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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for the 'Biology & Culture' Category

Grandmothers Raise Civilizations

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Several attributes of human women are routinely posited as evolutionary enigmas because they tend to be placed in the “not really necessary” and/or “inconvenient” bins: hidden ovulation (How’s a guy to know a kid is his?? Ergo, chastity belts and purdahs!); orgasms (Who cares, as long as the kids come out?); and living past menopause (Done with heir production and no longer eye candy — discard!).

However, it turns out these attributes are not that enigmatic unless you believe that teleology drives evolution. It looks increasingly like the bright red buttocks of our primate relatives are actually a recent acquisition, and hidden ovulation is the earlier default. Some cultures have solved the kinship problem: brothers act as fathers to their sisters’ children, to whom they are unequivocally related. Orgasms are equally explicable once you accept the simple fact that the clitoris is the equivalent of the penis, including the associated excitability and sensitivity (which is why female genital mutilation is identical to a penectomy, not to foreskin circumcision). As for living longer than the contents of one’s ovaries, which is a third of women’s lifespan once they’re past the risky childbirth years, it may have to do with what made us human in the first place. So says the grandmother hypothesis, first intimated by George C. Williams of antagonistic pleiotropy fame and later elaborated by Kristen Hawkes and her colleagues in the late nineties, after observations of the Hadza people in Tanzania.

Back in the fifties and in today’s evo-psycho groves, the fashion has been to posit the nuclear family as the kernel unit of primordial humanity. If you take the crucial details of humans into account (unique birth risks, extended neoteny, unusual nutritional requirements, necessity for higher-order skill acquisition), you realize that the possibility of such a unit seeing offspring reach adulthood is close to nil. Not surprisingly, when anthropologists look carefully and past their own cultural blinders at less technologically endowed human groups, the scaffolding they see is always communal. As Sarah Blaffer Hrdy said, it really does take a village to raise a child.

Such a configuration is not problem-free: it’s vulnerable to tyranny of conformity as well as the devastation that can be wrought by charismatic sociopaths. Nevertheless, it allows distribution of infant care, overlap of skills, quasi-fair apportioning of resources and monitoring of emerging imbalances. And grandmothers, maternal ones in particular, play a crucial role in all of these.

The grandmother hypothesis postulates that the presence of grandmothers allowed more children to reach adulthood, because grandmothers not only foraged for their daughters’ older offspring but also socialized them, taught them important skills and transmitted knowledge and experience. It also postulates that older children had to develop ways to compel caretaker attention, giving rise to the enlarged frontal lobe unique to humans. So the hypothesis argues that female longevity is essentially a “quality over quantity” fitness adaptation that in turn favored descendants of women who fit this profile.

There is, of course, a competing hypothesis far more beloved of Tarzanists. The hunting hypothesis, demolished by Sally Slocum, postulates that hunting became better than foraging as a means of sustenance when resources became scarcer in Africa; and that coordinating the hunt (versus, say, figuring out which berries weren’t poisonous) led to natural selection for bigger brains as well as ushering in the female adoration of “alpha males” who brought home the only protein that supposedly counts.

Kristen Hawkes recently published the results of a mathematical simulation of the grandmother hypothesis. The algorithms did not include brain size, hunting or pair bonding. The model showed that grandmother effects alone are sufficient to double life spans in less than sixty thousand years. Not surprisingly, one requirement is natal homing: living close enough to the maternal grandparents that grandmothers can exert their humanizing effects. This fits with the observation that rigidly patrilocal and patrilineal societies which completely obliterate female kinship networks have often gone for quantity over quality, essentially reducing women to incubators that can always be exchanged for newer models – and that some of these societies used to discard infant girls and older women literally like garbage. Other societies went the opposite route, treating older women like honorary almost-men (allowing them to keep sacred objects, for example, though few were made council heads) once they were no longer “tainted” by menstruation.

Those who had grandmothers almost certainly remember the stories they told and the moderating influence they exerted on the family. I never met either of mine. Both died young; tuberculosis hollowed one, fire consumed the other. I did get to know my father’s stepmother, a gentle too-religious soul who was one of the first Greek women to become a teacher. She tried her best, but was not strong enough to counteract my mother’s fierceness, which I have internalized by now. I wonder if I would have been more adjusted to social expectations had my other grandmothers been around, wielding the authority of blood kinship. Given my other non-adaptive core attributes, I suspect the answer is no.

Selected papers:

Slocum, Sally. (1975, reissued 2012). Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology. In Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, eds. Pp. 399-407. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hawkes, Kristen. (2003). Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400.

Images: 1st, Grandmother Storyteller by Ada Suina (Wheelright Museum, Santa Fe, NM); 2nd, Pakistani grandmother with her three-day-old grandchild (credit: Adek Berry, AFP).

Why We May Never Get to Alpha Centauri

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

(sung to the glam tune of The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Last week, astronomers announced that Alpha Centauri B may have an earth-sized planet in tight orbit. Space enthusiasts were ecstatic, because the Alpha Centauri triplet (a close binary, Alpha A and Alpha B, circled by Proxima) is the closest star system to ours at a distance of 4.3 light years. The possible existence of such a planet buttresses the increasing evidence that planetary systems form around every possible configuration: in particular, binary systems had been traditionally discounted as too unstable to maintain planets. Terms like “in our back yard” and “stone’s throw” were used liberally and many expressed the hope that the discovery might spur a space exploration renaissance.

As with many such discoveries, the caveats extend from here to Proxima. The planet’s existence has been inferred by the primary’s wobble, rather than from direct observation. This means that independent confirmation will be required to pronounce it definitively real. The lifespan of such a planetary system remains an open question. The specifics of the system (including the reason that a wobble was detectable) suggest that the planet, if present, is closer to Alpha B than Mercury is to the sun – which in turn means that it would be tidally locked, awash with the primary’s radiation and too hot for liquid water. Last but decidedly not least, it would take us about eighty thousand years to get there with our current propulsion systems. Depending on one’s definition, eighty thousand years exceed the entire length of human civilization by a factor of two to ten.

So besides the fully justified calls for an immediate robotic probe mission, cue the “solutions” of FTL, warp drive and uploading in addition to those within the realm of the possible (nuclear fusion, light sails, long generation ships… I’m even willing to put Bussard ramjets in this bin). Lest you think such suggestions pop up only on places like io9 or singularitarian lists, I assure you that talk tracks examining such scenarios with totally straight faces were entertained at both last year’s and this year’s Starship Symposium. The warp drive scenario got a boost when a NASA-linked lab announced that they thought they could sorta kinda fold space… if they could get enough strange matter (as in: a few stellar masses’ worth) and manage to stabilize it beyond the usual nanosecond life length. Then again, a NASA-linked lab gave us the “arsenic bacteria” cowpat, so nothing of this kind surprises me any longer.

Science fiction has been the entry portal for many scientists and engineers. The sense of wonder and discovery that permeates much of SF makes people dream – and then makes them ask how such dreams can become real. The problem arises when science fiction is confused or conflated with real science, engineering and social policy. When that happens, our chances of ever reaching Alpha Centauri decrease steeply, for at least two reasons: the fantasies make people impatient with/contemptuous of real science and technology; and when this pseudo-edginess substitutes for real science, you get real disasters. The recent sentencing of six Italian geoscientists to years in jail for “failing to predict” an earthquake with casualties speaks to both these points. So does the story of the Haida community that allowed a “businessman” to dump tons of iron into its coastal waters, based on his assurance it would improve conditions for its salmon fisheries. The resulting potentially lethal algal bloom has become visible from space.

Propulsion systems are an obvious domain where fiction (and the understandable fond wish) is still stronger than fact, but there are others. One is using space opera terraforming paradigms for geoengineering. (“Stan Robinson did it in the Mars trilogy, why not us?”) Another is using cyberpunk novels to argue for economic solutions – think of Greenspan’s belief in Rand’s Übermenschen fantasies. More recently, Damien Walter, a Guardian columnist, earnestly urged the head of the British Labour party to bypass austerity and resource limitations by… implementing ideas from Banks, Stross and Doctorow (Walter also wrote a column about women writing hard SF and used a man as his star example; between him and Coren, it looks like elementary reasoning is not a particularly strong suit at the Guardian). Commenters added Herbert’s Dune to the list, using swooning terms about the politics and policies it portrays. (“Banks’ Culture does it, why not us?”) Just intone “3-D printing!” or “Me Messiah!” over a rock pile, with or without Harry Potter’s wand, and hey-presto: post-scarcity achieved, back to toy universes and customized sexbots! I won’t go over the semi-infinite transhumanist list (uploading, genengineering for “virtue” etc), having done so before.

A related problem that looks minor until you consider social feedback is the persistent mantra that SF has been forced willy-nilly to become inward-gazing and science-illiterate because… reality moves too fast, thereby instantly dating predictive fiction. Much of this is justification after the fact, of course – writers “must focus on maintaining their online presence” so who has time for background research? – but the basal argument itself is invalid. There’s exactly one domain that’s moving fast: technology that depends on computing speed, although it, too, is approaching a plateau due to intrinsics. To give you an example from my own field, I’ve worked on dementia for more than twenty years. During this time, although we have learned a good deal (and some of it goes against earlier “common sense” assumptions, such as the real role and toxicity of tangles and plaques) we have not made any progress towards reliable non-invasive early diagnosis of dementia, let alone preventing or curing it. The point here is not that we never will, but that doing so will require a lot more than the mouth farts of stage wizards, snake-oil salesmen or pseudo-mavens.

When faced with these facts, many people fall back to the Kennedy myth: that we went to the moon because of the vision of a single man with the charisma and will to make it reality. Ergo, the same can be done with any problem we set our sights on but for those fun-killin’ Luddites who persist on harshing squees (file this under “unclear on concepts” and “perpetual juvenility”). Messianic strains aside, there were very specific reasons that made the Apollo mission a success: it was tightly focused; it had no terrestrial repercussions; it was the equivalent of gorilla chest-beating, another way of establishing dominance vis-à-vis the USSR; and it was done in an era when US was flush with power and confidence – the sole actor involved in WWII not to have suffered enormous devastation of its home ground. The outcomes of “war on cancer”, “war on drugs” and “war on terrorism” (to just name three of many) illustrate how quickly or well such an approach works when applied to complex long-range problems with constellations of consequences.

Mind you, as a writer of space opera I’m incorrigibly partial to psionic powers and stable wormholes (in part because they’re integral to mythic SF). And the possible existence of a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is indeed a genuine cause for excitement. But I know enough to place the two in separate compartments, though they’re linked by the wish that one day we have propulsion systems that let us visit Alpha Centauri in person, rather than by proxy.

Selected related articles

The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome

“Arsenic” Life, or: There is TOO a Dragon in my Garage!
The Charlatan-Haunted World

1st, Alpha Centauri A and B seen over the limb of Saturn (JPL/NASA); 2nd, the algal bloom in the NW Pacific after the iron dump (NASA/Wikimedia Commons); 3rd, real science: The Curiosity Mars rover (Maas Digital LLC/National Geographic)

Free Speech: Bravehearts and Scumbags

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I was twelve years old in 1967, eager to start high school. One fine morning, April 21, I woke up and the radio was jammed with military band music and Hitleresque shrieks. The military junta that took over the country lasted for seven years of fear and terror. Civil liberties were suspended. Even more than before, women were denied basic rights and both arbitrary police actions and state-sponsored religion became intrusive. People were summarily arrested, tortured, exiled, killed — my uncle among them; censorship erased entire swaths of art and literature and the history we were taught in school was a parody of the truth. Informants stood ready to report any “illegal” utterance to the secret police.

So I know firsthand what it is to be deprived of free speech, and some of what goes on under the “free speech” rubric in the Internet is not it. Lest I be misconstrued, I’m not talking of suppression of media and sites by governments or government-sponsored entities, but of the concept that uninhibited “self-expression” trumps all.

Freedom of speech is one of the supporting beams of democracy. How states treat their dissidents and gadflies (which include poets, playwrights, historians, journalists – and now bloggers) is a litmus test of their political system. Definitions of what constitutes protected speech differ even in democratic regimes. Generally, there are restrictions connected to questions of harm: hate speech and slander (more so in Europe), national security and right to privacy. Superimposed on that are the behavior codes of specific communities, from organizations to religious groups within a sovereign nation. Some of these shade into de facto censorship if there is no separation of secular and religious governance or if the government is insecure: blasphemy laws in nations plagued by fundamentalist resurgence, terrorist definitions in totalitarian governments (and the US, post-9/11).

Traditionally, problems with free speech have crowded at the suppression end. However, a different type of distortion is happening in the US – ironically, at the same time that its government has significantly curbed civil liberties. The US constitution is more sweeping and absolute in its establishment of free speech privileges. As a (perhaps inevitable) result, Americans often espouse bizarre versions of the First Amendment – the Second one as well, while we’re at it. The general credo seems to be not only that people can say whatever comes into their thalamus, especially online, but also that there should be no consequences for doing so. For people who equate criticism with censorship, free speech has become a fundamentalist religion without any context of relative power, balance or accountability.

