Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thanksgiving origin

You know Thanksgiving has a story, linking it to the Pilgrims. I talk about the bigger cultural phenomenon here. But have you actually read the original story? There is a later version with more detail but this is the only nearly contemporary account:

You shall understand, that in this little time, that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

From Mourt’s Relations

Interview with Shawn Otto, Author of "Sins Of Our Fathers"

The literary thriller “Sins of Our Fathers” by Shawn Otto was release just a few days ago. I interviewed Shawn on Atheist Talk Radio last Sunday morning while you were at church. It is a great book and a pretty good interview. The book is about Anglo-Native relationships, gambling, banking, race relations, law, the American Dream, and other things, set in northern Minnesota.

Here is the interview:

What is the meaning of Thanksgiving and how do I prepare a Turkey?

These are important questions, though I must say it is a little late for you to be asking considering that Thanksgiving is right around the corner!

Thanksgiving is a feast, and feasting is something humans do in many cultures (but not all, probably). A while back I wrote a piece of feasting that you should read to prepare yourself for Thursday:

The Feast (A Thanksgiving Day Story)

There’s a lot of ways to cook a turkey and everybody has their favorite. But this way is the best:

How to cook a turkey

In case you were wondering about the origin of the turkey, here’s the info on that:

The Domestic Turkey and the First Thanksgiving

In case you were feeling bad about cooking the turkey (or other animals) you can find out how to do a Vegan Thanksgiving here.

Meanwhile, you might want to make gravy, in which case you will need information on how to make stock as well:

How to make stock

How to make gravy

Unless you really know what you are doing stay off the ice!

Yes, I have to post the “stay off the ice” post early this year. There have been several instances over recent weeks of folks wandering onto the ice and needing to be rescued (the most recent, here). This is not yet ice season. That hardish water you see on the surface is like that one person you briefly dated in college … way to thin and very temporary. (Uncharacteristic joke but somehow I couldn’t stop myself.)

Anyway, this is a fictionalized version of a true story recently told to me by two of the people involved. All the names of those still living have been changed. Please do not let this happen to you.


No one is sure why Fred took the chance he took that day, but when Elmer saw him flailing in the icy water surrounded by black ice 300 yards out in Medicine Lake, he did not at that time think to divine his motivations for being there. Fred, an old man who had been ice fishing for dozens of generations of fish and two or three generations of more mortal men, had gone out on the black ice where he should not have been, and now that he had broken through, he’d have only minutes before his body temperature chilled down enough for him to fall unavoidably to sleep, then slip into the water and drown, or just shut down and die.

“Black ice,” by the way, is the term used for ice that is thin and clear enough that you can see the dark waters of the lake beneath it, and it is almost always too thin to walk on. On this particular day on Medicine lake, there had been storms and the air temperature was a bit high, causing much of the lake to be slushy on the surface of ice normally thick enough to hold anglers, ice houses, even pickups. Perhaps Fred had thought the black ice was just dirty slush.

In any event, Elmer knew he needed to act quickly else Fred would not survive. He remembered that moments ago, on his way out on the lake, he had passed a 15 foot long 2×4. Chances are pretty good someone had put this long piece of wood out there as a precaution, for the very purpose for which Elmer was about to use it.

Elmer quickly fetched the 2×4, and headed toward Fred. As he got closer, he lay on the ice and crawled several feet forward, pushing the wood ahead of him.

“Grab the 2×4!!!” shouted Elmer. Seeing the squared off end of salvation looming into view, Fred grabbed it. Then, as Elmer started to pull backwards on the wood, the weight of the two men bore down on the tenuous linear connection between them and the 2 x 4 sliced through the ice like a wire cheese cutter through medium cheddar. The weight on Fred’s side made Elmer see-saw upwards, and as he came back down he thought he was going to crash through the ice himself.

But Elmer settled gently enough on the ice to not break it, and laying face down stopped to count his lucky stars that the ice was holding, for the moment.

But he was indeed on thin ice in thinking that the ice was thick enough for his mass, and suddenly the ice stopped holding and before he could say “Uffda” Elmer was in the freezing lake surrounded by little irregular ice cubes and slush, feeling a lot like a slice of grapefruit in a bowl of Sangria. Doomed grapefruit.

