I’ve been finding it difficult to come up with ideas for blog posts, which is why this blog hasn’t been very active lately. As such, I’d like to leave it up to the readers: what would you like us to write about? Would you like to know something specific about our atheism? Do you have an argument that you’d like us to address? Would you like us to discuss a particular book? Do you have any questions about Philosophy, Biology, or History? Would you like to know our stance on a particular feminist issue? Is there something else you’d like us to write on? Let us know in the comment section.
Tag Archives: biology
I can’t help but think that there needs to be a test before one can call themself a skeptic. It’s amazing how many people call themselves skeptics while having no critical thinking skills once so ever. This is the biggest reason I don’t really identify as a skeptic.
Today I received a reply to a comment I wrote on YouTube. The person considered themself a skeptic, but they couldn’t be bothered to supply any evidence to support their claim that masculinity and femininity are biological despite the fact that different cultures around the world hold to different ideas about what is masculine and what is feminine. Skeptics are supposed to be critical of all claims, and they are supposed to look at the evidence before they decide what is true, but so few actually do that. So many skeptics ignore the evidence and determine what they believe to be true on what society accepts, or who they hero-worship, or what they simply feel to be right. But that isn’t being skeptical.
Skepticism is a fine line to walk. It isn’t easy. But it also isn’t that difficult. Somebody says the sky is blue? Look up. Does the sky look blue? If yes, then do you have any reason to believe you are being deceived? No? Then the sky is blue. Obviously not everything is this simple, but it follows the same pattern. Someone says god exists? Can you see god? No? Then what other ways can we know something using our senses? Can we feel god? No? Can we smell god? No? Can we taste god? No? Can we hear god? No? Then how else can we find out if this claim is true? What evidence does the person making the claim have to offer? Can that evidence be verified? If not, then what does this say about the claim? If you can’t verify something using your own senses, and the evidence offered by the person making the claim isn’t verifiable, then the person’s claim can be dismissed.
But skeptics don’t generally have an issue applying this method to gods. It’s other things, more mundane things that skeptics want to be true, where they have difficulty applying their skepticism. But applying skepticism to one area does not a skeptic make. So where do skeptics fail?
Skeptics fail at applying skepticism to claims about sex and gender. It’s widely accepted that men are stronger than women. But how do we know if this is true? Can you see a man lift something that a woman can’t? Probably. But this is one man and one woman. So how do you turn the “this man can lift something that that woman can’t” claim into a “men are stronger than women” claim? First you need a lot of men and a lot of women. Then you need to compensate for weight difference. What do the results show? Obviously the average person doesn’t have time to do all of these experiments to determine what they should believe. Luckily scientists have done much of the research for us. So what have scientists found when they have done these studies? Are there studies that contradict each other? Does one debunk the other one? Are there meta-studies that explain why one is more accurate than the other? And are you sure your sources are good (ie. can you follow the source back to original research?)? Once you’ve done all that, you can be reasonably sure that your belief is accurate. However, to be a good skeptic, you can not say that you are a 100% certain that your belief is true. There is always a chance that you are wrong, and a true skeptic understands this. The problem with most so-called skeptics is they do not understand this.
So do you need to use the process given above to determine if your believes are true if you want to be a good skeptic? Yes. But it is not as daunting as it sounds. We all do the process to a certain degree, but most people don’t look at both sides of an argument, and they aren’t often open to changing their mind. The research doesn’t have to be done all at once. It can be done over the course of months or years, but both sides need to be considered, and you need to be open to changing your mind. That’s how we learn and grow.
So please, if you call yourself a skeptic, please make sure that you are as willing to apply your skepticism equally to all of your beliefs. And please make sure that you are willing to accept that you might be wrong. Because as soon as you say “I know x for certain” you cease being a skeptic. And as soon as you fail to apply the rigorous research needed to accept a belief you cease to be a good skeptic.
Withteeth and I haven’t been posting very regularly lately, but we do have a good reason. Our conference took place on Saturday, so a lot of our time went into that. Right now we are still in the process of recovering from the insanity.
