Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reading New Thoughts: Dolnick’s Seeds Of Life and the Science of Our Disgust

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Michael Dolnick’s “The Seeds of Life” is a fascinating look at how scientists figured out exactly how human reproduction works.  In particular, it shows that until 1875, we still were not sure what fertilized what, and until the 1950s (with the discovery of DNA) how that fertilization led to a fully formed human being.  Here, however, I’d like to consider what Dolnick says about beliefs before scientists began/finished their quest, and those beliefs’ influence on our own thinking.
In a very brief summary, Dolnick says that most cultures guessed that the man’s seminal fluid was “seed”, while the woman was a “field” to be sown (obviously, most if not all those talking about cultural beliefs are male).  Thus, for example, the Old Testament talks about “seed” several times.  An interesting variant was the idea that shortly after fertilization, seminal fluid and menstrual blood combined to “curdle” the embryo like milk curdled into cheese – e.g., in the Talmud and Hindu writings, seminal fluid, being milky, supplied the white parts of the next generation, like bone, while menstrual blood, being red, supplied the red parts, like blood.  In any case, the seed/field belief in some ways casts the woman as inferior – thus, for example, infertility is always the woman’s fault, since the seeds are fine but the field may be “barren” – another term in the Bible.
In Western culture, early Christianity superimposed its own additional concerns, which affected our beliefs not just about how procreation worked and the relative inferiority or superiority of the sexes, but also our notion of “perfection”, both morally and with regard to sex.  The Church and some Protestant successors viewed sex as a serious sin “wanting a purpose [i.e, if not for the purpose of producing babies]”, including sex within marriage.  Moreover, the Church with its heritage in Platonism viewed certain things as less disgusting than others, and I would suggest that many implicit assumptions of our culture derive from these.  The circle is perfect, hence female breasts are beautiful; smooth surfaces and straight lines are beautiful, while body hair, the asymmetrical male member, and the crooked labia are not.  Menstrual blood is messy, “unclean,” and disgusting, as is sticky, messy seminal fluid.

Effects on Sexism

It seems to me that much more can be said about differing cultural attitudes towards men and women based on the seed/field belief.  For one thing, the seed/field metaphor applies in all agricultural societies – and until the early 1900s, most societies were almost completely agricultural rather than hunter/pastoral or industrial.  Thus, this way of viewing women as inferior was dangerously plausible not only to men, but also to women.  In fact, Dolnick records examples in Turkey and Egypt of modern-day women believing in the seed/field theory and therefore women’s inferiority in a key function of life.
Another implication of the seed/field theory is that the “nature” of the resulting children is primarily determined by the male, just as different types of seed yield different plants.  While this is somewhat counteracted by the obvious fact that physically, children tend to favor each parent more or less equally, there is some sense in literature such as the Bible that some seed is “special” – Abraham’s seed will pass down the generations and single out for special attention from God his Jewish descendants.  And that, in turn, can lead naturally to the idea that mingling other men’s seed with yours can interfere with that specialness, hence wives are to be kept away from other men – and that kind of control over the wife leads inevitably to the idea of women as at least partially property.  And finally, the idea of the woman as passive receptacle of the seed can lead to men viewing women actively desiring sex or a woman’s orgasm as indications of mentally-unbalanced “wantonness”, further reinforcing the (male) impression of women’s inferiority.  
I find it not entirely coincidental that the first major movements toward feminism occurred soon after Darwin’s take on evolution (implicitly even-handed between the sexes) and the notion of the sperm and the egg were established as scientifically superior alternatives to Biblical and cultural beliefs.  And I think it is important to realize that, with genetic inheritance via DNA being still in the process of examination and major change, the role of culture rather than “inherence” in male and female is still in the ascendant – as one geneticist put it, we now know that sex is a spectrum, not either-or.  So the ideas of both similarity and “equality” between the sexes are now very much science-based.
But there’s one other possible effect of the seed/field metaphor that I’d like to consider.  Is it possible that the ancients decided that there was only so much seed that a man had, for a lifetime?  And would this explain to some extent the abhorrence of both male masturbation and homosexuality that we see in cultures worldwide?  Think of Onan in the Bible, and his sin of wasting his seed on the barren ground …

