Monday, May 22, 2006

Postmodern Gender Bending

Most people are aware that the pace of technological change continues to grow. Moore's Law is a term anyone in the technology industry is familiar with.

Most people are also aware how quickly our laws and lawmakers keep up with these changes. (Here's a hint: They don't.)

There's one area in particular that I think is going to result in some extremely viceral and viscous arguments in the near future (5-10 years). The concept of gender identity.

(for those who just hate my pedantic style, skip to the next section)

For the history of humankind, there have been essentially two genders - male and female. There have been homosexuals throughout history, and societies have varied in their recognition and acceptance (from the homophobia in the west, to Native American two-spirits and Arab Xaniths). But even homosexuality has been, until recently, a behavior rather than an identity. And behavior can be legislated (however foolishly).

But what about identity?

Sex change operations became technically feasible this century, with the first documented operation in 1930. (I don't count eunuch's as a change in sexual identity, although perhaps I should. But I believe documentation supports that eunuchs still considered themselves as male. And although there are hormonal changes that occured, these are not anywhere near the same as the hormone treatments to replicate a female hormonal system).

Only since the 1950's has medical science actually specialized and made progress in this area. Much of this development was driven by children who were born with physical sexual differentiation variations (e.g., males with a uterus, females with an XY karyotype, children with XXY or XYY chromosomes). Many of these children were medically "forced" into one of the two "normal" sexual types early in childhood, such as documented in the case of Lynn Harris.

Today, a change in sexual identity from a man to a woman is very well along, and that from a woman to a man a bit less so. (The ability to construct a physically viable vagina appears easier than constructing a working penis. Or perhaps it's just because there appears to be more experience in the man to woman transition - it appears to be more popular).
... in the USA, it is estimated at 1 in 100,000 for male-to-female transsexuals and 1 in 400,000 for female-to-male transsexuals. In England – 1 in 30,000 and 1 in 100,000 respectively. In Sweden 1 in 37,000 and 1 in 103,000 respectively. The ratio of male-to-female and female-to-male remains around 3:1, country notwithstanding. (link)
The legal system has struggled, and is still struggling, with how to treat these intentionally transgendered individuals.

How do we define "man" and "woman"? Do laws which define "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" actually mean anything? (I blogged about this a while back, so I won't belabor the absurdities again here).

New Horizons

The bottom line is that sexual identity is becoming more tied to the role we play, rather than the equipment we're born with.

And in the dawning age of virtual reality, these roles expand far beyond male/female, hetero/homo.

Identity is about role, and role is the face we choose to put on for the outside world. In virtual reality, these roles are no longer restricted to what's currently physical possible.

For great examples of some of the roles that people really want to play, the roles they identify with in their head, look at a virtual environment such as Second Life to get an idea of how varied these roles may become.

Already in the online world, we've seen people adopt roles of the opposite gender. We've seen people adopt roles of older and younger. These variations continue in some of the newer virtual reality spaces. These spaces bring visual and audible senses into play over and above text by creating both the simulation of a physical environment, and representations called avatars (which is the version of you that exists in the virtual environment). I'm already starting to see more extreme role playing with these avatars, from extreme BDSM and Gorean roles, to roles that aren't even human. (I found the number of people playing roles of some kind of pack animal - colloquially known as "furries" - quite astonishing.)

Since I'd prefer not to put an Adult Material warning on my blog site, I'll not go into many of the roles and actions I've observed in Second Life. The point I want to make is that they are quite varied, and imaginative.

As more and more business is conducted via the internet, I believe these virtual spaces will be used to conduct more and more global business exchange. Video teleconferencing will merge into virtual environments. Meetings, reviews of contracts, white board discussions - everything done in office conference rooms today could be done as well in one of these virtual spaces. There are already some attempts at formalizing some law around digital signatures, contract discussions, and such.

In fact, virtual property law is quickly moving into the mainstream. As people sell virtual objects outside the games, collecting real world dollars as a result, the laws governing commerce, property, and theft are starting to come into play. This month New Scientist had a great article covering various aspects of this.

But social interaction will continue to grow as well. For example, there are already Second Life marriages (including marriage planners, dress and cake designers - in other words, virtual analogues for everything in Real Life). Say a marriage in Second Life is conducted by an authorized representative, and a marriage license exists. How do state, national, and international law deal with weddings conducted in virtual reality?

They don't, but they'll have to eventually. And forget about the homosexual marriage laws. How will the nonsense of "one man, one woman" be worked out? Is it your avatar's sex that will count? Or is the concept of there just being two sexes already becoming obsolete?

What about workplace discrimination? If your virtual avatar is obese, or of a different color, or of a different species, can you sue for discrimination? Is it still sexual harassment if your avatar is touched in an unwelcome manner?

Even the extreme taboo areas, such as pedophilia, require rexamination. The laws today in most countries only make it a crime if an act is performed in Real Life. Here in the U.S., law agencies can lure pedophiles into a net by establishing an online relationship, but the crime only occurs when the pedophile attempts physical contact with the minor for expressed sexual purpose.

