Random incoherent rants vol. 4: I discovered that I’ve stopped reading Pharyngula

PZ rides again (photo taken from Pharyngula)

Once upon a time PZ Myers loved to ride dinosaurs. Now he mainly jumps sharks.

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

I haven’t spent much time on this blog in the past few weeks, but now I’ve passed the Physics exam (brilliantly, as usual for a superior mind like me), and I’m back with a vengeance.

What I’ve realized just recently is that it’s been a few weeks since I last visited Pharyngula, which is kind of a big deal since everyone that has an interest in skepticism, atheism and especially debunking creationism probably knows, or at least has heard of, biologist PZ Myers and his blog, which is probably the most important blog about those subjects. I discovered Pharyngula only in 2009, but I immediately liked Myers’ rationality and his unapologetic and highly critical views on religion and superstition; I liked the science articles, and I liked his sense of humor in dealing with creationists. So what made me lose my interest in the blog lately?

Starting with the infamous ElevatorGate (short version: a man clumsily approached a girl on an elevator, was rejected and accepted it; the whole internet skeptic community – including PZ – asploded accusing the man of sexism, and there was even a proposal of boycotting Richard Dawkins himself because he had the audacity to suggest that maybe, just maybe, the whole situation was kind of irrelevant and ultimately innocuous, and thus it was better to focus on real examples of sexism around the world – I know, what a fucking monster) Myers’ posts about science, atheism, evolution and religion gradually started to decrease in number in favor of an increasing amount of posts about pointless and, quite frankly, pretty boring internet drama. Examples of new content include: the evilness of the word “cunt” (WTF?) and other so called “feminist issues” that are even less substantial than ElevatorGate (which I cannot fucking believe people are still discussing 9 MONTHS after it happened), criticism of what some stupid students NOBODY HAS EVER HEARD OF OR PAID ATTENTION TO wrote on their blog or said on YouTube about OccupyWallStreet or abortion, dissertations on why it’s imperative not to accept a public apology of some dumb christian who wrote “atheist not welcome here” on a piece of paper in front of his gelato shop (yes, that was stupid and the guy deserved criticism, but there was no reason not to accept the apology), and also an absolutely hilarious series of discussions in which, for once, PZ was seen as the bad guy and viciously attacked by the most insane readers of his blog, since he had the balls to post a cute anti-religious comic strip in which the rational character was a bunny dressed as a boy and the religious character was a bunny dressed as a girl and this, somehow, makes the strip incredibly offensive towards women (even though the sex of the character wasn’t important, or even mentioned, in the comic). Whatever. Criticizing stupidity when you see it is good (and fun), but it’s useful only when you attack the stupidity of people or groups who have some sort of relevance in the world around them, and thus are likely to damage it. And let’s not forget that many of PZ’s recent attacks are against people who didn’t even do anything particularly wrong or stupid. In fact, in most cases, they didn’t do ANYTHING, except maybe writing some bad words on the internet, and in his ludicrous rage against them PZ looks frightfully similar to the religious zealots he often valiantly fights. Or “fought”, since now that he has to write about uneducated teenagers and middle-aged men on the internet he hasn’t time for that anymore. Hell, lately he’s so absorbed in finding and debating poor unknown fuckers that dared not to agree with him on everything, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he found this article (written by an italian undergraduate student on a six-months old blog which counts, at the moment I’m writing, a grand total of 613 views all-time) and created a long, rambling post dissecting and debunking it.

And what about those “Why I am an atheist” articles submitted by readers that he drops daily (or almost daily, I don’t know)? I like the idea, but an article every day or so is too fucking much: the excessive quantity makes each one of them less special. It looks like a spammy way to constantly update the blog. Okay, okay, my “Friday’s Featured Organism” articles are a spammy way to constantly update the blog too, but 1) I write them myself and 2) They happen once a week.