Rethinking Disgust

“Girl, Wash Your Face” (by Rachel Hollis, one of the latest examples of the new breed that live their lives in public) is, I think, one of the best self-help books I have seen, although it is aimed very clearly not at men – because many of the things she suggests are perfectly doable and sensible, unlike the many self-help books in which in a competitive world only a few can achieve financial success.  What I also find fascinating about it is the way in which “norms” of sexual roles have changed since the 1950s.  Not only is the author running a successful women’s-lifestyle website with herself as overworking boss, but her marriage is what she views as her vision of Christianity, complete with a positive view of sex primarily on her terms.
What I find particularly interesting is how she faced the age-old question of negotiating sex within marriage.  What she decided was that she was going to learn how to want to have sex as a norm, rather than being passively “don’t care” or disgusted by it.  I view this as an entirely positive approach – it means that both sides in a marriage are on the same page (more or less) with the reassurance that “not now” doesn’t mean “not for a long time” or “no, I don’t like you”.  But the main significance of this is that it means a specific way of overcoming a culture of disgust, about sex among other things.
I believe that the way it works is captured best by poetry by Alexander Pope:  “Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien/As, to be hated, needs but to be seen/Yet, seen oft, familiar with her face/We first endure; then pity; then embrace.”  The point is that it is often not vice that causes the disgust, but rather disgust than causes us to call it vice – as I have suggested above.  And the cure for that disgust is to “see it oft” and become “familiar” with it, knowing that we will eventually move from “enduring” it to having it be normal to “embracing” it. 
Remember, afaik, we can’t help feeling that everything about us is normal or nice, including excrement odor, body odor, messiness, maybe fat, maybe blotches or speech problems – and yet, culturally and perhaps viscerally, the same things about other people disgust us (or the culture tells us they should disgust us).  And therefore, logically, we should be disgusted about ourselves as well – as we often are.  Moreover, in the case of sex, the disgusting can also seem forbidden and hence exciting.  The result, for both sexes, can be a tangled knot of life-long neuroses.  
The path of moving beyond disgust, therefore, can lie simply with learning to view the disgusting as in a sense ours:  the partner’s body odor as our body odor, their fat as our love handles, etc.  But it is “ours” not in the sense of possession, but in the sense of being part of an integral part of an overall person that is now a vital part of your world and, yes, beautiful to you in an every-day sort of way, just as you can’t help think of yourself as beautiful.  This doesn’t happen overnight, but, just as the ability to ignore itches during Zen meditation inevitably happens, so this will happen in its own good time, while you’re not paying attention.
The role of science in general, not just in the case of how babies are made or sex, has typically been to undercut the rationale for our disgust, for our prejudices and for many of our notions of what vice is.  And thus, rethinking our beliefs in the light of science allows us to feel comfort that when we overcome our disgust about something, it is in a good cause; it is not succumbing to a vice.   And maybe, just maybe, we can start to overcome the greatest prejudice of all:  against crooked lines, imperfect circles, and asymmetry.  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Perhaps Humans Are One Giant Kluge (Genetically Speaking)

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Over the past year, among other pastimes, I have read several books on the latest developments of genetics and the theory of evolution.  The more I read, the more I feel that my background in programming offers a fresh perspective on these developments – a somewhat different way of looking at evolution. 
Specifically, the way in which we appear to have evolved to become various flavors of the species Homo sapiens sapiens suggests to me that we ascribe far too much purpose to our evolution of various genes.  Much if not most of our genetic material appears to have come from a process similar to what, in the New Hacker’s Dictionary and more generally used computer slang, is called a kluge.
Here’s a brief summary of the definition of kluge in The New Hacker’s Dictionary (Eric Raymond), still my gold standard for wonderful hacker jargon.  Kluge (pronounced kloodj) is “1.  A Rube Goldberg device in hardware/software, … 3.  Something that works for the wrong reason, … 5. A feature that is implemented in a ‘rude’ manner.”  I would add that a kluge is just good enough to handle a particular case, but may include side effects, unnecessary code, bugs in other cases, and/or huge inefficiencies. 

