Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What I did for "Boobquake"

As you've probably heard, some female scientists decided to test a Muslim cleric's hypothesis about scantily-clad women causing earthquakes, and results are in!!! They failed to cause any significant increase in earthquakes.

Now I feel bad that didn't really participate. I'm not saying I would necessarily have affected the results, but you never know (see here and here for some pictures of me).

Here's my excuse: It was a Monday! I work in a very small company with just a handful of colleagues whom I see everyday, and I'm in engineering. Dressing sexy would just make things awkward. On principle, I don't object to colleagues having sexual fantasies about me (as long as they keep it to themselves), but going out of my way to encourage that sort of thing doesn't help my career.

Of course, I'm actually only working part-time at the moment -- so in theory I could have dressed sexy when I took my kids to the grocery store later that afternoon. Instead, I just wore my usual jeans and a T-shirt. My excuse this time? OK, it was just pure laziness. It's enough of a bother to get my kids ready and out the door.

In my defense, though, I'd like to point out that there are some theocracies where I would not be allowed to work alongside men as colleagues, and where simply going shopping in jeans and a t-shirt (showing my hair!) would be enough to get acid thrown on my face. Here, I can do both without anyone batting an eye.

As I've said before, modesty is relative to culture. So I'd like to spend this post-Boobquake moment thanking all of the deliberately immodest ladies out there who have moved the poles of what it takes to dress sexy in our society. Thanks to you, I can dress for my comfort without any worry that I'm being provocative. Well done! :D

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why I don't think religion is a spandrel

Here's a very brief outline of the debate for those who don't know what I'm talking about: A "spandrel" (in architecture) is the roughly-triangular piece at the top of a column between two arches. It can be beautiful, but it isn't built for its own sake -- it is created as a by-product of a building structure based on arches. Biologists sometimes use this term for traits that are not adaptive by themselves but follow from other traits. A classic example is the red color of blood. The red color itself doesn't confer any advantage -- the chemistry of the way our blood carries oxygen just happens to have a bright red color as a side-effect. Some biologists have suggested that religion is similar; that it's not adaptive, but rather is a by-product of other adaptive traits.

First and foremost, any human behavior as complex as religion is unlikely to have a simple cause. Religion almost certainly has some effects that are adaptive, some that are maladaptive, and some that are probably side-effects of other complex human traits (which, themselves, have adaptive and maladaptive aspects...). I think it is nearly impossible to tease apart the different aspects and definitively sort them into neat little "adaptive" and "spandrel" boxes.

Now, when I say "adaptive" here, I don't mean to imply any moral judgment. An adaptive trait is not necessarily good or bad or right or wrong -- it is merely a trait that helps an organism get its DNA represented in the next generation.

For humans, your social status (wealth/power) has a huge impact on the long-term success of your descendants. Investing heavily in a few kids is typically a better strategy than just having as many kids as possible and letting the chips fall where they may. A simple illustration is that if the nobleman has one son and the peasant has nine, the nobleman wins out if his son is the one giving the orders (from a safe location) to send the nine to the front lines of battle. An even bigger consideration historically has been nutrition -- being able to command enough resources to ensure that your kids have enough to eat is critical to their health and survival.

So, I think it's reasonable to claim that (for humans) traits that help you increase your social status are generally adaptive.

Here's my idea of what is adaptive about religion:

Like many animals, humans compete over territory and access to resources. For most such animals, the algorithm for deciding when to fight is fairly simple. When one rival is clearly the more formidable, the less formidable just runs away. When they're more-or-less evenly matched, they may have to fight. The fight may cause injury or death, but ceding your territory to another (instead of fighting) may also lead to death or decreased reproductive opportunities. The fight-or-not decision is made by instinct (where the instinct has been essentially optimized by natural selection).

With humans, it's a little more complicated. The conscious mind can get in the way. A human realizes "If I fight, I may die." (Reptiles and such may feel fear, but they aren't capable of making a conscious decision about whether to fight or not based on a calculation of the consequences.)

