All posts filed under: Science / Tech

What’s the Point of Sex? It’s Communication at a Biological Level

Most people think just one sperm is needed to fertilise a woman’s egg and make a healthy pregnancy. This underpins a common view that all the other sperm — and all the other sex — are surplus to requirements, at least when it comes to conceiving a pregnancy. However, biologists now believe sexual intercourse is not just a sperm delivery process, but also a kind of biological communication. Regardless of whether fertilisation occurs, sperm and other components of the ejaculated fluid trigger subtle changes in the immune system of women. This has consequences for pregnancy should it happen later. More broadly, the importance of regular sexual activity also has implications for fertility planning, and for IVF and other forms of assisted reproduction, which generally do not take sexual practice or history into account. Sperm swim in a soup of molecular messages Evidence from animal research and clinical studies has led researchers to conclude seminal fluid — the fluid sperm are bathed in following ejaculation — plays an important role in fertility. Seminal fluid contains small molecules that act …

Medicine Must Not Forget the Psychosocial

A 54 year old woman in Chicago recently lost her only child to opioid addiction. She had become depressed and had stopped taking her statins and other medication. Her smoking had increased. She is eventually brought to the ER by paramedics following a 911 call by a member of the public. She describes crushing central chest pain, but within 20 minutes of arrival her consciousness level is slipping and no further history is obtainable. Tests quickly show evidence of heart failure, while venous and arterial bloods reveal that she is seriously hypoxic, has a raised blood sugar, and multiple biochemical upsets. She is dangerously ill. There is a significant risk she will arrest in the Emergency Room, but she is transferred to High Dependency Unit and over the next six hours her condition is stabilised. The following day she is taken to theatre where a blocked artery is repaired, and within 48 hours of admission she is mobilising well, eating meals, and watching TV with other patients in the day room. The young female medical intern who …

The Blank Slateism of the Right

“What a piece of work is a man!” Hamlet exclaimed. What indeed? Something less than God. Something more than dust. But what else can be said has remained controversial. There is an idea that human nature is a “blank slate,” a tabula rasa, free of inherited content, on which education and experience leave their marks. This idea, found in the work of progressive philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggests that we are wholly or mostly the products of our environments. This concept is central to left-wing belief regarding unequal societies and the almost unlimited potential of mankind if we escape what Marx and Engels called our “chains”. This belief has been extensively discredited, first by observation and now, increasingly, by science. Steven Pinker summarised the genetic and psychometric research that documents the scale of our inherited characteristics in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, which has since been updated in 2016. Some of this research is unsurprising. No one would maintain that if they had worked out more in the gym and eaten fewer hamburgers they could …

Monks in High Towers: A Plea to Our Fellow Academics

“The man who knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public nuisance”¹ Emblazoned above the entrance to the religion department at Florida State University is an inscription: The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge. The imperative of knowing where to find knowledge cuts deeper than we might imagine in science. Knowledge isn’t quarantined off in a single corner of the academy. Rather, it is dispersed among different fields, much like information is spread across the hard drive of your computer. The sad reality of the modern academy is that many academics work under the assumption that knowledge is proprietary to their field. A great many modern scholars do not even know where to find knowledge. Monks in Many High Towers Academic life involves a menagerie of different fields of study. For a scholar working in any given area, decades of time are invested in understanding her subject with great intensity. The goal is to be an expert in a very particular nook in an increasingly narrow corner. …

What is a Sexist?

What kinds of statements about men and women constitute sexism? Is it sexist to say, for example, that on average, men are taller than women or that women live longer than men? Most people already accept the obvious truth that men and women differ in these physiological respects, and it would strain credulity to argue that such statements are sexist. Suggestions about psychological differences, however, can stoke controversy. Pressing the issue further by claiming that psychological and cognitive differences might partly explain wage gaps, employment gaps, and the like, will certainly invite harsh rebuke and likely a charge of sexism. Like “racist”, the definition of “sexist” seems to have ballooned in such a way as to include any claim about average differences between males and females from the neck up. Some feminists, in particular, fear that assertions about differences between men and women threaten the social progress we’ve made over the past few centuries. Perhaps they have a point (as we discuss below). But we should consider whether such an expansive definition of sexism is …

