14 March, 2009

Books In Bed


Back in the day when I used to update my old website, I had a semi-regular feature called Books in Bed. One of the many reasons I don't date is because I share my bed with books - and, of course, the cat. It's a rare day indeed when there's not at least one book sharing the pillows with us.

And since pollyticks are descending into a yawn-worthy cycle of Cons-are-stupid, ZOMG-Obama-isn't-perfect, I shall branch out a bit and regale you with tales of my between-the-sheets adventures with my latest flings.

This week, I slept with Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish. Neil, you may remember, discovered Tiktaalik. Along with finding spectacular transitional fossils, he's taught human anatomy at the University of Chicago. Both of these things give him particular insight into the deep connections between us and other critters. Even, yes, fish.

I think most of us know that the human embryo has gills. What a lot of us probably don't know is what happens to those gills as we develop. I'd imagined them just sort of vanishing. Not so! Our gills become structures in our ears and throat. It's terribly odd to realize that the stapes bone in our inner ear is derived from one of the jawbones of our fish ancestors.

And that's just the beginning. Just wait 'til you find out why the testicles have such a long journey through the body. I had no damned idea that fish carry their nads in their chests. This book will teach you just where to plant the kick should you ever need to kick a shark in the balls.

Neil does a wonderful job showing how our anatomy's jerry-rigged from much different bodies. If you ever had trouble understanding the incremental steps evolution took from microbe to mankind, this delightful little book will give you the crash course. You'll start seeing just how similar we are to even wildly dissimilar organisms. And it's set out in such a way that even someone who has as much trouble with visualization as I do can see it clearly.

In fact, I recommend this as a companion volume to Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, which I finished just seconds before going in search of my inner fish. The two mesh extremely well, informing each other - things will start clicking. And then you'll laugh all the harder at creationists. In fact, Neil takes a few shots of his own at the IDiot crowd, without ever mentioning them by name. Dawkins tends to face them head-on; Neil's sneaky. Observe this shot across the bows:
In a perfectly designed world - one with no history - we would not have to suffer everything from hemorroids to cancer.
No doubt who he's aiming at, now, is there?

This book is the perfect answer to those who try to claim that evolution's a nice theory, but has no practical application. Now, we all know that's bullshit - we have antibiotic-resistant bacteria to prove that knowing how evolution works is important in medicine - but Neil goes many steps further, showing how evolution explains everything from hiccups to hemorroids to hernias, and many other defects not beginning with the letter H. He demonstrates what we've learned from playing around with fly and mouse genes. If you remember the old adage "knowing is half the battle," you can easily see how understanding evolution helps us now and will pay exponential dividends in the future.

That really came home to me when he was talking about Hox genes, and how you can snip little bits from one embryo, splice them to another embryo, and grow a whole extra body part - even in another species. And we're not talking a fly leg on a mouse, either. One of Neil's examples is taking the Organizer region from a chicken egg and grafting it to a salamander embryo. The Organizer directs the embryo to create a body. But this is the awesome part: a chicken Organizer plunked down on a salamander embryo won't create a salachicken - you get a twinned salamander. Somehow, those chicken genes are able to tell the salamander genes to go forth and create another salamander.

I can see that having useful medical applications later on, can't you?

Getting in touch with my inner fish has given me a deeper appreciation for evolution. And it seems to have made my cat cozy up to me a bit more than usual. Whether that's because of our shared evolutionary history or because she's considering a seafood dinner is yet to be determined.

10 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

Yes there is nothing quite like a warning shot across the bow of a Ship Of Fools. . . It never ceases to amaze me how "less than bright" many Brights can be. Who ever said that Intelligent Design was "perfect design"? Most things that are designed have various imperfections. Yes, yes, I know religious people like to believe that the Creator of the Universe aka God is perfect but what if SHe isn't quite as perfect as people would like to believe? Indeed what if "Mother Nature" can be a bit of a bitch when SHe so chooses? What then? Suddenly everything from hemorroids to cancer fits into the Big ID Picture. No?

Personally, like the not so good Doctor Richard Dawkins, I prefer the direct approach and almost always face less than bright Brights, including that pompous ASS Richard Dawkins himself head on. . . Sometimes I can even be a little catty about it. :-)

Interestingly enough the Word Verification Code for this comment is makers. This "coincidence" holds several several different levels of meaning to *me*.

Woozle said...

Dear Robin Edgar,

You are a troll. The phrases "atheist supremacy" and "atheist intolerance and bigotry" were what tipped me off. You lose 10 points and a turn.

Sincerely,

Me

--

"In a perfectly designed world - one with no history - we would not have to suffer everything from hemorroids to cancer." I call this the "Stupid Design" refutation of ID -- No Evolution Needed.

Robin Edgar said...

Dear Woozle,

You are a commercial SPAMMER. The 'I am not under God mug' tipped me off. . .

'Atheist Supremacist' is a perfectly legitimate term to use to describe members of that subset of atheists who are convinced that atheists are altogether superior beings to God believing people. Richard Dawkins certainly fits that bill as do other other ever so superior atheists. And you are misrepresenting my words somewhat by leaving the qualifier "fundamentalist" off of the "atheist intolerance and bigotry" quote Woozle. The anti-religious intolerance and bigotry of narrow-minded *fundamentalist* atheists aka Atheist Supremacists is well documented.

Dana Hunter said...