Coupled to that is the issue of pseudo/anonymity on the Internet, invoked as a sanctum sanctorum when someone’s activities may affect their professional and/or personal life. However, what is crucial safety for the oppressed can become a license to hurt others with impunity for the oppressor. Abusers of reasonable systems are notorious for turning the rules against their real purpose on technicalities, daring their rule-abiding fellows to call them on their cynical manipulations. If they’re made to stop, they commonly employ false-equivalence arguments (example: “feminazi” – because asking to be treated as a human being is equivalent to invading and devastating most of Europe).

All of these facets have been recently come to the fore in two very different cases: the heroic, consequence-fraught stand of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old schoolgirl, against the Taliban and the colluding Pakistani government; and, in stark contrast, the trail of toxic slime left by Reddit “moderator” Michael Brutsch. I’ll deal with the latter first, so that this article doesn’t leave its readers with sewer stench in their brains.

Michael Brutsch, under the handle Violentacrez, spent all his waking hours setting up subreddit threads that specialized in violent misogyny and racism. Representative titles of his threads: creepshots, rapebait, chokeabitch, beatingwomen, picsofdeadkids, niggerjailbait, jewmerica. He and his followers posted pictures of underage girls and “upskirt/downblouse views” without their targets’ knowledge or consent and he bragged about receiving “consensual” oral sex from his teenage stepdaughter (according to him, his then-wife, the girl’s mother, “got mad, then got over it”). Reddit used Brutsch’s threads and the reactions to them to boost site traffic, gave him awards and special leeway – and met protests with the mantra “Free speech!” and the assertion that “If you step out of your house, you’re fair game.” Exactly what fundies and MRAs say about women, in harmonious patriarchal agreement.

In short, Brutsch was a inciter and enabler of predators who knew that his actions were harmful (and edging on the illegal) and who used his pseudonym as a shield to abuse at whim. However, when Adrian Chen of Gawker (itself of basement standards) unmasked him in standard investigative journalism mode, Reddit shrieked “violation of free speech rights” and “invasion of privacy” (clearly unclear on concepts). Then, this bastion of free speech banned Gawker. Brutsch himself feels that the only thing he did wrong was to get in Chen’s sights and is proud that his soon-to-be-a-Marine son is his devoted fan. I wonder how his son will behave as a soldier overseas – or as a lover and parent.

So let’s turn to a real free-speech hero: Malala Yousafzai, the namesake of the young warrior woman of Maiwand. Yousafzai lived in a world where Brutsch’s idea of women being chattels totally at the mercy of men is everyday reality: the Taliban-infested and US-drone-blanketed region of Swat in Pakistan. She was 11 when the Taliban overran her home region and established an autonomous fundamentalist theocracy essentially unopposed by the government. As is their wont, they blew up girls’ schools and suspended every right for women and girls, from going to school to receiving medical care.

Yousafzai started blogging at BBC Urdu about her experiences during this reign of terror under the handle Gul Makai (Cornflower). Her real name became known when the Pakistani military finally bestirred itself to partially clean up the Swat region, and a NY Times crew came to film her. Tellingly, her mother was “not allowed” to appear in the film and although we know exhaustive details about her father, we don’t even know her mother’s name. Yousafzai’s father supported her – if he hadn’t, she would obviously not know even how to read and write, which shows with whom the real power lies. After that, she appeared in many venues to advocate for female education and started winning national and international recognition and awards. The Taliban took notice as well, and Yousafzai started receiving death threats about her “dirty language” (see “feminazi”, above).

A week ago, several Taliban boarded Yousafzai’s school bus, asked the terrified schoolgirls to point her out and shot her three times, hitting her in the spine and head. Two classmates (like her mother, nameless) were collateral damage. Because she was well-known, the Pakistani government and media (even some imams, though not all) went into a frenzy of hand-wringing and suddenly she was in everyone’s prayers. Of course, prayers take no effort or expense; keeping schools open and ensuring that girls can attend them do. The Taliban, echoing Brutsch, said that their only regret was that Yousafzai somehow survived – and that should she recover, they’ll try again till they succeed.

The last thing Yousafzai needs is prayers, especially from the mealy-mouthed hypocrites who let this happen while they could have prevented it. What she needs is world-class medical attention and after that, a life free of fear and coercion. She is now in a UK hospital that specializes in wounds like hers, but it’s still unclear whether she will recover and to what extent. A bright light is wavering and may go out, because men who are convinced they’re entitled to treat women like cattle or furniture felt threatened.

Malala Yousafzai, like Shamsia Husseini (who continued going to school after having acid thrown at her face), happened to be noticed by the West. Countless others, especially women and girls, have done similarly brave things — and suffered similarly atrocious fates — while remaining unknown and without the (flimsy, transitory) support of global media. This is the free speech that must be protected: schoolgirls who say “We will educate ourselves. We will win. They can’t defeat us!” while in real danger of violation, torture and death.

The young girls who thirst to acquire knowledge and yearn to be treated as human are wrong, of course. They have been brutally silenced before, and they will be again – and their torturers and killers will sleep soundly and die in their beds, having lived long, full, self-satisfied lives. But it’s better to go down fighting than live a life of degraded slavery, of enforced silence. Something that conscience-free manipulative scumbags like Brutsch, who never question why they deserve their entitlements, can’t even begin to understand.

Images: 1st, Malala Yousafzai (from Wikipedia, before repeated vandalism of the article forced its removal); 2nd, Pakistani schoolgirls (Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS)

Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

I first read the collected Sherlock Holmes stories in a really good translation when I was very young.  I recall that even back then I wondered about its attitudes towards women.  Beyond the single token appearance of Irene Adler and the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson (a typical caretaker role), it was a universe of men.  Yes, this was Victorian and Edwardian England where you could live as sex-segregated a life as in a country with sharia law – and of course Watson plays the role of admiring helpmate to a cranky genius – but even so the stories made repeated, explicit points about women being “clutter” that might impinge on the pristine state of that incandescent Holmes mind.

There have been countless Holmes adaptations, both film and television, but most were period (indulgently defined – “period” was extended to include Basil Rathbone battling Nazi spies).  Fast forward to 2010.  The BBC started airing the series Sherlock, in which the stories are kept “intact” but happen in the present.  Holmes and Watson are played by two talented actors whose stars are rising: Benedict Cumberbatch has been appearing in career-making roles since 2007 and Martin Freeman is about to become a household face by playing Bilbo in Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Critic accolades, prestigious awards and aficionado swoons rolled in.  General verdict: “Flagrantly unfaithful to the original, yet wonderfully loyal to it in every way that matters.”

This fall, CBS started airing Elementary, also based on Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes is played by Jonny Lee Miller, another sharp actor, as a recovering addict taking time out in New York.  Watson is played by Lucy (Yuling) Liu.  Two episodes have aired so far, to positive reviews. What is the Holmes worshippers’ verdict?  I will spare you the suspense: “How dare they desecrate gospel?!”  One of the most vocal purists is Victoria Coren of The Observer, who essentially reprised Ursula Le Guin’s denigration of Helen Mirren playing Prospero in The Tempest.  Beyond that, Coren decried the cultural shift of a fundamentally British “myth” (Has she ever used adapted Hellenic myths?  If yes, she should stop right now.)  She also bemoaned the “Will they, won’t they vibe” (discernible only to her), ignoring the fact that the original Holmes stories and all their successors have an obvious homoerotic tinge.

I’ve seen four episodes of Sherlock and both episodes of Elementary.  My verdict: although it’s too early to make a definitive decision, Elementary so far is head and shoulders above Sherlock in terms of originality, chemistry between the two leads, lack of preciosity and (yes) elementary human resonance.

I saw only four episodes of Sherlock because I found it frankly repellent.  The settings tend to brutalist deco (edgy, dontcha see), the style is consistently pseudo-sophisticated smug (Dr. Who half a notch up… not surprising, given who the directors are).  Irene Adler is shown as a high-end prostitute who wears furs with nothing underneath and sheds her furs every few minutes whether it’s relevant to the plot or not.  Cumberbatch’s self-satisfied smirking becomes oppressive after a while, despite his brilliance otherwise; Freeman’s slack-jawed adoration, ditto; and the misogyny is up-front and blatant, unlike Conan Doyle’s quasi-passive elision (there’s also nudge-nudge treatment of homosexuality, which is odd to say the least).

Elementary is subversive along more axes than just its choice of Watson, though it retains some traditional default tenets.  Watson is a helpmate, so casting an Asian woman perpetuates stereotypes, and Holmes’ behavior would not be tolerated for a split second if it came from a woman (see discussions about how beloved Harriet Potter and Edwina Rochester would be).

However, core carryovers are spot on.  The cases remain outré and Holmes performs his acrobatic intuitive leaps, both hallmarks of the original.  Placing the series in New York makes sense: today’s London is not as central to the world as it was in Conan Doyle’s time.  New York still is.  Making Holmes a recovering addict is not new; what is new is that it’s not just a tick to make him fascinating in the Luciferian mold.  Instead, his adjustment process is integrally linked to both his investigations and his own personal decisions.  Also new and welcome is that he’s given kith and kin connections beyond a cardboard brother with convenient top-government access.

Watson remains a doctor, but she is not the cipher of the original or the dumb follower of most other versions.  She has a full backstory of her own that plays an important, organic role in the developments, and she has already become an almost-equal partner in the cases because her medical knowledge is put to active use.  And Aidan Quinn, with his dissipated good looks and easy-going manner, makes a perfect Lestrade stand-in.

What has really improved is the depth of the characters.  Both central actors speak volumes with their face and body language and they submerge themselves in their roles, rather than strut in them like mannequins on a stage.  The chemistry between them is marvelous, the repartee as fast and furious as world class tennis – and it has zero eroticism, but tons of friction and compromise as genuine as you can get on TV.  Too, Watson isn’t following Holmes because he gives meaning or adds spice to her life: it’s a job, with specific boundaries and mutual obligations.  For more details, I recommend Beatrice Eagle’s thorough comparative analysis of the two series.

Through ages and cultures, women were forbidden to do many things by the explicit or implicit decree that they weren’t “equipped” for it (because lower head equals upper head).  This went from praying to the ancestors, forming a minyan and ruling as heads of state to becoming craftspeople.  To that must be added women taking roles in iconic works of art that have been infinitely reinterpreted, Shakespeare prominently among them.  Everything has been altered in these stories upon retelling, from shifts in the time and context to changes of the race, class or sexual orientation of the principals.  As long as these have been done well, they are still recognized as legitimate variations of the original.  All, that is, except to introduce girl cooties by casting women in roles deemed “inalienably male” (just as Tiptree “could not possibly be a woman”).

It’s fine not to like anything but canon.  However, using gendered slurs like “menopausal” and “blundering half-naked” (Le Guin for Mirren), “trendy feminizing”, “sexy lady cohort” and “castrating fiction’s greatest sidekick” (Coren for Liu) are statements not of aesthetics but of politics: gender politics as regressively essentialist as those of Rand, Paglia and Coulter.  Women who use such expressions may be jealous of someone assuming a role they fantasized playing themselves; or, perhaps, they simply don’t like attention being diverted to other powerful women (de facto disproving the idea that women are gentle nurturing creatures incapable of aggressiveness).  But given the still-parlous status of women in the world, people who consciously use such expressions in their critiques deserve the gender-neutral epithet of another body opening.

For those whose minds are not welded shut, I suggest watching the first two episodes of Elementary, available on the CBS site.  I do, nevertheless, agree with Coren on one point: I’m looking forward to a version that casts Holmes as a woman (Tilda Swinton is my first choice, followed by Judy Davis).

Related articles:
“As Weak as Women’s Magic”
We Must Love One Another or Die

Watson (Lucy Liu) and Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) in Elementary

Addendum: Elementary has steadily grown even better, if possible. As I said in another venue, Sherlock is the firstborn son at an Anglo entailed estate: sure of his righteousness & worthiness. Elementary is his suffragette sister.

Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

My readers know by now that I’m not “feminine” as defined by western mainstream culture. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. I was instinctively allergic to being girly. I didn’t like the brittle plastic feel of dolls (though woolly bears and tigers crowd my bed even now), I detest all pink except the salmon-nectarine hues of dusk and dawn, I took to formal math like a goose (not a gander) to water – the silly stories made up to “soften it” gave me hives – and I’ve always loved and excelled in structural toys and puzzles, including those that supposedly derange female brains: namely, mentally rotating objects.

A question that comes up constantly in the circles I frequent is “Why aren’t more girls following STEM paths?” (STEM=Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). In many ways it reminds me of that other vexed question: “Why are First Worlders getting more obese?” In both cases, the question foci (girls/overweight people) are caught in severe double binds: the desired goal (becoming a woman who enters a STEM domain/having a healthy weight – which is not the same as a “socially desirable” weight) is strewn with obstacles that are almost entirely external and so systemic as to constitute the equivalent of the atmosphere; and both success and failure at following each path carry heavy personal costs [before anyone starts shrieking about “fatphobia”, read You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality where I discuss the grave dangers of excessive thinness. I intend to write a counterpoint follow-up to that at some point; this time we’ll focus on girls and STEM.]