However, we haven’t forgotten about the blog. Right now we are working on a large series. The series will go as follows: First we will do an atheism 101 where we will do a comprehensive overview of everything atheism that we deem important. This is meant to create an understanding between ourselves and our readers, as well as to educate theists about the topics of atheism that they might find the most confusing, and to give new atheists or those questioning their theism the resources necessary to make an informed decision about their stance and the words needed to express their views to others. Then we will do a Philosophy 101. This series will cover a vast array of topics in philosophy that will help our readers understand where we are coming from when we discuss philosophical ideas and how your ideas can best be expressed to us. Basically, this will be another way to eliminate miscommunication between ourselves and our readers. Then we will each do two separate 101’s: History and Biology. I will be discussing what history is, why it’s important, and what historians do in order to create an understanding of how historians come to the conclusion that certain events happened a certain way. Withteeth will be discussing Biology in an attempt to express why we do not accept creationism as well as to create a mutual understanding of what certain terms mean. Then we will collaborate once again on a couple more 101’s. First we will do a Feminism 101. Again, this will be to educate our readers about certain terms and to eliminate any misunderstandings about what certain terms mean. It will also be a way to express why we are feminists and why we find MRAs and Anti-Feminists problematic. We will finish the 101 series with an LGBT 101. Again, the point will be to create a mutual understanding of terms.
Given the topics we have chosen to discuss, a number of our posts will basically be repeats of old posts, however, we feel it is important to go through those topics again. We have two reasons for doing this series: first, it ensures that we can cover those topics that we have been meaning to get to but have not yet discussed, and second, it will help us create blog posts that we can refer back to when people ask us questions or make comments that we have dealt with multiple times in the past.
This is going to be a long series. the atheism one is already over 200 pages long. As such, it will likely take us the rest of the school year to complete this series. When we’ve finished this series, I will deal with all the books that I’ve put aside. This is meant to be a foundation, so hopefully the book discussions will add to these 101s.
I’m a Biologist but I’m also an advocate for LGBTQA persons, and a Feminist.
So it has bothered me for sometime now to hear the growing idea that the word “Sex” is being seen by many to be nothing more then a social construct. A tool used to quickly label, but that sorely falls apart under scrutiny. Particularly under the light that is the diversity of humanity, and should probably be tossed out. Well I don’t completely disagree with that, but I also don’t want to throw out the word “sex.” To understand why I hold both of these opinions you have to understand that my definitions and understanding of “Sex” is radically different then how the general population tends to use the word.
In general, English speaking cultures, even our governments view the words Sex and Gender as synonymous. This is the root of my conflict because as a biologist I have a precise and well defined notion of sex, and one which does not tread into the territory of gender.
But as a feminist and an advocate for LGBTQA I understand that conflating these terms is dangerous. Both because is misses a wide variety of people who do not fit neatly in to the male and female genders, but worse of all it confused a whole bunch of biology, and physical structures, with social and cultural constructs. This is in no way to say we ought ignore these constructs or that they are not important. However, how you are conditioned, and taught to present as a child doesn’t have much relationship sex you might have.
Though I or Hessian will defend more fully the diffrences between gender and sex in a later post for now I’d like to focus on what I think of when I talk about a person’s sex.
Sex in biology is not a cut and dry, male and female affair. For the majority of biologists discussing sex female and male are only used when there are a few obvious traits that can be used to distinguish different types of gametes in a single species. In species with the male and female classification. Your male if the gametes you produce are smaller and/or more mobile. Your female if the gametes are larger and/or less mobile. That’s generally all there is too it.
You can probably already tell that this isn’t cut and dry by my use of and/or, but it does map nicely on to the general view with humans, since male humans produce sperm which are small and mobile, where the eggs produced by female humans are larger and lack the ability to propel themselves. Although quite often people who are called women, or men are not always female and male.
Sexual reproduction is an old trait, and exists in many forms. Many organisms have male and female style gamete production, but fungus and many sexually reproducing single celled organism being a key example have many sexes or as they are often called “strains” a whole variety of different sexes each often only comparable with select few other strains. And even in organisms with gametes which fit neatly into the male/female divide such as plants you quickly realize that many organism, including most seed plants, contain both types of sex organs in the same individual (being hermaphroditic), not to mention the massive numbers of organism which can both reproduce sexually and asexually.
This plurality is the context I bring my understand of sex from. Sex is a really useful categorization for organizing reproductive capacity. Outside the frame work of ‘how can you produce offspring’ sex does not have much that is useful to say, and human’s are not exceptions to this rule either.
