Jim Downey's picture

Origin of Stupidity

OK, I'd seen references to this elsewhere, but not the actual video. Just in case you too happened to miss it, here it is:

Jim Downey

Jim Downey's picture

Allegro ma non troppo.

Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.
-- Lazarus Long

I can't believe it.

One of my favorite economic historians from my undergrad days wrote a famous treatise on human stupidity, and it took me 20 years to find out about it.


Well, just in case you too missed this little gem, I offer:

By Carlo M. Cipolla

Go. Read the whole thing. It's not too long. And if you have a wry, cynical (maybe even sardonic?) twist to your view of the world (as I certainly do), you will laugh your proverbial ass off. Maybe even your real ass. But since most people need a bit of convincing to actually *read* things these days, here's a taste to whet your appetite:


The first basic law of human stupidity asserts without ambiguity that:

Paul Fidalgo's picture

Parade's PhDs

Via Friendly Atheist, Parade Magazine has a poll on its website asking readers:

Do you agree with Darwin’s theory of human evolution?


Does Parade's readership consist entirely of biologists? Are those that frequent its website all taking graduate-level courses in genetics? Are they sporting lab coats as they click the little radio buttons on the poll, having just put down this week's edition of Science?


Jim Downey's picture

"MedTech, another biobeer, please."

Ah, gotta love the advancement of science - soon, you'll be able to drink beer with the legitimate claim that you are doing it for your health:

Anti-cancer beer under development

NEW YORK: American students have designed a genetically modified yeast that can ferment beer and produces the chemical resveratrol, known to offer some protection against developing cancer.

* * *

The idea for the healthier beer, dubbed 'Biobeer', started out as a joke. "You could say that the inspiration for the project came from a student who really enjoys his beer," said Thomas Segall-Shapiro, a member of the team behind the project.

And from USA Today:

Students are working to modify the yeast with two sets of genes, including one that will allow the yeast to metabolize sugars and produce an intermediate chemical. The second set will convert that chemical to resveratrol.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

What Hath Science Wrought?

I can has glow-in-the-dark clone kitteh?

[link] For brightness, glowworms got nothing on Mr. Green Genes. And for fright factor, neither do black cats. The 6-month-old feline may look like a standard-issue orange tabby in the comfort of daylight, but he turns a ghoulish shade of fluorescent green under the shroud of darkness!

But there’s no need to get spooked; Mr. Green Genes is not a ghastly creation out of a Halloween horror story. The glow-in-the-dark cat is the result of a genetic experiment gone right, not awry; he was cloned at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans to aid endangered species ... and down the line, humans as well.

(Tip of the ballcap to The Teapot Atheist!)

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Magnitudes And Perspectives

Back in 2005, Stephen Darksyde published a fantastic article here at UTI called "Ancestral Magnitudes". It used the metaphor of the "generation", and colorfully described human evolution in terms of our ancestors.

[DarkSyde] If the idea of a flat-earth or the Sun-god is a part of that faith then you either ignore the science and live in willful ignorance-at least in regard to that conflict-and trust to faith, or you adjust your theology. Those really are your only two choices as far as I can see.

What your objection more than likely reveals is that you don't like the idea of being the product of 'random' physics and biochemistry, that you feel there is no room for a Creator in such a scenario. I cannot imagine greater natural evidence for the Brilliance of a Creator than complex process unfolding over billions of years through countless steps in exquisite order spanning the entire Cosmos. The technical skill and artistic vision of such is to be admired in awe, and in that context evolution should be worthy of your devotion, not your disdain.

I encourage you to read the whole thing if you haven't already. It'll blow your mind.

A few days ago, Xavier Onassis from the blog "Doubting Faith" published the same sort of mind-blowingly cool article about our universe, and it puts our place in that universe into stark, unflinching perspective.

[Xavier Onassis] Just for the sake of argument, let's assume that a universe this vast, and this spectacular could not be a random occurrence. Personally, I don't have a problem with it being one big coincidence. But, let's just say it's not.

