But how? Part four: Religious belief

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 4

For this topic of the series, I’m going out on a limb, because this is largely personal speculation, and I’m the first to admit I have no educational background in any of this. There are writers out there who have examined this in detail, but I have yet to read any of those works, so this is me talking out of my ass. It’s a blog – chill. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about a curious question that crops up from time to time: how come so many people are religious?

If we accept the premise that there is no supernatural force guiding our development, now or in the past, then we should by rights have little reason to keep expecting supernatural entities – in other words, from an evolutionary standpoint religion makes no sense, yet a whole lot of people accept it and follow it, well, religiously. There should be a method of explaining this in naturalistic terms in order to be consistent, shouldn’t there?

Continue reading “But how? Part four: Religious belief”

By the way…

… if you hang around any of the same blogs that I do, you may have noticed that there’s been a certain topic of discussion/debate/frothing rant recently, involving Rebecca Watson initially but soon assimilating Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Hemant Mehta, and Ebon Muse, among others. I think it now bears the name, “Elevatorgate.”

The posts are in the dozens, I suspect, and the comments well into the thousands. Lest you believe I have remained unaware of the topic and lost in my own little world, I reassure you that I’ve been aware of it almost from the very start, and have refrained from commenting anyplace, and especially from introducing it here.

You’re welcome.

High dynamic range

One of the traits of photography, regardless of film or digital, is that it does not capture the range of light intensity that our eyes do. This makes photographs display increased contrast, and often it destroys detail or color rendering in either highlights or shadow areas, or both. It’s one of the trickiest things about obtaining a proper exposure, and frequently requires some careful adjustments or supplemental lighting. This is most especially true with images showing both sunlit and shadowed areas, or when aiming into the light.

At top is a recent example from our trip to Hilton Head, two images taken a second apart. You can see that they’re aimed slightly differently, and this meant that the camera was obtaining an exposure reading from areas of intensely different light levels. The sky takes on a nice, rich and detailed appearance in one, but loses all foreground detail, while the other washes out detail from the sky (both, by the way, taken without compensation on Canon’s Evaluative Metering setting.) This is typical, and represents the choices that photographers have had to make for decades, even with newer films and digital sensors.

There are tricks that can be used to help alleviate this, but often the result is unnatural-looking and awkward. There are lens filters called graduated neutral density, which are basically tinted through half of the glass, the remainder being clear – the tinted half goes over the brighter portion of the image and is used to reduce the light level closer to that of the darker portions. The problem with these is that one rarely has a nice straight horizon, and when it is present, the fuzzy line between the tint and clear portions of the filter would show unnatural transitions in the resulting image. Most photographers left such filters alone and simply avoided the situations that suffered from too much contrast, watching for conditions that alleviated the problem.

Another way to control contrast was done in the darkroom with techniques called dodging and burning, which means selectively lightening or darkening, respectively, the portions of the frame that required it. This was (and is, for those who still pursue the wet print, which is really quite fun) useful only when the negative captured the necessary details in the first place, but since the issue was the limit of film’s dynamic range, you can’t reproduce detail that does not exist in the negative. If the bright areas have bleached out too far, there’s nothing to work with.

Enter the digital darkroom, and a technique now included in many programs called high dynamic range (often abbreviated HDR.) The basic method of HDR is to take two examples of the same scene at different exposure settings, one that captures the brighter areas (highlights) and another that captures the darker areas (shadows.) A tripod is recommended, since the images should match as close as possible, but the resulting images are digitally blended to capture the best of both. Many software packages offer this now, but I’ve done it here manually since I’m using an older program (Adobe Photoshop 6.0) that’s been serving me just fine.