To put it bluntly, a girl/young woman who wishes to follow a STEM vocation sets herself up for a lifelong drizzle of frustration, belittlement and harassment. At all points she will be reminded she’s unnatural, like a dog prancing on its hind legs; that women cannot achieve “true greatness” (however defined) in STEM. She may be actively attacked, from verbal insults to outright physical assaults. She will be given less mentoring, less salary, fewer plum positions and first-ranking journal publications, even fewer awards, promotions and perks – and she will be expected to be the default parent, if she wants a family. Her credentials and credibility will always be questioned, even if she gets a Nobel. This holds for the so-called First World as well and in fact it’s getting worse rather than better (economic downturns and fundie religiosity tend to do that). Given all this, the fact that women do make up a significant proportion of STEM is actually a near-miracle.

I was reminded of this issue recently when I had reason to look into games aimed at familiarizing very young girls with STEM before the age they start get turned off science or risk being labeled unfeminine. A preliminary point is that such efforts may be “making holes in the water” because the sad fact is that when enough women enter a discipline, it gets automatically re-classified as “female” and its perceived value and social/financial rewards plummet. This is true regardless of content: from doctors in the former Soviet Union to personal assistants to writers of what is arbitrarily labeled “soft” SF (which, ironically, includes almost all biologically-focused work because, you know, only pointed and exploding objects are hard SF).

That aside, the attempts to create STEM-relevant toys that are “girl-friendly” show the desire to counteract gender targeting, which starts in the cradle and never subsides, as well as the unavoidable pitfalls of such coding. Unquestionably, narrowing the STEM gender gap is more than worthwhile. At the same time, the guiding principles of this concept give me serious pause.

Pitches of such products are abrim with bluntly essentialist statements like “Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.” and “The set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls.” As a corollary, such toys/games are aggressively girly (bubble-gum pink features prominently) and their characters are usually so whitebread that they could cause snow blindness. This is nothing new, of course – just read Tom Englehardt’s trenchant and still sadly relevant 1986 essay about gender coding in children’s TV programs. This domain hasn’t moved an inch since the fifties. Given how formative early socializing is, the rarity of women engineers, in particular, should not really be so surprising.

Had I seen such games when I was their target age, I’d have walked right past them (and I threw them summarily away when I received them as gifts). For one, I used Erector sets and suchlike as enthusiastically as I read stories; for another, the bland blondness endemic in such toys codes for “daffy airhead” in my culture. These products are explicitly geared to appeal to parents anxious to “correctly” socialize their children. And despite their excellent intentions, they reinforce the incredibly problematic “separate but equal” status quo even as they try to combat it.

In some ways, these games are younger-cohort variations of the concept that it’s a good idea to have sex-segregated schools if they enable girls to gain a foothold in areas traditionally closed/hostile to them. Of course, this approach worked if you went to the Ivy League Seven Sisters before they went co-educational – or to my competition-entry elite high school, whose explicit mission was to create future nation leaders. On the other hand, my sister went to a public school whose math teacher decided not to teach the girls – because “housewives don’t need algebra.” So sex-segregated education works, kinda, but only if you’re a princess or, at minimum, a mandarin-to-be.

Proponents of this approach argue that “girly” identity is often established by age 5 and therefore girls need to be coaxed back to problem-solving (as if traditionally “feminine” occupations like cooking and doing laundry are not problem-solving and don’t require spatial and suchlike skills… but we’ll put that aside). As far as I know, Tarzanist bleatings excepted, no correlation has been established between early girliness and later inclination to science, nor are the two mutually exclusive at any age (this also depends on how “girliness” is defined). On the other hand, if your parents, teachers and peers punish you in a myriad small or large ways if you don’t behave “as you should” gender-wise, it’s a foregone conclusion you will tack your lifeboat accordingly. Unless you’re like me, in which case you’ll get even more stubborn – and pay the price.

I think the only real solution to this problem is to tone down the gender essentialism of both “halves” and see to it that girls (and, more importantly, their parents) receive the message that it’s okay to browse the “blue aisles”, where STEM-relevant games are not an explicit insult to basic intelligence. Of course, the ideal would be to tone down (better yet, erase) gender essentialism at all times and places and deem “non-masculine” things of equal value, but I recognize that for the pipe dream it is.

Galley Cover for The Other Half of the Sky

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Few people see galleys and galley covers, the crucial but invisible scaffoldings upon which a book is erected. Yet as much thought and care goes into their preparation as into that of the final book, because they’re its early scouts into the world.

The cover of The Other Half of the Sky is unfurling, and it will be a nova. Until that ignites here’s the galley cover, designed by our publisher, Kate Sullivan of Candlemark and Gleam (click on the image for a larger hi-res view):

When I released the anthology TOC, I included teasers for each story but not for my introduction. Here is its opening:

Athena Andreadis, Dreaming the Dark

“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” – Monique Wittig, Les Guerillères

Being a voracious bookworm, I came to science fiction very young. My first well-remembered book was the unexpurgated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. By cultural background and temperament, I didn’t like the Leaden … er, Golden SF Era. I preferred the Silver Age and the New Wave, with their explicit charters to push boundaries and write worlds and characters with more depth and flavor than cardboard. And since my mythology and history haunt my dreams and steps, it’s also not surprising that one SF mode I like is space opera.

Most people conflate opera with Wagner. Likewise, most SF aficionados conflate space opera with galactic empires, messianic anti/heroes (invariably white men) and gizmos up the wazoo, from death stars to individually customized viruses. And herein lies a tale of an immense, systemic failure of imagination.

Postscript: the authors participating in the anthology have their own takes on it. Two particularly entertaining views are those of Alex Jablokov and Sue Lange.

Junk DNA, Junky PR

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Note: this article first appeared as a guest blog post in Scientific American. It got showcased in a few places. Not surprisingly, some were dissatisfied: those who think scientists (especially dark non-Anglo female ones) should be just technicians with no larger contextual views of their work; those who cling to old notions of DNA functions; those enamored of miracle “cures”; and, needless to say, creationists of all stripes.

A week ago, a huge, painstakingly orchestrated PR campaign was timed to coincide with multiple publications of a long-term study by the ENCODE consortium in top-ranking journals.  The ENCODE project (EP) is essentially the next stage after the Human Genome Project (HGP).  The HGP sequenced all our DNA (actually a mixture of individual genomes); the EP is an attempt to define what all our DNA does by several circumstantial-evidence gathering and analysis techniques.

The EP results purportedly revolutionize our understanding of the genome by “proving” that DNA hitherto labeled junk is in fact functional and this knowledge will enable us to “maintain individual wellbeing” but also miraculously cure intractable diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Unlike the “arsenic bacteria” fiasco, the EP experiments were done carefully and thoroughly.  The information unearthed and collated with this research is very useful, if only a foundation; as with the HGP, this cataloguing quest also contributed to development of techniques. What is way off are the claims, both proximal and distal.

A similar kind of “theory of everything” hype surrounded the HGP but in the case of the EP the hype has been ratcheted several fold, partly due to the increased capacity for rapid, saturating online dissemination.  And science journalists who should know better (in Science, BBC, NY Times, The Guardian, Discover Magazine) made things worse by conflating junk, non-protein-coding and regulatory DNA.

Biologists – particularly those of us involved in dissecting RNA regulation – have known since the eighties that much of “junk” DNA has functions (to paraphrase Sydney Brenner, junk is not garbage).  The EP results don’t alter the current view of the genome, they just provide a basis for further investigation; their definition of “functional” is “biochemically active” – two very different beasts; the functions (let alone any disease cures) will require exhaustive independent authentication of the EP batch results.

Additionally, the findings were embargoed for years to enable the PR blitz – at minimum unseemly when public funds are involved. On the larger canvas, EP signals the increased siphoning of ever-scarcer funds into mega-projects that preempt imaginative, risky work.  Last but not least, the PR phrasing choices put wind in the sails of creationists and intelligent design (ID) adherents, by implying that everything in the genome has “a purpose under heaven”.

What did the study actually do?  The EP consortium labs systematically catalogued such things as DNAase I hypersensitive and methylated sites, transcription factor (TF) binding sites and transcribed regions in many cell types.  Unmethylated nuclease-sensitive DNA is in the “open” configuration – aka euchromatin, a state in which DNA can discharge its various roles.  The TF sites mean little by themselves: to give you a sense of their predictive power, any synthetically made DNA stretch will contain several such sites.  Whether they have a function depends on a whole slew of prerequisites.  Ditto the transcripts, of which more anon.

Let’s tackle “junk” DNA first, a term I find as ugly and misleading as the word “slush” for responses to open submission calls. Semantic baggage aside, the label “junk” was traditionally given to DNA segments with no apparent function.  Back in the depths of time (well, circa 1970), all DNA that did not code for proteins or proximal regulatory elements (promoters and terminators) was tossed on the “junk” pile.

However, in the eighties the definition of functional DNA started shifting rapidly, though I suspect it will never reach the 80% used by the EP PR juggernaut.  To show you how the definition has drifted, expanded, and had its meaning muddied as a term of art that is useful for everyone besides the workaday splicers et al who are abreast of trendy interpretations that may elude the laity, let’s meander down the genome buffet table.

Protein-coding segments in the genome (called exons, which are interrupted by non-protein-coding segments called introns) account for about 2% of the total.  That percentage increases a bit if non-protein-coding but clearly functional RNAs are factored in (structural RNAs: the U family, r- and tRNAs; regulatory miRNAs and their cousins).

About 25 percent of our DNA is regulatory and includes signals for: un/packing DNA into in/active configurations; replication, recombination and meiosis, including telomeres and centromeres; transcription (production of heteronuclear RNAs, which contain both exons and introns); splicing (excision of the introns to turn hnRNAs into mature RNAs, mRNA among them); polyadenylation (adding a homopolymeric tail that can dictate RNA location), export of mature RNA into the cytoplasm; and translation (turning mRNA into protein).

All these processes are regulated in cis (by regulatory motifs in the DNA) and in trans (by RNAs and proteins), which gives you a sense of how complex and layered our peri-genomic functions are. DNA is like a single book that can be read in Russian, Mandarin, Quechua, Maori and Swahili.  Some biologists (fortunately, fewer and fewer) still place introns and regions beyond a few thousand nucleotides up/downstream of a gene in the “junk” category, but a good portion is anything but: such regions contain key elements (enhancers and silencers for transcription and splicing) that allow the cell to regulate when and where to express each protein and RNA; they’re also important for local folding that’s crucial for bringing relevant distant elements in correct proximity as well as for timing, since DNA-linked processes are locally processive.

But what of the 70% of the genome that’s left?  Well, that’s a bit like an attic that hasn’t been cleaned out since the mansion was built.  It contains things that once were useful – and may be useful again in old or new ways – plus gewgaws, broken and rusted items that can still influence the household’s finances and health… as well as mice, squirrels, bats and raccoons.  In bio-jargon, the genome is rife with duplicated genes that have mutated into temporary inactivity, pseudogenes, and the related tribe of transposons, repeat elements and integrated viruses. Most are transcribed and then rapidly degraded, processes that do commandeer cellular resources.  Some are or may be doing something specific; others act as non-specific factor sinks and probably also buffer the genome against mutational hits.  In humans, such elements collectively make up about half of the genome.

So even bona fide junk DNA is not neutral and is still subject to evolutionary scrutiny – but neither does every single element map to a specific function.  We know this partly because genome size varies very widely across species whereas the coding capacity is much less variable (the “C-value paradox”), partly because removal of some of these regions does not affect viability in several animal models, including mice. It’s this point that EP almost deliberately obfuscated by trumpeting (or letting be trumpeted) that “junk DNA has been debunked”, ushering in “a view at odds with what biologists have thought for the past three decades.”

Continuing down the litany of claims, will this knowledge help us cure cancer and diabetes?  Many diseases are caused not by mutations within the protein-coding regions but by mutations that affect regulation.  Unmutated (“wild-type”) proteins at the wrong time, place or amount can and do cause disease: the most obvious paradigm is trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) but cancer and dementia are also prominent members in this category, which includes most of the slow chronic diseases that have proved refractory to “magic bullet” treatments.  Techniques that allow identification of changes in regulatory elements obviously feed into this information channel. So a systematic catalogue of regulatory elements across cell types is a prerequisite to homing in on specific stretches known or predicted to have links to a disease or disease susceptibility.

A few potential problems lurk behind this promising front.  One is that the variety between normal individual genomes is great – far greater than expected.  There’s also the related ground-level question of what constitutes normal: each of us carries a good number of recessive-lethal alleles.  So unless we have a robust, multiply overlapping map of acceptable variability, we may end up with false positives – for example, classifying a normal but uncommon variation as harmful.  Efforts to create such maps are currently in progress, so this is a matter of time.

