Vacation Posting pt. 2: Brain Modules, Fertility, and Conspiracy

Sorry, I’ve been on vacation (and no, I do not like vacations.) This has interfered with my normal writing schedule, (it is now past 4 am) but here are the notes I managed to jot down in the car:

2. Brain Modules

This is relevant to my previous post on “The Modular Mind,” in which I proposed that people use a kind of compartmentalized or “modular” thinking to break down the complexity of life into manageable chunks. People can hold two beliefs at once that they think are “logical” but contradict each other because each belief is sort of “lodged in” a different module.

For example, Module 1 likes to think about Pensions. Mod 1 knows that pensions are paid for via current workers’ salaries, so we have to have enough future workers to fund future pension obligations.

Module 2 likes to think about the Environment. Mod 2 knows that we only have so many resources and that a growing population will quickly exhaust them, so we must reduce birthrates to save the environment.

Mod 1 then looks around and panics because, Oh no, there aren’t enough young people around to fund the pensions!

Mod 1 doesn’t bother to check in with Mod 2 about why there aren’t enough babies around. It just has some vague idea that people don’t want to make babies for some reason, so it goes and finds some people who do make babies and propose that we let more of them into the country.

Mod 1: Problem solved!

Mod 2: Oh no, look what all of those new people just did to our carbon footprint! We will have to reduce and conserve even more!

Modular thinking lets people process one problem very effectively, but interferes with seeing connections between those problems. In this case, they don’t see why mods 1 and 2 are working in opposition to each other.

From the outside–to someone who encounters both thoughts at once and so doesn’t process them separately–it makes no sense that someone could advocate both at once. They obviously contradict. Hence, outsiders tend to assume this contradiction is deliberate, caused by conspiracy, malice, or ill-will.

(Don’t worry, this is the last of the vacation posting.)


Trying to be Smart: on bringing up extremely rare exceptions to prove forests don’t exist, only trees

When my kids don’t want to do their work (typically word problems in math,) they start coming up with all kinds of crazy scenarios to try to evade the question. “What if Susan cloned herself?” “What if Joe is actually the one driving the car, and he only saw the car pass by because he was looking at himself in a mirror?” “What if John used a wormhole to travel backwards in time and so all of the people at the table were actually Joe and so I only need to divide by one?” “What if Susan is actually a boy but her parents accidentally gave him the wrong name?” “What if ALIENS?”

After banging my head on the wall, I started asking, “Which is more likely: Sally and Susan are two different people, or Sally cloned herself, something no human has ever done before in the 300,000 years of homo Sapiens’ existence?” And sometimes they will, grudgingly, admit that their scenarios are slightly less likely than the assumptions the book is making.*

I forgive my kids, because they’re children. When adults do the same thing, I am much less sympathetic.

Folks on all sides of the political spectrum are probably guilty of this, but my inclinations/bubble lead me to encounter certain ones more often. Sex/gender is a huge one (even I have been led astray by sophistry on this subject, for which I apologize.)

Over in biology, sex is simply defined: Females produce large gametes. Males produce small gametes. It doesn’t matter how gametes are produced. It doesn’t matter what determines male or femaleness. All that matters is gamete size. There is no such thing (at least in humans) as a sex “spectrum”: reproduction requires one small gamete and one large gamete. Medium-sized gametes are not part of the process.

About 99.9% of people fit into the biological categories of “male” and “female.” An extremely small minority (<1%) have rare biological issues that interfere with gamete formation–people with Klinefelter’s, for example, are genetically XXY instead of XX or XY. People with Klinefelter’s are also infertile–unlike large gametes and small gametes, XXY isn’t part of a biological reproduction strategy. Like trisomy 21, it’s just an unfortunate accident in cell division.

In a mysterious twist, the vast majority of people have a “gender” identity that matches their biological sex. Even female athletes–women who excel at a stereotypically and highly masculine field–tend to identify as “women,” not men. Even male fashion designers tend to self-identify as men. There are a few people who identify as transgender, but in my personal experience, most of them are actually intersex in some way (eg, a woman who has autism, a condition characterized as “extreme male brain,” may legitimately feel like she thinks more like a guy than a girl.) Again, this is an extremely small percent of the population. For 99% of people you meet, normal gender assumptions apply.

