Archive for August, 2008

Some Galapagos pictures

August 26, 2008

As I think I mentioned before, I spent the better part of July in Ecuador, and the better part of that cruising among the legendary Galapagos Isles. It was a magical time, for a lot of reasons; retracing Darwin’s steps, walking among animals and plants that exist nowhere else in the world, kicking lazily through the shallow waters to find a sea lion staring into my snorkeling mask from inches away. It was one of the most memorable times of my life, and to celebrate it, I will be posting a few pictures whenever I can’t think of anything else to write about. (Note, all pictures by the author. Yes, I am precisely that awesome.)

This first image is of the iconic birds of the Galapagos: blue-footed boobies. You may recognize them from an earlier post. This picture shows a male and female pair: the females may be distinguished from the males by their pupils, which appear larger because of black coloration surrounding them. The males perform a distinctive mating dance, which involves standing on one foot, than switching to the other, and so on back and forth. This is followed by a graceful “sky salute,” in which the male points his beak, his tail, and the “elbow” joints of his wings straight upward. This can all be seen in the video I link to above. The male in this picture shows another mating behavior: even though blue-footed boobies lay eggs on the open ground without constructing nests, males still offer nest material to prospective partners. This seems to indicate nest-building behavior in an ancestor.

These are adorable! This is a Santa Fe land iguana, a member of a species endemic to Santa Fe island. They can be distinguished from the more ubiquitous Galapagos land iguana by their lighter, more yellowish coloration, and the fact that you only see them on one island, rather than several. They also loves the cactus.

This is a ghost crab. These excitable crustaceans dig deep holes in the sandy beaches, into which they retreat when they feel threatened. They are extremely jumpy. Whenever our tour party came within thirty feet of one, it first made a run into the nearest hole (not necessarily the one from which it exited earlier), then made a tentative look around, and then dropped down its hole, out of sight. In light of this behavior, I am extremely proud of this photograph. I stood about twenty feet from an individual who hovered half-heartedly half-in, half-out of his burrow, and took a picture. Then I crept almost imperceptibly slowly until I had closed to fifteen feet, and took another picture. I continued creeping and shooting pictures until I was close enough to take the above, at which instant my subject finally grew uncomfortable and retreated into its dark lair. Patience paid off!

That’s all for now. Look for more pictures from my trip to the Enchanted Isles the next time I get bored and can’t think of anything else to write about!

The seduction of compatibilism

August 24, 2008

Dr. PZ Myers writes about a New York Times article about a science teacher in Florida with the gumption to teach evolution in the face of religious opposition. It’s a fascinating story, highlighting the teacher’s uncertainty of how to teach evolution without alienating the students, and the obstinance on the part of some of the students when faced directly with the evidence. The article also exposes the horrifying degree to which community groups attempt to undermine science education. Mention is made of a pastor who handed out copies of the Answers in Genesis tract “Evolution Exposed” to graduating seniors; the pamphlets, of course, ended up circulating in biology class.

As I will begin teaching a biology class of my own for the first time in a few weeks (gasp!), this stuff is especially terrifying to me.

The Pharyngula post, however, does not deal exclusively with the obstacles thrown in the paths of science educators. Rather, it ravages what Prof. Richard Dawkins has called the “seduction approach:” avoiding any offense of students’ faith by assuring them that evolution is compatible with religion. It certainly seems like a sensible approach. One of the creationists’ most handy tricks is to convince believers that accepting evolution leads to atheism, and is therefore a one-way ticket to hellfire. The most obvious counter to this tactic, it would seem, is to contradict it: evolution does not lead necessarily to atheism. This counterattack has the added benefit of being demonstrably true, as there are numerous religious believers who have no beef with evolution, including the oft-cited biologist and Roman Catholic Ken Miller, and the Pope himself.

