Saturday, March 28, 2009

Write like an Egyptian

I've read an excellent book on Egyptian history and theological development by Jan Assmann, a German Egyptologist. The book is a bit more convoluted than I had hoped, but herewith is an outstanding excerpt that provides insight into the book, into the mind of Egypt, and into human nature generally.

Selected parts of an Egyptian hymn of the daily ritual, dating to the middle kingdom, ~2040-1650 BC:

The king
worships the sun god in the early morning
upon his emergence when he "opens his orb,"
when he flies up to heaven as scarab
he enters the mouth,
he emerges from the thighs,
at his birth in the eastern sky
His father Osiris raises him up,
the arms [of the air gods] Hu and Hauhet receive him.
He sets himself down in the morning bark.

The king knows
this mysterious speech that the "eastern souls" speak,
when they make jubilant music for the sun god
at his ascent, his appearance on the horizon
and when they open for him the wings
of the gates of the eastern horizon
so that he can voyage forth on the ways of the heavens in his boat.

He knows their aspect and their incarnations,
their mansion in God's-Land.
He knows their locations,
when the sun god goes forth at the beginning of his journey.
He knows that speech uttered by the crews
when they pull the bark of the orb of the horizon
He knows the birth of Re
and his transformation in the flood.
He knows that secret gate through which the great god came forth,
he knows him who is in the morning bark,
and the great image in the night bark.
He knows his landing places on the horizon
and your steering equipment in the heavenly goddess.


Re has set up the king
on the earth of the living for ever and ever
to speak justice to the people, to satisfy the gods,
for the generation of ma'at [good/justice], for the destruction of isfet [bad/chaos].
He gives the divine offerings to the gods,
and mortuary offerings to the transfigured.
The name of the king
is in heaven like [that of] Re.
He lives in joy
like Re-Horakhty.
The dignitaries rejoice when they see him.
The subjects give him ovations
in his role of the child.

Assmann comments:
This text enumerates everything the king must know for the worship of the sun god in the morning: the nature of the cosmic process, its various stages, its scenic and constellational arrangements, and its salvational meaning as rebirth; he knows the deities involved, their actions, their speech, the circumstances of their lives; and he knows the spatial framework of the process- heavenly gates, barks, landing places, steering equipment. The king must know all this precisely in order to be able to intervene effectively in the cosmic process with his worshipful speech. His fears are less that one day the sun might no longer rise than that the salvational meaning of the process might be lost or forfeited. The king, then, performs an officium memoriae. He must summon all his mnemonic power to keep this salvational knowledge present. The world thus maintained is a world of meaning, of language, of knowledge, of relations and reflections, an anthropomorphic reading of the universe with a correspondingly cosmomorphic image of human order. The hourly ritual bans cosmic chaos, and with it the chaos in man himself.

pp210-211, The mind of Egypt., 1996/2002

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Green comments in passing

Cap and trade

I'm deeply disappointed over the casual brushoff that congressional Democrats have given the greenhouse gas cap-and-trade (C&T) portion of the Obama budget.

The government desperately needs ongoing revenue sources to ameliorate future debt, fuel prices are low enough to make an increment for C&T relatively painless, and the rate of climate change is accelerating, so it is the perfect time to bring this system online. It looks worrisomely like the congress is hopelessly in the pocket of industrial interests, even on the Democratic side.

Ideally, instead of C&T, a straight carbon tax would be instituted, which would be transparent, easy to apply, and would rise over time to reduce emissions as needed. The C&T system is more complex to administer, and prone to corruption and mis-pricing, as has been seen in Europe. The amount of emissions have to be ascertained somehow, which, short of simply taxing fuel, is difficult to measure.

Some would surely say that the economic recession already decreases emissions, thus making the whole project of reducing emissions less urgent. Nothing could be more irresponsible. The last decade has been lost in policy terms. Temperature rise is gathering steam, and the lag in the system means that substantial further temperature rise will still take place in the next decades were our emissions to halt immediately.

