DeWitt, once evangelical preachers, told me recently that although they’re now diehard atheists, they sometimes still speak in tongues when they’re alone, for they find it relaxing.

The Jesus and Mo artist highlights this practice in today’s strip:


Here’s a real example (there are many on YouTube), showing evangelist Anita Fuentes speaking in tongues. I can see how one might find this relaxing, like a mantra uttered during meditation.  It’s certainly not a real language, as linguists have analyzed these utterances and found no semantic structure.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Robin Elisabeth Cornwell sends what she calls “deer porn,” showing the 14-point mule deer stag (Odocoileus hemionus) enjoying what his big antlers have gained him.

Checking out the female’s reproductive status:


Making the Big Decision:


Making fawns! The gestation period for this species is a little under 7 months. Other does watch, and they, too, may have been impregnated by this male.


It must be fun watching deer pr0n from the comfort of your home. . .


Finally, what is a day without a photo from Stephen Barnard from Idaho? Here are two, first an extremely cute downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens):


and then a black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus):


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

 I am deep in the galleys of HMS Albatross, so posting may be light today. As always, I do my best. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is exercising both her French and her solipsism:
Hili: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
A: Why did you say that?
Hili: Because, even so, somebody has to be on top.
In Polish:
Hili: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
Ja: Dlaczego to mówisz?
Hili: Bo ktoś jednak musi być na wierzchu.

Cat eats a lollipop

I’m off again to the Rugby Scrum, otherwise known as the Indian consulate. To end the day, we must again have a cat, this one nomming some candy.

The affinity of this cat for a lollipop (we Americans call them “suckers”) is mysterious to me, because, as you all should know, cats have no sweet receptors and so can’t taste sugar. Maybe there’s something else in the sweet that attracts Patton:

The YouTube notes:

My cat Patton loves to lick and gnaw on lollipops. He will eat an entire sucker in less than 5 minutes!

I don’t know what breed this is, but it looks Siamese-y. WARNING: Can we please do without comments saying, “Eating that is bad for the cat”? Perhaps it’s true, but I have no control over what Patton’s staff feeds its master.

Have a Scientology Christmas!

It’s time to start thinking about those worthies who deserve a little something for the holidays. How about an e-meter? Or a leather-bound collection of L. Ron Hubbard’s works? Yes, if you have some spare change (a lot of spare change!), you’ll find all that and more at the interactive Dianetics and Scientology 2014 Holiday Catalogue.

For only $5,000, for instance, you can get this:

Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 1.04.08 PM

Now that’s a classy way to audit!

If you can’t afford that, you can get study tapes and books for $175 and up. And for only $675 ($750 Canadian), you can get a 16-volume set all about L. Ron Hubbard:

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And finally, if you’re feeling really flush, here’s a leatherbound, gilded, tooled, and marbled-paper copy of L. Ron Hubbard’s writings, so fancy that the price isn’t even quoted (it says “Contact the Planetary Dissemination Unit or your Publications Org for donations information”).  It must run thousands of dollars. Still, what is money compared to the pleasure this set would bring your loved ones?

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I am under no illusions about how the faithful will regard this.

Picture 1


Reza Aslan promotes himself, demonizes atheists, and exaggerates his credentials

Once again Heather Hastie, at her website Heather’s Homilies, has saved me from the wearisome task of writing about Reza Aslan.  Her latest post takes apart Aslan’s recent article in Salon, “Reza Aslan: Sam Harris and ‘New Atheists’ aren’t new, aren’t even atheists.” Read Aslan’s post if you can stand it, and then Heather’s, as Heather went to a lot of trouble dismantling Aslans’s claim that new atheists, unlike old ones, are “anti-theists,” bent on ridding society of religion (tell that to Ingersoll and Mencken!), and his argument that people like Harris and Dawkins want to remove religion from society, using violence if necessary.