Fortunately for Elmer, Knute Thimson happened to be watching this fiasco from the remains of his ice house a few hundred yards along the lake. Knute had been inspecting his former ice house, which had been blown to bits in the storm, and he had just set about the job of picking up the pieces, wondering if it would be better to try to put it all back together, or if he should just bring what was now essentially litter home and borrow his cousin’s ice house. His cousin, a missionary working in Africa, only used his ice house for about one week every two years when he would come home for the holidays. Even then, he’d only use it for a day or two.

As Knute instinctively started trekking across the ice towards the scene of Fred and Elmer’s plight, these thoughts faded into the background as thoughts of what to do about the current situation began to form. At first, Knute had no idea what his rescue strategy should be. In a different sort of universe, not the one we actually live in, he may have thought, “Damn. I wish cell phones had been invented, I’d call the Sheriff.” And just as he was not having this thought, he stumbled over the four by four foot pallet that made up the base of his own former ice house. It had blown quite far in the windy storm, and it was wide and flat and made of wood, which floats.

Knute picked up one side of the pallet and dragged it towards Elmer, increasing his pace to as much of a jog has he could manage on the slushy ice. As he neared Elmer, he dropped to his knees, still moving forward, and slid the pallet around in front of him. Knute and the pallet then slid a few more feet forward, with Knute’s feet pedaling hard to make that happen, and the edge of the pallet came to within Elmer’s reach. It looked like a rescue technique he had been practicing for decades, but really, it was just his instincts, a bit of good luck, and physics working, for once, in his favor.

Now, Elmer could reach the pallet, drag himself up onto the edge of the ice, causing the ice to fracture, falling part way through, with Knute drawing the pallet backwards, Elmer one again pulling himself forward and falling through again, in what must have looked like a Minnesota version of the Sisyphus myth but with a pallet instead of a rock and a lake instead of a mountain.

But the men were not planning to do this for eternity. Both knew that as they inched along the ice, dragging and crashing, dragging and crashing, they would eventually reach a place where there would lend a firmer hold. So they continued this effort, grimly holding to the belief that they would survive, fighting off the sense of embarrassment that often accompanies near death experiences.

Elsewhere, in a nearby parking lot, just about the time that Elmer was see-sawing on the 2×4 with Fred, Ollie Olsen, just arrived at the lake, was observing the splashing and hearing the yelling and figuring out that something was wrong. It is said by many that a man is either very strong or very smart, but Ollie defied that rule. He was a giant of a man and as sharp as they come. He calculated that he was too far from the black ice to help, too big to get very close, but since he was standing next to his car he could drive quickly to Sadie’s Eatery, just down the road, and call for help. As he yanked the break and signal wires free and popped the ball to disencumber his vehicle of the ice-house toting trailer, the thought may or may not have occurred to him that it would be nice if cell phones existed already. And he jumped in his vehicle, an Azure Blue 1966 GMC Suburban, and overcoming a strong sense of wrongness, exceeded the speed limit to hasten his arrival at the phone booth in Sadie’s parking lot.

The fire department was very close by, and the men there were just coming back from a false alarm at the newly built Middle School (the wiring on the alarm system was bad), so they were still wearing their heavy rubber coats, big black and yellow boots, and red firemen hats when the alarm rang and the captain said “There’s two ice fishermen through the ice on Medicine, north side. You and you, go down there and check it out. Take the pumper,” pointing to the two most experienced men on the force, whom the chief figured would best handle a form of rescue they had not done before. The chief himself hopped in his bright red “Chief” vehicle and headed for the lake ahead of the fire truck. Ice rescues were rare in these parts. By this time of year, you could normally drive the Hook and Ladder Truck across the ice, but the last few years the winters had been unusually warm and the ice unusually weak. The chief had been half expecting something like this to happen on this unseasonably warm winter day.

So just as Elmer was being dragged, pallet by pallet, away from weak ice by Knute, and just as Fred had stopped flailing, and switched to the strategy of floating quietly on his back as he waited to die, strongly regretting that he had given up smoking just a month before, two firemen were hustling to develop a rescue strategy from their vantage point in the nearby parking lot.

“Get that boat,” yelled the chief, pointing from a position about 20 feet onto the lake. He was referring to an overturned 14 foot row boat on the back (or front, depending on how you define it) lawn of a nearby cabin.