In addition to the physical lag, there is also a political lag, where our leadership will only slowly translate into action in other countries, just as our lack of leadership and action over the last decade has provided the excuse for others, especially in the developing world, to match our do-nothing policy.

It is high, high time to ask for the small sacrifice that will get us going in the right direction of stewardship of this precious and delicate planet.
  • Oil is still getting short, despite the downturn, so purely in peak oil terms, we need to plan ahead.

And what's up with Paul Krugman?

Paul Krugman has emerged as the prime critic of the administration's newest plan to set up a market in toxic assets. His articles and interviews have been a bit vague, but I think what he is saying is that the program conjures buyers (with federal sweeteners), but will not create sellers. The government's example shows an asset face value $100 being bought at $86 by new investors. If that was all we had to worry about, we wouldn't be in a crisis. No, banks are carrying assets worth $5, $0, or even deeply negative values, thanks to "sophisticated" financial filleting, and they are petrified at having to sell them or honestly value them on their balance sheets.

Thus the danger is that the most toxic assets will stay right where they are- hidden in the vaults of zombie banks who will continue to lurk in the economic shadows, waiting desperately for the general economic upturn that will magically re-value those assets to something rather than nothing. That is why the other half of the strategy- the stress-testing and recapitalization [ed- strike recapitalization, how about orderly bankruptcy of insolvent banks?] of problem banks- is equally important. Most commentators seem to think that this stress-testing is merely window dressing, since Geithner is a Republican at heart, has little money to play with right now, and little immediate prospect of getting more. Hopefully not, is all I can say.
  • For a more conspiratorial and pessimistic take on this, read Glen Greenwald.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Balancing economic morals

Thoughts about our continual navigation between the extremes of socialism and capitalism

The further we get into our current economic mess, the clearer its connections to psychology and morality become. Trust is the coin of the realm, and if trust breaks down, nothing can paper it over. With respect to this week's storm over the AIG bonuses, is the trust represented by written contracts sacrosanct, however corruptly arrived at, or is the more important trust that among citizens- that they treat each other fairly and take a measure of responsibility for their actions?

Taking a longer view, a persistent tension exists between idealistic economic morals, represented by family-related concepts, communitarianism, socialism, communism, and realistic, competitive economic morals, represented by Darwinian competition and capitalism. We are experiencing a deep shift from several decades celebrating the second (with the active support of religious conservatives, who so readily jettisoned communitarianism they supposedly valued) to the first, via the ascendence of Democrats, and the realization that we had gone too far towards free (and chaotic) markets.

On the one hand, communitarian values accord with a great deal of human nature, since we can be peaceful, loving, and caring to the point of altruism. We want to be loved, not only for what we do, but for simply being. Christianity claims to stand for love, even of enemies, whatever its actual history records. (Check this for a fascinating look at the business of morals.) The communist ideal spoke most definitively to this ideal in economic terms, saying that we could indeed have our cake and eat it too- give freely according to our capacity and get according to our needs. No wonder communist regimes were atheistic- they were poaching on the same utopian turf as Christianity.

As we know, such idealism is insufficient to run a real economy, and the alternate morality of competition, realism, and capitalism has carried the day. This also accords with human nature (not to mention game theory more generally), since we are competitive at the same time as we are loving, and no amount of ideology can wish that nature away. Even if 90% of humans were totally altruistic, the other 10% could mess things up royally in an idealistic economy. Beyond our internally divided natures, the structure of society also conspires to promote competitive morals, since there is always inequality of talent and resources, leading to inequality of returns, whose owners will, by nature, usually be in favor of further inequality.

The rich have the money to make more money by the magic of capitalism, and they also have the resources to play the political system to best advantage. Historically, they have, as a rule, authored the political system outright, in the forms of oligarchies, kingships, and so forth. Our own enlightened system, for all its ideals, was authored by the most well-to-do specimens of the age, and reflected that dominance in many ways (such as the perpetuation of slavery). Thus by both economic and political means, capitalism inexorably creates economic inequality by a rich-getting-richer and the poor-getting-poorer ratchet effect, just as biology observes that organisms inherit and achieve inquality in their struggle for existence and propagation.