But what about cybersex? Many of my online friends tell me that the emotional impact of cybersex is as strong as physical sex. While the physical gratification may not be the same, the emotional bonds, the sense of connection, and the effect of heartbreak are as real as any experienced in the Real World. Is not the emotional and mental effect of cybersex on minors the same? Is real pedophilia already taking place online?


For those who track such things, the crash of the internet and legal structures is already happening quite loudly in the area of intellectual property law. And for most people, this is a dry, academic argument.

Imagine the sound and fury as the social collisions between online worlds and real world laws continue to grow.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

ID 2

I just finished reading a book by James P. Hogan, Catastrophes, Chaos & Convolutions. Throughout, Hogan challenges "mainstream" science with alternative theories. Among these is Intelligent Design.

It was disappointing to see a rational, logical thinker so readily adopt such an anti-science point-of-view. But I'm seeing it in a number of otherwise rational people, and I'm trying to puzzle out why.

Here are the primary arguments of why I think Intelligent Design doesn't rank as a useful scientific theory (although a prior post and an even better in-depth critique can be found here in Judge Jone's recent Pennsylvania decision). In a follow-on post, I'd like to talk about why I think people are starting to turn away from science as an approach to understanding the world and improving our quality of life.

Bad math.

ID advocates often use probability arguments, making a case for the likelihood of a given event being so remote as to be virtually impossible. Using examples such as there being 2E135 ways for 20 amino acids to combine into a small protein, then stating that the odds of a given useful protein emerging is 1/2E135 (which is a very small number indeed). This is like saying that the odds against winning the lottery are very tiny (1/100million in some cases) so it's not possible for anyone to win.

But people do win. All the time. Not only that, but the way DNA bases combine into amino acids actually allows for multiple ways to produce the same protein. Not only that, but most proteins primary function comes from 1-2 aspects of its shape, so there are multiple possible proteins that can serve the same function. What this translates to is that the odds presented against a given protein development are much more likely than claimed by ID.

The same argument is used against "viable mutations". In other words, the proponents argue that most mutations are harmful, so the genome couldn't change to introduce any really new sequences because the organism typically wouldn't live to propogate those changes. Some knowledge of genetics is helpful to understand why this not exactly correct. There are a number of places in the genome - in fact *most* - that are inactive in the current gene expression. These can be activated randomly by very slight changes in the genes which say what gets turned on and expressed when. Mutations can go on for years in these "junk" sections, and then finally be expressed - intact - after much change.

Not only that, but there are literally thousands of places in the active sections where mutations can be made without have dramatic effects on the resulting organism. Take blood types - A, B, O (which is just a lack of either proteins A or B), and Rh-factor (the postive or negative part of your blood type). These are all different mutations of the part of the gene that determine blood type, where the changes did not prove harmful to the organism. Even sickle cells, where the red blood cells are no longer round but are instead in a sickle-shape, don't damage the organism enough to be non-viable. In fact, sickle cells are likely another evolutionarily selected mutation, since the shape confers immunity to many tropical blood diseases such as malaria. And like most mutations, there are some potentially good aspects and potentially bad aspects.

This is how evolution works. It's messy. But very probabilisticly possible.

Bad Theory.

ID doesn't meet the criteria for a basic scientific theory. A scientific theory should accomodate the generally agreed facts, should be able to make predictions of heretofore unobserved evidence, and support the design of experiments to prove or disprove these predictions. ID does, in a way, accomodate the generally agreed facts, in that one could safely say that an extremely powerful designer could have developed and put into place all the evidence for the development of life over time that we see today. But it allows for neither prediction nor experimental validation - therefore it falls square into the realm of religion, not science.

Shell Game.

ID just moves the problem and creates an infinite regression. If an Intelligent Designer was responsible for creating life on this planet, then how did the life of the Intelligent Designer come about? The only outcome of this chain of logic that avoids an infinite regression is to form a theory about how the "original" designer came about through natural processes, or to simply throw up ones hands and declare that "there are some things beyond the ken of man" (a decidedly antithetical view to that of science).

Baby with the bath water.

ID is usually presented as an alternative to "Darwinism", one that better explains the gaps or controversies currently found in evolutionary theory discussions. It is true that there are many holes in our current understanding of evolutionary theory. The differentiation of species (related branches of biological organisms that can no longer interbreed) still lacks a solid, replicable model; Gradual vs punctuated/catastrophic speciation is still hotly debated; and the origin of life itself has a number of theories associated with it, some aspects of which have been supported by experimental evidence, but not all. But to then claim that because evolution is still a theory in progress, it should be thrown out and replaced with an idea that has even more holes and less evidence is a silly notion - that poor baby, sitting outside in a puddle of bath water. Did we throw out Newtonian mechanics when Einstein developed his theories? No - we recognized that Newton had it part right, and expanded our understanding and our theoretical descriptions (and designed new experiments to test the new predictions). Is there still some Einstein work to be done in evolutionary theory? You bet. But natural selection as a natural mechanism for causing what appears to be "directed" evolution over time has been demonstrated over and over again, in real life and in simulation. Unless someone comes up with a better, more predictive model (and "God did it" is not terribly predictive), then refining the basics of evolutionary theory seems like the most productive way to go.

