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On the Road with Michael Shermer
(Or, The Chronicles of Skeptica) Part 2

by Michael Shermer, Nov 18 2008

[webmaster broke last week's post into two parts and added new photos to this part]

Day 2. November 8, 2008

“Memo to all American speakers: At some point during your talk please apologize for George W. Bush and make a joke about his stupidity, then thank God for Obama (even you atheists) and mention that you voted for him.” Although no such paper memo was distributed to the speakers, by the second day I began to wonder if it was a tacit agreement nonetheless, since nearly everyone did it. Except me.

On this day the German ethologist and evolutionary psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, author of the excellent book, Gut Feelings, began with a funny story about an economics professor who was struggling to decide if he should take a new job position at another university, when a colleague told him to just compute the value and diminishing marginal utility of each option and then calculate the decision, “just like you teach your economics students to do.” The professor’s response: “Oh, come on, you don’t understand, this is serious!” His point was that when it comes to real life most of us make most of our decisions under great uncertainty. We use our gut feelings instead, and more often than not that works just as well as complex models. Gigerenzer’s most notable example was an economist (I believe it was Harry Markowitz) who received the Nobel Prize for his complex model of how best to make investments, but when it came to his own portfolio Markowitz reverted to a simple 1/n formula of the equal distribution of funds over a large number of investment tools.

Then the evolutionary biologist David Barash spoke about redirected aggression, recounting a story about how when his horse kicked his dog, his dog bit the horse. That’s directed aggression. More often than not, however, when A kicks B, B kicks C. Why? Reputation. If B does not kick C then others will start kicking him. (This assumes that if you kick A back, he’ll kick your butt for good.) Bush’s invasion of Iraq was redirected aggression from 9/11, says Barash, because there is no definitive state of Al Qaeda to kick back. Barash was followed by his wife, Judith Eve Lipton, who spoke about the myth of monogamy (take home message: just because animals are polygamous and promiscuous doesn’t mean you should be), reminding the audience that her and Barash have been faithfully married for over three decades. Some myth.

The funniest talk of the day was by Dan Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist who stumbled into happiness research after his mother told him to marry a nice Jewish girl and then make lots of babies and money. Effectively blending data and humor, Gilbert said that the research mostly confirms his mom’s intuitions: married people are happier than unmarried/divorced people, money makes you more happy until you reach a certain level (above the poverty line), after which there is diminishing marginal utility — making more money makes you happier, but less so the more you make. Bill Gates’s happiness is only marginally higher than, say, Richard Branson’s happiness. I should have such a diminishing returns problem. As for children, well, it’s a qualified yes. Anecdotally, says Gilbert, most people, retrospectively, will say that their children makes them happier, but if you employ a survey technique of daily/hourly monitoring of happiness, women report that child care is just barely above household chores on the happiness scale, but well below eating and hanging out with friends.

Later that afternoon, the “armchair economist” Steven Landsburg (who has a book by that title) gave us one of the best lessons of the weekend: “When people are shielded from the consequences of their actions, the outcomes are usually bad.” He then gave us a view of the world through an economist’s eyes. For example, how much pollution do we want, 0%? No. Without pollution we could not drive, fly, or live. But we don’t want 100% pollution, because then we’d all be dead. We need just enough pollution. How much is that? Landsburg’s answer: “Beats me!” But he explained that whenever there is a problem of too much or too little X (sex, pollution, fire departments, etc.), you consider the cost-benefit ratios, especially the ones the decision makers were shielded from, then you follow the logic wherever it leads you.

Next we heard from the Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams, who made the trip to Sweden for her work on eliminating land mines. Themes of her talk: Obama good. Bush bad. Nuclear power bad. Oil bad. Invasion of Iraq bad. American consumers bad. Experts bad. World leaders bad, especially Bush. 20% of people (bad Americans) use 80% of the world’s resources. And Bush is bad. And there weren’t even any jokes.

Williams was followed by the evolutionary psychologist David Buss, the world’s leading expert on why people fuck, technically known as “strategies of human mating.” Desire is at the foundation of the entire mating system, which shapes the tactics we employ. When thinking about evolution by natural selection we need to get past the emphasis on nature red in tooth and claw. We don’t just make war. We also make love. Darwin was troubled by mysteries that could not be explained by natural selection. “The sight of the peacock’s tail gives me nightmares,” he wrote in his notebook. The answer Darwin devised was sexual selection. There are two types. (1) Intra-sexual competition: competition between males for females (stags locking horns). Whatever qualities lead to success in these contests get passed on to offspring. In humans, males compete for status hierarchy for greater resources: mates, food, healthcare. (2) Inter-sexual selection: preferential mate choice. Female choice. As in: women control sex. This is a classic case of science confirming what every guy in the world already knows.