Not My Rights Movement

Currently, LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA is believed to be the world’s longest acronym used to describe human sexual orientations and gender identities. Chances are it’s already been surpassed by an even longer acronym with the self-discovery of yet another person, or group of persons, with a unique gender fixation. It’s probably pointless to try to memorize what all the letters stand for, because theoretically there’s no limit to the proliferation of sexual identities. But some of them come with unique pronouns, and you had better learn those. Otherwise you might run afoul of new federal and provincial human rights and hate crimes laws. How on earth did we get here? Well, in the beginning there was G. And it was good. I’m not talking about God but about Gays. Back in the early 1980s, I joined the fight for gay rights and marched in the Toronto Gay Pride parade. Before G, there was actually H, for Homophile, as in the Queen’s (University) Homophile Association, which I discovered in 1978. I have to admit I welcomed the change from …

Stop Calling People “Low Information Voters”

A pernicious term used for those who voted for Trump and Brexit is the “low information voter”. Most likely uneducated, the low information voter doesn’t know much about “the issues”. He votes according to his gut feeling. He sabotages delicate democratic systems with the blunt exercise of his democratic rights. Bob Geldof calls Brexit voters the “army of stupid”. US philosopher Jason Brennan describes Trump voters as “ignorant, irrational, misinformed, nationalists.” In the Washington Post, the low information voter is defined as one who is more likely to respond to emotional appeals about issues such as the economy, immigration, Muslims, race relations and sexism. The Post goes onto explain: Low information voters are those who do not know certain basic facts about government and lack what psychologists call a “need for cognition.” Those with a high need for cognition have a positive attitude toward tasks that require reasoning and effortful thinking and are, therefore, more likely to invest the time and resources to do so when evaluating complex issues. In other words, low information people …

What is a Racist? Why Moral Progress Hinges on Getting the Answer Right

The charge of “racist” represents a scalpel that has been substantially dulled in recent years. The result is an inability to cut cleanly around the cancerous tissue of racism. The term has been co-opted by well-meaning social justice advocates, and is no longer reserved for people who treat members of other groups as inherently inferior to members of their own group. Nor is it used to identify people who fail to treat members of other groups as the individuals that they are. Instead, “racist” is casually hurled at anyone who expresses ideas that have been emblazoned on an intellectual “no-fly list.” This is not to say that the charge of racism lacks punch. Most reasonable people want to avoid being called a racist, or having people think that they are racist. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the modern academy. Scholars are well aware of how damaging a charge of racism can be to a career. Luminaries like E.O. Wilson, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Hans Eysenck, and the Nobel Prize winner James Watson …

Science as Art

I earn my living by designing and running experiments that probe the biological basis of personality, so it might seem that I have more of a claim to the label of scientist than people with other professions. I’m not so sure: beneath its veneer of precision, science is a messy, wrong-turn-ridden journey of discovery that is little different from an artist’s struggle to capture, for example, the beauty of the Provençal countryside. Just like the artist never quite portrays the beauty of that landscape, the scientist never quite arrives at the truth as to how nature works — but, like the artist, he or she gets closer over time. Since each of our lives is a messy, wrong-turn-ridden journey of discovery, are we all scientists/artists? In Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking he wrote: Every organism, whether a bacterium or a member of Homo sapiens, has a set of things in the world that matter to it and which it (therefore) needs to discriminate and anticipate as best it can. So yes …

Defending Liberal Eugenics: A Reply to Krimsky

We are delighted Professor Sheldon Krimsky agreed to engage in a fruitful debate with us. While we appreciate his candid critique, we respectfully disagree with some of his claims and offer a defense and clarification of the views we expressed in our initial essay. I. Professor Krimsky expressed concern over our characterization of heritability. There is no doubt that the concept of heritability is often the root source of much confusion. And Professor Krimsky rightly points out aspects that are generally true about heritability — including the fact that’s it’s a component of trait variance (one reflecting the role of genetic differences in human variation) and that it can change depending on environmental circumstances. Heritability is not written in stone (nor does it mean the same thing as “inherited”). We concur fully on these points, which is why we did not suggest anything different in our first essay (though we disagree that things like the equal environments assumption are very problematic, in practice). The reason we brought up heritability is because— while it is all …