Even in Darwinian terms, however, systems are not all one or the other- cooperation coexists with competition. The greatest strides in evolution (the union of cells to form eukaryotes, and the collaboration of cells to form multicellular organisms) were instances of cooperation in a sea of brutal competition. The question for us is how to balance idealism and realism, using the conscious levers of politics to ameliorate the natural workings of capitalism.

From the early history of Rome through the French revolution and on to today, societies grapple with this problem, trying to stave off chaos and revolt in reponse to gross inequality either through more effective oppression by those who have (Sparta, Soviet Russia), or by creating egalitarian processes to counteract the ratchet effect of competitive economics, hoping to buy off, co-opt, or even truly integrate the have-nots and have-less's.

The legitimacy of the political system hangs in the balance too, since while some inequality is inevitable, and quite a bit can be sanctioned by religious fiat, traditions of nobility, and the like, it seems ultimately impossible for humans to see bitter economic hardship and opulent luxury side by side without coming to the conclusion that something needs to change, often radically. We are too idealistic for that, as are, incidentally, monkeys as well.

In pre-history, intensely competitive tribes and city-states didn't bother with even the rhetoric of egalitarianism, killing each other to gain land, goods, and trade. The rich killed the poor. In antiquity, richer cultures developed the innovation of enslaving the poor- an advance, considering the alternative. This was the accepted reality of Greece and Rome.

But it was an unstable system, since after a few generations, slaves captured from far-away battles became full participants in the culture, with claims of native citizens, in practice if not in name. A novel egalitarian ethic was certainly one attraction of the nascent Christian movement in Imperial Rome, though in the beginning it attracted the upper crust and especially women, not slaves themselves, and Christianity ended up being quite compatible with slavery in the early US and elsewhere. In the middle ages slavery was transformed into feudal serfdom, as the Roman state broke down, centralization was lost, and new economic conditions gave a modicum of power to the lower classes, especially after bouts of the plague.

Skipping ahead to the French revolution, again the economic system was a shambles of vast inequality, and the new breath of enlightenment, given vibrant reality by the American experiment, rudely pulled away the veil of false consciousness- of the superiority of the nobility, of the inerrancy of the clergy, of the divinity of the King. The peasantry was fed up and ready to take its place at the table which it had laid. Thereafter, European societies fitfully moved towards increasingly egalitarian economic systems, exemplified by the Scandanavian countries of today. The process has been a political one of regulating and counter-acting the natural workings of the capitalist system to soften its Darwinian destructiveness and spread its wealth, while preserving its intrinsically productive aspects.

Where are we in the US on this scale? We have had our own brushes with slavery, serfdom, and peasantry in a dizzyingly dynamic and condensed history. While there are plenty of rags-to-riches stories of those who have parlayed their labor and smarts into wealth, our system remains classic in its tendency to reward capital and connections, and to tax labor and consumption. This process led to the huge inequities of the gilded age, which were then addressed by the legislated expedients of anti-trust, trade unionism, the estate tax, and the progressive income tax.

It is a commonplace that we are in another guilded age, after each of the above expedients were weakened in the last decades of Republican dominance, resulting in huge and growing disparities of wealth. Once again in industry after industry, winners and the well-connected get paid huge amounts. Miniscule differences in capability are remorselessly amplified by a bidding war into dizzying highs and lows of pay. Losers get paid less and less, as a perennial excess of low-skilled labor competes for lower wages, helpfully globalized to evade domestic social and political accommodations. Those in the middle make do on two salaries where one would have sufficed a generation ago, because that is exactly what the labor market will bear. Those who have been entrusted with the money of others have been particularly flagrant in rewarding themselves, under the philosophy that they needed to "share" the wealth in order to be properly "motivated". Yet the motivation of others farther down the ladder of connections and capital is left to the bare exigencies of survival in an atomized labor market.