Robin, just a friendly warning: getting into a battle of wits with Woozle is a losing proposition. And I won't tolerate anyone attacking him, so desist.

You're also on a blog populated by atheists. Take your insults elsewhere.

Robin Edgar said...

:Robin, just a friendly warning: getting into a battle of wits with Woozle is a losing proposition.

I kind of doubt that based on what I have seen so far Dana. . .

:And I won't tolerate anyone attacking him, so desist.

Describing Woozie as a commercial SPAMMER because he posted a link to a product he is selling is "attacking him"?

:You're also on a blog populated by atheists.

I kind of figured that out for myself Dana. I'm actually brighter than a fair number of Brights.

:Take your insults elsewhere.

Your wish is my command Dana. :-)

WVC = reherst

Efrique said...

Your Inner Fish was great; I bought a copy when I was visiting Washington DC last year; I finished it a couple of months ago.

I'd have liked a bit more meat on the bones (he! I kill me), but that would have made it a less popular book.

Cujo359 said...

The length worked fine for me, Efrique. If it had been as long as The Ancestors' Tale I probably would have never finished it.

Woozle said...

Thanks for the support, Dana -- when dealing with people like RE, working up a cogent argument is just a FWoT. A smackdown from the top made it real. ^_^

And on that subject... we need to be developing more effective ways of dealing with trolls (and I don't just mean blog commenters), because that's basically how neoconservatism, religious fundamentalism, and other pathological memes survive:

* Sound really outraged (so people will think you're sincere)
* Use arguments which sound good to those who don't know enough to see through them
* Anyone who understands enough to question your statements is an enemy:
** attack and humiliate the enemy personally so s/he will become enraged and end up looking really stupid and incoherent
** waste the enemy's time with confusing arguments which are difficult to counter (either because they don't really make any sense, or because they depend on disproving factual claims which are difficult to disprove, or any of several other time-wasting methods)
** stigmatize their point of view (make it taboo, so that non-combatants will hesitate to speak in defense of the enemy or her/his arguments)
* Ignore any substantial arguments made against you; change the subject, or twist them into something easily dealt with (straw man).

Lather, rinse, and repeat.

The main cost to reasonable people (e.g. us here in Tequilaland) is twofold:
* We waste a lot of time arguing with people who aren't interested in seeking truth and will remain convinced of the rightness of their claims, no matter how clearly nonsensical we can show their arguments to be
* Some people (those just joining the battle without any prior education in the matter at hand) may be convinced by the troll's rhetoric, and help to spread it (I've met a few of these well-meaning people; trolls can leave a lot of damage to be undone)

What to do, then? Possible tools at our disposal:
* Option: Ignore.
** Problem: How do we decide, as a group, when a troll is a troll rather than an honestly confused person? If we each decide individually, someone is bound to come to a different conclusion -- and the person who responds is more likely to be less experienced than those who have recognized the troll's trollishness -- i.e. fresh meat for the troll.
* Option: Identify and ignore. Call the troll a troll, naming the specific trollishness traits which seem to indicate this, and publicly snub the troll. (This is essentially what I did above. It would have been less effective except for Dana's return troll-squish.)
** Problem: This should probably only be done by a known person in any given venue -- an "experienced wolf", one might say -- which raises the question of how we appoint "designated troll-spotters". Obviously in a blog it's ultimately up to the blog's owners -- but should the list be public? Or should we leave the list secret, known only to the spotters, so that the troll can confirm her/his trollishness by responding rudely to someone they believe to have no authority? Does this really even matter?
** Problem: Troll can still claim they were "treated rudely" or "censored", or "the people on that blog refused to even listen to my arguments" (help, I bin Expelled(TM) by them evolathiest Darwinian sign-tists!). Identifying the specific troll-cues helps keep this claim from gaining too much credibility -- especially if there's a counter-argument for each one already written up, and each cue-phrase is linked to it. To that end, here is atheist intolerance and atheist supremacy.

Other options?

I had planned to write some articles about trolls, troll-spotting, etc. but it's getting late and I need to make some dinner. (And it's a blinkin' miracle this post didn't get lost when my computer spontaneously rebooted a couple of hours ago.... time to post it for reals before something else happens.) Remind me...

*/ look at me still talking when there's science to do / when I look out there it makes me glad I'm not you... /*

P.S. But I'm distressed that nobody likes my mug. RE didn't even bother to vote it down. (Ignored by the troll! O ultimate indignity!)

Cujo359 said...

You needn't feel bad, Woozle. On my site, the rule is that pointless insults will be deleted. The only thing he offered in the way of argument was insult. There's not much there to respond to. Which is why he'd have been gone, so I could ignore the urge to be unpleasant in turn for no good reason.

Ignoring people like this is certainly what they deserve, assuming one can't give them electronic oblivion. He's an obvious wanker, trying to puff himself up by pretending to be taking someone on who wouldn't, in all likelihood, give him the time of day.

Woozle said...

What worries me is that although informed people won't take someone like RE seriously, there are certainly plenty of uninformed people who might -- and it's people like that for whom trolls like RE (and he seems to be in it for more than casual trolling -- check out his profile, blog, and other posts) are easy prey, and how stupidity gets spread.

When people won't let their ideas compete fairly in the marketplace and yet still try to foist those ideas on other people, they're essentially declaring war; we need an arsenal of defenses against that crap, if we're not going to end up with President Limbaugh in 2012.