Archive for July, 2008

God bless Texas

July 28, 2008

I leave the country for a few weeks, and science education falls apart.

That’s not quite fair: the impending destruction of Texas’ science standards has loomed for quite some time. But the first meetings regarding the construction of the new curriculum have taken place, and the dame should be complete by the end of the summer.

At issue, of course, is the push by the Board of Education chair Don McLeroy to teach the “strenghts and weaknesses” of evolution. This, of course, is another “academic freedom”-esque smoke screen for shoehorning “Goddidit” arguments into science classrooms. The Austin Chronicle has an excellent opinion piece documenting McLeroy’s inanity; trust me, read it right now.

My uncle who lives in Houston tried to convince me that I should teach in Texas (instead of in Washington, where I will begin teaching in September.) Indeed, Texas compensates teachers much more generously than Washington, and the Houston area is beautiful by all accounts. But I think I would need a powerful martyr complex to begin my career in a state whose board of education is headed by a creationist lackwit. Severe kudos and mad props to all science teachers who give evolution the central treatment it deserves.

I’m back

July 28, 2008

In case anyone has wondered why I haven’t updated for several weeks, I was travelling in Ecuador, including the Galapagos. Yes, it was incredible, and yes, I will write some posts about it! It’s been rather daunting trying to reintegrate myself into my normal life, after seventeen solid days of one adventure after another, but I’ll do my best to get back on track.

Watch this space!

Was the US founded on Christian principles?

July 5, 2008

No. No it wasn’t.

Pharyngula links to the webpage of the Family Research Council, which currently holds a poll titled, “Do you believe that America, as a nation, was founded upon Christian principles?” Due to the Pharynguloid influence, “No” is currently leading at 91%, but that’s not the point. The point is that this question should not be asked in the first place.

The US is emphatically not founded on Christian principles. This is explicitly stated in the Constitution, both in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”) and in Article VI, section 3 (“…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”) In addition, the Treaty of Tripoli, itself a legally binding document, bears these words: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

The United States is a secular nation, not a Christian nation. Any claim to the contrary is founded in ignorance of the Constitution, or in delusion. Check mate, I’m afraid, for the Dominionists.

This comic is great

July 2, 2008

I love it!

On genocide

July 1, 2008

This will be the second of what might become quite a few posts inspired by Alan Weisman’s book, The World Without Us. This time, I’ll be focusing on a discussion from the book of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna, i.e. mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, monstrous marsupials, and other cool stuff.

Weisman interviewed Dr. Paul Martin, the first proponent of the hypothesis that the giant, hairy animals of the Pleistocene were driven extinct by human hunting. This is a controversial, hotly debated hypothesis, my understanding of the subject tells me it is probably correct, but that’s not the point of this post. Rather, I have a bone to pick with the author over the manner in which he depicted the hypothesis in his book.

Weisman refers to the hypothetical over-hunting more than once as a “slaughter,” and even as “genocide.” He depicts the first human settlers of the Americas as brainless, bloodthirsty killing machines, rather like the first Dutch sailors to arrive at Mauritia, who clubbed the dodo into extinction simply because it was easy. He imputes to these first hominid arrivals to the Western Hemisphere a slovenly disregard for life, a brutish fondness of killing whatever animals didn’t have the sense to fight back. This portrayal is absurd, as I hope to demonstrate.

Dr. Martin based his hypothesis partly on the revelation that the Pleistocene megafauna went extinct within 1000 years of the first humans’ arrival in the Americas. 1000 years is the briefest batting of an eyelash in geological terms, so the brief interval strongly suggests that humans had something to do with the extinctions.

To a human being, however, 1000 years is a barely imaginable length of time. Could a campaign of genocide, which, remember, is the deliberate extermination of a race or group, be sustained for 1000 years by a loose band of hunter-gatherers? No modern genocide attempt has lasted that long.

No genocide, then. What about wholesale slaughter? Of course not. It’s absurd to imagine that anyone would deliberately eliminate their own food source. A far more likely explanation, and one offered in the book, is that the megafauna of North and South America simply hadn’t evolved the wariness of humans that their cousins in Africa developed. They were easy prey, and simply couldn’t compete with a new, efficient predator.

It’s possible that I’ve read too much into this part of Weisman’s excellent book, but to my mind it adds to a trend that runs throughout. The premise of the book, after all, is an exploration of what the world might be like if all humans were to disappear; implicit in that is that humans have some intrinsic negative effect on the world, that will begin to “heal” once we’re gone. The depiction of the hypothetical over-hunting of the Pleistocene megafauna as a “slaughter” or a “genocide” is just a part of it.

I hope to explore this particular beef with the book more in a later post. I’ll reiterate that the book is otherwise excellent, and I highly recommend it.