At any rate, one can see a pendulum swinging back and forth, between natural capitalist differentiation and popular indignation and revolt, adjusted by the technical possibilities of each epoch. Now that a new administration proposes to raise the progressivity of the tax code in an effort to mitigate wealth disparity, the media, at the behest of its owners, cry "class war", uttering their worst fear and taking belated refuge behind the state that they had worked so hard to degrade and defang. But it is not war that the majority want, but a re-balancing of the system. It is simply another step on the long road to the golden mean of a morally defensible (in idealistic terms) as well as practical society with optimal prosperity. (Prosperity itself being a moral good, leading to cosmopolitanism and peace, while poverty leads to more desperate competition, violence, chaos.)

In the end, each extreme, either of idealistic utopianism or of pitiless capitalism, is catastrophic in both moral and practical terms. Ancient Rome died essentially of unfettered crony capitalism, where the rich garnered vast resources on huge estates, and used their political power to relieve themselves of taxation. The result, once new resources stopped flowing in from foreign conquests, was decay of the economic system which had become top-heavy and corrupt. We see this today when our own guilded ages become so top-heavy that the economy shrinks because all the riches at the top can not make up for the far larger lower class virtually unable to participate in economic activity.

The golden mean of moderated, regulated capitalism/socialism keeps the creative energies of humanity flowing, both in the form of competition between people and firms, and in the form of cooperative creativity that rests on freedom to innovate and fail without personally disastrous consequences. Universal health care makes us free in important ways, just as low taxation makes us free in different ways.

Incidental link:
  • My favorite correspondent reaches a new low of sputtering hatred.
  • A closely related economics article at salon.
  • And yet another related review of Karl Marx, by Hitchens
  • Cringely calls the bailouts immoral, later on.

To decrease contemporary corporate cronyism, a few suggestions for revised corporate governance:

1) Prohibit any corporate director from serving on more than one board. This job is important enough to be done well. Bringing more talent into this system is important- into the upper echelons of corporations generally. Being on a board should be a serious job, not a chummy spa trip.

2) Prohibit executives from serving on a board of their own or of other companies. They already have a job. That should be what they are doing and focusing on. Serving on another board automatically compromises their responsibilities to their own company. As for their own company's board, this is even more important. The company's board needs to be distinct from its management, so that they actually check each other, rather than scratch each other's backs.

The special case of a founder being involved in a company would present them with the choice of being an executive or a board member. For private (non-public) companies, something more lenient could be arranged, such as allowing large shareholders (owning 10% or more shares, perhaps) to be on the board, whether they are executives or not.

3) The board organizes and runs annual meetings and shareholder voting, including the election of new board members and the review of executive performance. They should have their own small staff or be able to outsource details of this task so that the executives of the company can, again, focus on running the business of the company, not the business of the board. Conversely, the management would have a voice at the annual meeting and elsewhere to say whether the board had run off the rails (or to resign if needed), but they would never be the same as the board.

4) Stock options should be given on a 5-year plan. They can not be redeemed until five years from grant date, and then would be redeemed at the mean price of the ensuing year, not the spot price at time of redemption (to be organized by an escrow system of automated selling). This means that redemption decisions need to be made a year in advance. Companies would publicize all requests for year-out redemption by executives, sharing key information with the public, including size of options and when they decide to sell. The bottom line is that managers, if incentivized with stock, should be tied to it similarly with long-term stockholders, rather than day-trading against them. Large bonuses and other forms of non-salary pay should be treated similarly, paid only after some time has passed to make clear whether past performance actually merited it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


A little more of the plumbing underlying hallucinations comes to light.