Sexual selection leads to a menu of mating strategies: long-term mating, short-term mating, extra-pair copulation, serial mating, mixed mating. In his research Buss discovered that across 37 different cultures, there were 32 different characteristics that very nearly all people desires. These include: love, exciting personality, good health, kindness, intelligence, sociable, easy going. Of course, there is cultural variability. For example, the desire for virginity and chastity is indispensable in China, but in Sweden the Virgin Mary would have a hard time getting a date. What do men want? A fertile mate. What does fertility look like? Cues that are statistically associated with certain underlying qualities. Cues to youth and health, for example, may be found in a symmetrical face, clear complexion, an hourglass figure, and a waist-to-hip ratio of .70. Get your measuring calibers out boys! What do women want? Resources. Women have a heavy metabolic investment in children and so need a partner with good resources. Cues: ambition, industriousness … and a Bentley Continental.

The geneticist Dean Hamer, discoverer of the gay gene, the god gene, and the men-don’t-ask-for-directions gene, asked “What Makes People Gay?” Historically, theories have included: Religion (bad person), Freud (bad family), Skinner (bad role models), choice (bad decision), and social constructionism (bad environment). That’s the wrong question, says Hamer. The right question: what makes people straight? Why are people heterosexual? Everyone answers: it’s biological, natural, because that’s how we pass on our genes. We have a strong genetic program to desire people of the opposite sex. But if it is genetic, there is variation, which means that there will be variation in our sexual orientation genes, and thus there will a range of sexual preferences. He used Kinsey’s 0-6 scale from straight to gay, with bisexual at 3 (and, what, Richard Simmons at 6?). But there are male-female differences in sexual orientation, with men either completely gay or straight and women showing a wider range of choices. Why? No one knows. But twin studies show that about 50 percent of the variance in sexual orientation is accounted for by genes. Which genes? Gays are more likely to have gay relatives on the mother’s side than the father’s side. This implies that the genes are on the X chromosome. In a study on gay brothers there is a gene on one chromosome called Xq28, which gay brothers share but straight brothers do not share. But that’s just one example. It is more likely that there are at least 50 genes, on a variety of chromosomes, involved in sexual orientation, so there is no “the” gay gene.

Since gays don’t have children, how would these gay genes get passed down through the generations? According to Hamer (if I got this right), a gene that makes men sexually attractive may also occasionally make men gay, but it will make females want to have sex with these super sexually attractive males (some of whom are gay). This suggests a simple sexual selection model that keeps the gene complex for homosexuality in the population. If I’m understanding this correctly, I think this refutes my unscientific theory for why we should embrace gay marriage: that more gay guys means more straight sex for straight guys. Apparently not.

Lame jokes aside, why in the world did Proposition 8 — banning gay marriage — pass in my hyper-liberal state of California? I put the question to Hamer. His answer: a lot of liberals, especially in the African-American community, consider marriage to be a separate issue from other civil rights, and thus we’ve got a ways to go for gays to achieve equal standing under the law. Hamer cited one study in which people were asked “Do you think homosexuality is a choice or are people born that way?” Americans were split 50/50. But when asked “Should gays be allowed to marry?” the answer was an overwhelming “No” for those who think homosexuality is a choice, and “Yes” for those who think gays are born that way. Since the science shows that homosexuality is not a choice, one solution to the political civil liberties issue is more science research and better science education.

I’ll close out this entry with a few snaps from my iPhone of an afternoon at the Great Pyramid of Cholula and a smallish but ornate Church of Santa Maria de Tonantzintla, both in the nearby town of Cholula, which I snuck away to during an afternoon break.

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21 Responses to “On the Road with Michael Shermer
(Or, The Chronicles of Skeptica) Part 2”

  1. Sander says:

    “The right question: what makes people straight? Why are people heterosexual? Everyone answers: it’s biological, natural, because that’s how we pass on our genes. We have a strong genetic program to desire people of the opposite sex. But if it is genetic, there is variation, which means that there will be variation in our sexual orientation genes, and thus there will a range of sexual preferences.”