Blending the details just right is actually tricky, and easy to screw up (like in the image above.) Sometimes the results are fine for those who aren’t used to evaluating images, but are plainly visible to anyone that’s had to cope with disparate light levels, and are distinct evidence of digital manipulation. In other words, don’t think everyone is going to be fooled. Having been shooting since before digital existed at all, I’ve watched the change of attitudes towards this with some amusement. When it first arrived on the scene, many photographers treated digital as a gimmick, permitting a “bad” photo to be corrected without having to learn proper photographic techniques. In a way, this was true, but not even close to the extent that it was disparaged for it. A good starting point was necessary, since digitally correcting a truly bad photo takes its own set of skills, one possessed by far fewer people than could simply take a good image in the first place, not to mention a whole boatload of time. But as I’ve watched, HDR has started to become an “acceptable” technique among professionals, rather than a gimmick.

Now, I’m torn on the issue, personally. Generally, the resulting image represents something not seen in nature, presenting light conditions that really don’t exist, and often cannot. In these times when removing people, trash, or distractions from a scene can cost a photojournalist their career (not just their job,) it seems hypocritical to freely accept a blatant technique of selective imaging. And one of the skills that I’ve learned, and teach, is to work with the light that’s there, or find ways around it. The really good images from the top photographers are often the result of careful planning and being on location for just the right moments – it’s what makes those images special. The prevalence of altered images makes these accomplishments cheaper, and indeed hurts all really good images. It takes virtually nothing anymore for someone to cry “Photoshop!” at an image, even one that saw no such editing, because the media is saturated with alterations, and this makes those special efforts barely worth it anymore.

At the same time, how much different is this from selecting highly saturated or low contrast films, or using fill-flash and reflectors, all common traditional techniques? At what point does an image cross the line from representing “reality”… or has it ever? When I scan even a film image, is correcting the color cast that the film displays cheating or not? Who should judge, and what criteria should they use? Personally, I treat editing very seriously, and only do subtle color and contrast tweaks overall, things that could be done routinely in the darkroom without special preparations. I occasionally do more serious work, and have liked the results, but in my mind they are always gimmicks, and achieving the effect without software is much more satisfying. And, I always represent manipulated images as such.

Now, a quick lesson. What makes the bad image (to the right of the text, above) not work? Notice the apparent light levels from the sky and the waves, which almost seem to match. The water takes on a glow from “within,” because it obviously cannot be reflecting the sky. Reflections in water are always darker than what they’re reflecting. Even the glitter trail, the reflection of the sun in the wet sand, is brighter than the sun itself. Especially telling is how the clouds right on the horizon get lighter and less contrasty, for no apparent reason. This is what a graduated neutral density filter often looks like, or too abrupt a transition between the blended frames (the culprit here.)

Alternately, the better version (on the left of the text above) seems much less unnatural. The transition, the blend between the two images, actually extends from middle of the cloud pack down to the clump of beach grass on the left – this kept the waves more accurately dark against the sky, and made for an almost invisible transition. The sand getting just a little darker with “distance” (actually towards the center of the frame, vertically) seems completely natural. But, did you catch the faint doubling of the couple in the frame? ;-) (This would have been easy to fix, but I liked the subtle telltale for my purposes here.)

Let’s look at a different example, one that, to me, is more acceptable to use. Feel free to argue with me about it if you like ;-)

You may recognize the dragonfly, and I did mention that I purposefully took several frames just to experiment with this. The difference in exposure between the left and right frames is roughly three stops, which is significant. I chose to blend three frames for this because of the difference in the background light levels – notice the rich green low in the center frame, but the highlights get blown out too much. At the same time, the depth-of-field in the image on the left is actually too high, making the background speckled rather than blurred.

So with those, you can see what got used from each in the resulting image here. Notice how the background blends easily and, while there’s still a blowout of detail into pure white, it’s much less noticeable and harsh. The wing details remain present and sharp, and nothing has gone too dark. Now, in these conditions, I would have been unlikely to get the depth-of-field looking this way, since the depth needed to get the wings on both sides would have rendered more detail from the background, but this is hardly something that jumps out even at experienced photographers and editors. Capturing lighting like this in nature is difficult, since bright sunlight falling on the dragonfly would be necessary to keep it so close in level to the background, but such light would increase the contrast and the shadows of the bark. I could accomplish it easily with a strobe unit and softbox (I had the strobe, and even used it for one image in the other post, but not the softbox.) The result doesn’t look unnatural, and doesn’t represent impossible conditions, even if they would be rare. Still, I prefer to leave the HDR to others.

