When in Doubt, Just Question the Motives of Evolutionary Psychology Critics

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PZ Myers responds to Jerry Coyne on evolutionary psychology, in Pharyngula:

I detest evolutionary psychology, not because I dislike the answers it gives, but on purely methodological and empirical grounds: it is a grandiose exercise in leaping to conclusions on inadequate evidence, it is built on premises that simply don’t work, and it’s a field that seems to do a very poor job of training and policing its practitioners, so that it primarily serves as a dump for bad research that then supplies tabloids with a feast of garbage science that discredits the rest of us. I’d like to see the evolutionary psychologists who propose that there is a high quality core to their discipline spending more effort ripping into their less savory colleagues than on the indignant sniffing at critics of evolutionary psychology. I’d have more respect for the field if there was more principled internal striving.

There is also a tactic I really dislike; I call it the Dignified Retreat. When criticized, evolutionary psychologists love to run away from their discipline and hide in the safer confines of more solidly founded ideas. Here’s a perfect example:

…the notion that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false” seems deeply misguided. After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial, since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex. And since our bodies reflect their evolutionary history, often in nonadaptive ways (e.g., wisdom teeth, bad backs, the coat of hair we produce as a transitory feature in fetuses), why not our brains, which are, after all, just bits of morphology whose structure affects our behaviors?

You know what? I agree entirely with that. The brain is a material product of evolution, and behavior is a product of the brain. There are natural causes for everything all the way down. And further, I have great respect for psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, physiology, anthropology, anatomy, comparative biology — and I consider all of those disciplines to have strong integrative ties to evolutionary biology. Does Coyne really believe that I am critiquing the evolved nature of the human brain? Because otherwise, this is a completely irrelevant statement.

Debating Polyamory

Wedding-cake-008

First, Laurie Penny in the Guardian:

[n]on-monogamy is stereotyped as a bad deal for women and girls, all of whom actually just want a white wedding, because we women are all the same, simple creatures with simple desires. When abuse happens within polyamorous relationships, outsiders often assume that the non-traditional relationship structure is to blame – but the same assumptions are rarely made when a “traditional” marriage turns violent, despite the fact that the practice historically treated women as property and until recently made it legal for men to rape their wives. For plenty of women, that's reason enough to consider other options.

Of course, polyamory isn't always political. People do it for all sorts of reasons, from grand ethical statements to boredom – managing the drama of multiple relationships is a great way to kill time on a Sunday afternoon. Personally, I started practising non-monogamy in my early 20s as a statement against the tyranny of the heterosexual couple form and the patriarchal nuclear family – but then again, I did a lot of silly things for similar reasons in my early 20s. If you'd asked 21-year-old me why precisely I was hanging half-naked out of a fourth-floor window on Holloway Road, I'd probably also have answered “as a statement against the tyranny of the heterosexual couple form”. Nowadays, from the wise and serious vantage point of my mid-20s, I practice non-monogamy because it works for me. It doesn't work for everyone, and I might not choose it forever.

Julie Bindel responds, also in The Guardian:

Polyamory is the latest subversive and a la mode sexual practice toreceive extensive media coverage. It appeals as a subject for to those interested in alternative lifestyles, but also attracts commentary from some deeply unpleasant folk who have trashed it alongside gay marriage. “What next?” ask the bigoted opponents of equal marriage. “Polygamy and marriage to your brother/cat/hedge trimmer?”

It is neither my business or concern as to how many sexual partners anyone has at any one time, and I genuinely could not care less how folk organise their relationships. But the co-opting and rebranding of polygamy, so that it loses its nasty association with the oppression of the most disadvantaged women, is as irresponsible as suggesting that because some women chose to enter high-end prostitution as a social experiment, all prostitution is radical and harmless.

Caroline Humphrey, a professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, has argued in favour of the legalisation of polygamy because, according to a number of women in polygamous marriages in Russia, “half a good man is better than none at all”.