Dr. Myers, like Prof. Dawkins, has no time for the compatibilist approach, and for good reason. He writes of the ubiquitous call to respect people’s beliefs in this country, and how that exemption from criticism of religion allows creationists to poison the well against evolution. He calls this “the dark evil gnawing at the heart of the American public,” and continues:

It’s an effective evil, too, since most people cower before it and fear to declare it the bane of public education. Even many who don’t believe are reluctant to call it out — it will antagonize the believers, they say, they won’t accept the all-important proximate message of science if we alienate them from their precious myths and superstitions. So we continue this game of science proponents edging delicately around the central issue while the advocates of religion feel no constraint at all, and attack reason by hammering our children with unrepentant, unapologetic lunacy.

Because religion is exempt from criticism, creationists are allowed to preach their ascientific rubbish to our children without rebuke, while those trying to teach good science come under fire. Dr. Myers holds, and I emphatically agree, that it’s time for the critical curtain to fall. Religious claims must be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that we bring to bear on all other ideas, be they scientific, economic, political, etc. Then, and only then, will creationism die its deserved death, as alchemy and geocentrism have already done.

Why Darwin Matters

August 24, 2008

On a shopping trip with my girlfriend south of the border (a common excursion for Canadians, given the recent relative strength of their dollar), I picked up two books I’ve been anxious to read: Why Darwin Matters, by Skeptic Magazine publisher Michael Shermer, and Your Inner Fish, by paleontologist Neil Shubin. I finished the former in less than 24 hours, and though I’m a couple years behind the game, I’ll be writing my impressions here.

Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design is at its heart a book of persuasion. shermer divides the world into three types of people:

True Believers, Fence Sitters, and skeptics. Religious True Believers will never change their minds no matter what evidence is presented to them, and science-embracing skeptics already accept evolution. The battleground is for the Fence Sitters – those who have heard something about a claim or controversy and wonder what the explanation for it might be.

Thus, from the start, the book is not really directed at me, as I whole-heartedly accept evolution. However, I quite enjoyed reading it, as evidenced by the fact that I could hardly put it down. Here’s why.

First, Shermer presents an entertaining history of intelligent design and creationism in the United States, and why they persist in the face of overwhelming evidence for evolution. In so doing, he provides riveting accounts of William Jennings Bryan’s boisterous prosecution of the Scopes trial, and most memorably of all a debate between he and the namesake of the Hovind Scale, the fast-talking creationist and current jailbird Kent Hovind. His account of this debate can also be found on the website of Skeptic Magazine.

In the meat of the book, Shermer systematically dismantles the arguments for Intelligent Design, finding them all unequal to rigorous standards of science. He then exposes the real agenda behind the ID movement, most memorably by recounting the words of Discovery Institute fellow William Dembski at the annual conference of the National Religious Broadcasters:

…intelligent design opens the whole possibility of us being created in the image of a benevolent God… The job of apologetics is to clear the ground, to clear obstacles that prevent people from coming to the knowledge of Christ… And if there’s anything that I think has blocked the growth of Christ as the free reign of the Spirit and people accepting the Scripture and Jesus Christ, it is the Darwinian naturalistic view.

To close as Shermer does throughout the book, Q. E. D.

Finally, and most challengingly for me, Shermer devotes a large portion of the book to explaining why evolution is perfectly compatible with both Christianity and conservativism. The reason for the first is obvious: most Americans and virtually all American creationists are Christian, and to sell evolution to doubtful Christians is to convince them that it does not contradict their faith. The need for the second is less obvious. What reason would a conservative have for doubting evolution, except that most conseratives in the United States are Christian? Still, Shermer cites poll data showing that some 60 percent of Republicans are creationists. Clearly something is at work here. To woo conservatives to the side of evolution, Shermer cites 19th century economist Adam Smith, whose posited “invisible hand” works in precisely the same way as Darwin’s natural selection. (In his review of Expelled for Scientific American, he recounts memorably his reminder of this fact to Ben Stein, during his interview for the film.)