Certainty it’s true that there is some link between physical traits in humans and what gametes you produce, but these links are not cut and dry. Not everyone can produce gametes, and there are nor shortage of people (including trans* and intersex people) with physical traits which do not match what you’d expect by what gamete producing structures they possess. All of this is made more complex by the simple fact that the variety between even “typically” male and female people overlaps far more then in it differs, but if you willing to define sex by gametes like most biologists do, the vast majority of ambiguity goes right out the window.
Though there is a bit more of a downside from a social acceptance perspective. There are no shortage of people whom are for a variety of reasons unable to produce gametes. Now in cases where you have lost the ability to produce viable gametes, such as people who go through menopause. I’m entirely willing to grant them the sex that they would otherwise have, but in the chance of people who can’t and could never produce gametes? Well I’m force to say they are sexless. Now from a biology perspective I have no problem accepting this, but I can understand that others might not be so happy about it.
Further because of how male and female have become conflated with man and woman, there are not shortage of people, largely intersex, Trans*, and gender nonconforming people who wouldn’t be too happy if I was to start calling them male, female or sexless based on the gametes they do or don’t produce (assuming I could tell). That and I don’t blame them for a second. There is tons of baggage tied up with these terms so one can not just ignore the history. Though it happens to not be something that should come up in conversation often, since really you shouldn’t be trying to find out what gamete a person produces. It’s rather personal and you can’t even figure it out just by knowing a persons genitalia, which is also something you shouldn’t be asking people about anyway.
But this is why I’m conflicted, I use sex in the scientific manner, so I’m not talking about the same thing as most people when I’m discussing sex. But I don’t want sex to be thrown out of the common dialogue either. Rather I want more people to discuss the ideas of female and male in term of gametes. It’s simple and it’s clear, but best of all it doesn’t conflate sex and gender. It might ignore issue of secondary “sex” characteristics, but those aren’t actually controlled by your gamete production, so when we are talking about breasts, voices, body hair, muscle mass, and the like we aren’t actually talking about sex we are talking about a whole swath of biological controls. Most notably hormones.
I’m interested to see what questions and ideas everyone has, I couldn’t be a through as I’d like given the breadth of these topics, but for those new to most of this I hope I’ve at least opened your eyes to the complex nature of life on our planet and within our species in nothing else.
But don’t worry: I give an A for effort. Okay, actually there will be no grades because this is more about getting your opinion. This blog will be a year old in a month, and our semester is about to come to an end. As such, I think it’s about time to see where we are with the blog. If you are willing to help us out, please answer these questions in the comment section. That way we can figure out how to make the most of our blog over the winter break.
1) What do you consider yourself as far as religion is concerned?
2) How do you define religion? How do you define spirituality?
3) How do you define God or gods?
4) In your opinion, what is the importance of the Bible? The Quran? The Bhagavad Gita? Any other religious texts?
5) What is Atheism? Secularism? Secular Humanism? Agnosticism? Anti-theism?
6) What do you want to know about the above? What are your concerns about the above?
7) What is the importance of Philosophy? History? Science?
8) What do you want to know about Philosophy, History, and Science?
9) Are you a feminist? Why or why not?
10) What do you want to know about feminism?
11) What would you like to know about us as feminists?
12) If you are willing to tell us, what is your gender (not sex, but gender) and sexuality? How do they affect your lives?
13) What do you think affects a person’s sex or gender?
14) What would you like to know about gender and sexuality?
15) What are your hobbies? What do you believe to be the importance of hobbies?
16) What would you like to know about our hobbies?
For those of you who remember my Bible project, I will be getting back into it. My semester was far busier than I expected, so I had to put reading for pleasure aside. As such, I haven’t read either the Bible or Mere Christianity in a while. However, I’ll try to get Mere Christianity finished before the winter semester begins. The Bible will probably need to be put aside during the second semester, so I doubt I’ll finish that before next fall.
I enjoy talking about evolution. What it’s about, how it works, and the nearly endless conclusions and consequences it entails. When talking about it or teaching evolution it can be so easy to miss things, and I certainly don’t know everything about it either, but rather then just shooting out a post I thought I’d give our excellent followers a chance to ask some questions, or propose a suggestion or two on things they’d like to know, and I’ll see what I can do. These can extend further into general biology as well, and be aware my expertise is mostly in plants.
Any one interested?
There are three general types of Genetic Modification as I define them, and will be discussing them as follows:
Artificial Selection (can be facilitated by radiation or mutagens.)