Do you really think that a hypothetical all-powerful, all-knowing God, responsible for the creation of EVERYTHING in this incredibly vast universe would really give a flying fuck how you voted in the last election? Whether or not a couple of gay guys get married? Whether or not you keep Kosher or go on The Hajj?

Get over yourselves. You're not that fucking important. You need to look at the Big Picture and put things in perspective.

Just excellent. Highly recommended. Great job, Xavier.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Carl Buell Paints Ancient Whale Indohyus

Back in September my friend Carl Buell accidentally let it slip that he was working on a super secret painting of an early ancestor of whales for Nature magazine. I was intrigued, but no matter how much I wheedled him about it, he wouldn't give up any more details.

Well, in today's issue of Nature, the details have arrived - and how!

[link] Although the first ten million years of whale evolution are documented by a remarkable series of fossil skeletons, the link to the ancestor of cetaceans has been missing. It was known that whales are related to even-toed ungulates (artiodactyls), but until now no artiodactyls were morphologically close to early whales. Here we show that the Eocene south Asian raoellid artiodactyls are the sister group to whales. The raoellid Indohyus is similar to whales, and unlike other artiodactyls, in the structure of its ears and premolars, in the density of its limb bones and in the stable-oxygen-isotope composition of its teeth. We also show that a major dietary change occurred during the transition from artiodactyls to whales and that raoellids were aquatic waders. This indicates that aquatic life in this lineage occurred before the origin of the order Cetacea.

Jim Downey's picture

It's all in your head.

Now and again I wonder whether I am just simply missing some critical little bit of biology, if there was a small glitch in my development that left out the ability to "sense God". You know, somewhat like how someone with color blindness suffers from a slight defect in their physiology, and is able to see most of the things that the rest of us see, but just can't make out some crucial differences that allow us to make subtle distinctions. I wonder about that.

So, it seems, does Sam Harris. From a Time article dated last Friday titled "What Your Brain Looks Like on Faith", reporting on a recent scientific paper by Harris (and others):

Jim Downey's picture

Hmm. Maybe the Mormons had the right idea, after all.

Ol' Joe Smith may have had the right idea about polygamy, after all. Well, at least the evolutionary historical idea, anyway.

Men age faster 'because of Stone Age sex'

The reason that women outlive men by an average of around five years is due to sex, harems and violence in the Stone Age, according to a study published today.

Scientists have struggled to understand why men only tend to live to an average age of 75 while women live to an average of 80.

Now it seems that the reason is that our prehistoric male ancestors kept female harems and fought over them to procreate: because male life was nasty, brutish and short, evolutionary forces focused on making males big and strong, rather than long lived.

See? He really was just trying to get back to the way our ancestors lived. Man, talk about your "old time religion"...

Jim Downey

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Varghese And The Traitorous Bees

Roy Abraham Varghese, theistic apologist and god-bothering author from the "Institute of Metascientific Research", was recently interviewed by the Dallas Observer. Varghese is widely credited as "the man who won over Anthony Flew", and is now currently working on a book called "There Is A God" with Flew.

Varghese is an interesting character because his contention is that without a meta-intelligence, all science devolves into incoherence if you drill-down deep enough, or pull back far enough.

It's a lot of pseudo-scientific nonsense of course, a philosophically slick update to the theistic evolutionist's mantra.

More below the fold...

Jim Downey's picture


There's a very good piece in today's New York Times titled Facing Life With a Lethal Gene about one young woman's decision to be tested to see if she carries the gene for Huntington's Disease.

It is a very difficult decision to be tested for a genetic disease which you may have, and for which there is no known treatment (let alone a cure). If you test positive, you know exactly the sort of future you face. And, if you test positive, it can have a significant impact on your employment and insurance possibilities, even decades before you might experience any onset of symptoms.

Jim Downey's picture

But I thought they didn't believe in science?

So, now that science seems to be closing in on a genetic or at least developmental basis for homosexuality, the Religious Right is taking an interest. Why? So they can stomp it out, of course.