Aslan’s article differed from his usual screeds in that he tried to summarize the history of atheism in a semi-scholarly way, even though it’s tendentious and, argues Heather, misleading. I suspect Aslan’s new “scholarly” tone comes from his being caught out trying to claim that he’s a religious scholar with a Ph.D. in religious studies.  He has in fact repeatedly distorted his credentials, obscuring the fact that he’s an associate professor in creative writing at the University of California Riverside, and that his doctorate is in sociology (granted, it’s on the idea of jihad). He even appears to have lied, claiming that he’s affiliated with a department of religion at Riverside.

One critique of his credentials, “The lies and misrepresentations of Reza Aslan,” written by by Majid Rafizadeh, was published in August of last year in the right-wing magazine Front Page. A quote or two:

First of all, Reza Aslan has continuously presented himself as a professor of religion. This is done in an attempt to sell his few books, which lack academic and credible references. In one of his recent interviews, Aslan claims, “I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament . . . I am an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions . . . I am a professor of religions, including the New Testament – that’s what I do for a living, actually . . . To be clear, I want to emphasize one more time, I am a historian, I am a Ph.D. in the history of religions.” Aslan also recently said on Twitter, “I have a BA, MA and PhD in the history of Western Religions so yes, again, I am an ACTUAL expert in Judaism.”

. . . although Reza Aslan calls himself a “historian,” he has never attainted a degree or had professional training in history, and has never even taken an elementary course in historiography for that matter. His dissertation focuses on the events and movements of the twentieth century and does not apply any historical methods or archival research. In addition, his dissertation is also an abnormally short one – approximately 130 pages double-spaced – which seems to have been written for publicity purposes for his book, Beyond Fundamentalism. Reza Aslan has been exploiting the situation in the United States after 9/11 to self-promote and make profits through these exaggerations and fabrications.

Well, you can dismiss that if you want because it’s a passionate piece in a right-leaning journal. (I don’t think it’s kosher, though, to ignore arguments simply because they’re published in such places.) But you can’t so easily dismiss a piece by Manuel Roig-Franzia in The Washington Post, also published in August of 2013 (this was right after Aslan’s book on Jesus, Zealot, was published). An excerpt from that:

Aslan, who has an undergraduate degree in religious studies and a master’s in theological studies, is not currently a professor of religion or history. He is an associate professor in the creative writing department of the University of California at Riverside. He has asserted a present-day toehold in the field of religion by saying he is “a cooperative faculty member” in Riverside’s Department of Religious Studies.

Yet this is not so, according to Vivian-Lee Nyitray, the just-retired chair of the department. Nyitray says she discussed the possibility last year with Aslan but that he has not been invited to become a cooperative faculty member, a status that would allow him to chair dissertations in her former department.

The Post piece lauds Aslan’s absorbing narrative (with neither Aslan nor Roig-Ranzia ever questioning whether Jesus really existed), but does question his scholarship:

Dale Martin, a Yale University religious studies professor who reviewed Aslan’s “Zealot” for the New York Times, sees Aslan’s characterization of his credentials in a different light. “I think he overplayed his hand,” Martin says of Aslan in an interview. “He’s just overselling.” Martin, who has praise for Aslan’s writing skills, was critical of his seeming reliance on the work of previous scholars to formulate one of the central theories of his book: that Jesus was a revolutionary executed because he posed a political threat to the Roman Empire.

“The record needs to be corrected,” Martin says. “Both about his credentials and his thesis.”

Of course what Aslan claims about Jesus or Islam should be judged independently of his credentials, and I’m not a big fan of assessing someone’s competence in academia from simply looking at their degrees. But Aslan’s repeated distortions of his credentials is worrisome, and should make us wonder about his motivations. Yet even leaving that aside, I am aware of the distortions about Islam in Aslan’s first book, and I’m not convinced of the historicity of Jesus in his second.

Aslan is an apologist for faith, and in his own way is just as dangerous as Karen Armstrong. If he had his way, we’d write off the misdeeds of jihadists as “distorted faith,” and simply accept religion in general, and Islam in particular, as a good thing.  That would be a mistake.

