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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Archive for May, 2012

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

Poems Sung in Counterpoint

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Long ago,
I became astrogator in the arcships.

– the beginning of Spacetime Geodesics

Two publications appeared almost simultaneously: Bull Spec issue 7, which contains my poem Night Patrol; and The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press, which contains Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol. The cover (shown) is Sister, Brother by Terri Windling.

The anthology contains seventy poems. Some names you may recognize: Ursula Le Guin, Catherynne Valente, Delia Sherman, Amal El-Mohtar, Sonya Taaffe, Jo Walton, Nisi Shawl, J. C. Runolfson, Vandana Singh, Calvin Johnson, Shweta Narayan, Mary Alexander Agner, Theodora Goss, Yoon Ha Lee, Greer Gilman, Claire Cooney, JoSelle Vanderhooft.

In other words, a sky dragon’s hoard.

False Dawn or Challenge to Germanic Hegemony?

Monday, May 7th, 2012

“… and when they danced in the square,
the ceilings trembled in the houses,
and the glasses rang on the shelves.”
– from Romiosíni, by Yannis Ritsos

An altered Europe emerged from yesterday’s elections. France chose mild socialist François Hollande for its next president and Hellene voters deep-sixed the two major parties which made them captives of predatory lenders that sank the nation into poverty and misery. Both just before and just after the elections, IMF, ECB and German leaders issued the expected threats, intoning yet again the “fears for contagious instability”, warning they would stop all “bailouts” (aka high-interest loans) if the new Hellenic government tries to change the corrosive repayment terms (one mandates paying the loan interest before attending to the country’s basic needs), and calling the change “a victory of the South” – shades of the evil swarthy Southron hordes in The Lord of the Rings.

Personally, I suspect that Hollande will prove as “radical” as Obama. The Hellenic elections boosted the leftist coalition SYRIZA to the same levels as the (barely) first-ranking party, leaving little room for the usual cozy arrangements – reaching even a bare majority will require the cooperation of at least three parties. SYRIZA has a young charismatic leader who is not free of demagoguery and has not articulated an alternative program beyond repudiating the debt. More disquieting, a neonazi party, Golden Dawn, has managed to enter the Athens Parliament for the first time. If anyone is thinking with dread of the Weimar republic and the results of the humiliations of the Versailles treaty, they’re right.

Granted, Hellas is not Germany in more ways than one. The obvious difference is that Hellas is a tiny (estimated: 2%) contributor to European economy. But there are other differences. For one, contrary to the accusations of laziness, Hellenes work longer hours and have fewer holidays than Germans – and the habit of closing for a noon nap makes perfect physiological and environmental sense in a Mediterranean climate. For another, the post-WWII Marshall plan for Germany was a real bailout, not a loan. One of its terms, that Germany would repay lenders after reunification, was never mentioned when the Berlin wall fell. Nor does anyone dwell overlong, if at all, on the fact that the Americans agreed (without consulting the Hellenes) on the suspension of German war reparations to Hellas, because the latter’s resistance movement was primarily communist.

Unlike Germany, Hellas did not bomb, invade, or slaughter anyone – yet it was given more punitive and humiliating terms than Germany by titular friends and allies. This was partly so that the country could function as yet one more canary in the mine for the “neoliberal” economic kill-the-patient “cure” (despite the fact that it proved an unmitigated disaster wherever it was tried, from post-USSR Russia to Haiti, whereas Iceland and Argentina fared far better by rejecting it), partly to frighten other European outliers into surrendering without terms to the austerity straitjacket. These were the same friends, incidentally, who forced the Hellenic government to buy their defective airplanes and submarines, refusing to play a part in securing the borders of the only-in-name European Union; the same allies who accused Hellas of not caring for the veritable tsunami of its illegal immigrants, while deporting theirs to Hellas as part of their “cleansing” programs and re-election campaigns.

Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t think that Hellenes bear no responsibility for the crisis — the ruling family dynasties and the tax-dodging plutocrats, in particular. But they don’t deserve 23% unemployment (the rate among women and the young is 50%, a recipe for depopulation and brain drain) nor forced sales of national resources at cut-rate prices to circling looters. They don’t deserve to have kids faint from hunger in schools, adults in their prime commit suicide from despair. The austerity recipe has primarily penalized two groups: the law-abiding, and small businesses, which are the lifeblood of Hellenic economy. Finally, if half the members of a federation are ailing (Portugal, Ireland, Hellas, Italy, Spain… on to Belgium, Holland and France, to say nothing of Britain who is trying to pretend otherwise) it cannot be solely their fault, especially when their details differ as much as they do in this case. When banks count more than people, financial speculators expect risk-free profits, and decent lives with civil rights and safety nets are called “marxism” instead of “minimum requirements for civilization”, something is seriously off in the equation.

Hellas changed history several times, sometimes as leader, sometimes as gadfly. It may do so again. Hellenes do badly when ease descends upon them, but when their spirit is aroused they plant their spear and don’t retreat. At the very least, the election results signal that people will take only so much rapine before they react – and trying to foist wrath on scapegoats doesn’t work indefinitely as a safety valve. Now if only the US voters do the same in November, instead of repeating the mantra of “Bend over when told – the rich deserve to have it all – why do you hate FREEDOM?”, perhaps humanity has a chance for a different trajectory than slavery and disenfranchisement of 99% of its members.