Now, I'm not gay, and I don't have kids, so in one sense I don't have a dog in this fight. But saying that is like saying that I don't care what happens down in Gitmo, just because the likelihood of me ever winding up in that situation is nil.

Besides, I like the hypocrisy of how the Religious Right will disavow the power of science to determine truths about some things, and yet embrace other aspects of science when it conveniently fits with their agenda.

Via Andrew Sullivan, comes this piece by Albert Mohler, The President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Is Your Baby Gay? In the article you find some remarkable comments:

Eric Lorson's picture

An Interesting Question That Cannot Be Discussed...

I've been reading a lot on evolution recently, as well as watching several really good television programs on it as well. One of the key theories regarding evolution is survival of the fittest. This is where species with traits that help them survive are able to live long enough to procreate and pass on those traits to the next generation. Over time, this strengthens a genetic line and creates a species that can exist and flourish in a given environment.

In addition, animals born with malformed DNA are typically sick or weak and killed off either naturally or by predators before they get a chance to procreate. This is yet another way that nature ensures that the strongest genetic codes carry on and that species can and will survive.

Humans and our ancestors have also played a part in this game. For hundreds of thousands of years we have evolved, taking our best genetics with us. This evolution has brought us to the level of society that we now know and enjoy today.

I want to bring up an unpleasant, if not taboo topic; has technology and advanced society negatively affected human evolution? Our species is no longer participating in survival of the fittest with regard to animal predators. Society insulates us from the harsh realities of nature. While it appears that our intelligence and natural abilities stem from evolutionary growth, we have come to a time where there is no longer any pressure on our species to maintain many of the skills we developed prior to the birth of civilization. Technology also allows people who would have died in years past to survive illnesses and genetic disorders, often at great personal and financial cost to those directly involved.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Heir Apparent

James P. Pinkerton thinks that the imaginary "War On Christmas" failed because us atheists don't breed nearly enough due to the fact that we're also, inevitably, sandal-wearing, leftist, progressive hippies who don't want children.

[James P. Pinkerton] Part of the problem is that those who are most inclined to accept "modernity" are oftentimes the least inclined to have children. So "converts" to atheism have a way of disappearing without heirs, while those who stick with their faith, including the injunction to go forth and multiply, are more likely to have kids who inherit at least some degree of devotion.

Hmnn. I have five kids. I know PZ has a pretty big brood.

I'd like to know what all you atheists think about having kids? I love having lots of kids, but I realize that I may be the minority atheist that Pinkerton refers to above with his "oftentimes" qualifier.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

The Real Virgin Mother

Rejoice! Christ is born of a virgin in Bethl...

Well, not "Jesus" Christ, exactly, but a Komodo Dragon Christ laid in eggs from virgin mother "Flora" (not Mary, unfortunately.) Oh, and not really in Bethlehem - and not really born either, but rather "hatched", in Chester Zoo in Britain. Just to clear things up a bit.

Merry Dragonmass, everybody!

[link] Genetic tests conducted at the University of Liverpool have proved that all four born to a female called Sungai were conceived by parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction that is known to take place in lizards but never documented in this species before.

Sungai, who has died since her eggs hatched, is also about to be joined as a virgin mother by a second Komodo dragon from Britain. Flora, at Chester Zoo, has laid eight viable eggs that are expected to hatch next month, even though she has never so much as met a male Komodo dragon.

Her status as a virgin mother-to-be has been confirmed by genetic fingerprinting of three eggs that collapsed. Though they are not clones, all their DNA came from Flora.

Parthenogenesis, which is derived from the Greek words for virgin birth, occurs when an egg spontaneously begins dividing as if it were an embryo, without being fertilised by sperm. It is known to have produced live young in about 70 vertebrate species, mostly reptiles and fish, and is thought to be encouraged when females are separated from males.


In humans, females have two X chromosomes and males one X and one Y chromosome. Komodo dragons and other species of the Varanus genus have W and Z chromosomes instead, and dissimilar chromosomes always produce a female.