    That’s one of the more elegant explanations I’ve seen about this subject. Nice.

  2. George Wenzel says:

    Hey, Michael, you’re one of my all time favourite persons, after Carl Sagan, but you misspelled calipers (calibers?). Ha, ha! Not as smart as you thought, huh?

  3. Max says:

    Sexual preference is a no-no term because it suggests choice. Get with the program.
    So, like, what’s Lindsay Lohan, who’s been dating a chick but insists she’s not a lesbian?

    I heard a peacock’s tail isn’t as attractive as we thought. What a nightmare.

  4. Jerry Gordon says:

    “…reminding the audience that her and Barash have been faithfully married for over three decades.”

    “…their children makes them happier…”

    Aren’t there any skeptical grammarians to proofread this column? (Sorry to be such a nit-picker; it’s just in my genes, I guess. Ask Hamer.)

  5. Rcreative1 says:

    I think the Proposition 8 vote fits nicely into Jonathan Haidt’s “five pillars of morality” paradigm. For liberals — who see morality as primarily about harm/care and justice/fairness issues — marriage equality is an obvious good. For conservatives — who also give great moral weight to purity, respect for authority and in-group loyalty — “gay marriage” sounds like an oxymoron, rule breaking and “special rights” for an out-group.

    Instead of focusing on proving the liberal case for marriage equality, the No on Prop. 8 team should have spent its ad dollars showing how marriage equality strengthens the institution for everyone, and encourages social conformity. Some No on 8 ads positioned gay people are part of the in-group, which was a promising start on widening the discussion, but obviously wasn’t enough.

  6. oldebabe says:

    Still an overall interesting post, even (especially) the second time. It’s also interesting to me that so many people comment on typos, etc., edit, instead of focussing on the substance of the article.

    Re: gay ‘marriage’, isn’t it back to the old bug-a-boos of definition and religion? Not all ‘straight’ people get `married’ in a religious setting, so do they have a ‘marriage’? These kinds of opinion arguments can go on forever, it seems to me.

  7. Sunshine69 says:

    I agree with Sander, the first commenter, that your explanation for variation in sexual preference was the most elegant and concise I’ve heard so far.

    Why don’t the Grammer Police go somewhere else and have a heated discussion on the Oxford Comma.

  8. Bill Vojtech says:

    “The right question: what makes people straight? Why are people heterosexual? Everyone answers: it’s biological, natural, because that’s how we pass on our genes. We have a strong genetic program to desire people of the opposite sex. But if it is genetic, there is variation, which means that there will be variation in our sexual orientation genes, and thus there will a range of sexual preferences.”

    Not sure I’m buying that. It’s in our genes that our head is at the top and our feet are at the bottom. That does not seem to vary. It’s in our genes that we’re carbon based life forms. I don’t see any silicon based people.

    I always laugh when people think that if we can convince everyone that gay is genetic that homophobia will go away. Race is genetic. That has not stopped the racists, has it? Even before we knew about genes, we knew race wasn’t a choice.

    Could aversion to those different be genetic? Destroy those different from you and keep more genes like yours in the pool?

    • This is a question I ask, frequently, when discussing why the ratio of atheist/free-thinkers/etc. never seems to be able to reach critical mass.

      Are we genetically pre-disposed to not join groups that will act in common defense of like-minded (or like-gened) individuals?

      Are the various pogroms and witch-hunts through the ages exactly what you describe: kill those you perceive to be different AND whom you see as a threat to the status quot power structure. Clearly liberal thinkers are constantly arguing that “there is a better way… we can improve.”

      If aversion to “different”, and willingness to act on aversion, are genetic, we may be doomed to perpetual minority status… our lot in life being to rise up in prominence JUST enough to prevent species suicide (providing a deliberative brake), and at the same time provide i-pods, medicine, sanitation, nuclear physics, the internet… on and on… then, when we approach critical mass, to be exterminated by a powerful majority that has JUST enough faculties to determine that if our ideas keep growing, their power will disappear.
      Per Kurt Vonnegut… So it goes?

  9. John Draeger says:

    As Sunshine69 wrote, the grammar police have got to lighten up. The master skeptics must have excellent time management skills in order to educate the masses. Fixing every typo and making endless revisions is not the best use of their time. I’d rather have them feel free to speak their mind and make more posts than worry about grammar.