The Inca Empire’s Strange Economy

Ku-bigpic (1)

Analee Newitz in io9:

One of the outstanding questions for scientists and historians who study the Incas is why this wealthy, sophisticated culture developed scientifically and culturally without ever inventing markets. One possibility is that life was so difficult to sustain in their environment that all their innovations revolved around agriculture rather than economics. In other words, the Inca Empire was optimized to prevent starvation rather than to foster trade.

A few years ago, a group of archeologists took core samples in Cuzco valley in Peru, and found evidence for thousands of years of agriculture in the area, including animal husbandry, most likely of llamas. In a paper summarizing their findings, archaeologist A.J. Chepstow-Lusty and his team suggested that the Incas focused their technological and cultural institutions around food production and land management, rather than market economies. This may have been necessary in a region where droughts had likely wiped out a previous civilization (the Wari), and where climate fluctuations were a constant hazard. The rise of the Inca Empire coincided with a period of relative climate stability, but the peoples in the area would be well aware that this temperate spell could end at any time…

So how do you become a continent-dominating empire without cash? In the case of the Incas, it's likely that the technologies that granted them agricultural surplus (extra food and textile materials) helped them with their expansive empire-building. Food was their coin; pure labor structured their economy.

“I’m not building my own mausoleum”: A Conversation with Marina Abramović

by Justin E. H. Smith

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Marina Abramović (with the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art she recieved in 2008) at the screening of Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present during the Vienna International Film Festival 2012, Gartenbaukino. [Image from Wikipedia.]

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Marina Abramović is seeking to found an institute that will bear her name, in the Hudson Valley, which was formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. She has been on a publicity campaign recently to promote the project, including most importantly a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. Please click the link and donate, it ends soon!

On the phone last week (she at a fine hotel in Oslo, I at the Ibis in Bucharest), I asked Abramović about the possible difficulty of carrying over her well-known conception of the performer-audience relation –namely, that in performance art it is precisely this relation that constitutes the work itself, that makes the work happen– into an institution that bears her name, where she is no longer a person standing in one-to-one relations with the members of her audience, but rather, now, a name etched in stone: a person who becomes a building that becomes a monument to the idea of the mere person she once was.

“The institute is not actually related to my work,” she explains. “It's built on experience from my work, and my life.” Abramović hopes that by this distinction the institute will remain centered on experience rather than monumentality. “I like, really, ‘institute' because it's really not ‘foundation'. Most of the artists make foundations, and foundation is something that you actually leave after you die.”

It seems, here, we're getting to the heart of the matter: a foundation is a mausoleum to a person who did something at one time, but of whom the Romans would say, vixit: the perfective form of the past tense of ‘to live', conveying with understatement that by now all the living has been done. Foundations are for artists who can only figure out a way to have lived; Abramović thinks she has found a way to continue to live.

She happily acknowledges that her project is ‘utopian', and that most utopian projects fail. Hers will avoid failure, she thinks, because in giving her own name to the institute she is quickening it with the “symbol of that kind of vitality, that, you know, ego is not standing in front of it, everything is happening in it that's possible, and I'm open to that.”

“But isn't that placing a big bet on your name,” I ask her at this point, “that it will always be associated with vitality?” Abramović is unconcerned. She has a strategy, based in large part on the cultivation of a younger generation of successors. “I… have the very big respect and adoration of young people and the young public,” she explains.

In pursuit of her strategy, Abramović has selected a few young, and not-so-young, megacelebrities who, she hopes, will be able to serve as conduits for her vitality. “I just made a workshop with Lady Gaga,” Abramović tells me, “and at the same time, you know, Lady Gaga has 43 million followers on Facebook. This is a generation of kids from six years old, and these kids now are looking into performance art because Lady Gaga did it, and they are my future followers.” The idea is that after her brush with Abramovic, Gaga is no longer only doing whatever variety of popular entertainment she had being doing before, but rather, now, something more elevated: performance art. Performance art, on this understanding, is stuff famous people do, plus the approval of Marina Abramović.