Another relatively minor annoying thing is that after a while PZ left ScienceBlogs and relocated Pharyngula on FreeThought Blogs (or FTB), a completely new site that was allegedly created with the intention of gather the most promising skeptical bloggers around the net under one roof, without the fear of censorship. Sounds promising, right? Well, first of all is kind of hard not to agree, or at least not to see, the point made by some of PZ’s detractors, who claim that the “We create this new site because elsewhere we are censored” story is bullshit, and that PZ did it only to get more money from the ads (which isn’t anything to be ashamed of, so why not being sincere about it?). Actually, PZ has always been fierce against religion and other kinds of popular silliness on ScienceBlogs, so I don’t think he had any censorship problems there. And the ads at Freethought Blogs – yeah, they’re pretty big and obnoxious. Even more annoying is the fact that it’s an automated ad service that works with keywords, and this means that ironically most of the ads are things like “Become a priest today” and shit like that. And what about the other skeptic bloggers of FTB? They’re kind of redundant, actually. Whenever someone of them writes about something, all of the others write about the exact same thing – which would be perfectly natural and even interesting were they to cover some relevant event or idea; but alas, it’s almost always some irrelevant internet drama that gets dissected repeatedly by PZ and friends, like a fucking echo through all of FTB – only it’s made of boredom instead of soundwaves (bare with me, I just passed a Physics exam).

What does all of this means? Is PZ getting too old, and Pharyngula doomed? Is it just a phase of transition in the initial year of exisence of FTB? I hope it’s the latter. Personally, I’ll probably stay away for Pharyngula for a while and eventually come back to see if something has changed for the better. Fans of PZ, don’t be too angered by this incoeherent rant of mine: I used to be a fan too, and I hope I can be a fan again soon.

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Friday’s Featured Organism: Xenoturbella sp. Also, fuck SOPA and PIPA.

Xenoturbella

Lovely, isn't it?

 

Only two species of little marine worm-like creatures with a ciliated line in the middle, and yet they form their own distinct phyla, Xenoturbellida. They were thought to be acoelomorpha, similar to flatworms, and yet they have no muscular pharynx, and they mesoderm is somewhat reduced, and mainly forms muscles. They have a nervous system similar to that of echinoderms, with nervous cells embedded in their skin and linked to the nervous system below, and molecular analisys seems to confirm that they are, in fact, a sister group to echinoderms. Why them this week? Because I’m currently studying all of the animal phyla at once, and I wanted one that was truly unknown and apparently insignificant.

On a side note, fuck SOPA, PIPA and the shut down of Megaupload. I’m not an american citizen, but this bullshit affects the freedom of information in all the world – it’s the nature of the internet. The good news is that no matter how hard they’ll try to regulate the web, the web “finds a way”, to put it in Jurassic Park terms. Anonymous has already counterattacked, and this certainly is just the beginning.

The Hive Mind

by Francesco Lami

To quote Bender from Futurama, “I’m back, idiots!”. It was a nice little holiday on the Cote d’Azur, but right now I want to talk about brains. Our brains, specifically.

At the beginning of the summer I had read on some generic weekly magazine a small paragraph about how some scientists thought that human beings pushed the evolution of intelligence to its limits: in other words, they said that we couldn’t become smarter, because we peaked. My first thought was “Yeah, bullshit” because that wasn’t a scientific magazine, and it seemed like the classical vague anthropocentric article about how we are the best, and the somehow intended ending of the evolutionary project. And let me clarify this, as awesome as we are, we’re not THE best. There’s not such a thing as the absolute best in evolution. Some organisms are more adaptable than others, some have better instruments to survive in a specific habitat or more habitats (and mind you, the habitat can always change), but we’re just a small, successfull and still evolving (as every living thing) branch of the enormous Tree of Life. There are many species of bacteria, arthropods, worms, fungi, etc… that are much more successfull than us, so while our species is clearly one of the most successfull vertebrates EVER, it’s by far not the most successfull organism of all time. But I digress.