I say that this part of the book was challenging for me because I have difficulty with the arguments for the compatibility of religion and evolution. It is certainly true that there is nothing in evolution, or in science in general, that precludes the existence of a god, but this is because nothing in science could do so; God is by definition not a part of the natural universe, and so not amenable to empirical observation. God is therefore superfluous, unnecessary, a cheap rhinestone pasted on the scientific edifice to increase its appeal to the religiously-minded. Still, as long as God is technically compatible with science, and as long as most humans believe in one god or another, the smartest tactic may be to stress the compatibility point, and confront creationists on their so-far successful ploy of equating evolution with atheism.

Having said all this, by far the most entertaining part of the book for a scientific True Believer like me is its coda, Genesis Revisited, in which Shermer rewrites the book of Genesis to fit in with creationists’ insistence on its literal truth. Here’s a representative excerpt:

And God saw that the land was barren, so He created animals bearing their own kind, declaring Thou shalt not evolve into new species, and thy equilibrium shall not be punctuated. And God placed into the rocks, fossils that appeared older than 4004 BC that were similar to but different from living creatures. And the sequence resembled descent with modification. And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

Q. E. D.

I recommend the book heartily, whether you are a skeptic or a Fence Sitter; it will entertain either variety. Hell, I recommend it to the creationist True Believers as well. Shermer was such at one point, and you never know when a tendril of truth will sneak through a crack in the stone wall of denial.

Harold and Kumar score one more for the US of A

August 24, 2008

I finally managed to see the new Harold and Kumar movie last week, and now that I’ve finished moving into my new apartment, I finally have the time to write a few things about it. I won’t attempt a review; the film is as endearingly wacky as its predecessor, if not as tightly plotted, but the reader has at her disposal any number of resources to learn more.

No, what I’d rather write is what I took to be the central message of the film, and why I found it so bad-ass wicked awesome. And also sweet.

Near the end of the movie, a pot-addled interpretation of a certain political leader (I won’t spoil it for the unitiated, except to say his name rhymes with “tush”) tells our heroes, “You don’t have to trust your government to be a good American. You just have to trust your country.” That may sound incredible coming at the end of a story about two young men wrongly interred at Guantanamo Bay, but it falls squarely at the heart of the matter, both in the movie and in the real world.

The basic outlilne of the government of the United States is enshrined in the Constitution. In a very real sense, the Constitution is the United States, because therein are laid out the principles upon which the nation is built: rule by the people, equal protection under the law, freedom of expression, et cetera. When the character mentioned above calls on us not to trust our government, he is reminding us that the tenets of governance prescribed in the Constitution are not perfect, and that they are not set in stone. When he tells us, however, that we are to trust our country, he is calling us to place our faith in the principles upon which the government must ideally rest, central among which is the ability to amend and improve them.

In the midst of the diarrhea jokes and pot binges, the Harold and Kumar movies are at heart a love letter to the United States of America. In spite of all the adversity, both realistic and absurd, that our heroes face, they never fail to stand up for their right to pursue their dreams. In the US, it is true in principle that anyone, whether their ancestors be European, African, Korean, Indian, or Neil Patrick Harris, can achieve their aims. It’s on all of us to create a nation where this is true in fact as well.

Why Japanese has so few swear words

August 22, 2008

In my last year at Montana State University, I had an open space in my schedule, and decided to fill it with something that had always interested me but had nothing to do with my chosen major: the Japanese language. This spur-of-the-moment choice resulted in a year of study in Japan, a further year of work as English teacher there, and a continuing fascination with the language (even as my skills atrophy with disuse.) One thing stood out to me in my studies, and I intend to explore it here.

I’m sure that people who study English as a second language are impressed with the florid variety of swear words available. I will refrain from recounting any here, but I’m sure the reader can think of dozens of examples without much effort. Young people garnish their conversations with them, popular movies are filled with them, and skilled use of them can propel someone to a position of prominence among friends. Mastery of swear words is a vital prerequisite to a true mastery of English.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that there are very few comparable swear words in Japanese. Further, what few swear words exist are mild enough to be said frequently in children’s cartoons. The best example, and one with which students of Japanese are probably familiar, is くそ(kuso), meaning roughly “poop.”