By the way, while I don’t really consider this a knockdown or particularly compelling image (I hate that the wings closest to us disappear among the bark,) I wanted to point out something to you. See the dark patch of the middle background? I intentionally positioned the camera in height so that this would fall between the wings, rather than touching or overlapping them. Very subtle, but it’s little interactions between the subject and background that can affect how well the image comes off, so keep your eye on such things. It was a simple matter to bump the tripod up a little to accomplish this, and it works much better. My students hate it when I’m this nitpicky on their images (I’m the same with my own,) but while I don’t really believe in the “perfect image,” I think trying to get as close as you can is the only thing that makes one improve.

Feed the tuna mayonnaise!

Okay, so let’s think about something a second. Several species of wolf and fishing spiders (what my friend referred to long ago as “Big Honking Spiders”) carry around egg sacs with them as they go. This is almost certainly so that the young are protected from birth, because the same species are seen carrying their young around on their backs for a period of time. It is safe to assume that the newborn spiders have an instinct to stay with their mother, and thus they can probably tackle food together that they would never be able to capture as individuals.

We know that birds can imprint readily on whoever feeds them from birth, and spiders have much teenier brains, so it’s safe to assume that their “pile on mom” instinct is extremely primitive.

So, what if you took an egg sac away from the mother and waited for it to hatch? Would the young pile onto whatever was handy in the area, like your hand, especially if you had hairy hands? Would they then remain with you for a period of time, and you could carry them around with you wherever you went? Wouldn’t this be cool?!

Think about it! You could pretty much ignore mosquitoes on summer evenings, because as soon as one landed, kazap! Spider food! No one would hit you up on the street for money. And that doofus that always thinks shaking hands is some kind of competition? Let’s see what kind of cohones he really has.

I bet you could even train them to do tricks, or fetch dropped objects. And since spiders can balloon, how many would it take, do you think, to carry you aloft?

I’m surprised no one’s tried this.

[If the title confuses you, you need to learn your classic movies, but Google is your friend]

The root of all wobble?

Several years ago I used to hang out on UFO and paranormal forums, seeing what kind of evidence was being put forth and the reasoning behind the beliefs. I’m fond of saying that if I had been pursuing some kind of psych degree, I had the ingredients for several theses right in front of me – there is, without a doubt, a curious standard of thinking that becomes very noticeable when dealing with subjects such as alien visitation, conspiracy theories, paranormal activity, and similar topics. Not everyone displays it, but those that do are usually unmistakeable. When skimming through Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World recently, I was in Chapter 11, “The City of Grief,” which is made up entirely of letters from readers. These were received in response to a widely-published piece critically examining alien visitation experiences, and one letter in particular exemplified this trait, even though it’s an extreme example:

Thanks to the Supreme Court… America is now wide open for the Eastern pagan religions, under the aegis of Satan and his demons, so now we have four-foot gray beings kidnapping Earthlings and performing all sorts of experiments on them, and are being propagated by those who are educated beyond their intelligence, and should know better… Your question [“Are We Being Visited?”] is no problem for those who know the word of God, and are born-again Christians, and are looking for our Redeemer from Heaven, to rapture us out of this world of sin, sickness, war, AIDS, crime, abortion, homosexuality, New-Age-New-World-Order indoctrination, media brainwashing, perversion and subversion in government, education, business, finance, society, religion, etc. Those who reject the Greater God of the Bible are bound to fall for the kind of fairy tales which your article tries to propagate as being truth.

