Archive for June, 2008

On voluntary extinction

June 30, 2008

First, an apology. It had always been my goal to make at least one post a day, so that any readers would get used to content appearing regularly (leaving aside, of course, whether that content is of any worth.) Busy busy busy, as I said before: there’s a lot of family in town, a lot of trips to and from the airport and to local tourist destinations.

But enough of that. I recently finished reading (listening to, actually) Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. It’s a wonderful book, for reasons I’ll make clear in a later post, but I came across something disturbing in it that I wanted to mention here.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement advises adults voluntarily to cease breeding, in the hope that the gradual “phasing out” of humanity will allow Earth systems to recover to full health. Their aim is noble, and their means entirely peaceful, and for that I give them credit. However, the entire movement is based on a core assumption which happens to be false.

This assumption is easy to tease out if you examine their mission statement:

Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense.

I take no issue with the second sentence. The first one, however, bears scrutiny: phasing out the human race… will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Implicit in this statement, of course, is the assumption that not phasing out the human race will cause the systems that sustain the biosphere to continue their downward spiral. We’re given two choices only; either humans disappear, or the world of life falls to ruin.

Many people probably see that as a reasonable expression of our situation. With the shocking damage humans have wrought in the last few decades alone, it’s easy to imagine that we are inherently destructive, and that nothing short of our extinction will allow any hope for other living beings. Happily for humans, the evidence does not support this view.

The discovery and classification of hominid fossils establishes that humans have existed for several million years, and that humans of our own species have been around for at least a few hundred thousand. Just the magnitude of that span of time demonstrates that humans are perfectly capable of living on the Earth without destroying it. Similarly, almost wherever our civilizational juggernaut has encountered indigenous tribal peoples, we’ve found them living in intricate balance with the other organisms sharing their habitat. There’s no reason to imagine that, had we never arrived in North America, the sundry Native American peoples would not survive for tens of thousands of years more, just as they had from as long in the past.

The example of tribal peoples from the past, and of those still around today, establishes that there is nothing intrinsic in humans which prevents us from living sustainably. That should fill us with hope at our situation. As bad as we have allowed it to become, there is still time to change our ways.

Every extinction should fill us with sadness, remorse, and anger, including our own. We should do everything we can to ensure that we, and as many other species as possible, survive into the coming ages.

Some quickies

June 28, 2008

It’s just busy, busy, busy this week! Yesterday I made it home from the Washington State LASER Strategic Planning Institute, and in just about an hour I’ll be on my way to West Yellowstone, Montana, to serve as a groomsman in my father’s wedding. There will be family from much of the United States there, most of whom I haven’t seen in a very long while, so I’m very excited. The downside, of course, is that I have less time to make posts.

Because I have little time, I’ll just post some links to interesting (and perhaps disturbing) things that have happened in the last 24 hours.

First, the bad, though unsurprising, news: SB 733 has been signed into law. Governor Bobby Jindal (with a name like that, how can you stay mad at him?) signed the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act into law, handing creationists a license to attack sound scientific theory in the classroom on frivolous religious bases.

Of course, the Discovery Institute, which has been instrumental in enacting these “academic freedom” bills around the country, is trying to distance itself from SB 733’s success. They’re claiming the bill isn’t about intelligent design, but simply about exposing students to the debates scientists themselves undertake. This is bullshit, because the Louisiana science standards, and those of every other state I’ve ever heard of, already hold that students should be exposed to legitimate issues in science. What the Discovery Institute really wants is for students to be opposed to illegitimate issues, such as global warming, and the perennial favorite, evolution.

In other news, Pharyngula writes on a frightening ruling in the Texas Supreme Court. A church which had been prosecuted for torturing a 17-year-old girl was found innocent by the high court, because they were conducting an exorcism. Apparently, in the great state of Texas, you’re allowed to horribly traumatize a child if you think she has demons in her head. Read the Pharyngula piece, and mourn our nation’s sanity.