When parthenogenesis takes place, the egg originally carries just one chromosome, either W or Z, which is duplicated. This means that all offspring are male, and able then to breed with their mothers.

This is a perfect example of how evolution works. The species within the genus Varanus have stumbled upon a unique survival strategy that can get around the age-old problem of "it takes two to tango" and actually continue producing offspring in very extreme situations by parthenogenesis.

Biology is so freakin' cool sometimes. And so much more interesting than fairy stories about magical god-men.

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Grist For The Mill

Evolution is a fact. It happens. It has happened. It continues to happen.

This is not in question. Those who protest either don't know what the heck evolution actually is, or they are lying to themselves and to you.

What I would like to talk about today is the perception that people have about what evolution is and is not, as well as what I believe we can do about it.

I have been arguing the creation/evolution debate for a long, long time. Back in 1986 I jumped into the infant online world with both feet, learning how to think critically and how to construct arguments. I have been an atheist since I was about 17 years old. I have been interested in science and the scientific method for much longer than that. The idea of a personal invisible imaginary friend seemed ridiculous to me even at the age of ten.

So, when the virtual world of the the new online services presented itself to me, I was floored. Here was a pure realm consisting of exact meaning. A world where people talked to each other almost mind-to-mind - cutting away the traps and the pitfalls that usually accompanied face to face conversation. Nervousness, apprehension, emotion, forgetfulness, shyness - none of this mattered when you were composing your thoughts off line in a text editor. You were able to edit and vet your words, making sure that they flowed well and made sense.

But those things which so attracted me to online text-based communication seemed to make others dumber than they would have been otherwise. Time and again I witnessed ostensibly intelligent people stumble and rush through a message or a rebuttal, making themselves sound like fools due to incoherent rambling, spelling and grammar errors, and faulty, fallacious reasoning.

It's almost as if they didn't care how they were perceived when they were online.

I didn't understand it then, and I don't understand it now. Online communications in this day and age - YouTube notwithstanding - is primarily text based. That is to say that if you cannot form cogent and thoughtful sentences, spelled correctly with the meaning coming through crystal clear, then why the hell are you arguing online - using text to try and get your meaning across to the other guy?

But that is neither here nor there - except as a base for my thoughts about evolution and the way that I have observed that people look at it.

More below the fold...

Brent Rasmussen's picture

The Pastor Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

Why am I not surprised?

[link] Paul Barnes has resigned from the 2,100-member Grace Chapel, a church he founded in suburban Denver, said church spokeswoman Michelle Ames.

Barnes' resignation follows last month's admission by high-profile preacher Ted Haggard that he was guilty of unspecified "sexual immorality" after a male prostitute went public with their liaisons.

Many evangelical Christians view homosexuality as a sin, though some are more strident on the issue than others.

Ames said Barnes told his congregation in a videotaped message on Sunday he had "struggled with homosexuality since he was five years old."

But of course, it isn't genetic. It's Satan.

Eric Lorson's picture

A Revelation from Hippos

Last night I was watching a National Geographic program with my son about the hippopotamus called ‘Ultimate Hippo’. A large part of the show revolved around its behavior and habitat, but they also spent some time discussing the evolutionary history of the hippo. What they proved was both astonishing and very profound, at least to me

In the show, they showed that the closest relative to the hippo was in fact the whale! Scientists showed that hippo DNA is closer to whale DNA than monkey DNA is to human DNA. In fact, whale skeletons share similar bones to hippos, the blowhole of a whale functions in exactly the same way as the nostrils of a hippo, and whales even have stubs of hind leg bones inside their bodies.

The first thing that came to my mind as I watched this was the human tailbone, and how that bone is to us what those tiny leg bones are to the whale - physical evidence of ancient ancestry.

As science discovers and learns from more and more fossils, they are finding irrefutable evidence that shows one species transitioning into another. The amount of evidence, combined with the scientific accuracy of the tools we have leaves me baffled as to how anyone can doubt the accuracy of the theories of evolution……AND YET…

Brent Rasmussen's picture

Charles Darwin's Works Go Online

This is a very cool development. I love the interwebtubes. Heh.