Direct Genetic modification (Via gene insertions, deletions, and controlled mutations)
Now, I’m not going it get down into the nitty gritty of how to do all these things. I’m just going to talk generally about how they work and what they mean for the genome of the resulting organism.
One important idea we need to understand about genetic modification (GM) is that GM is a tool. Genetically modified organisms are the final results. It’s very important we do not confuse the tool with the product: just like a hammer and saw is not a cabinet, GM is not a GMO. And like any tool it has it’s positives and negatives, and can be misused, but the process of modern Direct GM is difficult and time consuming and require a lot of resources, expertise, and knowledge before you can commence with creating a GMO that will do anything at all, let alone something useful. Hybridization and artificial selection (selective breeding) are both in turn much simpler and much more time consuming. Modern wheat, before any genetic tinkering in the lab, has had thousands of years of GM done to it already via selective breeding. The modern wheat in our bread does not closely resemble the wild wheat cultivated by early farmers many thousands of years ago. Though wheat isn’t necessarily the best example…
…Since wheat is a hybrid of two different grains that, from what I can tell, don’t exist anymore, but we’ll get back to hybrids soon enough.
Artificial selection. This is maybe how we did it, and when I say that I mean artificial selection could be thought as one of the keys to human success. This is ultimately how we made agriculture work for us for the last 10’000 years. Artificial selection alone is responsible for historic agriculture and is still relevant today. So what is artificial selection? Well it harnessing evolution by natural selection and bending that selection to the whims of humanity.
For those of you who are not familiar with the scientific theory of evolution via natural selection (there are other selection pressures, but you don’t need to know them to understand this), well first that’s a minor tragedy, but no worries, there is no shortage of good information out there for you, here’s a bare bones basic run down. (Disclaimer this is by no means complete, but it enough for this post)
- You have population of living things.
- There is an amount of generic variation in the population.
- This variation lead to different morphological, and or behavioral traits.
- Members of this population can reproduce with one another (they are the same species)
- Some traits give an advantage or disadvantage to the individuals that possess them. (if no traits give those advantages or disadvantages then natural selection does not occur)
- Over time individuals with advantageous traits will produce more offspring while individuals with less advantageous traits produce less offspring (offspring is best thought of in terms of how many grand children). Over many hundreds or thousands of generations this will gradually change the morphology/behaviors of the entire population. Some times to an extent that it no longer resembles it’s ancient ancestors.
So how does this relate back to artificial selection? Well instead of an unaided gradual change as some individuals do slightly better than others, in artificial selection the breed can exert much greater control. For example if you have individual with undesirable traits, like wheat with 6 foot tall stalks (as a historical example) then you only breed those wheat plants which have shorter stalks, and do not save the grain (sell it or what not) of the longer stemmed wheat plants. This ability to quickly remove undesirable traits speeds the process of changes from thousand or millions of years to decades or centuries.
Now that said, you only have so much control with artificial selection, prior to knowledge of genes let alone gene sequencing, you could only select individuals based on detectable traits. Like hair length, colour, and thickness. And if an undesirable trait is a repressive gene you can’t actually remove it 100% from the breeding population with out blind luck, and heterozygous individuals (individuals with an allele for both the recessive and dominate trait) will often look/behave just like homozygous dominate (having both alleles for the dominate trait) individuals.
Also when you using artificial selection you can’t simplely choose one trait. I apologize it I didn’t make this clear before. When your breeding an organism your getting the whole genome, so you can’t just choose one trait and cross only that trait. you have to cross all the traits in the organism and hope you get a good combination. If you do this over and over eventually you’ll eventually get many, though not necessarily all, the traits you where after.
Now allow me to give another example. Say you have two breeds of apple tree one is a common baking apple and another is a half wild crab apple which produces a compound which you find gives the apple a delicious after taste, though the whole apple is not very tasty and is very small. So you try breeding the two lines together, and low and behold the resulting apples have none of the traits you where after, they are all small and sour with out the nice after taste you where after. However you expected this to happen so you cross that second generation with itself, and this time you get a more interesting mix, some trees have big apples and a sour taste, and some are small and sweet, and some have that after taste. You select those trees with traits closest you what you want and cross them, and do this six or so more times. Then you die. Because remember apple trees take a long time to grow and you got old, but don’t fret! Your grand child takes up your apple tree hobby and does a few more crosses and finally the Holy Grail of apples is born! Big, Tasty, and with your magic after taste! To bad you didn’t just isolate the trait and insert it into baking apples genome. Then you might of had the chance to enjoy it yourself… Now on to hybrids.