One fascinating sub-field of molecular biology, particularly pharmacology, is the hunt for things called "orphan receptor ligands". Receptors are proteins at the cell surface that recognize hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammatory molecules, and other signaling molecules, and then alert their cell about that message. They are the eyes and ears of the cell, and humans have over 800 of one family of them, the GPCR receptors, including ~350 olfactory receptors that sit in nasal membranes a detect aromatic chemicals. This family mediates many important messages in the body, and more to the point, constitutes the single largest class of drug targets, since interfering with such specialized signaling systems is an effective way to influence a cell's functions. Getting drugs to these receptors is also easy, since they sit right on the surface of the cell, pointing outwards. In contrast, getting drugs inside cells can be quite difficult.

The human genome project identified the genes encoding all these receptors, (which occur only in eukaryotes), but could not tell us what they do. Evolutionarily, they all arose as accidental copies of an ancestral version, forming a family with conserved sequences and structures. But our interest is all in their differences- what distinct signalling molecule (or ligand) each one binds, and what that signal means to the cell. Currently about half of all human non-olfactory GPCR receptors have known ligands, and the rest are called "orphan" receptors, since their partners in signalling ("ligands") are unknown. Thus the search for orphan receptor ligands, especially by drug companies, who stand to benefit enormously from new ways to twiddle with our biology. Recent successes have found receptors for the appetite hormone orexin, the circadian hormone melatonin, adrenaline, nociceptin, and many others.

Recent papers in Science nail down some new data about two erstwhile orphan GPCR receptors in the brain- one, the receptor for the hallucinogen DMT, and the other, active in the development of Alzheimer's disease. The second study does not identify the ligand for its orphan receptor (GPR3), rather, it demonstrates that it is expressed in areas of the brain typically affected in Alzheimer's, that its overexpression stimulates excess amyloid peptide production, the hallmark of Alzheimer's, and that deletion of the gene both eliminates amyloid peptide production and reliably prevents the disease in mice that otherwise develop it. Finding the ligand of this receptor will be even more interesting now that its importance is so clearly laid out.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the first article reporting that another orphan GPCR (sigma-1) turns out to be the receptor for the hallucinogen DMT. Several hallucinogens have already had their receptors characterized. Marijuana binds to a sub-family of GPCRs called the cannabinoid receptors, which also bind the endo-cannabinoids which have physiological roles in, as one would expect, mood, learning, pain, and general cognition. LSD binds to a variety of dopamine and serotonin GPCR receptors, of which a serotonin receptor appears to be the key mediator of action.

Little is known about the sigma-1 receptor, other than that it might influence functions as diverse as schizophrenia, cell death, immune suppression, and sterol metabolism. It is known to be a receptor for the antipsychotic haloperidol as well as cocaine, but (before this work) not for any endogenous ligand. Yet mice with this gene knocked out appear fine- viable and fertile. The one assay that this article reports for DMT action is hypermobility, where mice placed in an open space move twice as much when under the influence. This effect was completely abrogated when the gene for the sigma-1 receptor was deleted, indicating that at least some of what the mice experience during their bout of exogenous DMT is due to the action of this GPCR receptor.

It is, however, quite frustrating to not know more about what the mice are experiencing- are they hallucinating? Do they have spiritual experiences on DMT? Does loss of this receptor make their lives dull? With this new knowledge, however, drugs can be devised to specifically (and reversibly) activate and de-activate this receptor, which should eventually lead to better (non-recreational) experiments in humans.

Thus one more receptor has found an endogenous ligand, and one more hallucinogen has found its binding partner in the brain. DMT is the key ingredient of one of the most potent hallucinogens- the ayahuasca mixture from South America, and is closely related to the active chemical in psilocybin mushrooms. It is quickly metabolized and non-addictive, and seeing increased use in Europe and the US. Not much is known about DMT's role or action in the brain, since it is a minor and very transient metabolite. However one article indicates that at lower doses, it might function as a relaxant:
"In these studies, administration of a non-hallucinogenic dose of DMT (0.05 mg/kg) produced a relaxed and comfortable mental state in many subjects. We propose that the main effect of endogenous DMT may resemble low-dose, non-hallucinogenic DMT administration, providing a homeostatic response to alleviate, rather than promote, psychotic symptoms."