[link] The complete works of Charles Darwin will be available on the internet over the next two years as part of a project described as the first of its kind.

Creators of said the public would be able to listen to and read works including the Origin of Species free.

Much of the material has come from the Darwin Archive, which is housed at Cambridge University, and the project is being overseen by Dr John van Wyhe, a researcher based at Christ's College, Cambridge.

“In the first-ever undertaking of its kind, the complete works of one of history's greatest scientists are to be made available for free on the world-wide web,” said a university spokesman.

From the site itself:

[Darwin Online] This site currently contains more than 50,000 searchable text pages and 40,000 images of both publications and handwritten manuscripts. There is also the most comprehensive Darwin bibliography ever published and the largest manuscript catalogue ever assembled. More than 150 ancillary texts are also included, ranging from secondary reference works to contemporary reviews, obituaries, published descriptions of Darwin's Beagle specimens and important related works for understanding Darwin's context.

(Tip of the ballcap to Hank!)

Brent Rasmussen's picture

One Human Cell Equals One Human Being?

So, you know the whole "embryonic stem cell" thing? You remember how the Catholic church held to the insane belief that an embryo equalled a fully-grown human person, therefore using embryonic stem cells for research and other applications was wrong? It is the same objection that they raise to abortion, basically.

Using the stem cells from dead embryos that are going to be destroyed anyway didn't seem to appease them any.

Along comes Robert Lanza and his team of scientists at Advanced Cell and they create "embryo-safe" embryonic stem cell lines. What they do is grab the embryo when it consisits of only 8 to 10 cells, remove ONE of the cells, then culture it to create a new line of stem cells. The embryo, minus one single cell, has the abiulity to be implanted into a woman and grow normally into a human being.

Wow! Embryonic stem cells wothiout harming an embryo! You'd think that the Catholic church would be ecstatic!

You'd think wrong.

[link] Advanced Cell then made things worse by extracting what could be a "totipotent" cell, Sgreccia said.

"This is not just any cell, but a cell capable of reproducing a human embryo," Sgreccia said. He added that, in effect: "a second embryo is being destroyed".

Across the Atlantic, Richard Doerflinger, a bioethics expert with the US Conference of Bishops, has accused the scientists of "killing" 16 embryos during their research.

What the fuck is a "totipotent" cell? Is the Catholic church making words up again? A "second embryo"? One cell is now an embryo? Removing one cell from 16 different embryos is "killing" an additional 16 embryos? If that's the case, then we're all guilty of murder most foul every time we scratch.

I say again, WTF? What complete and utter lunacy.

I really hope that the scientific community working on stem cells finally just ignores the prehistoric crap coming out of the Vatican and continue to do good science. Stem cell research is the most exciting thing happening right now in the biological sciences, with the greatest potential for benefit to everyone on the planet. A superstitious bunch of old men in Italy should NOT have veto power over science.

Update: Alert reader cserpent sets me straight on the word "totipotent". Dangit. I knew I should have looked that up! :)

[cserpent] Nah, the catholic church makes up a lot of batshit insane things, like the assumption of Mary, but it didn't make up the word totipotent. It means a cell capable of differentiating into any other type of cell. The cells in the earliest stages of an embryo, like a morula are considered totipotent because each is capable, under the influence of chemical signals from its neighbors, of becoming pretty much any part of the body. They usually differentiate into pluripotent and multipotent stem cells, capable of giving rise to many different tissues and many different cell types of a particular tissue, respectively.

The second part about the fate of that one cell, however, is flat-out wrong. That one cell can't become a whole embryo, absent the various chemical signals diffusing from its neighbors. Nor would anyone be able to manufacture multiple embryos from breaking apart that earlier embryo, at least not in humans. So they are off their nut on that account (and so many others). But, what do you expect from the every sperm is sacred crowd?

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