Archive for May, 2012

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

Note: This article originally appeared on Starship Reckless

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card -- click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong” version (Carruthers) for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hdry, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

Yogurt makes you … shinier

At least if you’re a mouse. Research published this month found that mice fed yogurt were slimmer, sleeker and shinier than those that didn’t.

The male yogurt-eating mice also had larger testicles. (The junk-food eating mice had smaller testicles.) Female mice weren’t left out: they were smooth and shiny too, and had larger healthier litters.

In other words, eating yogurt made mice more attractive and more fertile, and presumably healthier. The researchers don’t know why, but they suspect it might have to do with the live bacterial cultures in the yogurt.

By the numbers, the human body is mostly bacteria: about one trillion human cells, and about ten trillion bacteria. (I don’t know the numbers for mice, but they’re probably similar.) We don’t even know what most of them are, though scientists think there are around 500 different species.

Many of those bacteria live in the digestive system, having colonized the infant during birth or shortly after. They help to digest the things we eat, release vitamins, help to keep out disease-causing bacteria: all sorts of useful things. The humans studied so far fall into one of three enterotypes, each of which has similar distinctive gut assemblages (even though they eat similar diets).

Nobody knows exactly what that means yet, but one possibility is that different enterotypes are more efficient at digesting particular foods. They may also be more or less effective at providing vitamins to their host. The abundances of different species change in response to diet, but mostly within certain limits. Gut flora have been linked to obesity, suggesting that bacteria may affect metabolism or efficiency of digestion. Having (or eating) the right bacteria might also be related to longevity.

When gut bacterial assemblages decline or get unbalanced, often as a result of taking antibiotics to treat some other condition, all sorts of problems can occur. One particularly nasty invader is Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that can cause persistent diarrhea and may become debilitating or life-threatening. Even C. diff, as it’s not-so-fondly known, is vulnerable to a diverse and balanced set of gut bacterial: a fecal transplant from a healthy individual is an effective cure.

Gut bacteria could have global environmental implications too: scientists are looking for ways to modify ruminal bacteria in cattle so that they eliminate less methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

This stuff has all kinds of science-fictional implications. What about modifying the gut flora of planetary colonists to help them digest new foods, or to produce vitamins that they no longer get from their diet? Or superfoods that promote health or shininess or fertility? Such superfoods could be proprietary, or addictive. What happens if people try to culture them at home? Making your own yogurt is easy, and using a commercial yogurt as the starter ensures that you have the same culture. For the probiotics to contribute to the gut flora, they have to be alive.

Low-tech Antiseptics, part 1

These posts brought to you by the recurrence of the search term “boiling wine” bringing people to my little rant on the use of same on wounds in GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Magical healing aside, basic sanitation is the one thing that will most increase your characters’ chances of survival when they’re injured. Stitches are helpful. So are herbs. Splints are important for broken bones. But if that cut gets infected, abscesses, and gangrene sets in, all the willow bark tea in the world isn’t going to save you.

In real-world history, the importance of keeping wounds clean was not fully realized until only a few hundred years ago. Why your fantasy world’s physicians know they need to do this is up to you. I’m going to look at how to do it in a world without industrialized chemical analysis and synthesis.


Gargling saltwater for a sore throat and old recipes for toothpaste made of salt and baking soda (more on that later) work because salt does kill microbes when it’s concentrated enough. This is why pickling and salting work as food preservatives.

Pickled characters

Brine recipes call for anywhere from a half cup to a cup of salt per gallon of water, which would be 3 – 6% salt by volume. Seawater tends to be more like 3 – 4%.

Depending on where your characters are, seawater could be easy to get and a reasonable thing to wash a wound with — if the seawater has been filtered and hopefully boiled as well. It does contain microbes that are acclimated to salty water, after all.

Brine prepared from salt and boiled water is a viable option if your characters have access to economically priced salt. Or maybe it’s a rare and expensive way to treat wounds, reserved only for those who can afford it. Either way, I recommend Mark Kurlansky’s Salt as an excellent overview of salt production over the course of history.

Character jerky

Given a supply of fairly pure salt, why not just pack the wound with salt? Yes, that’s been done in the past. Especially with abscesses, it seems. The packing needs to be changed a few times a day, and after the salt’s done its job the wound will need to be closed by whatever method and given a chance to heal. You don’t actually want to make jerky out of your character.

Sodium bicarbonate

You know it better as baking soda. Combined with salt and a little water, baking soda makes for a nasty-tasting toothpaste but it’ll kill those germs and even bleach your teeth a little.

Naturally occurring bicarbonate is one of several compounds found in natron, which the Egyptians used for cleaning, an antiseptic, and to preserve mummies. Natron is mined from natural deposits, which can be found in a variety of places — not just deserts. Perhaps this would be a viable industry for your fantasy kingdom on top of its medical uses.

Baking soda mouthwash recipes range up to 25% concentration but tend to fall more around a teaspoon per half pint of water which would be… 4%? As with salt above, your healers could use either a brine to wash wounds or pack the wound directly with natron — bearing in mind that we don’t want to mummify the characters just yet. Natron is a drying agent, which means it draws out moisture from the tissues. This makes the tissues less hospitable to bacteria… and life in general.

Stay tuned for the more accurate use of alcohol (not by boiling wine, for crying out loud) and an antiseptic wild card.