After all that gloom, here’s something to cheer you up! I’ve been meaning to link to this webcomic for a long time. It’s called Kawaii Not, and I love it, because it perverts the saccharine cuteness that pervades so much of design these days. This particular comic is my favorite.

Hope that helps!

You could keep a nice garden there

June 27, 2008

We’ve been exploring Mars for only a few decades or so, and NASA is already planning to move in! They’ve even got their first cash crop picked out: asparagus.

I’m being a tad dramatic. What really happened: Phoenix, NASA’s newest Martian lander, completed a preliminary analysis of the soil surrounding its landing site, and found it very similar to soil on Earth. The soil is alkaline, just like life-friendly soil on the blue planet, and it contains such minerals as magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Nothing toxic has been detected so far. Steve Kounaves, the lead chemist of the Phoenix project, said, “You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well.”

NASA scientists are reportedly “flabbergasted” by this discovery. Soil conditions appear to be far more conducive to life than they had dared to dream. Couple this with the probable presence of large amounts of water ice just beneath the surface at Phoenix’s landing site, and the chances that life may once have existed on Mars improve dramatically.

Your ancestor was a wet bag

June 26, 2008

So was mine, so don’t feel too insulted.

Dr. PZ Myers of Pharyngula has written a wonderful piece on new evidence that the most recent common ancestor of all chordates (i.e. you, me, dogs, goldfish, lancelets, and sea squirts) was a sessile, seafloor-dwelling suspension feeder. This creature’s larva were probably lancelet-like fishoids, with a springy notochord (a precursor to the vertebrate spinal cord) and a simple tentacle-ringed mouth. At some point, in one of the ancestors of the vertebrates, one of the larva accrued a mutation that prevented it from reaching adulthood, and it maintained its fishlike body plan, eventually giving rise to true fishes, and later every other vertebrate.

I will attempt no further summary of the article. Read it. Read it now!

Once you’ve read Dr. Myers’ piece, please note this excellent song lyric posted by a commenter named Becca:

It’s a long way from amphioxus, it’s a long way, to us.
It’s a long, long way from amphioxus, to the meanest human cuss
cause it’s goodbye to fins and gillslits, and welcome lungs and hair
it’s a long long way from amphioxus, but we all came from there

(To be sung to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” in case you hadn’t figured it out.)

Most primitive tetrapod found

June 26, 2008

Today’s edition of Nature carries an article describing the most primitive tetrapod (four-legged creature) ever discovered. The creature, thought to have lived 365 million years ago, is ten years younger than the infamous Tiktaalik, but while Tiktaalik is thought to have more characteristics of fish than of tetrapods, the new discovery is thought to be a true tetrapod.

Some interesting notes:

The creature, named Ventastega curonica, is not the oldest tetrapod ever discovered, but it is the most primitive. This means that its features are more similar to fish (the ancestors of all land animals) than any other known tetrapod. This seems out of sequence with the usual trend in the fossil record, where more primitive animals are found in older rocks, and more complex creatures are found in newer ones. Because of this, the study’s lead author, Per Ahlberg, does not think that Ventastega is an ancestor of modern tetrapods, but rather an evolutionary branch that died out sometime in the past. That would have made it something of an evolutionary holdover in its time, somewhat like horseshoe crabs and egg-laying mammals today.

At the site in Latvia, no legs were found, but researchers were able to deduce that Ventastega had four legs through the shape of the pelvis and of other joints. Parts of the skull, shoulders and pelvis were all that was turned up.

Ventastega was probably three to four feet in length, and probably ate fish. It probably lived in shallow water, where its legs allowed it to move more efficiently than fins would have done. (Scientists say “probably” a lot.)

I love stories like this! Let’s hope paleontologists keep unearthing these key bits of the story of life.