Two additional interconnected problems are assigning true biological relevance to a biochemically defined activity and disentangling cause and effect (this problem also bedevils other assays – the related SNP [single nucleotide polymorphism] technique in particular).  To say that a particular binding site is occupied in a particular circumstance does not show a way to either diagnostics or therapeutics.  “Common sense” deductions from incomplete basic knowledge or forced a priori conclusions have sometimes led to disasters at the stage of application (the amyloid story among them – in which useless vaccines were made based on the mistaken assumption that the plaques are the toxic entities).

The pervasive but clearly erroneous take-home message of “a function for everything” harms biology among laypeople by implying ubiquitous purpose.  It also feeds right into the perfectibility concept that fuels such dangerous nonsense as the Genetic Virtue Project.  Too, it will attract investors who will push sloppy work based on flimsy foundations.  Of course, it’s funny to see creationists fall all over themselves to endorse the EP results while denying the entire foundation that gives raison d’être and context to such projects.  As for ID adherents, they should spend some time datamining genome-encompassing results (microarray, SNP, genome-wide associated studies, deep sequencing and the like), to see how noisy and messy our genomes really are.  I’d be happy to take volunteers for my microarray results, might as well use the eagerness to do real science!

What the EP results show (though they’re not the first or only ones to do so) is how complex and multiply interlinked even our minutest processes are.  Everything discussed in the EP work and in this and many other articles takes place within the cell nucleus, yet the outcomes can make and unmake us.  The results also show how much we still need to learn before we can confidently make changes at this level without fear of unpredicted/unpredictable side effects.  That’s for the content part.  As for the style, it’s true that some level of flamboyance may be necessary to get across to a public increasingly jaded by non-stop eye- and mind-candy.

However, people are perfectly capable of understanding complex concepts and data even if they’re not insider initiates, provided they examine them without wishing to shoehorn them into prior agendas.  Accuracy does not equal dullness and eloquence does not equal hype.  The EP results are important and will be very useful – but they’re not paradigm shifters or miracle tablets and should not pretend to be.


Brenner S (1990).  The human genome: the nature of the enterprise (in: Human Genetic Information: Science, Law and Ethics – No. 149: Science, Law and Ethics – Symposium Proceedings (CIBA Foundation Symposia) John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

ENCODE Project Consortium, Bernstein BE, Birney E, Dunham I, Green ED, Gunter C, Snyder M (2012).  An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome. Nature 489:57-74. doi: 10.1038/nature11247.

Stamatoyannopoulos JA (2012). What does our genome encode?  Genome Res. 22:1602-11.

Useful Analyses and Critiques:

Birney, E.  Response on ENCODE reaction.  (Bioinformatician at Large, Sept. 9, 2012).

Note: Ewan Birney is one of the major participants in the ENCODE project.

Eddy, S.  Encode says what? (Cryptogenomicon, Sept. 8, 2012).

Eisen M. This 100,000 word post on the ENCODE media bonanza will cure cancer (Michael Eisen’s blog, Sept. 6, 2012).

Timmer, J.  Most of what you read was wrong: how press releases rewrote scientific history (Ars Technica, Sept. 10, 2012).

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 2

Monday, September 17th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Part 1

To give some examples of what I feel is missing and limited in representation in Psychology of Space Exploration, there is but a brief mention of what author Frank White has labeled the “Overview Effect”. As the book states, this is the result of “truly transformative experiences [from flying in space] including sense of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence, and universal brotherhood.”

Clearly this is a very positive reaction to being in space, one which could have quite helpful benefits for those who are exploring the Universe. The Overview Effect might also have an ironic down side, one where a working astronaut might become so caught up in the “wonder and awe” of the surrounding Cosmos away from Earth that he or she could miss a critical mission operation or even forget what they were originally meant to do. Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter may have been one of the earliest “victims” of the Overview Effect during his Aurora 7 mission in 1962. Apparently his very human reaction to being immersed in the Final Frontier in part caused Carpenter to miss some key objectives during his mission in Earth orbit and even overshoot his landing zone by some 250 miles. Carpenter never flew in space again, despite being one of the top astronauts among the Mercury Seven. It would seem that in those early days of the Space Race, having the Right Stuff did not include getting caught up with the view outside one’s spacecraft window, at least so overtly.

Image: Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA

Another item largely missing from Psychology of Space Exploration is the effects on space personnel after they come home from a mission. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, who with Neil Armstrong became the first two humans to walk on the surface of the Moon with the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, is one of the earliest examples of publicly displaying the truly human side of being an astronaut.

Although not revealed publicly until 2001 by former NASA flight official Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., in his autobiography Flight: My Life in Mission Control, the real reason Aldrin was not selected to be the first one to step out of the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle onto the Moon was due to the space agency’s personal preference for Armstrong, who Kraft called “reticent, soft-spoken, and heroic.” Aldrin, on the other hand, “was overtly opinionated and ambitious, making it clear within NASA why he thought he should be first [to walk on the Moon].”

Even though Aldrin was a fighter pilot during the Korean War, earned a doctorate in astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and played an important role in solving the EVA issues that had plagued most of the Gemini missions and was critical to the success of Apollo and beyond, his lack of following the unspoken code of the Right Stuff kept him from making that historic achievement.

Aldrin would later throw the accepted version of the Right Stuff for astronauts right out the proverbial window when he penned a very candid book titled Return to Earth (Random House, 1973). The first of two autobiographies, the book revealed personal details as had no space explorer before and few since, including the severe depression and alcoholism Aldrin went through after the Apollo 11 mission and his departure from NASA altogether several years later, never to reach the literal heights he accomplished in 1969 or even to fly in space again. Although Aldrin would later recover and become a major advocate of space exploration, he is not even given a mention in Psychology of Space Exploration. In light of what later happened with Nowak and several other astronauts in their post-career lives, I think this is a serious omission from a book that is all about the mental states of space explorers.

The other glaring omission from this work is any discussion of the human reproductive process in space. NASA has been especially squeamish about this particular behavior in the Final Frontier. There is no official report from any space agency with a manned program on the various aspects of reproduction among any of its space explorers, only some rumors and anecdotes of questionable authenticity.

As with so much else regarding the early days of the Space Age, that may not have been an issue with the relatively few (primarily male) astronauts and cosmonauts confined to cramped spacecraft for a matter of days and weeks, but this will certainly change once we have truly long duration missions, space tourism, and non-professionals living permanently off Earth. As with daily life on this planet, there will be situations and issues long before and after the one aspect of human reproduction that is so often focused upon. Unfortunately, outside of some experiments with lower animals, real data on this activity vital to a permanent human presence in the Sol system and beyond is absent.

I recognize that Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a historical perspective on human behavior and interaction in space. As there have been no human births yet in either microgravity conditions or on another world and the other behaviors associated with reproduction are publicly unknown, this work cannot really be faulted for lacking any serious information on the subject. What this does display, however, is how far behind NASA and all other space agencies are in an area which will likely be the determining factor in whether humans expand into the Cosmos or remain confined to Earth.

So Far Along, So Far to Go

What the Psychology of Space Exploration ultimately demonstrates is that despite real and important improvements in how astronauts deal with being in space and the way NASA views and treats them since the days of Project Mercury, we are not fully ready for a manned scientific expedition to Mars, let alone colonizing other worlds.

Staying in low Earth orbit for six months at a stint aboard the ISS as a standard space mission these days gives an incomplete picture of what those who will be spending several years traveling to and from the Red Planet across many millions of miles of space will have to endure and experience. If an emergency arises that requires more than what the mission crew can handle, Earth will likely be a distant blue star for them rather than the friendly globe occupying most of their view which all but the Apollo astronauts have experienced since 1961.

Image: Jerrie Cobb poses next to a Mercury spaceship capsule. Although she never flew in space, Cobb, along with twenty-four other women, underwent physical tests similar to those taken by the Mercury astronauts with the belief that she might become an astronaut trainee. All the women who participated in the program, known as First Lady Astronaut Trainees, were skilled pilots. Dr. Randy Lovelace, a NASA scientist who had conducted the official Mercury program physicals, administered the tests at his private clinic without official NASA sanction. Cobb passed all the training exercises, ranking in the top 2% of all astronaut candidates of both genders. Credit: NASA.

Regarding this view of the shrinking Earth from deep space, the multiple authors of Chapter 4 noted that ISS astronauts took 84.5 percent of the photographs during the mission inspired by their motivation and choices. Most of these images were of our planet moving over 200 miles below their feet. The authors noted how much of an emotional uplift it was for the astronauts to image Earth in their own time and in their own way.

The chapter authors also had this to say about what an expedition to Mars might encounter:

As we begin to plan for interplanetary missions, it is important to consider what types of activities could be substituted. Perhaps the crewmembers best suited to a Mars transit are those individuals who can get a boost to psychological well-being from scientific observations and astronomical imaging. Replacements for the challenge of mastering 800-millimeter photography could also be identified. As humans head beyond low-Earth orbit, crewmembers looking at Earth will only see a pale-blue dot, and then, someday in the far future, they will be too far away to view Earth at all.

Now of course we could prepare and send a crewed spaceship to Mars and back with a fair guarantee of success, both in terms of collecting scientific information on that planet and in the survival of the human explorers, starting today if we so chose to follow that path. The issue, though, is whether we would have a mission of high or low quality (or outright disaster) and if the results of that initial effort of human extension to an alien world would translate into our species moving beyond Earth indefinitely to make the rest of the Cosmos a true home.

The data recorded throughout Psychology of Space Exploration clearly indicate that despite over five decades of direct human expeditions by many hundreds of people, we need much more than just six months to one year at most in a collection of confined spaces repeatedly circling Earth. This will affect not only our journeys and colonization efforts throughout the Sol system but certainly should we go with the concept of a Worldship and its multigenerational crew as a means for our descendants to voyage to other suns and their planets.

This book is an excellent reflection of NASA in its current state and human space exploration in general. As with the agency’s manned space program since the days when the Mercury Seven were first introduced to the world in 1959, we have indeed come a long way in terms of direct space experience, mission durations, gender and ethnic diversity, and understanding and admitting the physiological needs of those men and women who are brave and capable enough to deliberately venture into a realm they and their ancestors did not evolve in and which could destroy them in mere seconds.

Having said all this, what I hope is apparent is that we now need a new book – perhaps one written outside the confines of NASA – which will address in rigorous detail the missing issues I have brought to light in this piece. This request and the subsequent next steps in our species’ expansion into space – which will also eventually take place beyond the organizational borders of NASA – cannot but help to improve our chances of becoming a truly enduring and universal society in a Cosmos where certainty and safety are eventually not guaranteed to beings who remain confined physically and mentally to but one world.

The Psychology of Space Exploration: A Review — Part 1

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado.

Note: this is a companion piece to Those Who Never Got to Fly.

Early on the morning of February 5, 2007, several officers from the Orlando Police Department in Florida were summoned to the Orlando International Airport, where they arrested a female suspect. This woman was alleged to have attacked another woman she had been stalking while the latter sat in her car in the airport parking lot. Judging by the various items later found in the vehicle the suspect had used as transportation to the Sunshine State all the way from her home in Houston, Texas, her ultimate intent was to kidnap and possibly conduct even worse actions upon her victim.

While such a criminal incident is sadly not uncommon in modern society, what surprised and even shocked the public upon learning what happened was the occupation of the perpetrator: She was a veteran NASA astronaut, a flight engineer named Lisa Nowak who had flown on the Space Shuttle Discovery in July of 2006. As a member of the STS-121 mission, Nowak spent almost two weeks in Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS), performing among other duties the operation of the winged spacecraft’s robotic arm.

It seems that the woman who Nowak went after, a U.S. Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman, was in a relationship with a male astronaut named William Oefelein. Nowak had also been romantically involved with Oefelein earlier, but he had gradually broken off their relationship and started a new one with Shipman. Oefelein would later state that he thought Nowak seemed fine about his ending their affair and moving on to another woman. However, by then it was painfully and very publicly obvious that Oefelein had not thoroughly consulted enough with his former companion on this matter.

NASA would eventually dismiss Nowak and Oefelein from their astronaut corps, the first American space explorers ever formally forced to leave the agency. NASA also created an official Code of Conduct for their employees in the wake of this publicity nightmare.

Now I have no documented proof of this, but I strongly suspect that the Nowak incident played a large but officially unacknowledged role in the creation of the recent offering by the NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, as well as the director of Interstellar Message Composition at The SETI Institute.

Quoting from a NASA press release (11-223), which appeared about the same time as the book:

Psychology of Space Exploration is a collection of essays from leading space psychologists. They place their recent research in historical context by looking at changes in space missions and psychosocial science over the past 50 years. What makes up the “right stuff” for astronauts has changed as the early space race gave way to international cooperation.

The book itself is available online in several formats.

