1. souse, n.5: 3. A drunkard. slang (chiefly U.S.). (OED)
  2. white souse, n.1: A blog for literature, politics, science, and the occasional cocktail.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Obama Cartoon

Here's what Tom the Dancing Bug had to say:

Both comics are certainly satirical. Even people who find them tasteless and offensive would agree with that. The question is: what is the satirical intent? Is it that Obama is a crazy leftist who has Muslim leanings, so wouldn't it be "funny" if he ended up a terrorist President? Or is it that people BELIEVE Obama is a crazy leftist who has Muslim leanings, so isn't it "funny" to mock their misplaced apprehensions by showing how absurd their fears are?

Because my comic is obviously longer and the premise is more developed, I could make it clear (or relatively clear) that I'm mocking people's misplaced fears about Obama, not Obama himself. My comic shows explanations for Obama's nature and behavior that are clearly ridiculous, making fun of the paranoid, delusional explanations that are actually floating around out there -- Barack Hussein Obama is clearly not a "typical" American name that would be perfect for a Muslim Manchurian Candidate. The people supporting him are clearly not terrorists disguised at young white idealists.

But it's actually less clear what the satirical intent of The New Yorker cartoon is. It just shows an America-hating, terrorist President Obama. Of course, I'm certain Blitt intended to make fun of people's paranoid perceptions of Obama, not how leftist/radical/Muslim Obama is. But that's because I've seen his cartoons before, and because I know what could or couldn't be the stance of The New Yorker. But if this same cartoon were created by Sean Delonas and published by The New York Post, I'd think it was satirizing Obama himself, and that's a very different (opposite) point -- it would be tasteless and offensive.

I couldn't have said it better.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Evolution and Ethics

Few sciences have a history as mixed with villainy as evolutionary biology. I say this as someone who spent years studying evolution and who now studies its history -- its a subject of endless fascination for me. But I began thinking about some of the perverted uses toward which it has been put over the years after reading Olivia Judson's column in the NYTimes today calling for the death of the term "Darwinism."

Of course, words don't die that way, but perhaps Judson's plea will kick the can along a little further. The article's main point of interest to me was its failure to talk about the different ways in which Darwinism and Darwinist has been used outside of evolutionary biology -- the unsavory connotations which probably have more than a little to do with her curtain call. There's "social Darwinism" a popular term in the latter half of the nineteenth century which had a bit of an afterlife in the US during the early twentieth -- the idea that the more competent and affluent sectors of society would multiply and the the impoverished only fell to their appropriate level to die out. Then there was eugenics -- social Darwinism cubed -- which was advocated by the grandson of Charles Darwin and became a core justification for the Holocaust. And today, Darwinism remains a term of disparagement within pyschological and sociological circles for practitioners of "evolutionary psychology" and sociobiology. I'm pretty sure that its these pejorative uses and that historical baggage that Judson dislikes the most about "Darwinism" and wishes her field could finally divorce itself from.

This connection to evolutions bette noir also makes for an interesting tie-in to an article published yesterday on E. O. Wilson. Wilson's prestige as an entomologist has never been in question -- he's long been one of the world's foremost authorities on ants and social insects. But starting in the seventies with his book "Sociobiology," Wilson's been a bit of a pop bad boy of evolutionary theory. As the article points out, this is largely the work of Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins -- the former an accomplished popular science writer himself and the latter the proponent of the selfish gene.

Neither Gould nor Dawkins have produced a quarter of the influential core scientific research that Wilson has -- they've long served more as popularizers than practitioners. Wilson's my vote for the mantel of our twentieth-century Darwin. His work on kin and group selection will probably have even more influence in the twenty-first century than Darwin's work on sexual selection. I don't think the orthodoxies laid down by Gould and Dawkins still have the currency they had ten or twenty years ago. But Wilson's difficulty in getting his term "sociobiology" to stick (a term which the article suggests many scientists avoid using even if pursuing its research aims) has a lot to do with the damning Darwinisms of the last century. It remains enormously difficult to assess the ramifications of a given evolutionary theory on human social groups because it's so close to what those social Darwinists and eugenicists of years past sought to do.

It reminds me of something I figured out during a frozen road trip up to Colorado back in college: the application of science to society -- the ethics of science -- has to be wholly extrinsic to science. You just can't evaluate the validity of a given interpretation of human populations or subjects using numbers, experiments, or peer-reviewed journal publications. I realized this because I was traveling with an ex-Air Force classmate who'd just finished reading The Bell Curve. We spent hours arguing on whether -- as the book argues -- certain racial groups are less intelligent and hence less capable of succeeding in society. I'd taken a recent course in sociology and was studying evolution and statistics, so I thought I'd be able to talk him down. We went back and forth as he cited studies and statistics, and I pointed out methodological problems and what I took as pretty heavy cultural problems with the thesis. And I imagined what it would be like to have a major sociologist -- someone with a strong grasp the research -- on a stage with the writers of the book. But I realized the same thing would happen -- they'd argue but neither side would convince the other. It wasn't just because the other position was essentially racist -- not rooted in figures but in a deep-seated belief about other groups. It was also because my position, and the one I assumed a true sociologist would take, was equally not rooted primarily in facts. It is an ethical, not a scientific stance.