Our Epic Prehistory

Neanderthal reconstruction by Kennis & Kennis/Photograph by Joe McNally

I love me some Tolkien. But for everything that The Lord of the Rings has done for the fantasy genre, it has also been so overwhelmingly influential and compelling that it is has spawned entire franchises set in worlds imitating Middle Earth, and has stifled the genre’s creativity. Unless otherwise specified, fantasy is assumed to be set in a medieval European setting and populated by humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, and halflings. Dwarves are always assumed to be great craftsmen and miners who live underground in halls of stone and favor geometric patterns in their art and writing. Elves always inhabit verdant forests, are skilled in magic and craft fine weapons and armor with leaf shapes and magical properties. Orcs are brutish and primitive and wear spiky black armor and wield spiky black weapons. I am hardly the first person to make these observations, and in recent years there has finally been some real progress in emerging from the shadow of Tolkien, but we have a long way to go. I would like to propose just one alternative that not only bucks some of the trends that Tolkien started, but also has some science at its heart.

In most fantasy settings, there are several intelligent species coexisting in the same world, each with a distinctive culture and appearance. In our modern world of course, there are humans of cultures and appearances that vary beyond anything seen in most fantasy, but there are no other similarly advanced intelligent species for us to interact with. This was not always the case. In the course of human evolution, we coexisted with several other species of human, including Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, and the recently discovered Denisova hominin.

Hominid evolution is a complicated and rapidly changing field, and my summary here will likely make archaeologists and anthropologists cringe, but I hope it will also kindle some ideas for speculative fiction writers looking for something a bit different.

I will start with homo erectus, a species that originated in Africa around 1.8 million years ago and spread across much of Asia into India, China, and Indonesia. Homo erectus was clearly quite successful, and there is evidence that they used stone hand axes and fire, and were probably one of the first hunter-gatherer societies. They stood about as high as modern humans, but their skeletons are more robust and they were more heavily muscled. It is not clear when homo erectus went extinct, but they may have lasted in isolated pockets until relatively recently, and may have interacted or even interbred with early homo sapiens. In fact, Homo floresiensis, which lived in Indonesia as recently as 12,000 years ago, shows some similarities to homo erectus, although homo floresiensis is smaller.

Model of Homo erectus from Museum of Archaeology, Herne, Germany

The most famous hominid that coexisted with humans is the Neanderthal. Neanderthal remains have been discovered throughout Europe and as far east as the Altai mountains. They lived from 600,000 years ago until about 25,000 years ago. Despite the stereotype of Neanderthals as dumb brutes, evidence suggests that they may have been just as intelligent as humans. (In fact their brains were larger than ours!) They made wood, bone, and stone tools, and the discovery of healed fractures in some skeletons suggests that they cared for their sick and wounded. They buried their dead and may have used body paint, and they constructed large shelters out of animal bones. (They also may have practiced cannibalism, but then, so do some modern humans so you can’t hold that against them.) Neanderthals have long been thought of as pure carnivores, surviving by hunting mammoths and other big game, but recent discoveries show that they ate plants too.  Evidence in a cave in Gibraltar, the most recent Neanderthal site, shows that they even foraged from the sea, much like the humans who used the cave thousands of years later.

There is good evidence that Neanderthals used language, and there are even some speculations that their language pre-dated the separation between speaking and music – that it was a hybrid of the two – something that just screams (sings?) to be used in fiction.

So why did the Neanderthals go extinct if they were as smart as we are, significantly stronger, and geographically widespread? There are several theories. One, put forward in the book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” by Clive Finlayson, is that they were simply unlucky. It appears that Neanderthals hunted primarily in wooded areas, ambushing their prey using short spears and relying on their strength to bring the animal down. As the climate changed, the forests receded and gave way to wide steppes. Ambush hunting is less effective out in the grassland: it favors a hominid species specialized for long-distance walking or running, who use projectile weapons. That’s us.

Simulation of the spread of modern humans into neanderthal territory, beginning 1600 generations ago. Neanderthal territory is light gray, homo sapiens territory is dark gray, and the black band indicates areas of coexistence.

Another theory says that Neanderthals competed – perhaps violently – with homo sapiens and that we eventually won. This scenario is appealing from a fictional point of view because it goes against preconceptions and lends itself easily to the tale of a noble species of intelligent (perhaps even musical) Neanderthals being wiped out by a smaller, more devious species of humans: homo sapiens.

Of course, you can go completely in the other direction too. Another theory is that Neanderthals and humans interbred to the point where we stopped being different species. Some Neanderthal remains are sufficiently well-preserved to extract DNA, and the DNA of non-African humans include some portions that match pieces of the Neanderthal genome. Recently, DNA recovered from a 41,000 year old finger bone found in Denisova cave, Russia, shows that it came from a species that is distinct from both Neanderthals and humans, but which shows some degree of interbreeding with both.

My suspicion is that all of these theories are at least partially correct. It is conceivable that even as Neanderthals were dying out as their forests receded, humans could have accelerated their demise. And, knowing human nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if some interbreeding occurred even as our species was killing off the Neanderthals.

All of this evidence for coexistence between humans and other hominids is a ripe setting for fiction much like modern fantasy but with the added benefit of being somewhat realistic. Add in the various exotic mammals that still roamed the world and the changes in climate that drove the migration or extinction of entire ecosystems, and the stories practically write themselves.

The wide geographic range of earlier species like homo erectus, and the persistence of pockets of similar species until quite recently, also spark the imagination. Almost every culture in the world has tales of human-like creatures that live in remote locations on the fringes of civilization. Could these stories be rooted in our distant past when they were not fiction at all? Could the revulsion triggered by the “uncanny valley” be a deep-seated instinct based on a time when there were other humanoids out there, competing with us?

There’s no reason that fantasy has to be confined to a pseudo-medieval Europe populated by the same old fantasy races. Long ago, our planet really was home to multiple species of human, and they fought and loved and explored and invented and sang songs into the night. Let’s hear their stories.