Now suppose we have a male human who is not desperate but who could greatly improve his social status through an aggressive confrontation (war, duel, etc.), but has a 60% chance of dying in the process. Suppose that for the individual the risk is high, but risk-to-reward ratio is such that the ones who take the risk are the winners overall. In this case, you get an adaptive advantage by having something that will convince you to take the risk, and that's where religion may enter into the calculation. You may be more likely to put your fear of your own death aside if you believe that supernatural beings want you to confront your rivals (and that they'll give you an advantage, and perhaps even reward you with a wonderful afterlife if you fail).

In this scenario, the advantage for women is even simpler. Suppose a woman has three sons, and if they don't fight the rival clan/tribe, her grandchildren will starve as paupers, but if they do fight, two of the sons will die and the third will gain wealth and power and plenty of resources for his children. The second choice is the adaptive one for her, but she loves each of her children individually and would hesitate to send any of them to their deaths. Enter "God's will" to counter any hesitation she might have had about encouraging them in their quest.

Now, I don't mean to claim that religion is wholly (or even mostly) about violence. This is just one tiny piece of the complete picture of the complex role that religion plays in people's lives. I'm just proposing this as one possible way that religious belief could confer a selective advantage.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Give a Kid a PowerPoint...

Here's the latest in my (not-exactly-intentional) experiment on raising kids with technology:

One of the science videos my kids found on YouTube was illustrated with a power-point presentation -- one where you could see the filmmaker navigating from one slide to the next in the sidebar -- and they decided that they had to have that program!

"Sure, why not?" thought I, and I set them up with a copy of Open Office. I made a few slides to show them how it's done (and, naturally, they deleted all of my example slides once they'd made a few slides of their own). Here's another example from their latest slideshow:

It's called atom: forty slides and counting!

It's funny -- the program obviously wasn't designed for kids' doodles, but it works. And I can't stop wondering what it would have been like to have had all this fun computer stuff when I was a kid!

Meanwhile, it's hard to motivate them to read books when they can get information on any subject from YouTube. We limit their video-watching to some degree, but I don't want to discourage them too much because our whole family has learned a ton of Physics and Chemistry from Nico's science-video hobby!

So, for reading, I've resorted to some old-fashioned technology -- a technique that was used on me when I was a kid back in the 70's. I drew them each a calendar, complete with pictures of the stories they're scheduled to read that day. After doing their reading, they get to put a sticker on that day's square. And it's working surprisingly well despite not having an Internet tie-in!

(OK, well, that's not exactly true. After reading the popular kids' book Barbapapa, they went and found the corresponding videos on YouTube...)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Everything's coming up German!

My new goal is for my little family to learn the story and songs of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and then go see a live performance of it.

Here's why this is the perfect plan: I already like some other Mozart operas (Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni), and have found that they're good for reinforcing my knowledge of Italian. Meanwhile, the kids enjoyed seeing Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Met, and Die Zauberflöte is even better for kids!

So now I'm going through the text of the various arias -- looking for which ones illustrate which points of German grammar -- so that I can coordinate this with my German lessons. Yep, that's the sort of thing I do for fun. :D

The funny thing is that I've gotten totally obsessed with German lessons lately. The first two years I was here in Zürich, I was constantly lamenting the fact that I don't speak German -- but I couldn't stand to open my German book and work on a lesson. I really wished I could scrape together the motivation to do it! Then I finally decided that I need to make it a priority, and guess what? Now that I'm making progress, I don't want to do anything else!

It's weird.

I hardly feel like blogging or reading the Internet (I'm still working on the follow-up to this post). I also have a list of friends that I'd really like to invite over to my place, but (as usual) it's a wreck, and -- bizarrely -- I don't even feel like going to IKEA and picking out more furniture to finish organizing the apartment! I just want to sit down with my German book and do another lesson.

Um... Be careful what you wish for....?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Blog Retrospective: Mormonism!

It's been more than twenty years since I last believed in Mormonism, but it's still a favorite topic of mine!! How could it not be?