There are two terms you’ll need to understand if you look up more about hybrids: interspecific and intraspecific hybridization. Interspecific hybridization is the kind I’m talking about here and is between different species (generally closely related, although evolutionarily diverged to a significant degree, often to the point that they can’t normally reproduce in the wild). Intraspecific hybridization is hybridization within the same species and falls under general selective breeding above or just the natural crossing within the same species.
Hybridization is, in my opinion, the most uncontrollable, and therefore most problematic tool in the genetic modification tool box. Then again it is pretty safe as well, but the Africanized honey bees, killer bees, are an intraspecific hybrid species of the African honey bee and one of a number of the other subspecies of the western (European) honey bee. Hybrid plants are quite safe overall only posing environmental risks if they out compete native species, and I’m not currently aware of hybrid plant running amuck, it’s more that hybrid animals pose direct risks. Though, fun fact: there are a number of gentle Africanized honey bees which are now useable by bee keepers, and there is a move to try to make all Africanized honey bees gentled, though that’s a long ways off yet.
Why do I find hybridization more problematic? Well, because you have whole genomes, and your mixing them together and seeing what you get before selectively breeding in the conventional sense. This leaves the very real opportunity for unexpected events to occur since you are less able to control which genes will be crossed with which. While generally this effect is muted by the fact that only very similar organisms are able to be crossed, generally sub species or sister taxa are the limit of successful and fertile hybrid crosses. Though so long as two organisms are in the general area of the tree of life, fill similar niches, and have the same or close to the same number of chromosomes, you might be able to get a hybrid, but there is not clear cut rules for what will work, so some very odd combination might be possible. Plants are much easier to work with compared to animals, since you can keep a line going even if it’s infertile through numerous asexual mechanisms, such as runners cutting, or the artificial method of taking plant cells (normally from apical meristem or an embryo from a seed) and growing them in vitro to produce a large number of genetically identical plants from a single source.
Finally, we have genetic manipulation on the gene level. This is the most complex method in its totality, but actually producing the plants is not that difficult once you’ve isolated the gene(s) in question. The first step in adding or taking away a gene or genes is to identify what your after. Identifying a gene is not a simple task and requires much work, to such an extent that to adequately inform you all would be a series in itself. So rather than give a good explanation I’ll give a basic run down of one common type of method used in plants:
To identify a gene, researcher will often attempt to “shut it off” or disable the gene by mutating plant seeds and looking at the morphology of the mature plant and seeing if the desired traits have been lost or altered. If they have, the genes of those plant will be sequenced and comparing to a linage which has not been mutated.
Once the comparisons are made, the mutated genes are located and can be produced and inserted into bacteria, yeast or viruses for further testing. You need to test more since you only know which genes were mutated at this point, not which one(s) effect the trait your interested in. So you see what each of the genes do, and which proteins they are responsible for. This too is no simple task, but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into it further.
So now we have the gene(s) in question, and now it is time to put them into the plant you want. There are two main ways of to do this: Agrobacterium and Gene guns.
Gene guns? Yep you can shoot genes into a cell! Generally how this is done is a large number of plant cells are cultivated in the same manner I mentioned in the part of this post about hybrids. And then microscopically small gold pellets coated in the gene in question are fired in to the plant cells using a high powered air gun/microscope thingy called a gene gun. Some of those genes will enter some of the cell nuclei. From there you grow those cell into mature plants and pick out those plants which have the traits you want (most of them will be unsuccessful and will be unchanged). Then you sequence those plants and select those which have taken up the gene best, and then breed them into an existing line for several generations to produce a seed stock.
Agrobacterium works similarly to a gene gun, but instead uses the mechanism of the Agrobacterium to insert the genes in question. Otherwise it is basically identical.
All this work and you get one highly control change in a plant, with many inbuilt checks and controls, plus all of what happens above can be contained 100% in lab, and much of it has to happen in the lab, so the escape of seeds is exceedingly unlikely.
So that’s a bare bones run down of the three basic forms of genetic modification, and why Genetic insertion and deletion are not scary, but a very precise tool, which gives us a scalpel to broad strokes of Hybridization and artificial selection.