"At intravenous doses of 0.2 and 0.4 mg/kg, there was a “nearly instantaneous onset of visual hallucinatory phenomena, bodily dissociation, and extreme shifts in mood, which totally replaced subject’s previously ongoing mental experiences.”"

"At low levels, DMT may be an endogenous anxiolytic, whereas higher, “unnatural” levels (such as those associated with psychedelic/hallucinogenic activity) produce extreme shifts in consciousness."

The near-death experience may then be a final spasm of DMT production, passing from the calming amounts that relieve anxiety and pain to the prodigious amounts that induce hallucinations.

This receptor-ligand system is extremely complex and far from understood- the many roles of the sigma-1 receptor and those of DMT indicate that hallucination is probably a side-effect rather than the central point of their function. Indeed, why do hallucinations happen at all? We live in what might be termed a finely tuned hallucination all the time, with one's brain constantly spinning scenarios, images, and ideas, more or less tethered to reality. Dreaming is even more clearly a matter of ongoing hallucination. One of the most important recent themes of neurobiology is that cognition is a creative process, where our inner structures and activities play a leading role in shaping perceptions, focusing attention, and filtering emotions. Perception is as much a top-down process as it is a bottom-up process driven by the sensors of the eyes, ears, etc.

The tuning by which consciousness is created and kept on an even keel requires complex timing adjustments, keeping various inputs in register and adjusting perceptual time for our state of attention, whether bored, focused, or doodling. The same goes for conscious contents, such as daydreams, perceptions, ideas, emotions. It all seems a terrible mess, since a huge amount of unconscious material needs to get in, and yet not overwhelm the thread of consciousness.

Clearly, natural selection would promote accuracy of perception and focus on critical tasks in the outside world, such as when time slows down dramatically during dramatic events, and our minds become oddly clear. But the need to accommodate many other contents and situations necessitates major and ongoing adjustments, which may be what DMT and other chemicals may be doing at a gross level, tweeking normal consciousness in ways that cause what we call hallucinations when pumped to extremes.

One last question is why people routinely take hallucinatory experiences to have great spiritual significance. Many practices tread this path, such as meditation, fasting, ecstatic prayer, and Sufi whirling, not to mention peyote, ayahusca, and the Delphic visions of ancient Greece. Muhammed is thought to have had a form of epilepsy that is associated with intense visions, and the desert sojourn of Jesus laid the foundation of all his later preaching.

Naive views of spirituality assume that there are other planes of existence or reality where spirits reside, in accordance with our dreams, fairy tales, and native intuition- the supernatural, of which we get glimmers through this smoky glass of psychedelia. But there has to be more. Hallucinations are not just perceptual voyages through uncharted ethereal realms, but also affective experiences of great power, notoriously subject to the emotional tenor of the setting (causing good or bad "trips" on LSD). This is the forte of the shaman, who sets the parameters of such activities with great care. A single extraordinary emotional experience can motivate a lifetime of dedication, so it should not surprise that drugs that send the mind to its emotional and conceptual boundaries might leave unshakeable imprints.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Being real

What happens when, in the search for who you are, something shocking happens, like being the wrong sex?

Life is a quest to satisfy the conditions of our being. We need sustenance, love, esteem, knowledge. We need to express ourselves, and we need to negotiate a role in life or persona that is acceptable both to society and to our inner selves, and through that persona make and pursue our dreams. Each person has a unique nature, and, taking a Darwinian view, each nature conceived and brought to fruition exists to test itself against the world on a hero's quest, and find some measure of success. And then to make way for the next generation- a new jumble of the genetic kaleidoscope, composed piece-meal of the successes of the past.

We can take most of our identity for granted- buy it off the rack, as it were. From earliest childhood we are molded to various standards of civilized behavior, each found by our forebears to be consistent with their natures, and thus surely consistent with ours as well. The standard roles available are wide-ranging enough- child, adult, man, woman, worker, scholar, reprobate, adventurer, mother, pillar of society, etc. Somewhere in there we are supposed to embody our dream which expresses who we are, and find a way to enjoy life.