Mormonism influenced my girlhood dreams and showed up in my childhood journal entries. (Actually, I still have yet to write the story of when I played Emily in a 1979 production of Saturday's Warrior at age 7 -- one of my fondest memories of Mormonism...)

And my teen years? Well, you can have a look at the jewelry we earned in "Personal Progress" (and what I thought of it). And who could forget what we learned in early morning seminary? Good times! But Mormonism was a big part of my identity back then, and thinking hard about my faith was a big part of growing up.

Then came BYU! To get the real story, you can read about the subversive gals in my dorm and about my "born in a resort" BYU boyfriend. Or read the article I wrote for the Student Review (on Why I Hate Church). You can also read about how I became an atheist right there in the hallowed halls of BYU, and my (imaginary) excommunication. And if the real story isn't sufficient, you can read the truer-than-life fictionalization.

And the connection runs deeper than my own youthful memories -- the Mormons are my tribe (following the Jewish model). Mormonism is a part of my family heritage from the moonshine-running hillbillies who found leadership opportunities through Mormonism, to the Utah-Mormon side of the family, with a personal connection with Joseph Smith. (For definitions, see my fabulous sister.)

Unsurprisingly, I've spent a lot of time figuring out my relationship with/to Mormonism. It wasn't long after I left BYU that I realized that I sympathize with the Mormons and I don't want to pretend I have no connection with Mormonism. Living in a foreign country, it became especially clear that I'm a cultural Mormon in the same way that my husband is a cultural Catholic. (See also my handy guide to different types of Mormons.)

And since then, I've done my own personal research on Mormon culture as an adult! I had fun chatting with mishies in France, I spoke at the Sunstone Symposium, and attended a polygamist church service.

And, with all that, I've naturally got plenty of material to write about Mormonism! You can see some of the results here. :D

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Career Women vs. SAHMs: Cage Match Round I

There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.
-- Madeleine Albright

One of the biggest challenges to feminism is the fact that females make up more than half of the population. I've seen people mistakenly refer to women as "a minority." In fact, we're not a minority.

So why's that a problem? Having the advantage of numbers should be an advantage, right?

The problem is that it's hard to empathize with people of another rage, age, economic class, education level, belief system, language, culture, etc. So it's hard to come up with a movement that represents the interests of women in general. "Women's interests" are just too diverse, and, in fact, the interests of one group of women can conflict with the interests of another.

As with addressing racism, however, the fact that it's hard isn't a reason to give up. Some things that are hard are worth the effort. I'm just saying that you shouldn't walk into feminism expecting it to be completely simple with nothing but obvious answers.

I feel like Madeline Albright's quote above kind of epitomizes the problem. On the one hand, I agree with the sentiment that it's terrible when women don't help each other. On the other hand, I find it kind of ironic that the quote itself is an example of a woman heaping blame/scorn on other women for failing at something that's hard. I'd rather propose a special place in heaven for women who help other women -- especially women who are different than themselves.

One of our challenges is the fact that the feminist movement is often dominated by the concerns and perspectives of middle-to-upper class white women. This is a bit of an endemic problem: Those who already have the most power are the ones with the most opportunity to speak out and have their voices heard. And even if we make an effort to compensate, the people with the microphone will naturally feel most passionate about issues that concern them personally.

My one piece of advice to women would be this: Don't give up on feminism just because some feminists hold opinions that you disagree with. What I mean is that if you read/hear someone say "X is the feminist position on issue Y" -- and you strongly disagree with X -- you shouldn't immediately conclude "Well, I guess I'm not a feminist, then." Often women assume that the position that benefits themselves is (or should be) "the feminist position" -- without thinking hard about the fact that what benefits one woman may not benefit another. In my opinion, "the feminist position" (when an issue has one) is the position that one that brings the greatest benefit to women in general. If you think some women are claiming the label "feminist" for a position that benefits one class of women at the expense of another class of women, then stand up and dissent. As a feminist.