From the Right Stuff to All Kinds of Stuff

It may seem obvious to say that astronauts are as human as the rest of us, but in fact our culture has long viewed those who boldly go into the Final Frontier atop a controlled series of explosions otherwise known as a rocket in a much different and higher regard than most mere mortals. Even before the first person donned a silvery spacesuit and stepped inside a cramped and conical Mercury spacecraft mated to a former ICBM for a brief arcing flight over the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, NASA’s first group of human space explorers – known collectively as the Mercury Seven – were being presented from their very first press briefing in 1959 as virtual demigods who had the right skills and mental attitude to brave the unknown perils of the Universe.

Image: The Mercury Seven stand in front of a F-106 Delta Dart. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Mercury Seven astronauts were not just men: They were an elite breed of space warriors ready to conquer the Cosmos who also represented the best that the United States of America had to offer when it came to their citizens, their technology, and their science. The nation’s first space explorers may have been ultimately human and limited in various ways, even flawed, but the agency’s goal was to keep any issues in check through their missions at the least and preferably during their full tenure with NASA.

By the time of Nowak’s incident, astronauts may not have been the demigods of the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but they were still looked upon as highly capable people who ventured to places few others have gone and who did not give into human passions beyond a few moments of wonder at the Universe, realistic or not. This is why Nowak and Oefelein’s behaviors were so shocking to the public even four decades after the first generations of space explorers.

There are two reasons why I brought up the dramatic events of 2007 with Lisa Nowak: The first is my aforementioned hypothesis that what took place between the former astronaut and her perceived romantic rival led to NASA feeling the need to examine their policies regarding the human beings they send into space and formally documenting the resulting studies.

The second reason is that Psychology of Space Exploration needed more of these personal stories about the astronauts and cosmonauts. Now certainly there were some of these throughout the book: The Introduction to Chapter 1 relays a tale about a test pilot who was applying to be an astronaut who told an evaluating psychiatrist about the time the experimental aircraft he was flying started spinning out of control. The pilot responded to this emergency by calmly leafing through the vehicle’s operating manual to solve the immediate problem, which he obviously did.

Nevertheless, more of these kinds of stories would have not only made the book a bit less dry as it was in places, but they would have added immeasurably to the information content of this work.

As just one example, in Chapter 2 on page 26, the author mentions (from another source) that the Soviet space missions “Soyuz 21 (1976), Soyuz T-14 (1985), and Soyuz TM-2 (1987) were shortened because of mood, performance, and interpersonal issues. Brian Harvey wrote that psychological factors contributed to the early evacuation of a Salyut 7 [space station] crew.”

The problem here is that the book then moves on without going into any details about exactly what happened to curtail these missions. Knowing what took place would certainly be useful in making sure that future space ventures, especially the really long duration ones that will be of necessity as we move past our Moon, could be the difference between a secure and functioning crew and a disaster.

Incidentally, the author noted that the Soviets, who were usually reticent about giving out many technical details or goals on most space missions manned and robotic, were more open when it came to the experiences of their cosmonauts and showed more interest in their physiological situations in confined microgravity situations than NASA often did with their astronauts.

The Soviet space program also had a longer period of actual experience with humans living aboard space stations starting in 1971 with Salyut 1 (or Soyuz 9 in 1970 if you want to count that early space endurance record-holding jaunt) which NASA did not share between their three Skylab missions in 1973-1974 until their joint involvement with the Soviet Mir station in the 1990s. Having the details from that era would be of obvious benefit and interest.

Image: The MIR station hovering over Earth. It deorbited in March 21, 2001.The station was serviced by the Soyuz spacecraft, Progress spacecraft and U.S. space shuttles, and was visited by astronauts and cosmonauts from 12 different nations. It endured 15 years in orbit, three times its planned lifetime. Credit: NASA.

Granted, as with a collection of research papers such as this, there are plenty of references. Finding the stories this way is not a problem if you are doing your own research and using Psychology of Space Exploration as a reference source, but for the more casual reader it could be a bit of a disappointment when these items are not readily available.

While I think most people who want to learn more about how our space explorers are affected by and respond to and during their missions into the Final Frontier will find something of interest and value throughout this book, Psychology of Space Exploration is largely a reference work that goes into levels of certain details as befitting literature of its type while missing a number of others which I think are just as important for a comprehensive view of human expansion into space, both in the past, the present, and most vitally the future.

The ultimate goal of putting people into space is eventually to create a permanent presence of our species beyond Earth. That is the grand aim even if their initial underlying purposes were more geared towards engineering and geopolitical goals. This is similar to the history of the early navigators who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the New World, for they too had other plans initially in mind, although the ultimate result was the founding of the many nations that exist in the Western Hemisphere today.

Part 2

The Other Half of the Sky: Table of Contents

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

“…they see women as radiant and merciless as the dawn…” — Semíra Ouranákis, captain of starship Reckless at planetfall (Planetfall).

I decided to whet appetites. Below is not only the TOC of the anthology, but also the opening bars of each movement that’s part of this symphony. At the end of this post is a widget designed with great care and flair by Kate Sullivan, our publisher, that displays the excerpts as a beautiful mini-book.

I won’t say more, the snippets speak for themselves. [ETA: so does the cover, which eloquently embodies the anthology’s contents.]

The Other Half of the Sky

Athena Andreadis, Introduction: Dreaming the Dark

Melissa Scott, Finders
Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel
Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere
Sue Lange, Mission of Greed
Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa
Joan Slonczewski, Landfall
Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima
Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars
Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought
Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask
Martha Wells, Mimesis
Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost
C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted
Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask
Christine Lucas, Ouroboros
Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Let the storytelling begin:

Melissa Scott, Finders

A thousand years ago the cities fell, fire and debris blasting out the Burntover Plain.  Most of the field was played out now, the handful of towns that had sprung up along the less damaged southern edge grown into three thriving and even elegant cities, dependent on trade for their technology now rather than salvage.  Cassilde Sam had been born on the eastern fringe of the easternmost city, in Glasstown below the Empty Bridge, and even after two decades of hunting better salvage in the skies beyond this and a dozen other worlds, the Burntover still drew her.

Alexander Jablokov, Bad Day on Boscobel

Dunya stopped just outside Phineus’s unit to calm herself down. Otherwise she would burst in and start screaming at him. That was no way to start a check-in meeting with one of her refugees.

That gave her a chance to realize that she looked like hell. She’d already had one fight that morning, with her daughter Bodil, and afterwards she had rushed out, unsnapped and unbrushed. It was hard enough to manage someone like Phineus, all Martian and precise, without giving him more ammunition about how lax things were here, among the asteroids.

Nisi Shawl, In Colors Everywhere

Trill walked home through the Rainshadow Mountains with Adia, her former mentor.  Not alone.

The sky had been high all day.  Now, with evening, it came low, wetting them and their surroundings with mist.  Silver beaded the fuzz beneath their feet.

Adia was tough, though an elder.  She walked steadily, without complaint.  She ought to have been tired even before they started; she and Trill had spent the week teaching a cohort of tens-to-thirteens how to weave buildings.

Sue Lange, Mission of Greed

In the third week after gagarin123 landed on an unnamed planet sweeping through a solar system claimed by ValeroCorp, First Mechanic Bertie Lai’s chance for fame slowly swirled down the shitter.

And just yesterday things had been moving along swimmingly. René Genie, the mission biologist, had not yet found sentient life; the geologist, Aadil Alzeshi, had discovered beautiful 1.4.  Specifically, he’d hit some pitchblende with enough uranium in it for ValeroCorp to recoup the cost of this mission.

Vandana Singh, Sailing the Antarsa

There are breezes, like the ocean breeze, which can set your pulse racing, dear kin, and your spirit seems to fly ahead of you as your little boat rides each swell.  But this breeze!  This breeze wafts through you and me, through planets and suns, like we are nothing.  How to catch it, know it, befriend it?  This sea, the Antarsa, is like no other sea.  It washes the whole universe, as far as we can tell, and the ordinary matter such as we are made of is transparent to it.  So how is it that I can ride the Antarsa current, as I am doing now, steering my little spacecraft so far from Dhara and its moon?

Joan Slonczewski, Landfall

Most college sophomores spent their summer running toyworlds while catching sun at air-conditioned disappearing beaches.  Jenny Ramos Kennedy spent hers at the Havana Institute for Revolutionary Botany, which students called the Botánica. At the Botánica, Jenny worked with ultraphytes, Earth’s cyanide-emitting extraterrestrial invaders. Could she discover how to engineer ultraphyte chromosomes–to control them genetically, before they poisoned the planet?

Terry Boren, This Alakie and the Death of Dima

When Dine Paloan asked this woman, Alakie, to leave before destruction arrived, she refused at first.  She had trained to be Paloan’s pilot, but this Alakie had never thought she would be leaving without Dine.  So instead of accepting the Dinela’s wishes, this Alakie helped to send Paloan’s other tokens back to Cassin, and she stayed.

Aliette de Bodard, The Waiting Stars

The derelict ship ward was in an isolated section of Outsider space, one of the numerous spots left blank on interstellar maps, no more or no less tantalising than its neighbouring quadrants.  To most people, it would be just that: a boring part of a long journey to be avoided–skipped over by Mind-ships as they cut through deep space, passed around at low speeds by Outsider ships while their passengers slept in their hibernation cradles.

Ken Liu, The Shape of Thought

Cat’s Cradle turns into Painted Handkerchief turns into Dish of Noodles turns into Manger turns into Fishing Net.  These are but the first of the Two Hundred Variations developed by bored human children on the Long Journey.

I was once one of them.

Young Ket hums as zie holds up zir hands, the string wound tight around the fingers. Zie glances at me and I wave back. Zie has the same long graceful neck and bulbous body as zir parent, Tunloji. Watching zem is like watching a younger version of my lover.

Alex Dally MacFarlane, Under Falna’s Mask

Mar-teri broke her confinement to burn alsar for her dead sisters.  Under thin moonlight she stepped out of the unmarried adults’ caravan for the first time in two months–stones crunching under her feet, chives brushing against her bare ankles–carrying the bunch of alsar she was supposed to burn in her caravan. As if honouring them from afar could be enough.

The opening lines of Falna’s song slipped into Mar-teri’s head. Such a fierce song, when the woman wearing Falna’s mask channelled generations of anger–how Mar-teri had longed to wear that mask!

Martha Wells, Mimesis

Jade spotted Sand as he circled down from the forest canopy, a grasseater clutched in his talons.  She said, “Finally.”  It would be nice to eat before dark, so they could clear the offal away from the camp without attracting the night scavengers.

It was Balm who said, “I don’t see Fair.”

Jade frowned, scanning the canopy again.  They were standing in the deep grass of the platform they had chosen to camp on, and it was late afternoon in the suspended forest and getting difficult to hunt by sight.

Kelly Jennings, Velocity’s Ghost

I hate planets.  Filthy, heavy, smelly, and this one was leaking.

“It’s rain,” Rida said.  “It’s not a leak, it’s part of their exchange.”

“It’s snow.”  Tai lurked just up corridor, close enough that I could hear him both hard and via the uplink.  “Rain is the wet one.”

“This is wet,” Rida objected.

“Can we focus?” I demanded.  “Rida?”

Braced on the rim of the rock pool by the bistro hatch, Rida flashed me a capture of his desk screen, with the vid of our target unshifted.  “She’s still talking, boss.”

C. W. Johnson, Exit, Interrupted

The Door wasn’t so much heavy as reluctant to move, as if they were carrying it, one at each end, through molasses.  “Why is it like this?” Saiyul asked as she leaned into the resistant thing.

Ashil shrugged the best he could with his hands full. “How should I know?”

A bead of perspiration slid down Saiyul’s face, right into the scar on her cheek. It had healed, mostly, but it itched where her oxygen mask rubbed against it.

Cat Rambo, Dagger and Mask

If you had asked Eduw if he loved Grania, he would have been indignant. Naturally he did. He loved all his targets.

Not at first, of course. He was put off. That scar that marred her face, it hurt to look at. It wasn’t an uncommon condition, despite what the meddies said. Some people rejected plas-flesh. It didn’t take, didn’t renew lost skin, didn’t rebuild damaged features. For some it even seemed to make things worse.

Christine Lucas, Ouroboros

The dead philosopher came out of his cavern only when both the moons of Mars were below the horizon.  Or so the legend claimed.

Under a clear sky over the Martian wilderness, Kallie focused her hearing and sought the faintest sound that might confirm his existence.  Nothing. The nanobots lining her auditory nerves redoubled their efforts. Still nothing. Yet. She turned her attention towards the base at northeast, under the shadow of Olympus Mons. No alarms, no sirens, no one on her trail. They hadn’t noticed her absence. Yet. But they would, and they’d unleash the Enforcer.