You could show me studies of various racial groups with all the controls you might dream up and I'd still refuse to believe there are inherent differences in capacity. My stubbornness stems from a belief that it's just untenable to both believe that certain groups have an innate superiority or inferiority and to believe the essential principle of our society -- that all are created equal and should be afforded equal opportunity. It may be a principle toward which we strive, one that it's almost impossible to achieve, but equality is something that most of us believe in. There are some questions essentially extrinsic to science -- even for the scientist. This points up the absurdity of Wilson's suggestion, related in the article, that "many human activities, from economics to morality, needed to be temporarily removed from the hands of the reigning specialists and given to biologists to work out a proper evolutionary foundation." Imagine you had a "proper evolutionary" explanation for ethics -- how it worked, the purpose it served. How would that effect the current issue? Assuming you could get this model to take a stand on the question of equality -- how much would it matter? At the end of the day, the principle of equality remains the foundation of our society. Wilson's dream of an evolutionary ethics, even if possible, won't put the philosophical and religious moralists out of work. It would just join the chorus (with what might prove a pernicious influence).

Which is why scientists shy away from terms (like Darwinism, or Sociobiology) that serve as hot spots for ethical tussling. They serve as reminders of how fragile science's status can be. Hard science -- the core research -- works blindly and equally for ethical and reprehensible purposes. The physics of nuclear power and nuclear weapons aren't that different. It's up to the ethics of the scientist and the society to separate one from the other.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Counterblast from a contrarian

No, that title does not mean this post will be a rebuttal to Devo's recent reinauguration of this blog with his whale fart post (I already did my whale post a year ago--seems we talk of nothing else, sometimes). Rather, it is an excuse for me to earn myself even more enemies by plugging Ralph Nader's 2008 yet another Presidential run. This time, he's polling 6% in some states and may end up on the ballet in 45 of them (I think it was only about 23 last time). His strategy is different, and many commentators, though few support him outright, are commending his contribution to this year's already becoming boring (see the recent Stanley Fish op-ed in the NY Times) election. Actually, I don't really want to plug Ralph myself. Rather, I'll let Rather do it. That's right, Dan Rather himself refutes the "spoiler" argument in a recent commentary. I know this may not win many converts from Obamamania '08, but it does make me happy. You wouldn't want me to be unhappy, would you, Devo?

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Friday, July 11, 2008

PZ Myers Wafer Killer

Lots of blogs have been posted recently about the recent death threats and ouster campaign directed at PZ Myers -- a biology professor, noted blogger, and intelligent design antagonist.

I've always had a healthy respect for Myers. Though I class some of his anti-creationism grandstanding alongside the theatrical antics of later Dick Dawkins and Chris Hitchens, I've always appreciated his flawless and unapologetic defense of evolutionary theory. Besides -- I think he's substantively right on the issues, even if I don't agree with how he grinds his ax.

So I'm less than sympathetic with the extreme umbrage taken at this recent post of Myers in defense of another blogger who threatened to desecrate a communion wafer:

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won't be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I'll send you my home address.

Here's the essential problem with the kind of rationalist politics that Myers preaches. Given that a wafer is "just a cracker" (and I agree) it doesn't make much objective difference what Myers does with the crackers. But it's not a question of personal belief and private practice -- it's not about what Myers can do as a private and rational actor. When Myers writes about desecrating a wafer in a public forum he's committing a political act. The entire premise of his blog is that there is a social polity in which Myers participates and in which there are varying beliefs. Hence the utility of debating issues of disagreement (like evolution versus creationism). You might sway someone toward your side. Or reaffirm and strengthen their take. He might defend himself in rational or common-sense terms, but the whole point of his blog is that the people reading his blog have a huge variety of opinion. Else, what's the point? And Myers works to cultivate this variety when he offers to do something as inflammatory as desecrate a holy symbol. As a pretty well-known blogger, on a bad day, I'm sure Myers gets more than a thousand hits a day. Hence, Myers follows the above by suggesting:

Just wait. Now there'll be a team of Jesuits assigned to rifle through my mail every day.

The humor is that this rifling is precisely what his post was calculated to produce. I might be well within my rights if I publicly offered to wipe my dirty ass with an American flag in front of a thousand people, and I might plausibly argue that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, insofar as the flag is really just a piece of cloth. But no one, least of all me, would be particularly surprised if I got my ass kicked for it.

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