Why so few swear words (especially considering that the similar language Korean is peppered with them)? Allow me the attempt to take you through my theory on the matter.

One thing students of Japanese notice early is the language’s many politeness levels. When speaking to someone unfamiliar, or to someone higher on the strictly regimented social scale, one must speak polite Japanese. Speaking plain, casual Japanese in such a situation would be taken as an insult. When speaking to close friends or family, one must speak casual Japanese. In fact, if the conversation partner is very close, polite Japanese may be seen as an insult, or at least as rather silly.

What cleared up the swear word question for me was the realization that such politeness levels are not unique to Japanese. English has them too, though they may be more subtle. Almost no one speaks to a person they have just met, particularly an older person, or a boss or political leader, the sme way they speak to close friends. And therein lies the explanation.

When speaking to close friends in English, especially among young people, profanity is not uncommon. Use of profanity by close friends is often a way of cementing bonds, of establishing the comfort people within an in-group feel with each other. In this sense, profanity is an important part of casual English.

Japanese does not need elaborate profanity, because its regimented politeness levels provide a casual vernacular for closely-knit in groups to use. English has no such politeness levels, and so profanity provides one way for in groups to express their familiarity.

Finally, this idea raises an interesting question. Many older Japanese people complain that young people are forgetting the traditional ways, and among them the most polite forms of speech. As these forms of speech are forgotten, and the differences between polite and casual Japanese fade, will stronger forms of profanity evolve to fill the void? Time will tell.

On freedom of choice

August 22, 2008

There are many reasons that account for creationism’s persistence in the United States. Most of them stem from the active lobbying of former “creation science” and now “intelligent design” proponents, who today work very hard to see that Americans equate evolution with atheism, and choose God over godless science. However, to my mind, none of these reasons accounts for the fact that Americans think there ought to be an alternative to evolution in the first place. This point bears some expanding before I continue.

There are of course many examples of two or more theories competing for acceptance in the scientific community. Earlier in the last century, for example, steady state models of the universe competed with the Big Bang model, and eventually the evidence for the Big Bang won out. However, it should be obvious that every question in science will have only one answer. Given that that is so, why should Americans, or anyone else, expect there to be alternative theories to evolution, whose evidence has proven out repeatedly over 150 years?

I submit that the answer lies in our love of freedom; specifically, freedom of choice.

We’re used to choosing among 300 different kinds of ketchup in the grocery store, and we glorify in it. The availability of such choice creates competition among ketchup makers, forcing them to keep quality high and prices low. The same kind of choice, with the same results, pervades every available product. It also pervades religion, another commodity which many Americans see as a matter of choosing among available options. Nw that I set it down in words, it seems odd to me that people would feel at home choosing among positions on the nature of humanity and its place in the universe, just as they would choosing among flavors of Pop Tarts, but such is the power of freedom of choice.

Now we come to creationism. Americans are brought up to think that it is their inviolable right to have the freedom to choose among a range of options, in products, in employers, in relationships, and in religion. It is no large step to extend this way of thinking to scientific theories. If we are free to choose among religions, which after all make factual claims about the universe and our place in it, based only on our own personal preferences, why shouldn’t we be free to choose among scientific theories on the same basis? I submit that this is what creationists have done. Seeing creationism and evolution as two equally valid theories, they choose the one most pleasing to them personally.

I’m sure I have grossly simplified many matters here, not the least of which is the fact that a good number of Americans do not in fact consciously choose their religion, but receive it whole cloth from the one thing no one is free to choose: their parents. Still, I believe this deeply felt sense of entitlement to choice plays a part. In combating it, then, it falls to educators (like me) to impart on children more stringent criteria for choice, among them empirical evidence and rational argument. They will choose in any case, and it falls on us to see that they choose wisely.

Gratuitous Boobies

August 1, 2008