Jack McDevitt, Cathedral

Matt Sunderland gazed at the Earth, which was just edging out from behind the Moon. From the L2 platform, Luna, of course, dominated the sky, a vast gray globe half in sunlight, half in shadow, six times larger than it would have appeared from his Long Island home. Usually, it completely blocked the gauzy blue and white Earth. On the bulkhead to his left, the Mars or Bust flag still hung, its corners fastened by magnets.

Mars or Bust.

Image: Girl under the Milky Way, by Babak A. Tafreshi

The Charlatan-Haunted World

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

In the larger context of how sciency blather shapes culture, including speculative literature, it’s interesting to juxtapose two movement gurus, Ray Kurzweil and Deepak Chopra. Many consider them very different but in fact they’re extremely similar. Essentially, both are prophet-wannabes who are attempting to gain legitimacy by distorting science to fit a cynically self-aggrandizing agenda.

Chopra goes the faux grand unification route; Kurzweil belongs to the millenarian camp, including his habit of setting goals that ever recede: the year we become optimized by nanobots… the year we upload our minds to silicon frames… the year we welcome our AI overlords. The Singularity and the complete reverse-engineering of the human brain were slated for 2010; now the magic year is 2045. Sound familiar?

Both men are embodiments of Maslow’s dictum that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Chopra’s hammer is power of mind over matter; Kurzweil’s, Moore’s Law with “exponential” as its abracadabra. It’s easy to laugh at Chopra’s blatant misuse of quantum mechanics and his idea that we can destroy tumors with sheer thought power. Most of the biocentrist vaporings of Chopra, Lanza et al can be dealt with by one word: decoherence. Conversely, Kurzweil’s ignorance of basics is so obvious to a biologist that seeing him being taken seriously makes you feel you’re in a parallel universe. For the rest of this article, I will focus on transhumanism (TH) and just briefly linger on salient points many of which I’ve covered before in detail.

I’ve often said that cyberpunk is the fiction arm of TH, but upon reflection I think it would be more accurate to say TH is a branch of cyberpunk SF if not fantasy – and not a particularly original one, at that. At the same time, even its own adherents are starting to publicly admit that TH is a religion. After all, its wish list consists of the same things humans have wanted since time immemorial: immortality and eternal youth. Eternally perky breasts and even perkier penises. Those lucky enough to attain these attributes will frolic in Elysium Fields of silicon or in gated communities like today’s Dubai or tomorrow’s seasteads. Followers of other religions have to wait patiently for paradise; transhumanists can gain instant bliss by thronging to Second Life. Or as that famous Sad Children cartoon says, “In the future, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

Transhumanists posit several items as articles of faith. All these items require technology indistinguishable from magic – and in some cases, technology that will never come to pass because of intrinsic limitations. Transhumanists call unbelievers Luddites — funny, given that many who object to the cult approach are working scientists or engineers. Among the TH tenets:

1. Perfectibility: “optimization” of humans is not only possible but also desirable.

1a. Genes determine high-order behavior: intelligence, musical talent, niceness. This has gone so far that there is a formal TH proposal by Mark Walker to implement a Genetic Virtue Program; in cyberpunk SF you see it in such laughable items as Emiko having “dog loyalty genes” in the inexplicably lauded Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Basing a genetic program on the concept that genes determine high-order behavior is like planning an expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic system. Genomes act as highly networked ensembles and organisms are jury-rigged. Furthermore, optimization for one function in biological systems (across scales) makes for suboptimality at all else.

1b. There’s one-to-one mapping between hormones or evolutionary specifics and behavior. Most of these generalizations  come from research on non-humans (mice for hormones; various primates for evolution) and lead to conclusions like: people can become lovesome by judicious applications of oxytocin or murderous by extra helpings of testosterone; and to the evopsycho nonsense of “alpha male rape genes” and “female wired-for-coyness brains”. This is equally endemic in what I call grittygrotty fantasy, but it seems to be at odds with TH’s willingness to entertain the concepts of gender fluidity and sculpting-at-will.

1c. Designer genetic engineering will come to pass, including nanotech that will patrol us internally. Genetic engineering is already with us, but it will take time to fine-tune it for routine “vanity” use. Of course, we already have nanites – they’re called enzymes. However, cells are not this amorphous soup into which nanoships can sail at whim. They’re highly organized semi-solid assemblages with very specific compartments and boundaries.  The danger for cell and organ damage shown in the cheesy but oddly prescient Fantastic Voyage is in fact quite real.

2. Dualism: biological processes can be uncoupled from their physical substrates.

2a. Emotions are distinct from thoughts (and the former are often equated with the non-cortical Four Fs). This aligns with such items as the TH obsession with sexbots and proxy relationships through various avatars — and the movement’s general fear and dislike of the body. Of course, our bodies are not passive appendages but an integral part of our sensor feedback network and our sense of identity.

2b. It is possible to achieve immortality and continuity of consciousness by uploading, which might as well be called by its real name: soul – as Battlestar Galumphica at least had the courage to do. It should go without saying that uploading, even if a non-destructive implementation ever became possible, would create an autonomous copy.  I still boggle at Stross’ pronouncement that “Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. // Uploading refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul.”

3. Dogma: invalid equivalences and models for complexity.

3a. The brain is a computer. This leads to fantasies that “expansion of capabilities” (however defined) and such things as uploading or “stigmata” (that is, leakage between VR and reality) are possible. The fundamental point is that the brain is not a computer in any way that is useful to either biology or computer science, starting with the fact that a brain is never a blank chassis that passively accepts software. Also, it’s one thing to observe that the cerebellum contains four types of neurons, another to talk of stacks. The black noise on this has reached such a level that I cringe whenever I hear people discuss the brain using terms like “Kolmogorov complexity”.

3b. Sentient AI and animal uplift will not only come to pass, but will also produce entities that are remarkably similar to us. Connected to this are the messianic ravings of the extropians, who envision themselves as essentially overseers in plantations, as well as David Pearce’s “imperative” that any issues will be ironed out with such things as contraceptives for sentient rabbits and aversion therapy for sentient cats that will turn them into happy vegans. However, cat intestines are formed in such a way that they need meat to survive. If they must be medicated non-stop (let alone mangy from malnutrition), much better to design a species de novo. Crowley’s Leos and Linebarger’s Underpeople were both more realistic and more humane than the equivalent TH constructs.

Like all religions, TH has its sects and rifts, its evangelicals and reformists. Overall, however, the shiny if mostly pie-in-the-sky tech covers a regressive interior: TH hews to triumphalism, determinism and hierarchies. Interestingly, several SF authors (most notably Iain Banks) see TH applications as positive feedback loops for a terminal era of plenty: infinite resources courtesy of nanites, infinite flexibility in identities and lifestyles. However, I think that we’re likelier to see some of this technology become real in two contexts: an earth running out of resources… and people in long-generation starships and quasi-terrestrial exoplanets.

In both cases, we may have to implement radical changes not for some nebulous arbitrary perfection, or as a game of trust/hedge fund playboys, but when we’re in extremis and/or for a specific context. For example, the need to hibernate on an ice-bound planet or survive on toxic foodstuffs. Because TH is essentially a futuristic version of Manifest Destiny, it’s an unsuitable framework for exploring low-key sustainability alternatives. But TH does itself even fewer favors by harnessing stale pseudoscience to its chariots of the gods.  People like Kurzweil have the education and intelligence to know better, which makes them far more culpable than brain-dead ignorant haters like Akin.

Note: This article is an adaptation of the talk I gave to Readercon 2012 this July.  A panel discussion followed the talk; the other participants were John Edward Lawson, Anil Menon, Luc Reid and Alison Sinclair.

Related articles:

Equalizer or Terminator?
Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome
Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”
Won’t Anyone Think of the Sexbots?!
That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Images: 1st, Mike Myers as Maurice Pitka in The Love Guru; 2nd, flowchart from The Talking Squid, who adapted an original by Wellington Grey; 3rd, The Transhumanist by movement member Sandberg — appropriately enough, part of a Tarot card set.

Those Who Never Got to Fly

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Sally Kristen Ride, one of the iconic First Others in space flight, recently died at the relatively young age of 61: she was the first American woman to participate in missions. Her obituary revealed that she was also the first lesbian to do so. Like other iconic First Others (Mae Jemison comes to mind), Sally Ride was way overqualified – multiple degrees, better than her male peers along several axes – and she also left the astronaut program way before she needed to (more about this anon). Even so, Ride remained within the orbit of space exploration activities, including founding NASA’s Exploration Office. She was also part of the board that investigated the crashes of Challenger and Columbia; Ride was the only public figure to side with the whistleblowing engineer of Morton-Thiokol when he warned about the problems that would eventually destroy Challenger.

When Sally Ride was chosen for her first mission – by an openly sexist commander who still had to admit she was by far the most qualified for the outlined duties – the press asked her questions like “Do you weep when something goes wrong on the job?” This was 1983, mind you, not the fifties. The reporters noted that she amazed her teachers and professors by pulling effortless straight As in science and – absolutely relevant to an astronaut’s abilities – she was an “indifferent housekeeper” whose husband tolerated it (she was married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley at the time). Johny Carson joked that the shuttle launch got postponed until Ride could find a purse that matched her shoes.

Ride and Jemison had to function in this climate but at least they went to space, low-orbit though it had become by then. There were forerunners who never got to do so, even though they were also overqualified. I am referring, of course, to the Mercury 13.

This was the moniker of the early core of women astronauts who trained in parallel with the Mercury 7 and outperformed them – except, as is often the case, they did so in makeshift facilities without official support. Here’s the honor roll call of these pioneers whose wings were permanently clipped (the last names are before marriages changed them): Jane Briggs, Myrtle Cagle, Geraldyn Cobb, Janet Dietrich, Marion Dietrich, Mary Wallace Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jerrie Hamilton, Jean Hixson, Rhea Hurrie, Irene Leverton, Gene Nora Stumbough, Bernice Trimble.

The Thirteen, never officially part of NASA (they were selected by William Lovelace, who designed the NASA astronaut tests, and the initiative was supported by private donations), had to have at least 1000 hours of flying experience. They underwent the same physical and psychological tests as the men and did as well or better at them: all passed phase I, several went on to phase II, and two completed the final phase III. This was not because any failed II or III, but because they didn’t have the resources to attempt them.

When the Thirteen gathered at Pensacola to show their abilities, the Navy instantly halted the demonstration, using the excuse that it was not an official NASA program. The women, some of whom had abandoned jobs and marriages for this, took their case to Congress. Several people – among them “hero” John Glenn – testified that women were not eligible to fly in space because 1) they didn’t have the exact advanced degrees specified by NASA (neither did Glenn, but he got in without a whisper) and the agency would not accept equivalents and 2) they were prohibited from flying military jets (yet women flew such jets from factories to airfields in WWII; when some of the Mercury 13 flew military jets to qualify, NASA simply ratcheted up that rule).

Space aficionados may recall that the Mercury program’s nickname was “man in a can” – the astronauts had so little control that engineers had to manufacture buttons and levers to give them the illusion of it. Nevertheless, NASA made military jet piloting experience a rule because such men, notorious cockerels, were considered to have The Right Stuff – and Congress used this crutch to summarily scuttle the Mercury 13 initiative, although there was brief consideration of adding women to space missions to “improve crew morale” (broadly interpreted).

It took twenty years for NASA to decide to accept women as astronauts. Just before it did so, hack-turned-fanboi-prophet Arthur C. Clarke sent a letter to Time crowing that he had “predicted” the “problem” brought up by astronaut Mike Collins, who opined that women could never be in the space program, because the bouncing of their breasts in zero G would distract the men. When taken to task, Clarke responded that 1) some of his best friends were women, 2) didn’t women want alpha-male astronauts to find them attractive?? and 3) libbers’ tone did nothing to help their cause. Sound familiar?

Women have become “common” in space flight – except that the total number of spacenauts who are women is still 11% of the total. Furthermore, given that the major part of today’s space effort is not going to Mars or even the Moon but scraping fungus off surfaces of the ISS or equivalent, being an astronaut now is closer to being a housecleaner than an hero. We haven’t come so far after all, and we’re not going much further.

I’m one of the few who believe that women’s rights and successful space exploration (as well as maintenance of our planet) are inextricably linked. As I wrote elsewhere:

“I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human. Women are not better than men, nor are they different in any way that truly matters; they are as eager to soar, and as entitled. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle against reflexive institutionalized misogyny. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we’ll still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.”

This holds doubly for space exploration – for the goals we set for it, the methods we employ to achieve it and the way we act if/when we reach our destinations.

Addendum: I did not discuss Valentina Tereshkova, who was both the first woman cosmonaut and the first civilian to fly into space. because I wanted to keep the focus of this article on NASA.  Nevertheless, I should mention her as well as Sveltana Savitskaya, the first woman to do a space walk, whose first mission preceded that of Sally Ride.

Sources and further reading

Martha Ackmann, The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (one source of the Clarke “distracting breasts” incident and also excellent in its own right)

Site dedicated to the Mercury 13:

2nd Image: some of the Mercury 13, gathered to watch the launch in which Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle mission. Left to right: Gene Nora Stumbough, Mary Wallace Funk, Geraldyn Cobb, Jerri Hamilton, Sarah Gorelick, Myrtle Cagle, Bernice Trimble.