First off, yes, I know this person has been selling their medications to stay abreast of the fashion in tinfoil chapeaus, and I’m not going to consider them typical. Yet the topics within this brief screed are fairly common, and the attitude more common still. I feel the need to point out that the writer of this manifesto hadn’t read Sagan’s article very carefully, since it was openly skeptical of alien visitation. Regardless, there are several aspects, commonly seen, that I wish to speak about, and while many of these can be put down to actual mental illnesses, I think it’s unfair and judgmental to dismiss the majority of circumstances in such a manner.

1. A preponderance of threats. Very few people who are involved in subjects like alien visitation consider such occurrences to be good things; a certain number treats them from a neutral standpoint, neither good nor bad, just something that’s happening. But a noticeably large percentage of those claiming visitations are real do so from the standpoint that this is a bad thing, that there are real threats to individuals and society. No small number (I cannot provide statistics – I’m not sure anyone has tried to tally such) appear seriously agitated over the prospect. This doesn’t seem unreasonable on the face of it; aliens with untold abilities that seem intent on kidnapping humans would certainly be something worth fretting over a little. And the same can be said for most conspiracy theories, ghosts and poltergeists, and various other topics. The curious aspect comes when you try to examine the evidence with them, or Borg forbid, point out that the likelihood of such things being true is very low. The defensiveness may start up immediately, and you can find yourself dealing with emotions as strong as if you just denied Johnny Depp could act.

Sure, the argument can be made that such an approach is calling someone’s integrity into question – the same can be said for disagreements in politics, religions, und so weiter. Yet, these beliefs are a cause of no small anxiety in the believer, where they should be ready and willing to entertain the thought that they’re worrying for nothing. One doesn’t often engage in fierce arguments with someone afraid of flying when you point out the statistical improbability of air crashes – they want to believe you, despite their fears. It shouldn’t actually be a struggle to relieve them, much less a personal affront. If you examine that letter above again, you can be convinced that the writer is dealing with near-constant anxieties, but when you engage such beliefs, you encounter an attitude that seems to only indicate that they want to remain this anxious, beyond the idea that they’re defending their own integrity. I’ve seen it too often before to consider it just an emotional reaction.

2. Privileged knowledge. Indicated above in the line about “educated beyond their intelligence,” this frequently-seen aspect is one of the commonalities within visitation/conspiracy discussions. The believer holds an intellectual high ground by being one of the few who knows what’s really happening, unblinded by the propaganda that keeps the populace docile (if you’ve even seen the word “sheeple” used seriously, you know what I mean.) This one’s fairly easy to understand, since it essentially makes the believer special, a cut above the rest, without the reliance on the typical status indicators within society such as intelligence, success, money, et cetera. Additionally, there’s a bit of the hero thing going in that, when the shit hits the fan and the aliens (or government) finally decide to stop hiding and start harvesting or whatever, the believer knew that this was coming all along. I don’t think I’ve seen it extend to having a game plan for this event, but at least they can say they told us all so, I suppose.

3. Putting the pieces together. Like the connection between the rapture and the kidnapping grays in the letter above, another common thread is the fitting together of disparate details. This is fairly easy to understand as well, when you recognize that we’re a pattern-seeking species, so when a believer finds something that doesn’t seem to quite ring true, like the peculiar appearance of the collapsing World Trade towers, they then seek to link it with something else to support their idea. This is a symptom of an underlying drive, it seems, to find the hidden stories. It’s not just a facet of conspiracy-mongers; plenty of people seek the hidden meanings in poems and literature, songs and films, even biology and astronomy. This is fine – it’s an important aspect of gaining knowledge. But like the difference between avoiding being wrong, and avoiding the recognition of being wrong, the drive to find hidden meaning can be misplaced or misapplied. Sharp readers may point out that I could be guilty of this right now.