  10. My comment is on the “gay” question (I call ‘em perverts).

    Same-sex “marriage” is impossible unless the word “marriage” is re-defined. “Marriage” has meant the same thing for about ten thousand years: the committed union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.

    This entire argument is being obscured by those who think some might be denied certain rights if they aren’t allowed to “marry.” This is patently not true.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with two (or more) people (or other species) living together in a committed relationship. There are even long-established legal procedures for doing so. “Partnerships, tenants-in-common, tenants-by-the-entirety,” etc.

    The question IMHO is why should agitators be able to have government REDEFINE a word (for the overwhelming majority) that has had the same definition for eons?

    If same-sex couples (or other multiples) wish to cohabit, let them feel free to do so and call their relationship by any term they so wish EXCEPT “MARRIAGE,” because “marriage” means a man and a woman.

    Hospitals and all other institutions can be brought around to allow same-sex family visitations and POA (Power of Attorney) rights merely by boycotting those who don’t offer such recognition.

    This same principle can be applied to any other situation.

    Call ‘em “civil unions.” “partnerships,” “companionships,” or any other word that some wordsmith deems appropriate, except “marriage,” BECAUSE “MARRIAGE” BY ANCIENT TRADITION IS BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN.

    I wonder why such “creative and artistic” people can’t solve such a simple “problem” without stirring up such a brouhaha ! Could it be that there is something more (sinister and undisclosed) on their agenda?

    As for genes, I firmly believe what I have read from the experts.

    Genes in humans merely “make suggestions” or “create urges” toward certain human actions. Genes in human do NOT dictate irresistible, “hard-wired” behavior patterns as we see in “lower-animal” behavior.

    This means that I think homosexuality is definitely a choice. In some, it is a conscious choice (the high-IQ crowd). In others, they just feel “drawn to it” (the non-introspective crowd.)

    In any case, “can’t we all just get along?” Live and let live and quit trying to force a word-redefinition on us “un-cool” straights?
    *******************************************************

    • Your basic presumption, that marriage has had a consistent definition for 10,000 years, is false… especially in the realm of “civil marriage” where the term amounts to a contract between two individuals, carrying benefits and responsibilities to the larger community. Period.

  11. Morris says:

    I find the genetic explanation of homosexuality as a variation is intuitively quite attractive. However, is the variation referred to what is generally known as “random mutation” ? I’ve always thought that random mutation is random not only in its incidence but also in its results, whereas homosexuality is consistent according to the article being discussed. If homosexuality were truly a random mutation there would have been little if any consistency between it and other random mutations in the genetic genes and we would have hundreds of other mutations. The mind boggles.

    Another point : by “random” we surely mean “unforeseeable but almost certainly the inevitable effect of specific causes which are unknown given our present state of knowledge”

  12. [...] is usually pretty good. Like this post about the Shermer’s trip to a TED-alike conference in Mexico. Then the evolutionary biologist David Barash spoke about [...]

  13. Erik says:

    My comment is on the pseudo linguistics (I call them humbuggers! (I did not know by the way that “‘em” was a word. Maybe newly (re)-defined? Hmm, maybe language does change after all))

    Same-sex “marriage” is possible because the word “marriage” is (or will be) re-defined. The word “Marriage” has NOT meant the same thing for about ten thousand years: the committed union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.

    For one the word is only as old as the English language. (Earliest record around 1290. (See also: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/marriage) Oh and for your information, the fact that a word had a specific meaning for and during a certain time does not mean it will always stay like that. The interesting thing about language is that, just like life, it evolves over time. Words change, words appear, word disappear and so on. The good thing really is that there has never been any group, legislative body, pressure group, government or any other socio entity such as a religeous congregation that has been able to claim ownership to a word. Hell, even the words god and atheist have multiple meanings. (thank your brain for that btw)

    This entire argument is being obscured by those who think they might loose certain rights if they allow others (oooh, scary, different people) to “marry.” This is patently true.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with two (or more) people (or other species) living together in a committed relationship. There are even long-established legal AND SOCIAL procedures for doing so. “Partnerships, tenants-in-common, tenants-by-the-entirety,” etc.

    The question IMHO is why should agitators be able to have government HIJACK a word (for the underwhelming minority (POV is very important here)) that has clearly changed over the past decade. WOW, eons of anthropological conservatism.