Our Genes as a Computer Program

(Note: most of the genetics assertions in this post are plundered from Adam Rutherford’s “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived”)
The genes within our genome can be thought of as a computer program in a very peculiar programming language.  The primitives of that language are proteins with abbreviations A, G, C, and T.  The statements of the language, effectively, are of form IF (state in the cell surrounding this gene is x AND gene has value y THEN (trigger sequence of chemical reactions z, which may not change the state within the cell but does change the state of the overall organism).  Two peculiarities:
1.       All these gene “statements” operate in parallel (the same state can trigger several genes).
2.       The program is more or less “firmware” – that is, it can be changed, but over short periods of time it isn’t. 
Obviously, given evolution, the human genome “program” has changed – quite a lot.  The mechanism for this is mutation:  changes in the “state” outside an instance of DNA that physically change A, G, C, T, delete or add genes, or change the order of the genes in one side of the chromosome or the other.  Some of these mutations usually occur within the lifetime of an individual, during the time when cells carry out their programmed imperatives to carry out tasks and subdivide into new cells.  Thus, one type of cancer (we now know) is caused when mutation deletes some genes on one side of the DNA pairing, resulting in deletion of the statement (“once the cell has finished this task, do not subdivide the cell”).  It turns out that some individuals are much less susceptible to this cancer because they have longer chains of “spare genes” on that side of the DNA, so that it takes much longer for a steady statistically-random stream of deletions to result in statement deletion.

Evolution as an Endless Series Of Kluges

Evolution, in our computer-program model, is new (i.e., not already present somewhere in the population of the species) mutations.  The accepted theory of the constraints that determine what new mutations prosper over the long run is natural selection. 
Natural selection has been approximated as “survival of the fittest” – more precisely, survival of genes and gene variants because they are the best adapted to their physical environment, including competitors, predators, mates, and climate, and therefore are most likely to survive long enough to reproduce and out-compete alternative mates.  The sequencing of the human genome (and that of other species) has given us a much better picture of evolution in action as well as human evolution in the recent past.  Applied to the definition of natural selection, it suggests somewhat different conclusions:
·         The typical successful mutation is not the best for the environment, but simply one that is “good enough”.  An ability to distinguish ultraviolet and infrared light, as the mantis shrimp does, is clearly best suited to most environments.  Most other species, including humans, wound up with an inability to see outside the “visible spectrum.”  Likewise, light entering the eye is interpreted at the back of the eye, whereas the front of the eye would be a better idea.
·         Just because a mutation is harmful in a new environment, that does not mean that it will go away entirely.  The gene variant causing sickle-cell anemia is present in 30-50% of the population in much of Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines, and Greece.   Its apparent effect is to allow those who would die early in life from malaria to survive through most of the period when reproduction can happen.  However, indications are that the mutation is not disappearing fast if at all in offspring living in areas not affected by malaria.  In other words, the relative lack of reproductive success for those afflicted by sickle-cell anemia in the new environment is not enough to eradicate it from the population.  In the new environment, the sickle-cell anemia variant is a “bug”; but it’s not enough of a bug for natural selection to operate.
·         The appendix serves no useful purpose in our present environment – it’s just unnecessary code, with appendicitis a potential “side effect”.  There is no indication that the appendix is going away. Nor, despite recent sensationalizing, is red hair, which may be a potential side effect of genes in northern climes having less need for eumelanin to protect against the damaging effects of direct sunlight.
·         Most human traits and diseases, we are finding, are not determined by one mutation in one gene, but rather are the “side effects” of many genes.  For example, to the extent that autism is heritable (and remembering that autism is a spectrum of symptoms and therefore may be multiple diseases), no one gene has been shown to explain more than a fraction of the heritable part.
In other words, evolution seems more like a series of kludges:
·         It has resulted in a highly complex set of code, in which it is very hard to determine which gene-variant “statement” is responsible for what;
·         Compared to a set of genes designed from the start to result in the same traits, it is a “rude” implementation (inefficient and with lots of side-effects), much like a program consisting mostly of patches;
·          It appears to involve a lot of bugs.  For example, one estimate is that there have been at least 160,000 new human mutations in the last 5,000 years, and about 18% of these appear to be increases in inefficiency or potentially harmful – but not, it seems, harmful enough to trigger natural selection.