The Other Half of the Sky

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I made three appearances in this year’s Readercon: I gave a talk about transhumanism, I was part of a panel that discussed time travel and — last but very decidedly not least — we officially unveiled the SF anthology I am editing. We now have a publisher, as enthusiastic about the project as we are: Candlemark and Gleam, headed by Kate Sullivan. Kay Holt of Crossed Genres, my co-editor in this venture, put together a neat flyer for which she did artwork that reminds me of black-figure Attic vases.

The anthology will bear the title The Other Half of the Sky. Here’s what I said in my outline:

“Women may hold up more than half the sky on earth, but it has been different in heaven: Science fiction still is very much a preserve of male protagonists, mostly performing by-the-numbers quests.

The Other Half of the Sky offers readers heroes who happen to be women, doing whatever they would do in universes where they’re fully human: Starship captains, planet rulers, explorers, scientists, artists, engineers, craftspeople, pirates, rogues…

As one of the women in Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” says: “We sing a lot. Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs, love songs – everything.” Everything.

The panel flowed like a sea swell. Four of the authors invited to participate in the anthology (Sue Lange, Ken Liu, Vandana Singh and Joan Slonczewski) discussed it along with Kay and me. Alex Jablokov, another of the invited authors, was also there to lend moral support. We discussed why we embarked on the venture, why we think it covers less-trodden ground and how each author conceived their story within the framework I constructed.

Each participant brought up unique and interesting items pertinent to the larger concerns of the anthology. Among them: interactions with aliens that play out differently from the standard “colonize/annihilate” mode; the reciprocal influence of language and perceptions; the fact that you can have space opera with “regular” people as protagonists, rather than Chosen Ones; the complex requirements for space travel and their intersection with our needs on this planet.

The audience was eager to know when the anthology will appear (spring 2013, barring unexpected obstacles) and asked if we plan a series! So we seem to have struck a chord — maybe even a new melody on the old instrument. I want to thank everyone who helped create this intricate tapestry of a discussion.

Image: art for the anthology flyer for Readercon by Kay Holt.

“Arsenic” Life or: There Is TOO a Dragon in My Garage!

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, phosphate-dependent organism — title of the paper by Erb et al, Science, July 2012

Everyone will recall the hype and theatrical gyrations which accompanied NASA’s announcement in December 2010 that scientists funded by NASA astrobiology grants had “discovered alien life” – later modified to “alternative terrestrial biochemistry” which somehow seemed tailor-made to prove the hypothesis of honorary co-author Paul Davies about life originating from a “shadow biosphere”.

As I discussed in The Agency that Cried “Awesome!, the major problem was not the claim per se but the manner in which it was presented by Science and NASA and the behavior of its originators. It was an astonishing case of serial failure at every single level of the process: the primary researcher, the senior supervisor, the reviewers, the journal, the agency. The putative and since disproved FTL neutrinos stand as an interesting contrast: in that case, the OPERA team announced it to the community as a puzzle, and asked everyone who was willing and able to pick their results apart and find whatever error might be lurking in their methods of observation or analysis.

Those of us who are familiar with bacteria and molecular/cellular biology techniques knew instantly upon reading the original “arsenic life” paper that it was so shoddy that it should never have been published, let alone in a top-ranking journal like Science: controls were lacking or sloppy, experiments crucial for buttressing the paper’s conclusions were missing, while other results contradicted the conclusions stated by the authors. It was plain that what the group had discovered and cultivated were extremophilic bacteria that were able to tolerate high arsenic concentrations but still needed phosphorus to grow and divide.

The paper’s authors declined to respond to any but “peer-reviewed” rebuttals. A first round of eight such rebuttals, covering the multiple deficiencies of the work, accompanied its appearance in the print version of Science (a very unusual step for a journal). Still not good enough for the original group: now only replication of the entire work would do. Of course, nobody wants to spend time and precious funds replicating what they consider worthless. Nevertheless, two groups finally got exasperated enough to do exactly that, except they also performed the crucial experiments missing in the original paper: for example, spectrometry to discover if arsenic is covalently bound to any of the bacterium’s biomolecules and rigorous quantification of the amount of phosphorus present in the feeding media. The salient results from both studies, briefly:

— The bacteria do not grow if phosphorus is rigorously excluded;
— There is no covalently bound arsenic in their DNA;
— There is a tiny amount of arsenic in their sugars, but this happens abiotically.

The totality of the results suggests that GFAJ-1 bacteria have found a way to sequester toxic arsenic (already indicated by their appearance) and to preferentially ingest and utilize the scant available phosphorus. I suspect that future work on them will show that they have specialized repair enzymes and ion pumps. This makes the strain as interesting as other exotic extremophiles – no less, but certainly no more.

What has been the response of the people directly involved? Here’s a sample:

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, first author of the “arsenic-life” paper: “There is nothing in the data of these new papers that contradicts our published data.”

Ronald Oremland, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s supervisor for the GFAJ-1 work: “… at this point I would say it [the door of “arsenic based” life] is still just a tad ajar, with points worthy of further study before either slamming it shut or opening it further and allowing more knowledge to pass through.”

John Tainer, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s current supervisor: “There are many reasons not to find things — I don’t find my keys some mornings. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”

Michael New, astrobiologist, NASA headquarters: “Though these new papers challenge some of the conclusions of the original paper, neither paper invalidates the 2010 observations of a remarkable micro-organism.”

At least Science made a cautious stab at reality in its editorial, although it should have spared everyone — the original researchers included — by retracting the paper and marking it as retracted for future reference. The responses are so contrary to fact and correct scientific practice (though familiar to politician-watchers) that I am forced to conclude that perhaps the OPERA neutrino results were true after all, and I live in a universe in which it is possible to change the past via time travel.

Science is an asymptotic approach to truth; but to reach that truth, we must let go of hypotheses in which we may have become emotionally vested. That is probably the hardest internal obstacle to doing good science. The attachment to a hypothesis, coupled with the relentless pressure to be first, original, paradigm-shifting can lead to all kinds of dangerous practices – from cutting corners and omitting results that “don’t fit” to outright fraud. This is particularly dangerous when it happens to senior scientists with clout and reputations, who can flatten rivals and who often have direct access to pop media. The result is shoddy science and a disproportionate decrease of scientists’ credibility with the lay public.

The two latest papers have done far more than “challenge” the original findings. Sagan may have said that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but he also explained how persistent lack of evidence after attempts from all angles must eventually lead to the acceptance that there is no dragon in that garage, no unicorn in that secret glade, no extant alternative terrestrial biochemistry, only infinite variations at its various scales. It’s time to put “arsenic-based life” in the same attic box that holds ether, Aristotle’s homunculi, cold fusion, FTL neutrinos, tumors dissolved by prayer. The case is obviously still open for alternative biochemistry beyond our planet and for alternative early forms on earth that went extinct without leaving traces.

We scientists have a ton of real work to do without wasting our pitifully small and constantly dwindling resources and without muddying the waters with refuse. Being human, we cannot help but occasionally fall in love with our hypotheses. But we have to take that bitter reality medicine and keep on exploring; the universe doesn’t care what we like but still has wonders waiting to be discovered. I hope that Felisa Wolfe-Simon remains one of the astrogators, as long as she realizes that following a star is not the same as following a will-o’-the-wisp — and that knowingly and willfully following the latter endangers the starship and its crew.

Relevant links:

The Agency that Cried “Awesome!”

The earlier rebuttals in Science

The Erb et al paper (Julia Vorholt, senior author)

The Reaves et al paper (Rosemary Rosefield, senior author)

Images: 2nd, Denial by Bill Watterson; 3rd, The Fool (Rider-Waite tarot deck, by Pamela Cole Smith)

Uppity Women and Neo-Nazi Rabid Dogs

Saturday, June 9th, 2012

[Note: the video that shows the incident I am about to describe has gone viral. I won’t link to any of its versions, because most of the comments are literally nauseating. ]

On Wednesday, Hellenic TV station Ant1 held a discussion roundtable with parliamentary members from six of the seven major political parties. Among them were two women: 38-year old Réna Dhoúrou of SYRIZA, the leftist party that came unexpectedly a very close second in the May elections, upsetting the usual cozy arrangements; and 58-year old Liána Kanélli of KKE, the Communist party (the only one in the world that’s still staunchly Stalinist, but that’s another conversation). Kanélli is notorious – an outspoken, spirited, if arrogant firebrand, widely considered to be a lesbian (bear with me, this becomes relevant anon). As a reporter, she was the first woman in many media venues. Also invited to the talk show was 31-year-old Elías Kasidhiáris, deputy of the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn.

For those sequestered in silently running nuclear submarines, Golden Dawn got 7% of the vote in the May elections, gaining seats in the parliament – the first time such a thing has happened since World War II (not counting the junta). Its platform is the standard troglodytic garbage: ethnic purity, “natural” order – which includes the de jure disenfranchisement of women and Others – and bodily violence against those who disagree. Its members regularly assault immigrants, minorities and journalists as well as other “undesirables”, with tolerance (if not cooperation) from the police and portions of the media. Mass murderer Anders Breivik listed Golden Dawn in his diary as the likeliest group to “cleanse” Europe.

It came as no surprise that the vast majority of the half million who voted for Golden Dawn were people craving “law and order” in a country that increasingly lacks the resources to deal effectively and humanely with its flood of illegal immigrants… and policemen. Kasidhiáris himself is on trial for participating in the robbery and stabbing of an academic in 2007 (as is customary with Hellenic justice, the trial has been repeatedly postponed). Yet this did not prevent him from running and getting elected for national office.

To anyone speaking Hellenic, it becomes obvious when you watch the video that Kasidhiáris was as well-informed as Sarah Palin. The two women, Kanélli in particular, let him know this. His response was standard: first he accused them of bringing “personal matters” (namely, his impending trial) into politics. Then, after a brief exchange of verbal insults, he flung a glass of water at Dhoúrou’s face. The three male politicians present sat through this like statues while the talk host made feeble mewling noises. The only one who did something was Kanélli, who went toward Kasidhiáris brandishing a newspaper.

To show that he doesn’t take guff from uppity broads, even ones old enough to be his mother, Kasidhiáris jumped out of his seat and hit Kanélli three times. On the face. The first was a slap. The other two were left-right closed-fist punches.

He then threatened he would “return with reinforcements” and somehow managed to escape from the TV station to “parts unknown” (almost certainly the offices of Golden Dawn) to avoid the automatic arrest warrant for assault which, by a quirk of Hellenic law, expires within 48 hours of its issue. The police, not surprisingly, have been “unable to find him” – even though he issued a lengthy (and presumably traceable) statement from his ultra-secret location, in which he said that Kanélli should be the one to be arrested and face assault charges because she “attacked him first”. The head of his party stuck by him, arguing that the incident had been blown out of proportion and, in any case, the two women are really to blame because, well, they provoked him and what’s a manly man to do except respond (literally) two-fistedly?

Sound familiar? The tactics of cowardly bullies do not change across time and cultures. Yet even more mind-boggling is the enormous number of people who opined anonymously online that “the cunt had it coming” and “finally, someone put the fat ugly dyke in her place.” Kanélli infuriates many people because she won’t shut up or back down; she has been bodily attacked before as a symbol of “corrupt politics”, even though her party has never governed the country (incidentally, I disagree with many of her positions, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion).

So the obvious solution to society’s ills is to beat this outspoken woman until she stops speaking, the traditional “remedy” for termagants who do not exhibit the feminine virtues of compliance and silence. When this happens people cheer gleefully, not realizing that thugs like Kasidhiáris make no distinctions: everything around them gets smashed. Women are just the canaries in this particular mine. They are the first to become non-humans whenever fascism raises its banner, making hatred and fear steeds for its chariot. Kanélli made the point explicitly after the assault: “It happened to be my face,” she said, “but there are many faces that get hit by these people – faces of weak and scared victims that we never see.”

The only good thing about this incident, the latest of many, is that it may act as a wake-up call to all those who thought they were striking a blow against the despised political status quo by voting for Golden Dawn. Democracy has always been wobbly in the land that invented it. My parents lived through repression and persecution; I lived through the colonels’ junta. I don’t want to see my people repeat the horrific mistake of giving power to beasts who wear the skins of humans.

Images: 1st, Liána Kanélli; 2nd, Réna Dhoúrou

Related articles:

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

Update 1: A representative of the Cypriot equivalent of Golden Dawn was asked on TV, “Do you consider it right to hit a woman?” His response: “Do you consider Kanélli a woman?” Beyond confirming how neo-nazis define “real” women, this particular rabid dog also conveniently elided that being “womanly” has never protected women from getting beaten, raped or killed.

Update 2: The head of Golden Dawn stated that Kasidhiáris didn’t hit Kanélli, he “just kept her at a distance with his hands” — and what’s with this sudden chivalry, don’t bitches claim they want equal treatment? It would be funny if it weren’t chilling.