I personally can think of few things more tedious than to get individually rapped at by Jay-Z, to mention another member of Abramović's retinue, while being expected to make that somber art-appreciation face the whole time. The Black Album is a masterpiece and the artist behind it deserves his place in our cultural canon, but the faces it causes us to make –even if these are the faces of dorky white guys borrowing a bit of phantasmic street cred in the privacy of our own cars and bedrooms– are different from the ones we have learned we are supposed to make at MoMA. This is a social fact, and Abramović's christening can do little to change it.

One danger in Abramović's investment strategy is of course that a grown-up, even a genre-defining performance-artist grown-up, might not be in the best position to predict long-term trends in youth culture. Lady Gaga, for example, might turn out, as I suggested to Abramović, “to be less of a transmitter of the sort of vision of art and creativity that you're hoping than it had seemed earlier on.”

“What do you mean, 'early on'?”

“Well, than it would seem in the present.”

“No, I think she's in a perfect place,” Abramović insists, “because, you know, she came to the museum in MoMA to look at my work, and because she was there all the young kids around her did the same, she left, but the kids stayed, and now they're my public… I have this huge amount of people Googling and asking what is performance art now.”

I'm still not sure I understand by what secret Verwandlung a performing artist becomes a performance artist. This is not the transfiguration of the commonplace, to invoke Arthur Danto's helpful term for ready-mades. This is the diversification of the celebrity portfolio, which only works because the celebrity was already elevated, glimmering, not at all commonplace, prior to receiving the Abramović stamp. Jay-Z is no Campbell's soup can.

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Ah-Choo! A Four Part Discourse on the Artlessness of Sneezing

by Akim Reinhardt

Photo credit University South FloridaI. A Sneeze for All Seasons
II. God Bless You
III. The Poetry of Sneezing
IV. Sneeze vs. Cough

Sternuisso ergo sum. I sneeze, therefore I am.

It defines me. It is at the core of my very existence. It is hell on Earth.

I. A Sneeze for All Seasons

Most people associate sneezing with a particular season, usually spring. For me, however, sneezing is hardly relegated to any quarter of the year. To the contrary, those respiratory convulsions afflict me all the year long. Spring is merely a furious crescendo of snot and burst blood vessels, with all the other seasons taking note and following suit to a lesser degree.

Summer. This would most likely be my annual respite from sneezing if not for my fellow Americans' horrid fetish for artificial environments. Once you move south of the upper Great Lakes or northern New England, air conditioning is King. Indeed, I now believe most people are pathetically weak, shrinking and wailing in the face of an 85F degree day (nearing 30C) as if Satan had finally triumphed and unleashed Hell's searing fireballs upon us.

In particular I look gravely askance upon those who set their thermostat at 72 in Winter and 68 in Summer. There really is no pleasing them, and their convoluted, soulless lives are so far removed from the of beauty of this world that I hope Mother Earth rejects them in the end, spitting their bones back out after they're buried.

My burning hatred for A/C is multi-faceted. To offer just a few complaints, it gives me a headache, it makes my face numb, it dries my natural perspiration into a fetid crust, and in any event, I'm a skinny fuck who prefers to be warm and adjusts easily to summer, even muggy ones here along the Chesapeake Bay.

But back to the point. Air conditioning sometimes induces sneezing fits. Probably not, Lord help me, if I'm just sitting in some vapid air conditioned box all day, breathing particulate matter and contemplating the finer points of a nuclear holocaust. But if I'm in and out of air conditioning on a hot day, perhaps doing some shopping, moving from natural warmth and humidity to the artificially dry and cool, and back again, a sneezing fit can descend upon me rather suddenly.

As best I can tell, it results from the ping pong of fluids loosening and tightening in my head. Much like muscles, my sinuses seem loose and relaxed on a warm day. Walking into some frigid little hell hole instantly tightens everything up. I leave, and everything is loose again, perhaps so loose that it demands instant expunging. The mucus, previously calm and unmolested, now descends in a torrent, accompanied by an onslaught of staccato explosions.

Man, that sucks.