So jumping into a conversation about “men” and “women” with “Well actually, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are just social constructs and gender is actually a spectrum and there are many different valid gender expressions–” is a great big NO.

Jumping into a discussion of women’s issues (like childbirth) with “Actually, men can give birth, too,” or the Women’s March with “Pussyhats are transphobic because some women have penises; vaginas don’t define what it means to be female,” is an even bigger NO, and I’m not even a fan of pussyhats.

Only biological females can give birth. That’s how the species works. When it comes to biology, leave things that you admit aren’t biology at the door. If a transgender man with a uterus gives birth to a child, he is still a biological female and we don’t need to confuse things by implying that someone gestated a fetus in his testicles. Over the millennia that humans have existed, a handful of people with some form of biological chimerism (basically, an internalized conjoined twin who never fully developed but ended up contributing an organ or two) who thought of themselves as male may have nonetheless given birth. These cases are so rare that you will probably never meet someone with them in your entire life.

Having lost a leg due to an accident (or 4 legs, due to being a pair of conjoined twins,) does not make “number of legs in humans” a spectrum ranging from 0-4. Humans have 2 legs; a few people have unfortunate accidents. Saying so doesn’t imply that people with 0 legs are somehow less human. They just had an accident.

In a conversation I read recently, Person A asserted that if two blue-eyed parents had a brown-eyed baby, the mother would be suspected of infidelity. A whole bunch of people immediately jumped on Person A, claiming he was scientifically ignorant and hadn’t paid attention in school–sadly, these overconfident people are actually the ones who don’t understand genetics, because blue eyes are recessive and thus two blue eyed people can’t make a brown-eyed biological child.  A few people, however, asserted that Person A was scientifically illiterate because there is an extremely rare brown-eyed gene that two blue-eyed people can carry, resulting in a brown-eyed child.

But this is not scientific illiteracy. The recessive brown-eyed gene is extremely rare, and both parents would have to have it. Infidelity, by contrast, is much more common. It’s not that common, but it’s more common than two parent both having recessive brown-eyed genes. Insisting that Person A is scientifically illiterate because of an extremely rare exception to the rule is ignoring statistics–statistically, the child is more likely to be not biological than to have an extremely rare variant. Statistically, men and women are far more likely to match in gender and sex than to not.

Let’s look at immigration, another topic near and dear to everyone’s hearts. After Trump’s comments about Haiti came out (and let’s be honest, Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, is one of the world’s largest cities without a functioning sewer system, so “shithole” is actually true,) people began popping up with statements like “I’d rather a Ugandan immigrant who believes in American values than a socialist Norwegian.”

I, too, would rather a Ugandan with American values than a socialist Norwegian. However, what percentage of Ugandans actually have American values? Just a wild guess, but I suspect most Ugandans have Ugandan values. Most Ugandans probably think Ugandan culture is pretty nice and that Ugandan norms and values are the right ones to have, otherwise they wouldn’t have different values and we’d call those Ugandan values.

Updated values chart!

While we’re at it, I suspect most Chinese people have Chinese values, most Australians have Australian values, most Brazilians hold Brazilian values, and most people from Vatican City have Catholic values.

I don’t support blindly taking people from any country, because some people are violent criminals just trying to escape conviction. But some countries are clearly closer to each other, culturally, than others, and thus have a larger pool of people who hold each other’s values.

(Even when people hold very different values, some values conflict more than others.)

To be clear: I’ve been picking on one side, but I’m sure both sides do this.

What’s the point? None of this is very complicated. Most people can figure out if a person they have just met is male or female instantly and without fail. It takes a very smart person to get confused by a few extremely rare exceptions into thinking that the broad categories don’t functionally exist.

Sometimes this obfuscation is compulsive–the person just wants to show how smart they are, or maybe everyone around them is saying it so they start repeating it–but since most people seem capable of understanding probabilities in everyday life (“Sometimes the stoplight is glitched but usually it isn’t, so I’ll assume the stoplight is functioning properly and obey it,”) if someone suddenly seems incapable of distinguishing between extremely rare and extremely common events in the political realm, then they are doing so on purpose or suffering severe cognitive dissonance.


*Oddly, I solved the problem by giving the kids harder problems. It appears that when their brains are actively engaged with trying to solve the problem, they don’t have time/energy left to come up with alternatives. When the material is too easy (or, perhaps, way too hard) they start trying to get creative to make things more interesting.