The men raced towards the boat, not far away at all, grabbed it and slid it towards the black ice as fast as they could. The chief caught up to them dragging a large coil of hemp rope, and ordered them to momentarily stop. He tied the rope to the metal loop on the front of the boat, and tossed the coil skillfully across the ice back toward shore, and waved the men onwards. As the boat slid closer to the black ice, the chief ordered Henry Roy, the smallest of the two, to get in and lie flat on the bottom, to distribute his wight, while the other fireman and the chief shoved the boat out onto the black ice as hard as they could. In seconds, the boat crashed through the ice and there was now clear water between the rescue boat and poor old Fred, and a rope payed out towards the shore, which the chief passed to the other fireman, telling him to back off and hold the rope from a position on solid ice.

At this moment, Henry Roy noticed the sound of water pouring into the boat from the back. On inspection he discovered that the owner of the boat had removed the drain plug in the aft gunwale, probably as a precaution to prevent theft of the boat (certainly not to drain winter precipitation out of the craft, as it was already set upside down on cinder blocks). Henry took off his left fireman’s glove and stuffed the thumb into the hole, which slowed the leak enough to make it a lower priority. This was training. Take the worst aspect of the ongoing disaster and do what you can to lower its priority, then take the new worst thing and work on that. For a moment that had been the boat sinking, and now, it was Fred.

There was a single, broken oar under the boat when it was fetched, and the fireman had tossed it in when they upturned it, so Henry Roy used it to move closer and closer to Fred. Finally, he got close enough, turned the stern towards the dying, freezing man, and signaled his colleagues to hold the rope fast. It made sense to put the smallest man on the boat that needed to slide some distance across the ice to reach the opening in which Fred was trapped, but now it would have been nice to have a larger, stronger man to drag Fred out of the water. But when Henry Roy knelt awkwardly in the freezing water between the stern and the back seat, and grabbed Fred by the jacket with his ungloved hand and his arm pit with the other hand, he found Fred to be very much lighter than he expected, even wet. Still, when Henry Roy put his full strength into dragging the old man into the boat, the stern gunwale came dangerously close to the waterline, and as Fred’s limpish body slid into the fishing boat, a lot of water came in with him. And somehow, the glove popped out of the drain hole, though Henry Roy did not notice that right away.

By this time, there were several more developments. First, Knute had managed to drag Elmer to ice thick enough to hold their weight, then with both men squirming and frog kicking from a prone position, they went ten feet or so farther, and finally the two of them were able to get to their knees and crawl, leaving the pallet behind. They crawled another 30 feet or so, then stood, and began to wander about, shaky-legged and shivering but alive. The air temperature was actually warm enough that Elmer didn’t feel a need to get to a warm place. By this time, realizing that the overall situation was pretty much out of control, the chief had called for more help, and a second fire truck and two ambulances were arriving on the scene.

Also arriving on the scene were the local TV station reporters, with a camera crew. Someone had seen the commotion from across the lake and called the story in to the tip line. Meanwhile, Elmer’s wife, Emma, wondering where her husband was (he had been due home for lunch) had by happenstance turned on the TV to see if she could catch a noon time weather report, just as the cameras were training, a “live Special Report” on her husband being escorted to an ambulance where he would be stripped down and wrapped in silver Space Blankets.

“Darn it,” she might have thought. “Why haven’t they invented cell phones, so I would not have to be the last person to know about this!”

Fred was now out of the lake, which meant that the chilling effect of contact with water (which conducts heat very well compare to air) was reduced, so the threat of hypothermia was less than it had been. But the air was cold, his clothing was wet, the boat was 20 percent full of water, and for some reason, appeared to be sinking, so he was still very much at risk of drifting into the ultimate sleep of sleeps. And just as Henry Roy realized that his glove must have fallen out of the drain hole, he felt the boat lurch as though it had been bumped by something from behind.

After a half second of confusion, Henry Roy realized that his colleagues, the chief and the other fireman, were tugging on the rope, trying to pull it out of the hole in the lake onto the ice. Soon enough, the boat was pushing on the edge of crumbled and cracked ice and slush, but the two firemen could not manage to move it farther. Henry Roy re-stuffed his glove into the drain hole, and moved Old Fred to the back seat to raise the bow, and moved aft with the broken oar, which he proceeded to use as a sort of ice pick pulling the boat forward onto the ice.