    If different-sex couples (or other multiples) wish to cohabit, let them feel free to do so and call their relationship by any term they so wish INCLUDING “MARRIAGE,” because “marriage” means: A joining of two parts (Amongst a slew of other things)

    Churches and all other religeous institutions should be brought around to allow same-sex family visitations (between consenting adults please, the other stuff we’ve seen too much off already) and POA (Power of Attorney) rights merely by boycotting those who don’t offer such recognition.

    This same principle can be applied to any other situation.

    Call ‘em “civil unions.” “partnerships,” “companionships,” or any other word that some word smith deems appropriate, INCLUDING “marriage,” BECAUSE “MARRIAGE” BY NEW TRADITION IS BETWEEN TWO CONSENTING (as opposed in certain cultures/religions) ADULT PEOPLE

    I wonder why such “oppressive and restrictive” people can’t solve such a simple “problem” without stirring up such a brouhaha ! Could it be that there is something more (sinister and disclosed) on their agenda? Such as to rid the world of non-believers or to bring heaven to earth or …?

    As for genes, I firmly believe what I have read from the experts.

    Genes in humans surely can make suggestions” or “create urges” toward certain human actions. Genes in human do dictate irresistible, “soft-wired” behaviour (Proper spelling is with of without an u?) patterns as we see in “other-animal” behaviour.

    This means that I think heterosexuality is not a definite choice. In some, it is a conscious choice (often made by others) (the IQ crowd pleasers). In others, they just feel “drawn to it” (the EQ crowd pleasures)

    In any case, “can’t we all just get along?” Live and let live and quit trying to HIJACK a word from us “ultra-hot” people.

  14. Erik says:

    My slowly evolving blog.

  15. Sunshine69 says:

    Bill Vojtech says that “race is genetic”. Well, there is actually some debate in the scientific community as to whether race actually exists. Is race just a manifestation of our genetic diversity and variation? There is no “black gene” or “white gene”. There are just variations in genes that control skin pigmentation, hair texture, etc.

    • Race is clearly a social construct, used to either justify or eliminate certain behaviors toward other “different” people.

      I feel that when the great scales of justice weigh the benefits of discussing race against the negative impacts, there will be a clear argument for eliminating the concept from our vocabulary.

      It is one, among many, of our “badges” or “signs” that are either hung on us or are chosen by us to signify membership in a club. (Sadly, race has been most often “hung” (pun intended)on other people to exclude membership.)

  16. Ken68 says:

    In order to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman one must first define “man” and “woman.” For this binary definition to be valid, each and every person must be put on one side or the other. In other words, there can be no “in-between.” Remember to include in your definition people with an XXY gene (and other variations), children born with “ambiguous genitilia” and chimeras.

    A related question is can a male become a female (or visa versa) by surgical or chemical means? Remember to include, again, children born with ambiguous genitilia who are surgically “modified.”

  17. Tim says:

    Those are nice pictures.

    If homosexuality is genetic then homosexuals are a violent people. Just look at how many of them are in prison!

    I don’t know or care (outside of general scientific curiosity) whether or not homos are that way because of hardware or software, when I hear about two guys having sex the last thing going through my mind is that I want to get involved. You don’t “allow” gay people to get married because objectively speaking they can do whatever the hell they want with or without your permission (or in spite of your condemnation). The proposition cannot therefore be whether or not gay marriage is to be “allowed.” The proposition is whether or not you have a right to take action against them, to codify in law that marriage shall only consist of certain groups, and establish a tax code which exempts those select groups.

    If you can exclude one group then you can exclude any group. If you can discriminate against others on my behalf then you can discriminate against me on the behalf of others. The same logic behind the separation of church and state applies to every other sector of our lives from separation of bedroom and state, separation of radio and state, separation of economy and state, and separation of marriage and state. Government should mind its own freggin’ business, and that business is to use coercion to stop coercion (put murderers in jail, put rapists in jail, put stick-up men in jail). Now if our jails happen to fill up with violent homosexuals, then so be it, but don’t put people in jail for being gay, don’t establish government monopolies which exclude gays from participating, and don’t give gays special privileges with hate crime laws or other BS.

    Leave us alone.

    • Tim says:

      Oh, I just realized the date on the post. Who posts on something this long ago? I mean, apparently I do, but that was because the thread appeared in the new posts section because somebody else posted here. So other than people who see a new post on an old thread and then post on that old thread not realizing it is an old thread…who posts on an old thread?