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Walking Past the White House: Contractual Arrangements

by Maniza Naqvi

MLKThe 50th anniversary of Dr. King's civil rights march on Washington is to be celebrated this week. The bullet points in the news are that Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking military documents and the White House hasn't stopped its military aid of US$1.3 billion to Egypt despite the military take over there and the killing of over one thousand citizens. Trouble is the poor White House is in a bind. Egypt doesn't need the weapons—it seems, it's the American contractors who do. US weapons contractors need the contracts for those weapons. If this aid is stopped, then the poor Pentagon Procurement office will be stuck in litigations for reneging on contracts and US weapons firms will suffer—Who knows which firms are involved and which senator in which State will be held accountable come election time. Fixing elections by changing voting rights might not be insurance enough. Civil liberties must take a back seat to commerce. You can't eat civil liberties. And elections aren't about civil liberties!

As I walk towards the statue of Lafayette on the Southwest corner of the park, I pass by the brick building which is on the blocked off street adjacent to the park on its eastern side and called Madison Place. I can see through to the courtyard, the wrought iron gates are open—a fountain gurgles in the courtyard—it is the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (here). This court, set up in 1982 during Reagan's reign, deals with litigation and appeals on money matters related to veterans claims, patents, intellectual property, tax, and international contracts. Interesting, that this should be the appeals court in such a prime location nestled so near the White House. I hesitate at the sight of the K-9 unit and Security but then I cross the street, go up the stairs and into the courtyard. There are windows of offices on three floors, which look down onto the courtyard, what a lovely setting this is, idyllic almost, with a shaded walk way to the side with tables and chairs: a quiet serene nook where perhaps anyone could come and sit and write, or have lunch.There's a certain whiff of southern sensibility here, a nod to Charleston, perhaps? This garden, the sound of the water gurgling–this discovery, the lack of time that I have to stay—make it familiar and even more special. How peaceful it is here.

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Bin Laden Won: No Man Has Changed America More For The Worse

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

ImagesBefore Bin Laden did 9/11, America had a kind of reputation as a moral leader of the world: the bastion of freedom. We had faced down the Soviet Empire, and when it fell apart, there was only one hegemon left: us.

Our system had prevailed. In the end, we had won the Cold War. Communism had been defeated. Even China turned to capitalism. We had been right all along. And with our insistence on freedom and human rights, we were morally respectable (forget for a moment that we were propping up despots everywhere).

Today things look very different. Because of Bin Laden, we got involved in two unnecessary wars, tortured people, and ended up with a hugely expensive surveillance state.

Bin Laden brought fear into our lives, and turned the United States into a parody of Big Brother, spying big-time on its own citizens.

Think of America before 9/11: the world's undisputed and admired leader. Think of America just after 9/11: the world sympathized with us. Even in Iran, where we had installed the torturous regime of the Shah before he was overthrown in 1979, folks held candle-lit vigils for us.

Then think of us a few years later, when the biggest protests in human history took place all over the world against our imminent invasion of Iraq.

Over a million people in Rome marched against our proposed war with Iraq: that's just one example. And were they ever right to protest. Our war of aggression against an innocent nation that was not threatening us in any way, ended up with over 100,000 Iraqis murdered. And the scandals and atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay brought our moral superiority into disrepute forever. Moreover, the Iraq War became an ideal recruitment tool for Al Qaeda, and multiplied the number of terrorists in the world by the thousands. We ended up creating terrorists instead of diminishing their number.

Of course, Bin Laden also got lucky, because he struck us when two of the biggest idiots serving in government since Caligula appointed his horse as a Roman Senator, were running the country: the mediocre C-student George W. Bush and the eternally paranoid bird-killer Dick Cheney. If Al Gore had been president during and after 9/11, we certainly would not have started a war with Iraq, and might have made a deal with Afghanistan's Taliban for them to hand over Bin Laden, as they were apparently prepared to do, except that Bush/Cheney were so bent on war, they were in no mood to make a deal with the Taliban, even though they used to make deals with the Taliban before 9/11.

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The Sound of the Wind (秋思)

by Leanne Ogasawara

Le thanh son --treesAccording to my Japanese almanacs, of the four seasons, it is autumn alone which is heard before it is seen.