Bad Attitude.

ID advocates in general share some traits with others in the world who reject the scientific method as a way to understand, predict, and successfully manipulate reality. One of these traits is the idea that if I can pick apart my opponents ideas, then that must somehow add validity to my idea. This is incredibly poor logic, and also demonstrates how poorly critical thinking skills are taught in our educational system.

(There's this great scene in "Thank You For Smoking" where the Dad demonstrates this rhetorical trick to his son. In the argument of "which is better, vanilla or chocolate?", the Dad just picks apart his son's position, then makes his point: I don't have to show I'm right. I just have to show you're wrong. If you're wrong, then I must be right!)

Human traits of desire for power, jealousy, xenophobia are easier to influence, inflame, and direct than the rigorous objective rational facilites that good science requires of its adherents. Demagoguery is more effective than rationality. In other words, science is a harder religion than many of the others available out there.

This is the premise of the next blog on this topic - the reason otherwise non-stupid individuals believe - and want to believe - in patently stupid ideas.

I don't have it figured out, certainly. But I have some ideas I'd like to put out there in the hopes that some of you can build on them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is Dan Brown the Antichrist?

As the release date for The Da Vinci Code gets closer, I see more and more articles which attempt to "teach the controversy" (to borrow an apt phrase from Intelligent Design advocates). Dan Brown debunkers run rampant through the blogosphere and mainstream media.

And I have to ask myself - why the nuclear response? Is his fictional story really that threatening to Christianity?

Is Dan Brown the Antichrist?

Looking at it from the outside, it looks almost like the response of Islam to the release of the cartoons of Muhammed. Rising from the far corners of their extremism, fundamentalists express their outrage as the "insult" to their religion. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in an audio tape aired by Al Jazeera that people who ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad were to be killed.
"If such lies and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust they would have justly provoked a world uprising," said the Vatican's Archbiship Angelo Amato.
"This has all the evidence of something cooked up in the fires of hell," evangelical radio broadcaster James Dobson said on Focus on the Family.
So called moderates attempt to enlighten the "debate" by pointing out where the object of their criticism is wrong. However, most of the fact based arguments appear to be picking nits, and the primary (often only) source of evidence used in these "debates" is the religious tract which forms the basis of their beliefs (Koran or Bible).

Does the Koran forbid images of Muhammed? Did the Council of Nicaea severely edit the gospels to hide Jesus' human foibles?

I really don't give a flying fig leaf.

What is interesting here is the reaction. The perception of extreme threat, and the resulting explosive response.

What are these people afraid of?

If their religious dogma is so fragile, so feebly taught or its adherents so lacking in conviction that works of satire and fiction can so devastatingly undermine their very underpinnings, then perhaps it's time that the house of cards came tumbling down.

Certainly the Keepers of the Faith must worry - strongly - that their own beliefs are without reason. Otherwise, why run so scared?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I Blame My Parents

I write so much on the nature side of the biology questions that I figured I was overdue for a nuture side article.

This one
caught my eye. It's a theory of how the behavior of our father, and our interaction with him, sets the patterns in life that later will be seen in workplace behavior and interaction.
Styles of fathering can affect whether their children get along with others at work, have an entrepreneurial spirit, worry too much about their career, burn out or become the boss, Poulter writes.
So...digging ditches for a living? Unhappy that you're stuck in a dead end job?
Blame your father. The bastard.

(Of course, if you're rich and successful, you really owe Dad at least one good father's day give this June, ok?)

My thoughts about this? I do agree that relationship patterns established early in life tend to repeat themselves throughout a lifetime, unless conscious effort is made to change them. But I'd take the "Father Factor" with a grain of salt, yet to be demonstrated in any controlled experiments or statistical analyses.
Poulter, by the way, describes his own father as the absent type. After this book, he said, "my dad won't even talk to me."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Is it in his eyes?

Does he love me?
I wanna know!
How can I tell if he loves me so?

(Is it in his eyes?)
Oh no! You need to see!
(Is it in his size?)
Oh no! You make believe!
If you wanna know
If he loves you so
Its in his kiss!
(That's where it is!)
- It's In His Kiss, Aretha Franklin

But what if you can't kiss him? What if you only have a picture to go by? What can you tell?

Turns out women can tell at least a couple things by looking at a picture of a man, according to this study.
  • Whether or not he likes kids (also, these were judged to be good potential long-term mates)
  • Whether or not they (the women) want to jump his bones (and here's a hint - it wasn't the great potential daddies who were elected boy toy)

And they say that men are the ones who want to "spread their seed." Sounds to me like there's a little bit of desire to hide the easter egg going on here, too.