And who needs ipecac if you can listen to Krista Tippett interviewing Aslan at her National Public Radio (NPR, also know as “Numinous Public Relations”) show “On Being.” (Hit “play episode” at the upper right.) Here we have the most unctuous promoter of faith on public radio osculating the most unctuous promoter of faith in popular books. They really need to get a room, as Tippett just lobs hearts and softball questions at Aslan.  Truly, I wonder why she has a gig on NPR. (Don’t answer that; I know they’re soft on faith.)

Note that Aslan claims that the “Islamic Reformation” is already under way, something that seems to contradict his first book on Islam, which implicitly argued that it was reformed at the beginning (and hence some sects have degenerated). In Aslan’s view, the violence of Muslims is simply an inevitable byproduct of its reformation, and we should be “excited” about it all.

At 29:20, they both discuss New Atheism, with Tippett complaining that although atheism has moved on, the New Atheists still get all the attention. Tippett and Aslan then agree that New Atheists give atheism a bad name (something she’d never say about faith), and Aslan longs for the “good old atheists” like Schopenhauer, people who, Tippett says, were “constructive,” as opposed to the New Atheists, who “tear things down.” (What?) Aslan also argues that New Atheists say that believers are “stupid” and that religion must be “forcibly removed from society.” That’s just wrong. In this segment, more than I’ve ever heard before, we see how deeply Tippett believes in belief, and it’s not pretty.

When I hear this kind of stuff, and get disheartened about it, I remind myself that the whole religious enterprise is based on fiction, and, in the end, will largely disappear from our world. We just won’t be around when that happens.



Michael Nugent kicks butt on miracles

Here are two clips from a recent debate in Ireland on miracles, especially the so-called “miracle cures” that supposedly occur at Lourdes, France and similar shrines. On a panel of faitheists, priests, and advocates of the divine, Michael Nugent, head of Atheist Ireland, holds his own against the existence of miracles in an intellectually hostile but civil milieu. He’s the only one who even questions these superstitions.

I recommend watching the entire debate (the second clip), if for no other reason than to see the grasp that faith still holds on Ireland, even among doctors and t.v. presenters.

YouTube gives details of the debate:

Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland debates miracles on RTE’s Spirit Level with host Joe Duffy, Fr Richard Gibbons, parish priest at Knock, Louise Hall, author of a book on Medjegorje, and Dr Michael Moran, a member of the Lourdes medical miracle assessment committee.

The first short clip shows Nugent (who apparently has done his homework) taking down the efficacy of visiting Lourdes. The statistics on rates of spontaneous cancer remission (higher than the cure rate at Lourdes!) were new to me. If you don’t have 26 minutes to watch the second clip, at least watch this 1.3 minutes of takedown:

The second, longer clip (which includes the first) shows everybody but Nugent at least holding out the possibility that visiting Lourdes (or its equivalent in Ireland, Knock) really can cure you. Note that the priest says that cures “are not a matter of statistics,” which of course is bogus. How else can you show that visiting Lourdes will help your malady? But several of the faith-osculators say, “You really have to visit it for yourself.” They argue that you can’t suss out the true efficacy of this place until you go there and “encounter the divine.” Somehow the “atmosphere of calmness, energy, and spirutually” is a substitute for real evidence of God.

Doctor Moran is an annoying waffler. When Nugent asks him, “Do you believe that Muhammad split the Moon in two?”, the doctor, an apparent believer, replies, “I don’t really have much of a background in Islam, to be honest, so I don’t know.”  And yet the doctor calls himself a scientist. The proper scientific answer would be “we have no evidence for Moon-splitting.” (One Muslim woman says that this claim isn’t part of the Qur’an, but it is (see the link above).

Here’s the full video (recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat):

Nugent gives another eloquent answer when the obviously biased presenter asks the panel at 20:23, “Would you knock Knock?” Nugent asserts that atheists can indeed have a sense of community and meaning, and that the notion that religion gives us morality is a “con,” as are miracles themselves. Father Gibbons does not look happy. Nugent goes on to ask a good question, “If you attribute the cures to God, why don’t you attribute the diseases to God?” None of the believers have an answer, of course.