In the story books, the quest to find out who one is often leads to unexpected but usually pleasant discoveries. Cinderella finds that she is destined for nobility, by way of her shoe size. Harry Potter finds that he is a wizard, after suffering through an intolerably bourgeois childhood. Adolescence is all about finding something wonderful and strange within- an unexpected power, prone to misuse and misunderstanding. The journey to finding out how one can fit into society and be happy at the same time is a matter of finding, in part, who one is and how that being fits into the many known categories of human variation, whether accountant, model, coach, organizer, nurse, sportsman, etc.

But suppose there's a problem- suppose that who we seem to be is violently at odds with who we are? The most determined roles in society are gender roles, encoded in our natures via an entire chromosome, and thus necessarily accomodated in all the aspects of society that reflect how most people have in the past expressed their gendered natures- separate fashions for men and women, legal structures for marriage, roles from military participation to prison incarceration. Crossing this boundary is almost inconceivable, but that is the fate of the person who is transgender.

Several stories have appeared in the last year describing the transgender experience, extremely affecting in a Kafka-esque conviction of being born in the wrong body. While homosexuality is relatively common, and by some biological theories is a side-effect of selection for high levels of cross-gender orientation in the other sex (but see here as well), transgender conditions are less common- a biological error not just in the orientation of sexual desire, but in the deeper property of gender identity as a whole.
  • Autobiographical story, from Salon
  • Radio segment, partly autobiographical
  • Atlantic story of affected younger children
Transgender conditions raise a host of philosophical problems. How can gender be a property of the brain? Scientists used to think of the brain as a blank slate, to the point that whichever gender a child was raised as would stick for life, with no further problems. One story recounts the horrifying case of a boy whose circumcision was botched, who was raised as a girl, proceeded to total revolt against his gender assignment, and ended up committing suicide. Clearly gender is not a blank slate, but is as much encoded in the brain as in the genitals. Some girls (and boys) want to wear tiaras and dresses, some can't stand them. Clearly there is some kind of sex-dependent mental programming that is tightly tied to the physical programming, but which in rare occasions is uncoupled or switched. In this case the physical programming is useless, even repugnant, showing as clearly as possible that the brain is the dominant organ of sexuality.

Why is a disconnect between one's feelings and one's received role so repugnant? Why not accept how one is treated, and use that to one's advantage? Why all the discomfort with being the wrong gender? Not being afflicted, I can not be certain, but if society has over the millennia tailored suitable gender roles, then one's day is going to be filled with countless irritations and discomforts if one is transgender. Whether it is wanting to wear dresses, or to nurture a doll, or to not play with trucks, or to be attracted to men, one's desires are going to be thwarted time and time again. They are part and parcel of who one is, both inside and outside.

Are there some desires that are beyond the pale? So disruptive to society that it has a right to force individuals to put a lid on their own desires? Certainly, but not in this area. Temperamental conservatives tend to differ, but if no criminal harm is being done, the individual need to express and embody one's particular blend of gender proclivities should be sovereign. Society's gender roles can withstand the assault of deviance, since those roles are in the first place nothing but the negotiated average of gendered desires in the past. Indeed, the opening of many different approaches to gender expression is a breath of fresh air to the common tendency of societies to get sclerotic in their adherence to tradition. Not to mention that people who are at home with themselves make much better parents than those who are acting a lie.

Could transgender tell us something about spirituality? There is an intriguing, and I think informative, parallel between the inner experiences involved in "knowing" that god exists, and "knowing" that one is the wrong sex. Both are intuitions that are not spelled out, but are "deep" feelings about the nature of reality- one's personal reality that is extremely difficult to express to others, but at the same time must be expressed, because it is not just a dry observation, but an earthshaking revelation of identity and meaning. The conversion experience, as related by William James and Francis Collins, among many others, is notoriously personal and impervious to reason.