This can happen after a windless, blisteringly hot Japanese summer, when autumn arrives around the end of August. Ever so slight, it makes itself known by the sound of the stirring of the leaves in the trees–for autumn arrives carried by the wind.

秋来ぬと目にはさやかに見えぬども風の音にぞおどろかれぬる   

–藤原敏行朝臣

Nothing meets the eye
to demonstrate beyond a doubt
that autumn has come–
yet suddenly we are struck
just by the sound of the wind
— Fujiwara Toshiyuki no Ason

The great Sei Shonagon also reminds us to stop and listen:

秋は、夕暮。夕日のさして、山の端(は)いと近うなりたるに、烏の寝どころへ行くとて、三つ四つ、二つ三つなど、飛び急ぐさへあはれなり。まいて雁などの列ねたるがいと小さく見ゆるは、いとをかし。日入り果てて、風の音、虫の音など、はたいふべきにあらず。

“In autumn the evenings, when the glittering sun sinks close to the edge of the hills and the crows fly back to their nests in threes and fours and twos; more charming still is a file of wild geese, like specks in the distant sky. When the sun has set, one’s heart is moved by the sound of the wind and the hum of the insects

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The Million Speak

by Joy Icayan

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It’s a rainy morning in Manila, where sixty thousand people have converged in Luneta Park to protest against the misuse of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), regular allocations to legislators amounting to millions in pesos. The protest, dubbed the Million People March is happening around the country with key rallies in all three major islands. It has materialized following a series of events. Whistleblowers surfaced two months ago accusing a certain Janet Napoles of spearheading the transfer of PDAF money (amounting to P10 billion pesos) over the course of many years towards fake NGOs and fake projects. A friend of Janet Napoles’ daughter leaked pictures of her Instagram account showcasing her lavish lifestyle: luxury cars, bags, shopping trips. Then just a week ago, the country was besieged by monsoon rains which caused intense flooding in the metro and nearby provinces. As always when this happens, residents blamed politicians for lack of flood control mechanisms. But this time, the anger had a new dimension to it – corruption, through the misuse of taxpayers’ money (PDAF) or more commonly called pork barrel, had been allocated not for public projects but to support the lives of the few rich.

Perhaps like any colonialized developing country, the Philippines’ history has been one of protests. From the Spanish colonization, to the American and the Japanese to the protests against our own governments, protests took on a form of slow quiet simmering before finally coming to the fore. During the declaration of Martial Law and its human rights violations, activists trooped to the streets, denouncing the government. The deaths and disappearances of many activists silenced many. It was the death of popular opposition leader Benigno Aquino that rallied everyone to go to EDSA to remove the current dictator in what would be termed People Power 1. They harnessed the same People Power to remove President Joseph Estrada, accused of plunder in 2001.

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Robert Pinsky: Freedom in Poetry

Robert Pinsky at the website of the Poetry Foundation:

Pinksy_smallThere are no rules, but uniformity in art can make it feel as though there are rules: the more unconscious or unperceived (as with widely accepted fashions), the more confining.

A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives. But there are always alternatives. How might a resourceful, ambitious artist get past or around a perceived tyranny? European painters early in the twentieth century, challenging the academic norm, found something useful in Japanese cigarette papers and African masks.

The past can offer a useful way of rebelling against the orthodoxies of the present. The early modernist poets revived interest in John Donne and Andrew Marvell, not because they wanted to correct the academic reading lists—that was a side effect—but because they were impatient with late-late Romantic, post-Victorian softness. They craved models of hard-edged intelligence and lightning wit.

In the 1970s, a young poet I knew described the manner most prevalent in the magazines and writing workshops of those days as “just grooving on images.” I remember that poet—now a considerable and innovative figure—introducing me toJames Shirley’s “The Glories of Our Blood and State,” praising the poem for the force of its statement and idiom, the cogency of its propositions, and its cadences.

More here.

And the Genomes Keep Shrinking…

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

Cropped-leafhopper-990x555Here are a few numbers about DNA–some big ones, and then some very small ones.