Update 3: Kasidhiáris, tightly surrounded by half a dozen “companions”, showed up at a police precinct as soon as the 48 hours elapsed to sue Dhoúrou, Kanélli and the TV station, and to demand that the state put taps on the phone of everyone he sued as well as on the phone of the (female) justice who issued his arrest warrant.

Ain’t Evolvin’: The Cookie Cutter Self-Discovery Quest

Monday, June 4th, 2012

I’ve been an addicted bookworm ever since I taught myself to read at the age of four. My parents never restricted my book access, leaving me to roam untrammeled through full-bore fiction and non-fiction from the get-go. My fairy tales and myths were unexpurgated; so was my country’s painful history, unfolding right before my eyes. Whenever I dipped into “age-appropriate” books, I detested the didacticism, the insipidity, the contrived dilemmas. Even with my limited life experience, I knew watery gruel when I tasted it.

So I hardly ever read Young Adult (YA) works, even when I was YA myself. From time to time I try again, only to confirm that my allergy appears to be permanent. This puts me in several quandaries: SF/F, one of my mainstay genres, has an enormous YA component – in fact, can be considered YA almost in its entirety in terms of its proclivities; the YA domain is a major venue for women writers and a major showcase for women protagonists. Yet I constantly run into bumps, even when authors try hard… sometimes, especially when authors try hard.

One of these bumps is magic, which I find tiresome with few and ever fewer exceptions. Most fantasy magic is paper-thin, incoherent and shifts arbitrarily to fit plot points and generate dei ex machina (two better-than-average recent fantasies, Sherwood Smith’s The Banner of the Damned and Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts would have been far better works without magic, in my opinion). Another is the persistent neoteny I discussed in a previous essay. Within that category, a near-constant irritant is the “finding one’s self” theme endemic in Anglophone YA fiction. Which brings us once again to cultural parochialism, lack of imagination, possibly market niche cynicism… plus that dreaded term: agency.

“Finding one’s self” appears as a near-default trope for a culture obsessed with youth’s trappings (Flat bellies! Hard muscles! Perky breasts and perkier penises!) that still believes in the libertarian myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps: the idea that you can become rich, famous and powerful provided you’re Chosen and that everyone has a near-infinity of choices for everything, from their breakfast cereal to their identity. So in a standard YA – and not just YA – story arc the protagonist must find himself (I use the male pronoun deliberately, since this narrative is essentially defined by masculine/masculinized parameters), usually through a conflict that ticks off the ersatz-mythic checklist points of the Campbel/lite quest.

Reading bits of contemporary YA SF/F (a few pages at a time is the most I can manage before breaking out in hives) it hit me why “personal growth” quests are omnipresent in them: most of the stories are products of cookie cutters. The characters are not individualized enough to register as fully dimensional people, so the canned conflicts are meant to give them some substance as well as move the standardized plot along (including the almost-mandatory assembly of the quest team, a direct import from RPG games). There is no personality delineation beyond occasional resort to verbal tricks for quick recognition, which is one reason why almost all the recent SF/F YA works I read form a single lumpy blur in my memory banks.

Mind you, Homer used such tricks: “gray-eyed Athena”, “horse-fighting Hector”. However, these occurred in a long oral epic in which they served as memory aids to both bard and audience. Furthermore, Homer did not confine his characterizations to these shortcuts. We know what Hector felt when he took leave of Andromache and Astyanax. We know what Achilles felt when Priam was begging him for Hector’s body. Homer (or whoever wrote the Iliad) did not have to write those passages, they’re not critical to the forward motion of the epic. But by doing so, the bard made us care – and Andromache, trying not to weep as she watches her husband’s jaunty helmet plume dwindle in the distance, brands herself in our memory.

The default setting of semi-infinite flexibility also plays a role in the boilerplate depictions of what constitutes self discovery. An occasional critique I get for my fiction is that my protagonists are usually fully formed when my stories start and don’t “evolve” to satisfy the growth-through-adversity mandate. Sort of like Antigone and Odysseus, who also appear fully formed, even though their actions are shaped by the sum of their external and internal circumstances. Yet I doubt either would be considered a dull thud: they have urgent lives to manage beyond just “growing into their full potential”.

My native culture has undergone more than its share of upheavals, and the ensuing hardship and instability make it less able to luxuriate in choices; by both tradition and necessity, it also demands that its members make many crucial life decisions early – and often the choices are constrained so strongly that they appear almost preordained. These constraints, incidentally, also hold for such domains as contemporary research science. For someone with my cultural background and professional experiences, the concept of fiction protagonists spending endless sequels rolling dice for their D&D designations appears neither organic nor compelling.

Not surprisingly, this brings us to agency – women characters’ agency in particular. Agency – aka women as more than decorative or useful furniture – has been a perennial issue in speculative fiction, especially in the grittygrotty pornokitch subgenre cave. On parallel lines, people have observed that the still-too-sparse SF/F women protagonists are deemed fully worthy only if they “kick ass” (with video game prototypes like Lara Croft leading the way). However, the problem is more systemic than that: characters of all ages get shoehorned into the Procrustean bunkbed of the teenage self-discovery quest. This is simply more obvious for women because, with the exception of the occasional magical crone, most SF/F hardly ever shows women past the age of “peak attractiveness” – which for the US has been relentlessly shifting to the younger and thinner end of the spectrum, except for the obligatory pneumatic breasts.

In almost all SF/F YA works we rarely if ever see full adults, especially women, doing the nuanced, shaded things adults do: work at things they care for and often are good at; love, hate and everything in between; create and preserve and sometimes destroy; grow old and experienced, if not always wise; but above all, go through the myriad small struggles and pleasures that constitute a full life. The artificiality and interchangeability of the standard conflicts makes most YA books as individualized (and as nutritional) as movie theater popcorn – in large part because their readers’ cortices register that nothing really crucial is at stake, no matter how many djinn or dark-magic wizards are involved.

To put it simply, heroes in both real life and non-popcorn fiction often have little choice (and to be crystal-clear, “heroes” include non-male people – once again I use the term deliberately because “heroine” has very different connotations). What makes non-messianic people heroes is when in unusual circumstances they surpass their usual selves. Heroes feel fear, doubt, guilt, grief for their actions; what they don’t do is navel-gaze, because they’re busy with far more substantive struggles. Give me an artisan with a thickened waist whose arthritis is hobbling her but who retains the passion to push against formidable obstacles while still appreciating her wine. I’ll take her over all the homogenized teenager Chosen Ones of YA SF/F.

War for the Country

By Viktoría Theodhórou – Poet, resistance fighter

A soft mat she found and sat down, upon the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
softly, so her dozing companions don’t awaken,
just so it accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay still, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their wool socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade inside the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who came home whole.

Images: 1st, Tree of Books, by Vlad Gerasimov; 2nd, Hector and Andromache, Giorgio de Chirico; 3rd, magical crones: Fin Raziel in Willow (Patricia Hayes), The Oracle in The Matrix (Gloria Foster)

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card — click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically (not politically) incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes like Down syndrome, aka trisomy 21). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong (Carruthers) version for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

The Asymptotic Approach

Monday, March 19th, 2012

The first round of the NIH budget petition that I discussed in my previous entry fell 400 signatures short by the deadline. Research scientists are nothing if not tenacious, so a second round has begun. I think this will make it, but it speaks volumes about the US public’s acceptance/understanding/appreciation of biomedical research that scientists can’t collect 25,000 signatures in a month — even a shorter one like February.

Speaking of tenacity in a more cheerful context, Chris Jones recently spoke with me on about life in concentric circles, starting with extremophiles on Earth, moving out to Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus… then onto solar systems beyond ours, whether populated by watery Neptunes or super-Earths.

“And If I Cried Out, Who Would Hear Me…?”

Monday, March 12th, 2012

— Reiner Maria Rilke, the first line of The Duino Elegies

You may recall I wrote about the condition of biomedical research a while ago: Of Federal Research Grants and Dancing Bears.

The NIH, the sole major funding source for such research, has stagnated for the last decade. People are trying to get a measly single-digit increase this year to staunch the bleeding. To get considered, the relevant petition must gather 25,000 signatures by this Sunday, March 18. If you care about basic research or therapeutic applications, follow this White House link. You will need to create an account, but the only thing they request are your name and e-mail. You can also boost this signal, if you wish. This part of the future may still be in our hands, if we don’t sit passively by.  Thank you.

Image: Allies, Susan Seddon Boulet.

Sex by Choice: the Highest Compliment

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Anyone with a functioning cortex knew that Rush Limbaugh is a vile slug from the moment he uttered his first nasty lie. His recent comments about accomplished, brave law student Sandra Fluke are not surprising, nor is his stone-ignorant equation of contraception with frequency of intercourse: he must have confused responsible sex with his own frantic consumption of Viagra – now there’s unnaturally-induced sex on demand! However, Limbaugh is not the disease, merely its symptom. The belated, lukewarm bleatings and hedgings from the Republican “leadership” and from his advertisers are telling, as is their obfuscation of the fact that contraception is already covered by health insurance; the sole difference is the existence of a co-pay.

In the last year or so, we have seen exclusion of women from decisions that affect them almost exclusively, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, to define miscarriage as murder, to add invasive, needless sonograms to the already enormous difficulties of getting an abortion. The freak show parade that is this year’s Republican presidential lineup is banging the tin drum of “returning to family values” — aka female poverty and powerlessness, probably because all of them have little knowledge of and interest in education, the environment, the economy, international diplomacy or anything of value to anyone beyond Ponzi-scheme millionaires who live in gated communities with private security. The US is going the way of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia – perhaps a fitting trajectory, since the country seems unwilling or unable to curb its fossil fuel consumption.

The open war on women declared by the Republican Party shows how the Teabaggers and Jesufascists have kidnapped rational, civil discourse in favor of a punitive primitivism that denies basic human decency and is steadily encroaching on hard-won women’s rights. It is no surprise that most foes of contraception are fundies of abrahamic religions, which are disasters for women in any case. However, make no mistake about it: contraception has nothing to do with freedom of religion. The kernel of this sickening backlash is the wish to deny women autonomy. Nothing changed the dynamics of gender interactions like contraception. For the first time in human history, women could reliably regulate the outcome of sexual congress. It removed the specter of unwanted pregnancy – and with that, women could enjoy sex as uninhibitedly as men, finally undoing the predator/prey equation so beloved of evo-psycho Tarzanists the world over.

Ironically, the exercise of contraception, which makes joyful sex possible, is uniquely human. The only partial exception may be our bonobo cousins, who use sex as social glue (often, note bene, initiated by the female members of the group). Contrary to the corrosive lies of benighted fundies, most animals do not choose sex. They go into heat and mate compulsively. In some cases, females exercise mate choice; in others, mating pairs form monogamous bonds. But only humans incorporate sex into their repertoire of chosen pleasures, whether they’re fertile or not. So contrary to the idiotic natterings that “sex on demand” is animal-like, exercising sexual choice is in fact the highest compliment for the activity. It transforms it from instinct, compulsion or random outcome solidly into something treasured, something freely chosen – which, again contrary to the fundies’ nonsense, makes it far more meaningful and powerful than the joyless autopilot version. It is the opposite of prostitution, which is undertaken as a profession and requires control and foregoing of spontaneous pleasure by its practitioners – not that Limbaugh et al are clear on complex concepts.

This is what contraception made possible, and what is at stake here. If people want human women to become truly animal-like, they should recall that most mammals do not recognize paternity, the most common family unit is a female with sub-adult offspring and female mammals routinely abort or kill offspring when they deem the circumstances unpropitious for raising a brood. And if they think that contraception is murder, they can return to the good old days when masturbation was in a similar category. However, all this hypocrisy and twisting of facts really attempts to cloud the core issue: women as equals. By targeting this, the Jesufascists and their ilk across all nations and religions are playing on the primitive fears of men, especially at times of instability and unrest, when it’s far easier to turn on Others than to act constructively for a better collective future. As James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) famously had a protagonist state in The Women Men Don’t See:

“Women have no rights, except what men allow us. Men // run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Contrary to Freud’s notorious question, the recurrent problem of civilization, as prevalent today as in ancient Sumer, is how to define male roles which satisfy male egos without wreaking terminal havoc. Women still have essentially no power – Tiptree’s dictum still obtains, even in the First World. I personally believe that our societal problems will persist as long as women are not treated as fully human, including the right to be sexual beings by choice. The resorting to medical excuses in support of available contraception, nice as it is, diverts the attention from the central, irreducible issue of women’s basic autonomy and fundamental rights as full humans. The various attempts to improve women’s status, ever subject to setbacks and backlashes, are our marks of successful struggle to attain our full species potential. If we cannot solve this thorny and persistent problem, we may still survive — we have thus far. However, I doubt that we’ll ever truly thrive, no matter what technological levels we achieve.