But, alas, the pulling of two men on one end of the rope and the flailing and stabbing with the broken oar on the other end made for great TV News footage, but did not move the boat more than a few inches. Fred, meanwhile, sank off the back seat onto the bottom of the boat, sitting in the icy water, and began to curl up to sleep. If he was not soon stripped down and Space Blanketed, in a warm ambulance, this would be his last fishing trip.

The other firemen and ambulance personnel were several hundred feet along the lake shore watching this, and started to discuss the idea of moving the fire truck to a different location to deploy the winch and cable, to drag the boat out of the water. Just as they started to take action to put this plan into effect, Ollie Olsen had an idea. Ollie had returned to the scene of the rescue after making his call, then stopped into Sadies Eatery to ask the three or four customers if they happen to have blankets in their cars that he could take to the rescue scene. Being Minnesota and Winter, they all did. Joe Patterson had the wool felt blanket his father had brought back from World War II. Mary and Duwayne Lundstrom had an old double knit quilt and a pretty new poly-filled comforter in their back seat to keep the kids warm, as the heater in their old Buick was on the fritz. There were two or three other blankets as well, and Ollie collected them all up and drove back to the lake. He watched the chief and the firemen with the boat for a while, and observed the ambulance guys taking Elmer into their care, realizing that they had ample blankets and he had wasted his time at Sadie’s. And then, just as Fred could be seen sinking to the keel of the stranded boat, and the reserve firemen were slowly heading to their truck to move it over and get the winch working, it occurred to Ollie that he could help in another way.

Ollie stepped down out of the parking lot, sliding off the bank of the lake shore, and picked his way through the rocks and reeds protruding from the frozen lake. He then headed gingerly across the ice towards the chief and his fireman, who were just about to give up on pulling the sinking 12 foot row boat out of water hole in which it was hopelessly trapped.

Ollie walked right past the two men at the end of the rope, and arms raised, the giant man sidestepped into the hemp lifeline, pushing it sideways with his hip. Then he reached down and grasped the rope in his giant hand pulling it to his right, and turning half way around, grabbed with his other hand the rope behind him. Then he did a single, slow, gargantuan pirouette to wrap the rope around himself twice The chief and his fireman at first got a bit of rope burn from the resulting tug, then dropped the line entirely, amazed, glancing at each other not quite sure what to do.

Ollie then turned his back to the boat and started to walk. His huge frame obtained nearly a 33 degree angle off the surface of the ice, his knee occasionally touching the slush and snow, as he took one powerful lurching yet very very short step after another, knowing he was being effective by the sound of aluminum boat crunching and sliding against ice and slush. After he had moved four feet he stopped and turned, and seeing the bow of the boat several feet in the air over the edge of the ice, he threw himself forward, landing face first on the ice, a Herculean effort that brought the bow crashing down, dragging the first third of the boat onto more solid, yet still crumbling, ice. Getting to his hands and knees, he crawled, the rope still fast around him and held firmly in both hands, two more feet forward then stood again and walked two more paces. Then, as all present watched in amazement, he twisted around, and for the next 30 seconds, turned more or less in place, like a Paul Bunyan size fishing reel, winding the line up on his body, pulling the line onto himself, maintaining a taught line, sliding the boat ever closer to the two firemen who were now between Ollie and the boat, one on each side of the line, watching, gawking, amazed and relieved.

“If only I had one of those cell phones” might have thought the chief in a different kind of universe, “The kind with a little video camera … this would be totally viral on You Tube.”

Eventually, Fred and Henry Roy were on firm ice. The drain hole in the back of the boat peed a steady stream of chilled water that retraced the route the boat had taken from it’s watery trap. Ambulance crews descended on Fred, wrapping him in wool blankets and bundling him on a gurney. He would be stripped and Space Blanketed out of camera range and away from the peering eyes of the 20 or so gawkers who by now lined the shore, inside the second ambulance, while on his way to North Memorial.

In the end, Fred lived and Ollie was given a Citizen Accomplishment Medal by the County Commissioner. There had already been discussions at the state level about increasing responsiveness to ice-break emergencies, and eventually lake rescues became the responsibility of each county in the state, and municipal fire companies obtained special ice rescue equipment. Today, in Minnesota, if you’re trapped on the ice, rescue teams will be there quickly and will know what to do, and fewer people die than otherwise might. Yet people still do die on the ice every year, because they go where they shouldn’t be and do what they shouldn’t do.