Variations in Human Intelligence and the Genetic Kluge

The notion of evolution as a series of kluges resulting in one giant kluge – us – has, I believe, an interesting application to debates about the effect of genes vs. culture (nature vs. nurture) on “intelligence” as measured imperfectly by IQ tests. 
Tests on nature vs. nurture have not yet shown the percentage of each involved in intelligence variation (Rutherford says only that variations from gene variance “are significant”).  A 2013 survey of experts at a conference shows that the majority think 0-40% of intelligence variation is caused by gene variation, the rest by “culture”.  However, the question that has caused debate is how much of that gene variance is variance between individuals in the overall human population and how much is variance between groups – typically, so-called “races” – each with its own different “average intelligence.” 
I am not going to touch on the sordid history of race profiling at this point, although I am convinced it is what makes proponents of the “race” theory blind to recent evidence to the contrary.  Rather, I’m going to conservatively follow up the chain of logic that suggests group gene variance is more important than individual variance. 
We have apparently done some testing of gene variance between groups.  The second-largest variance is apparently between Africans (not African-Americans) and everyone else – but the striking feature is how very little difference (compared to overall gene variation in humans) that distinction involves.  The same process has been carried out to isolate even smaller amounts of variance, and East Asians and Europeans/Middle East show up in the top 6, but Jews, Hispanics, and Native Americans don’t show up in the top 7. 
What this means is that, unless intelligence is affected by one or only a few genes falling in those “group variance” categories, most of the genetic variance is overwhelmingly likely to be individual.  And, I would argue, there’s a very strong case that intelligence is affected by lots of genes, as a side-effect of kluges, just like autism.
First, over most of human history until the last 250 years, the great bulk of African or non-African humans have been hunters or farmers, with no reading, writing, or test-taking skills, and with natural selection for particular environments apparently focused on the physical (lactose tolerance for European cow use) rather than intelligence-related (e.g., larger brains/new brain capabilities).  That is, there is little evidence for natural selection targeted at intelligence but lots for natural selection targeted at other things. 
Second, as I’ve noted, it appears that in general human traits and diseases usually involve large numbers of genes.  Why should “intelligence” (which, at a first approximation, applies mostly to humans) be different?  Statistically, it shouldn’t.  And as of yet, no one has been even able to find one gene significantly connected to intelligence – which again suggests lots of small-effect genes.
So let’s imagine a particular case.  100 genes affect intelligence variation, in equal amounts (1% plus or minus).  Group A and Group B share all but 10 genes.  To cook the books further, Group A has 5 unique plus genes, and Group B 5 unique minus genes (statistically, they both should have equal amounts plus and minus on average).  In addition, gene variance as a whole is 50% of overall variation.  Then 10/95 of the genetic variation in intelligence (about 10.5%) is explained by whether an individual is in Group A or B. This translates to 5.2% of the overall variation being due to the genetics of the group, 44.8% being due to individual genetic variation, and 50% being due to nurture.
Still, someone might argue, those nature vs. nurture survey participants have got it wrong:  gene variation explains all or almost all of intelligence variation.  Well, that still means that nurture has 5 times the effect that belonging to a group does.  Moreover, under the kluge model, the wider the variation between Race A and Race B, between, say, Jewish-American and African-American, THE MORE LIKELY IT IS THAT NURTURE PLAYS A LARGE ROLE.  First of all, “races” do not correspond at all well to the genetic groups I described earlier, and so are more likely to have identical intelligence on average than the groups I cited.  Second, because group variation is so much smaller than individual variation, group genetics is capable of much less variation than nurture (0-10.5% of overall variation, vs. 0-100% for nurture).  And I haven’t even bothered to discuss the Flynn Effect, which is increasing intelligence over time, equally between groups, far more rapidly than natural selection can operate – a clear indication that nurture is involved.
Variation in human intelligence, I say, isn’t survival of the smartest.  It’s a randomly distributed side effect of lots of genetic kluges, plus the luck of the draw in the culture and family you grow up in.