Let's take a classic example from middle-class-white-women feminism: career women vs. stay-at-home-moms. Ultimately, there's no real reason to have a conflict. As I said back in 2006, since homemaking doesn't require formal training nor is it paid, it's very easy to place homemakers on a pedestal of empty slogans of respect and esteem while deep down thinking "you do this because you don't have the skills or talents to do something more challenging."

In our modern feminist world, the situation is the opposite. Plenty of women (and even men) who have the talents and opportunity (or potential opportunity) to earn money and respect in the business and professional world choose nonetheless to stay home with their kids instead, demonstrating that homemaker is not just a role that one settles for but is a role that has value.

Similarly, as I discussed back in 2007, women's economic power has transformed marriage in ways that benefit all women. Specifically, since women can expect to be able to support themselves and their children, staying with an abusive husband is no longer considered a virtue, and wife-beating has changed from being a man's right to being a crime.

Plus, things that benefit kids (like education and health care) benefit moms in both of the above categories.

That said, it's not always easy to reach across the boundaries and cooperate. Especially when the two groups may have real criticisms of each other -- possibly mixed with a little personal dislike. So I hope you'll be back for "Round II: Other Women's Choices." :D

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Humanist Symposium # 52: Super-Humanist Edition!!

Today is a day in which theists (and even some non-theists) around the globe are displaying lilies, decorating eggs, etc. in commemoration of some famous legendary supernatural events. My family spent the whole afternoon at such a party.

But, as Humanists, we don't have to settle for other people's leftover tales of heroes rising from the dead. Not when we have a hero who can leap tall buildings in a single bound!!

Yes, Superman is a Humanist -- as many of us have long suspected. (James Williamson and writerJames tell us about some other famous not-exactly-Christians.)

Some of our super-humanist writers (of this past three weeks) have contemplated going beyond the restrictive boundaries of our single species. EMJ rejects the label Humanist for this reason. Similarly, Craig A. James argues that "We become less than human when we pretend we don't feel these natural instincts, and like Seth, pretend that we're above all of that." And to our readers at MSP: Yes, his Mormon reader "Seth" is exactly the Seth you think he is! ;^)

Speaking of species-self-examination, Jon offers an Evolutionary View of Morality and Sam Harris argues that science can indeed answer moral questions. (She who Chatters addresses the flip side of this topic, arguing against an evolutionary argument against naturalism.)

And what better way to express our human nature than through music and poetry? We have a Haiku every night freight trains from the Existential Poet, and Three West Winds offer some remarks on The Poetry of Reality. Therese Doucet offers a selection of Songs of Humanism and Experience. (Giving equal time to the other side here, The Chaplain shares a collection of pop songs sung as love songs to Jesus.) And Jane Eisenhart describes religious worship as a sensual experience.

“The world is so complex, the universe is so large. There are so many processes at work that make the universe what it is, make this planet what it is, allow me to be alive here to experience my tiny sliver of it. The vastness of the universe, even the vastness of our tiny planet, is incomprehensible. I am so lucky to experience any of it, and every day of my life is precious.”

NFQ poetically describes why the garden doesn't need to have fairies in the bottom if it. On a related note, Humanist Life reviews The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, explaining the history of where people get the idea that supernatural explanations are a requirement for awe and wonder. On the other side of the coin, Mat Wilder explains Why "Everything Happens for a Reason" is a Horrifying Thought.

Then we have a number of ideas on living your day-to-day life. Greta Christina looks at Buddhist Philosophy in a new way, positing a difference between attachment and engagement. The Atheist Ethicist discusses the ethics of everyday decisions. More briefly, Sam Alexander argues that we're all hedonists (the only difference is whether or not you admit it), while Matt contemplates the possibility of Making a difference. And if you're torn between those two poles, Atheist Revolution offers some ideas for activism with almost no effort!

And let's close with some thoughts on humans understanding other humans who are different. (((Billy))) the atheist discusses the consequences of Fearing the ‘Other’. I also discussed how hard (yet important!) it is to understand people who (to you) are 'the other'. Secular Guy tries to understand believers who don't seem very interested in their meetings. Andrew shines a light on invisible sexism. But -- as we see in this inspiring video -- human love can beat hate!