Eventually, cell phones were invented and everyone in this story got one, except Fred, who took up smoking again the very evening of the rescue and died at an old age of natural causes before the good kind of cell phones were available. Emma got a cell phone as soon as it was possible and gave it to Elmer, who to this day calls Emma whenever he arrives at a lake to fish, summer or winter, to let her know which lake he’s at and when he’ll be home for dinner.

Shawn Otto Sunday Morning Interview: You are invited!

Shawn otto Shawn is the screenwriter and coproducer of the Oscar-nominated film House of Sand and Fog starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly. He has also written for several of film and TV’s top studios. A few years back he started Science Debate 08, an effort to get a real debate over science policy issues as part of the presidential debate process. I promise you that all of the presidential campaigns have been aware of this effort, and many have agreed, but never all the candidates in one election. So that’s politicians running away from science. (We’ll see about 2016.)

Anyway, Shawn then wrote “Fool me twice,” a book about politics, science policy, and related matters. I interviewed him about that here.

Recently Shawn took a break to manage his wife’s campaign for State Auditor, which turned out to be a much more difficult and time consuming campaign than it should have been because some bone-head decided to run against her in the primaries. Not that running against someone in the primaries makes you a bone head. That’s independent.

Anyway, along the way, Shawn wrote a literary suspense thriller type novel, “Sins of our Fathers,” set in Minnesota, which I reviewed here. Excellent book.

So, this Sunday at 9:00 AM, I’ll be interviewing Shawn about his new novel. We’ll probably talk about some other things as well. TUNE IN.

Saint Paul Saints Building With Solar Power

You all know about the Saint Paul Aints. No, wait, I mean Saint Paul Saints. This is a local baseball team here in the Twin Cities. They are building a new stadium (much needed) right in the middle of Saint Paul to replace their old stadium out by the railroad tracks.

What you may not know is that the Saints Stadium is going to be one of the greener sports stadiums built. Other people building stadiums should take note. From MPR News:

St. Paul Saints stadium builders aim to make it a ‘green’ field

… When the $62 million stadium opens in May, the home of the city’s minor league baseball team will take a major step forward as an environmentally friendly sports facility.

A canopy of photovoltaic solar panels next to the baseball field will generate 103 kilowatts of power for Minnesota’s newest sports complex, a 7,000-seat facility owned by the city of St. Paul.

“We think it’s going to be the third largest solar array at a sports facility in the U.S,” project manager Paul Johnson said.

That’s only about a tenth of the power needed to run the lights and meet the energy needs for the rest of the stadium. But it will be a high-profile alternative to conventional electric power. The baseball scoreboard is expected to tout the solar power generated along with the score. Its panels also will shade a group dining area.

Other features will include a storm water filtration system that will take drainage from the nearby Metro Transit maintenance facility roof and use it to irrigate the turf at CHS Field. Rain water also will be diverted to flush 10 percent of the toilets in the restrooms.

Making the stadium environmentally friendly came with a cost. The solar project added an additional $600,000 to the project, and the storm water system added an estimated $450,000. But grants are covering the extra cost.

Still, the price tag on the solar project has drawn skepticism even from some environmentalists.

Eric Jensen, senior energy associate for the Izaak Walton League of the Midwest, is encouraged that solar energy will receive such a high-profile installation and that more people will see a practical use for it. But he said the funding from Xcel Energy would have gone further on other projects.

“This is the highest dollar per watt,” Jensen said. “It’s the most expensive dollar per watt project.”

But Gerken, the project architect, thinks even seasonal use of environmentally-friendly facilities can inspire the public to think differently. He cites light rail service at Target Field.

“Many people’s first experience with Metro Transit and the light rail was ‘hey, let’s go to a Twins Game,'” he said. “And now they’re used to it, they know about it. … It’s an option to go to the airport; it’s an option to go to the Mall of America.”

Ann Hunt, environmental policy director for the city of St. Paul, said the innovative stadium features aren’t just demonstration projects but part of a larger effort across the city’s public sector. Another example of the city’s environmental focus, she said, is the solar hot water system for the RiverCentre convention center. Hunt said it’s one of the biggest in the Midwest.