The human genome contains about 3.2 billion base pairs. Last year,scientists at the University of Leceister printed the sequence out in 130 massive reference-book-sized volumes for a museum exhibit. From start to finish, they would take nearly a century to read.

A typical gene is made up of a few thousand bases. The human genome contains about 21,000 genes that encode proteins. There are other genes in the human genome that encode molecules known as RNA, but how many of those RNA molecules actually do anything useful in the cell is a matter of intense debate. A lot of the human genome is made of neither protein- or RNA-coding genes. Much (maybe most) of it is made up of dead genes and parasite-like stretches of DNA that do little more than making copies of themselves.

As I wrote recently in the New York Times, 3.2 billion base pairs and 21,000 genes are not essential requirements for something to stay alive. E. coli is doing very well, thank you, with a genome about 4.6 million base pairs. That’s .14% the size of our genome. Depending on the strain, the microbe has around 4100 protein-genes. That’s about a fifth the number of protein-coding genes that we carry. The high ratio of genes to genome size in E. coli is the result of its stripped-down, efficient genetics. Mutations that chop out non-functional DNA spread a lot faster in microbes than in animals.

E. coli, in turn, has proven to be positively gargantuan, genetically speaking, compared to some other species.

More here.

Learning how to live

From NewStatesman:

LiveMy father often used to tell me how my immigrant grandfather declined in health and spirit once he gave up the café he ran from dawn to late into the night in Petticoat Lane to retire to a leafy suburb. It was only a matter of time, my father said of the man I never met and knew almost nothing else about, before he died of having stopped work. I think this story is the equivalent of an urban myth of that generation. The decent man who worked all the hours that God sent and more, provided what he could (which was never lavish) for his family, toiled unceasingly in order to make sure his son went to a good school and got a profession, collapsed and died once he stepped off the treadmill.

…There is an argument to be made against the prototypical life of hard work as the inevitable lot of humanity. In 1974 the Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics. He proposed the idea that individuals in many “simple” societies, far from working themselves to death merely to exist in their nasty, brutish and short lives, were actually members of the “original affluent society”. He suggested that, in those parts of the world where co-operation and social exchange were paramount, once people had done the few days’ hard work of felling a tree and carving out a canoe, there were large amounts of free time to lie about daydreaming, exploring, telling stories: doing “culture” or just skiving. You’d fish in the canoe you’d made, and by preserving and sharing the catch with others, who also shared theirs with you, you could then take a few days off before you needed to get any more. Decent members of those communities did what they needed to do and then when they didn’t need to do it, they stopped. Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on its perceived wealth-giving properties do you have to work hard all the time. Accumulation was hampering; you had to carry it about with you when you moved from camp to camp, or find ways of storing and securing it if you were sedentary. Without the idea of surplus as a value beyond its use value, when you needed/wanted something you got it, and when you had it, you enjoyed it until it was time to get some more.

More here.

Richard Dawkins is not an Islamophobe

An attack on the renowned atheist as anti-Muslim is really designed to squelch honest conversation about religion.

Jeffrey Tayler in Salon:

ScreenHunter_288 Aug. 25 16.08No doubt, Nathan Lean, the editor in chief of an Islam-positive online entity called Aslan Media, fired off his recent denunciation of Richard Dawkins’ alleged “Twitter rampage” about the paucity of Muslims among Nobel Prize laureates, and heaved a sigh of satisfaction. Mission accomplished! Godless biologist slapped down, “Islamophobia” denounced!

Lean would do well to stiffen up, however. In tapping out a risible parody of a reasoned critique, he unwittingly both beclowns himself and lends credence to the very scientist and arguments he seeks to discredit. His piece is full of wrongheaded thinking and blundering jabs at Dawkins for pointing out uncomfortable truths about the state of science, or, rather, the lack of it, in Muslim countries. Lean purports to “expose” the “ugly underbelly of [Dawkins’] rational atheistic disguise,” but has authored a tract consisting almost wholly of politically correct shibboleths and befuddled assertions that insult his readers’ intelligence and aim to squelch honest debate about Islam and its role in the world today. If one believes in free speech, one cannot let what he wrote go unchallenged.

More here.