Saturday, June 18, 2005

Political soap

Having followed politics for some years now, I thought I had seen everything. Until I saw a CNN report that a bar of soap purportedly made from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's fat, removed during liposuction, sold for $18,000 at an auction.

Last year, Cheney uttered obscenities at a Democratic senator on the Senate floor. Perhaps clean out his mouth with Bubba's fat?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lost in outer space

You may recall the infamous photo of John Kerry in a space suit that ran during the presidential campaign last year:



About two weeks ago, Tom DeLay visited NASA and only partly avoided the mistake Senator Kerry made:


A better instinct for photo-ops may be one reason why Republicans are in power and Democrats are not (Dukakis in a tank, anyone?). Then again, with DeLay under a cloud of scandal, it may be best to avoid space walks altogether. He and Kerry would have been better off if they kept themselves grounded in political reality.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Genetic studies

The New York Times today reported the results of two very different genetic studies, one fairly straightforward and the other totally shocking if true.

First, the straightforward one. Researchers isolated the gene that determines the sexual orientation of fruit flies. Simply by turning on or off a single gene, the researchers could make a female fruit fly perform an elaborate mating dance before another female fruit fly. This is a neat experiment, all the more so because researchers had long known the genes responsible for mating but no one had ever thought to try this particular experiment.

My only quibble is with what one researcher said when interviewed for the article:

Hopefully this will take the discussion about sexual preferences out of the realm of morality and put it in the realm of science.

The problem is that the moral debate about homosexuality was never really about what causes homosexuality. The conservative premise, as I understand it, is that there is a distinction between having homosexual tendencies and engaging in homosexual sodomy, with the former perhaps beyond our control, but the latter very much so. For these conservatives, it is like saying that some people have a greater tendency than others to think murderous thoughts, but that does not make murder any less wrong. Whatever the science yields on the origins of homosexuality, it will do nothing to settle the cultural debate about gay marriage.

The second study is just plain stunning. Some researchers published a paper suggesting that certain genetic diseases long associated with Ashkenazi Jews, such as Tay-Sachs, exist as a byproduct of genes that make Jews smarter on average. The theory goes that when Jews were persecuted and could only work in commercial trades requiring some level of intelligence, there was intense evolutionary pressure to become smarter, and Tay-Sachs was an unfortunate byproduct of this rushed evolutionary product. Sort of how sickle cell anemia is a byproduct of evolutionary resistance to malaria.

I’m at a loss for words as to what to say about this, if it is in fact true, not just because it is utterly politically incorrect but also because of its implications about the interplay between genetics and culture and even between evolution and bigotry. There are so many politically incorrect ways that one could go with this, and not just with the Jewish people. Does ths study imply that black people dominate in athletic and not academic achievement because they were once slaves working the fields? This is all just so troubling because it seems to bring back social darwinism with a vengeance. The study also just seems wrong because I always thought it was about cultural values. Jewish people seem to have that Protestant work ethic that places great value on education and working hard to get ahead in life, and I had always assumed that these values were the reason why Jewish people have always seemed to succeed wherever they go.