Thank God (can I say that?) for people like Nugent, who provided a genial smackdown of the tawdry Catholic trade of miracles in a land where that trade is still big business. But at least the discussion is being had in public, on television, and they do include an atheist. I’m always in favor of atheists like Nugent—those who really make a difference in this world.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Keep ‘em coming in, folks: I’m not happy without a good cushion of photographs on my laptop.  Today we have a selection of “backyard wildlife,” reminding us that we too often neglect the beautiful animals that surround us, with custom having staled their infinite variety. So here are some animals you can find in U.S. towns.

The first contribution comes from reader “theshortearedowl” with the notes:

Despite being in town, the West Virginia University Arboretum has a healthy population of fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). These guys are the biggest North American tree squirrel; bigger and redder than the more common Eastern grey. They were out making the most of the warm weather today.



And some pictures from my neck of the woods, provided by reader Ed Kroc:

Here’s a collection of photos I wanted to pass along from my trip to the Chicagoland area last month.  If I recall correctly, this coincided with the time that you were in Bulgaria.  Northeastern Illinois was enjoying perfect fall weather, and I was lucky enough to have some time to go exploring.

We start in Thatcher Woods in River Forest, IL.  Two pictures of the underappreciated American Robin (Turdus migratorius), a male and a female, each drinking from the banks of the Des Plaines River.  You can see the subtle sexual dimorphism in the colouring of the two birds: the female is grey where the male is closer to black, and the female’s orange belly is also more muted.  They are very attractive birds, not fully appreciated due to their prevalence. [JAC: Like onions and Coca-Cola!]

American Robin female

American Robin male

Next, an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) among some autumn foliage in Blackwell Forest Preserve in West Chicago.  I remember that these birds were already scarce around the Chicagoland area when I was a kid, due mostly due to habitat loss.  They are cavity nesters, so increased urbanization eliminates their nesting spots.  Considerable efforts to repopulate the area with nesting cavities and boxes in the 1980’s and 90’s seem to have been successful, as these birds are now quite common again.

Eastern Bluebird 1

From the gorgeous West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve back in West Chicago, an equally gorgeous male Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus).  This species is one of North America’s fastest declining species, and for essentially unknown reasons.  Habitat loss seems to be a common hypothesis, but it’s hard to pin their estimated 94% continental decline over the past 50 years on that idea alone, especially when other blackbirds seem to be doing relatively fine.  The IUCN classifies the Rusty Blackbird as a threatened species, formally in its “vulnerable” category.

Rusty Blackbird 1

Two blackbirds that are definitely not in danger of disappearing from the continent any time soon, the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater), a male.  The starling, on the left, is in his/her somewhat intimidating winter plumage.  These guys aren’t natives, of course, but they are certainly highly successful additions to North America.  This pair was perched in a bare tree at the edge of Big Woods Forest Preserve in Eola.

European Starling and Brown-headed Cowbird

A few branches down, a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) basked in the warm autumn sunlight.

House Finch

A male Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) with, perhaps, a member of its namesake in its bill.  This one was fishing on the Fox River right in downtown Geneva.  He would stand atop the boulder in the background, watching the water, and then dive down headfirst into the river when a mouthful passed conveniently close enough.

Herring Gull fishing

Finally, as a bit of unsettling lagniappe, a bleak and ominous sight: a Methodist monolith stabbing out of the prairie.  This church was constructed about 10 years ago and now reaches imposingly out of the middle of the Big Woods Forest Preserve.  I forget what was there before (most likely some anonymous warehouse), but I really wish DuPage County would have sprung for the piece of land and just added it to their forest preserve district.  This seems to reflect a general trend of more and more new churches popping up in this part of DuPage County over the past 10 years, usually right next to forest preserve land, as it tends to be less developed.  Do more people necessarily mean more churches?  In the suburban US, I unfortunately think that the answer is largely in the affirmative.

Methodist Monolith



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