Images: Marianne, the French enblem of liberty (Luxembourg palace, anonymous artist); W. Eugene Smith’s iconic WWII photo: this quintessence of stoic defiance almost certainly was Ángelos Klónis, an immigrant from Kefaloniá.

Internet Scofflaw: Breaking the Blogging Commandments

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

I have the bad habit of site-jumping when a topic snags my interest.  Recently, starting with a tale of blatant plagiarism by a top YA book reviewer (who issued the standard non-apology and accused her victims of being mean to her, thereby setting up a bullying spree by her followers), I found myself skimming the plagiarized pieces.  Two dealt with blogging don’ts.  Those who know me will guess the rest: I looked up “blogging no-nos” in Google.

Several sites later, suffice it to say that the advice is as harmonious as a skua rookery.  There are, however, a few near-consensus points for non-business blogs:

  1. content über alles (if only);
  2. fast loading good, pop-ups and multi-clicks bad (unless they help the site’s hit count);
  3. also bad: spelling mistakes, eye-hurting design and music autoplay (the latter makes it hard to secretly net-surf at work, for one);
  4. well-chosen pictures are mandatory (a thousand words and so forth);
  5. so is replying to all comments and having painless spam filters (everyone’s whims must be catered to the max, otherwise they won’t keep reading the blog);
  6. don’t exceed a certain length (below 1,000 words good, below 750 even better – after all, people are busy surfing);
  7. use social media – newsletters, Share buttons, Twitter (establish a presence!);
  8. do 10-Things lists, polls, contests (with awards);
  9. update frequently or risk being forgotten (people must be constantly entertained, after all);
  10. find a content niche and stick with it like a burr (or else no community for you).

Now, the first four are commonsense and should be obvious – though judging from what I saw during this particular dip, they’re not.  This observance-in-the-breach includes the common associated clause of “don’t be negative” for point 1: if anything, flamewars seem to feed blogs like dry twigs feed brushfires.  However, I break the last six with abandon and in full consciousness.  This may explain why my blog flipflops wildly at various ranking sites, and why I haven’t yet been awarded a Pulitzer or a regular column at, say, Nature or Tor.

Points 5-9 can only be followed if your blog and the activities it promotes are the focus of your entire existence – or you’re paid what passes for a pro rate (whatever that is, in today’s “content yearns to be free” mindset).  It does so happen that I don’t live in my parents’ basement pushing XBox buttons: I have a research lab and an academic job that demand more than passing attention.  Besides, I’ve seen Twitter, Facebook and Livejournal close up and found them less than enticing.  “Loyalties” that spring from social media are shallow and brittle.  It takes more than exchanging snarky soundbites to build sturdy alliances that go beyond “Like” or “Headdesk”.

More fundamentally, having entered the last third of my life, I sometimes tire of old issues springing up again and again like dragons’s teeth: the relentless fundamentalist war on women’s rights in this country and elsewhere; grittygrotty SF/F authors calling their pornokitsch fiction subversive and invoking “rape modules in male brains” (although I and several others tackled this from the writing angle and I intend to discuss it in a near future post from the biological angle); young women and self-labeled “progressive” men saying that feminism is passé, having achieved its goals (equal pay? easy access to contraception?); fanboiz whining that I’m elitist because I don’t like Avatar, Accelarando or the pronouncements of Kurzweil, or that I’m hard on armchair tourist authors who get famous (or at least solvent) from tone-deaf depictions of non-Anglo cultures.  Which brings us to the major issue, point 10: content focus.

What people write on their blogs depends on their goals.  Some use them as pulpits, others as public diaries, yet others as marketing tools (“Here are my Hugo nominations, now go vote!”).  Focused-content blogs tend to become watering holes for the like-minded.  In some cases, their owners become oracles to a worshipping group of reader-acolytes.  Personally, I’m interested (more than casually) in several domains: science, history and language, literature and the arts, space exploration, politics.  I also believe that none of these strands can be examined in isolation.  To give a recent example, my critique of the John Carter film included all these angles – and when I was asked to take out “the review bits” for possible reprinting on a popsci-oriented blog, I realized I couldn’t do so without essentially rewriting the entire piece.

I’m also allergic to acolytes because at some point they take you over.  Not that women attain prophet status without becoming Ayn Rand or the equivalent, mind you – women who denigrate their own, thereby becoming pillars of the status quo.  Being a non-Anglo woman who is a non-joiner by temperament and falls between more stools than I can either avoid or count, I’m reconciled to the idea that if I were a man I would probably be knee-deep in accolades, awards and groupies eager to have my babies.  But I’m happy to be a feral nomad instead.  “I cannot be tethered, while I still hear the night winds moan and call.” [1]

So here we are – done in less than 1,000 words this time!  Bottom line: this blog will continue to be unapologetically eclectic in topic selections but neither a diary nor a collection of laundry lists. It’s a salon where friends and passing guests gather for conversations, subject to my tides of mood and health; a review along classic lines that reflects its opinionated editor’s interests and viewpoints.  For me it is a window to the world.  All kinds of neat things alight here as I sing for my own pleasure.  And that’s good enough for a pagan outlaw loner like me.

[1] From Though I Grow Old with Wandering… in Realms of Fire

Images: 1st, Curious Cat (Jane Burton); 2nd, self-explanatory; 3rd, how I see the blog.