“This installation heats hot water to help heat the RiverCentre complex and the Xcel Energy complex and provide domestic hot water for that facility,” she said.

Do genes make you gay?

Of course they do. To the extent that genes make you anything in particular, though the role of genetics in human behavior is pretty limited.

You’ve probably heard about the newly reported research in which a genetic link was found to homosexuality in a study of gay brothers. Kelly Servick has a good writeup on it here. The study looked at 409 pairs of gay brothers, and found a region on the X chromosome that was similar across the sample. This sort of shotgun approach, comparing a trait (in this case, gayness) with a bunch of DNA (I oversimplify) is very likely to get results that look real but are the result of random association. But, it is also possible to find real links. I am agnostic as to whether or not this study found something interesting. But I do have a few remarks to make about how you get to be gay.

Consider the following list of things:

<li>Sexual attraction (to whom you are attracted)</li>

<li>Erotic response (what is erotic, including physically, to you)</li>

<li>Attachment (with whom to you seek attachment, and of what kind)</li>

<li>Sex drive (do you have it and where is it driving too?)</li>

<li>Society norms (especially for your subset of society)</li>

<li>The details of social norms, i.e., what categories of sexual orientation exist around you.</li>

<li>Your relationship to social norms (your comfort level ... do you seek "normalcy" or prefer something else?)</li>

<li>Whom you know or encounter and where they are with all of the above things.</li>

<li>And many more things that ultimately may relate to sexual orientation.</li>

This list can be written in many different ways, and every item on this list really represents a number of other sub items. These things are not mutually exclusive and the list is not exhaustive of that which relates to sexual orientation. Feel free to provide your own lists in the comments, if you like.

Many, most, maybe all of these things have individual ontogenies for any individual. The ontogenies may start before birth. We are bathed (or not) in various maternal hormones in utero. We are bathed in our own hormones in utero. The effects the hormones have depend on the relationship between the amount of hormone and the abundance and distribution of receptor sites, and on the timing. The abundance and distribution of receptor sites itself is probably influenced by the process. It is very complicated. Differences between one individual and another may related to external or non-genetic factors. In fact that may be very common.

Hormonal effects and interactions continue after birth. Again, timing, relationships between kinds and relative amounts of hormones, and receptor sites, still apply. Causes may be numerous.

The above only applies to that related to hormonal changes, which may affect a number of somatic (body related) features including brain features.

Then there are the non-hormonal factors, including cultural and social ones. Again there are complexities to the ontogeny of an individual with respect to these factors. And, these complexities are dynamic; culture and society can change right underneath you. And the non hormonal and hormonal factors may interact.

Much of this can be thought of as a process of negotiation. One negotiates internally, one negotiates with one’s social groups, one negotiates with society, culture, even the law.

Here is a simplified model linking the DNA identified in this study to homosexuality. Various switches are turned on or off, buttons pressed or not, during a person’s development. They do everything in some individuals to “make a person be gay.” But there is one element missing. If you have the DNA profile associated with the sample of 409 brothers, you get to be gay. If not, you probably won’t be. But, the “yes-no” value (reminder: oversimplifying here) found in this DNA actually has another purpose. It has to do with how many hairs you have on the back of your hand. The variation across men in hand hair is accounted for by variation in these genes. But in some individuals (but not all) it also happens to be the final ontogenetic link in the chain to a particular sexual orientation that in the sociocultural context that the 409 pairs of men live in results in gayosity. In another society, another culture, at another time, it results in being more likely to be a blacksmith than a farmer.

Note: That was a made up example. But in the absence of a biologically, developmentally, sensible link between some DNA and a trait, we can certainly carry out amusing and instructive thought experiments.

This complexity of links between causes and effects is probably true for the vast majority of variation found in human behavioral traits. Not this exactly, but something like this. The steps involved can be characterized in a certain way with respect to a trait under study, but all or most of those steps actually relate as well to other things. Also, some of those steps might have multiple causes. A particular manifestation of sexual or erotic attachment may arise in one person for one reason, in a different person for a different reason. In other words, the list I provide above can take many forms, not just because I’m being vague about what is in the list. The list can simply be different for different people who end up with the same “trait” as we happen to define the trait for the moment.