What I could concede to that small paragraph was that certainly in modern times the selective pressure necessary to “push us” to an even superior intelligence is pretty low. We were able to create awesome technology and modificate our environment to make survival easier, and in our (western) society everybody can access at least the most basic of those advantages; the creations of smart people are enjoyed by everyone, and thus smart people and less smart people have the same chances of survival. But this didn’t convince me that we didn’t have at least the potential to evolve in something smarter.

Anyway,the last issue of Le Scienze (italian name of Scientific American) contained an article about the fact that we may have indeed reached the limit of intelligence for a single organism, and I guess it was the same article referenced in that small paragraph I had read months before. Actually the article (by Douglas Fox) suggests that, while there might be ways to improve our brains, the costs in terms of energy and space (remember the joke about planet sized heads? yeah, you don’t want one of those) would be too high to justify them, so the modern version of our brain might be the near-perfect, most functional compromise. I don’t know if this is true, but certainly this is an explanation that I can accept better than “We’re so awesome, nothing can beat us”: after all, physical limits like this are the cause of many “imperfections” in the world of biology. Organisms are not magical, and even when they adapt the best they can to their environment, they must still obey its laws, and the laws of the matter they’re composed of. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, the best evidence for evolution isn’t the perfect adaptation, but these small imperfaction caused by the fact that life must build new forms from the parts it already has – it can’t start again from blank to create better components for a completely new organisms.

While the focus of Fox’s article are the details about the limits that prevent us from becoming smarter, it concludes briefly hypothesizing a way in which humanity could become more intelligent, and the most promising tool to realize this ideal is – brace for it – the Internet! HA, suck it, Internet haters.

The point is that certain organisms that act in a pretty “stupid” way individually form colonies which have a much better decisional ability and can act in an extremely efficient way for their own survival. The most famous example of this are social hymenopterans like ants and bees, insects that embody the definition of eusociality: the labor is divided among specialized castes (queen, males, workers, warriors… it depend on the species) and every individual is actually just a small part of the entire, huge, collective organism, just like a single cell is just a small functional part of a body or a brain. And it’s this collective entity that takes decisions and shows complex behaviours. Other eusocial animals include termites (Isoptera) and even mammals like the nightmarishly ugly and yet strangely fascinating Heterocephalus glaber, the naked mole rat. And animal eusociality is not the only, or even the first, example of  organisms cooperating to “become smarter”: bacteria do that too. Everybody knows bacteria are single-celled organisms; most of them however form colonies capable of feats that are impossible for isolated bacterial cells. Bacteria colonies can decide if the environmental conditions and resources would allow them to grow (quorum sensing) and coordinate their metabolism thanks to special biomolecules used by the cells to communicate with each other; they can form biofilms in favourable environments, to protect and anchor themselves; colonies of Rhodospirillum centenum are capable of phototaxis (they are photosyntetic bacteria that move towards the light source) while single cells of the same species are incapable of doing so.

So the point is that, even though we are animals with a strong individual personality (well, some of us are, at least), we’re still social animals, and communication can make our population smarter and more efficient than the sum of its parts. We do this since the dawn of our species, with spoken words, and then written words, and now we can do it globally thanks to the internet. The fact that shared knowledge is a lot more vast than the knowledge of a single man is obvious, as it’s obvious that labour division and coordination made us a lot more efficient in a lot of different tasks. Are we really going to become a single planetary superintelligent supercolony? Would this really be an advantage to us? Nowadays individualism and egoism are rampaging everywhere, and so it may seem highly unlikely, and to some even scary, the possibility that society will prevail on the individual, and yet globalization and mass communication make us march everyday towards that possibility. We’ve already prooved to be strange animals: big primates who give birth only a few times in their lifetime (K strategy) and yet we managed to become one of the most widespread mammals on the planet, thanks to our intelligence and cooperation. So it may be possible the paradox of the animal with the most complex individual personality that, while retaining said individuality, becomes part of a global coordinated hive mind. I don’t know how far this process will go, if it’ll be enough to save us from ourselves and if it will influence our biological evolution. What I know is that, while some people think that globalization is evil, to me it only means that everyone in the world will have access to the same medicines. So what the hell, let’s give it a shot.