Conservapedia feels teh pwnag3

June 25, 2008

Now, it’s true that I first heard about this on Pharyngula, but if I used my blog just to post links to all the interesting stories I’ve seen on Pharyngula, I might as well just replace all my posts with this: So, instead, I’ll link you to Conservapedia.

No, don’t leave! I promise you’ll like this.

You may have heard about Dr. Richard Lenski’s discovery of the evolution of a novel trait in a laboratory strain of E. coli. You may also have heard that Andrew Schlafly of Conservapedia has made a ludicrous demand to see Dr. Lenski’s data. This despite the fact that Schlafly has no science background, no qualifications to examine the data, and has not even read Dr. Lenski’s paper.

Dr. Lenski sent a very polite reply, in which he kindly asked Mr. Schlafly to read his paper. It’s only reasonable, after all, that you should read a scientist’s paper if you intend to critique his research. Mr. Schlafly’s reply? Another demand to see the data, despite no indication that he knows what to do with it, and despite the fact that, by all accounts, he still hasn’t read the paper.

Dr. Lenski’s second reply is the real money in this piece. He’s still polite, but in this letter he’s taken on the tone of an exasperated parent, scolding a child who refuses to behave. It’s fairly long, but you simply must read it. I’ve never seen a better takedown of a creationist wingnut.

Once you’ve read it, reflect on the tagline for this exchange on the Conservapedia main page:

Lenski’s latest response to a request for his data is revealing … about Lenski’s attitude. Take a good look at the attitude our tax dollars are paying for.

Dr. Lenski, a professional scientist, takes all this time to write a measured response to the ludicrous demands of a creationist whackjob, and Mr. Schlafly accuses him of attitude? That’s more than my daily recommendation of irony, that is.

Mendacity Monday: DNA Information

June 24, 2008

The creationist statement we’ll be exploring today begins with this rhetorical question: “Does a computer networking expert have something new and important to say about the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Debate?”

Well, the computer networking expert in question thinks there actually is a debate, so no. No he doesn’t.


Greetings from a swanky hotel

June 24, 2008

Swanky for someone used to choosing what to wear from what’s lying on the floor in the morning, anyway. Here, they make your bed for you!

Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t do a Mendacity Monday post yesterday. For that, I can only apologize; I was on the road all morning, on my way to the Washington State LASER Strategic Planning Institute. This year the Institute is taking place in Richland, WA, wich was about a six hour drive for me. Thankfully I didn’t encounter any rank billboards, but still, that’s a long time on the road.

Washington State LASER is an organization comprised of science teachers, school administrators, and professional scientists and engineers, with the goal of helping school districts create inquiry-based science curricula. The Strategic Planning Institute is a week-long seminar of sorts which helps school districts to plan a strategy for adopting inquiry-based teaching. As I will begin my first year of science teaching in the fall, this is all very exciting to me. I feel fortunate to be working in a district that places such a powerful emphasis on inquiry and exploration in science research.

It’s a day late, but now I’ll get to work on a Mendacity Monday (Tuesday?) post.

John Freshwater roundup

June 23, 2008

Pharyngula links today to a very able summary of all the John Freshwater business.  John Freshwater, in case you don’t recall, is the lovable middle school science teacher who posts the Ten Commandments in his classroom, teaches creationism, and, at least once, burned a cross into a student’s forearm. 

Read the summary, if only for one thing: you get to see a picture of the cross-shaped burn mark.  I had envisioned a little thing, but this is the whole length of the students’ forearm!  You’ll also learn of a shrill religious right organization that is largely responsible for the movement to support Mr. Freshwater.

In any case, Mr. Freshwater is scheduled to be fired on July 7, unless he asks for a hearing.  Great news, although by all accounts it was eleven years too late.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

June 22, 2008

If you are interested in science at all, you’ve probably heard of this book by Bill Bryson. I was finally persuaded to read it last week. (Well, I didn’t so much read it as listen to it, in my car, while driving for fourteen freakin’ hours. But I swear that won’t color my opinion!)