There is a reason for this vague connection, or in many cases, lack of connection, between inherited genes and behavior. A strong link between genetics and behavior has been shown to be very highly adaptive in some organisms. Here’s an old example. In a particular species of fruit fly, the larvae have a gene with two alleles. One allele causes the larvae to forage tightly in space, making a lot of turns in its search for food. The other allele causes the larvae to forage widely, to make few turns, and cover a larger area. Each allele is adaptive in a particular context and the fruit fly species has diversity at this locus. So, the fruit fly female mates with multiple males, produces a diverse batch of offspring, and the ones with a particular pattern of alleles at that locus have higher fitness. For now. In a different environment, maybe a few generations later (as the orange juice they are feeding on changes its characteristics as it rots in that glass you left on your desk) the genetic arrangement with the higher fitness changes.

But, humans are different. Humans are like the fruit fly, needing different traits at different times, but instead of those traits being programmed by genes, they are learned. Added on to the individual by enculturation.

This applies to some extent to all mammals because mammals have brains that matter to behavior. It applies very much so to primates, especially apes, and even more to humans. We have diversity in behavior, but we get it from our cultures. We learn to be a functioning adult; it is not pre-programmed. There probably are some pre-programmed behavioral features, but those are the features that would generally apply. But even those may be largely divorced from genetic inheritance on the grounds that behavior generally does not emerge from genes coding for neural structures. Genes in humans can’t code for neural structures at the level of the cerebrum, because of the way cerebrum develops, and that is where most of the relevant behaviors exist.

We can be pretty sure this is the case because of the huge cost we pay for it. Childhood. Childhood may be the most important human adaptation, and it may be the most costly. Human females can die in childbirth. That is nearly unheard of among mammals, outside of humans and our domestic stock. The babies can die in childbirth as well. That is because of our oversized brainy heads. Human babies are born helpless and spend several years nearly killing themselves at an alarmingly high frequency, and only survive childhood because of the adult humans taking care of them (or in some cases, wolves or ocelots, I suppose). This is costly to the adults. It limits reproductive output in the adults. Childhood also limits the reproductive output of the child, because it extend the time before reproduction, and decreases the chance of survival until reproduction.

Childhood, a brain that learns, the heavy reliance on the things the brain learns, and the long time it takes to make all this work demands a brain that is not overly programmed genetically, and results in a species with an extraordinary characteristic found in no other species: we are a multitude.

If you look at numerous species in most mammal families, you will find a wide range of behavioral and ecological repertoire. Measure body size, sexual dimorphism, typical system of mating, food getting, diet, defense, inter and intra species competition, etc. across all of the geomyids or voles, across all the species of dogs or all the species of cats, across the antelopes, across the African forest monkeys, etc. and you’ll find many features such as those mentioned that vary very little within species, but vary greatly across them within that taxonomic group.

Then look at humans. They look more like a taxonomic family than a species. Human cultures vary in these and other features as greatly as larger mammalian taxonomic groups.

But, when you capture an infant at birth from one human group and have it raised by another group, the infant grows up with behaviors typical of the adoptive group, not its natal group. That pretty much falsifies the idea that variation in our behavior is linked to variation in our genes.

By the way, if you move new born antelope, rodents, primates, etc. between species you may get some of the same effect. Cross species adoption does result in a bit of a behavioral chimera sometimes. But, it is only possible between some species and tends to work when the interactive parts of the system happen to be aligned. A parent bird will feed mouth-gaping carp for a while if they’ve lost their mouth-gaping baby birds. Within mammals, we’d expect a fair amount of post adoptive learning across species, because, as I noted above, learning how to be typical member of your species applies to some degree to mammals in general, more so to primates, more so to apes, and vastly more so to humans. Vastly.

Imma let you get back to finding links between genes and behavior. But first, remember, culture rules.

Final note. Part of the reaction to this new research, and this has happened with all prior research on homosexuality, is in reference to the sociopolitical outcome. If you are born gay, Conservatives can’t legislate against you, but if it is a choice, you might be a criminal. That sort of thing. This is balderdash. The Nazi’s killed all those people because of their genes. Many value free choice. Some will see being born gay as being born broken. People who are born a certain way, in many sociopolitical contexts, are vilified for it. You can’t win the sociopolitical game by claiming a certain human behavior or trait is built in or choice. You win that game on its own terms. And, lately, we mostly are winning.