Further, this drive often seems to result in elaborate machinations in order to support the original ideas. I readily admit, the collapse of the World Trade buildings 1 and 2 seemed odd, more controlled than the toppling of the stories above the impacts that one would expect. But to take this curious fact and then try to expand it into an elaborate conspiracy involving countless details, moreover ignoring all of the factors that damage the conspiracy idea, takes a certain desire to confirm the suspicion, to seek support for an idea that really doesn’t bear logic in the first place. If the buildings were rigged to collapse, why bother with planes, and all of the additional subterfuge required to implement that portion of a plan? Years earlier, a car bomb had been set off in the parking garage in the basement of one of the very same towers, an easily disguised method of bringing down the buildings (and one which would have created many, many more “martyrs” from employees who could not escape, if that was the goal.) A smaller plane loaded with a thermonuclear device could also have been used, requiring far less in the way of staging than using commercial airlines, additionally bolstering the idea that terrorists actually had WMDs. There are countless ways it could have been done much more effectively, had the US government truly been seeking an agenda. Such aspects, however, are routinely ignored.

4. The screen door. Yeah, I’m coining my own terms now – watch for them in the mainstream literature in a few days. One could argue that a screen door is either open or closed – open to let air through, closed to the passage of people, a secure barrier only as long as people respect it. The same can often be said of visitation and conspiracy believers, who often pride themselves on their open minds and willingness to accept unorthodox proposals. At the same time, they can be very resistant to accepting evidence contrary to their beliefs. There is a certain irony in the letter above when the writer mentions the “perversion and subversion in… religion” while wholeheartedly accepting the concepts of “born-again” (one of the lamest ideas ever to be promoted so widely) and the rapture. The same can be said for those who maintain that the Illuminati/Bilderberg secretly control the world while never recognizing that power is rarely shared and such cabals would be subverted from within almost immediately. They seem to equate “open-mindedness” with “bucking the common trend,” not with “examining all proposals with equal judiciousness.” Another way of putting it is the difference between being open to the possibility of something, which means little, and being open to evidence of such, which is a critical distinction.

Again, this is a fairly common trait called confirmation bias, and appears in behavior everywhere, not just among conspiracy theorists and fringe believers. Fox News wouldn’t have a damn thing to report on without it. But it gets raised almost to an art form when speaking of alien visitation and government conspiracies.

The curious part, to me, is how all of the above traits seem to come together so often. I believe many people consider conspiracy theories and such to be relatively rare in a populace, too insignificant to be worth examining, but there are a surprising number of such people out there, and not just sitting in their mother’s basement – the number of PhDs that contribute is eye-opening, as anyone who reads the letters in response to skeptical articles can see. And while I’ve named the typical cases such as alien visits, WTC, and Bilderberg, we can’t ignore the Birthers, JFKs, Protocols of Zion, crack as a method to impoverish blacks, fluoridation, and for that matter, even innocuous things like healing crystals and astrology, which lack only the first trait I outlined above. The frequency of these traits being connected is almost disturbing.

To some extent, popular media is to blame, in sensationalizing and disseminating such ideas until they become reinforced in the public mind – the Kennedy assassination being the greatest example. At the same time, this wouldn’t work half as well as it has if the market didn’t exist in tie first place. Yet it becomes a downward spiral; Richard Wiseman, attempting to publish in the US a badly needed book examining paranormal activity, could not actually find a publisher willing to print it, and this is a book already published in the UK and written by a known author. We are unlikely, however, to see any conspiracy theorists latch onto this abject bias from publishers.

I admit that I’m an armchair dabbler in evolutionary psychology. We can understand many of our behaviors and thinking processes in terms of how they provide some benefit, to our ancestors in the past and even to our current lives. Granted that many of these are hard to prove because such aspects of brain activity cannot even be detailed now, much less within fossils or the genetic line, but they can help explain why we engage in the behaviors and reactions that we do so often. The collection of above traits, however, still eludes me – I’m not sure why they come together so frequently. While I try to tie posts up, this one I’m going to leave hanging, and anyone that wants to provide input or open a discussion is more than welcome.

Does it seem weird?

So this morning I was checking out a new area for nature photography near me, supposedly before the day got too hot (I was wrong.) I wasn’t in search of any particular subject matter, just whatever opportunities arose. When I stumbled across (well, not literally) a dragonfly perched low on a tree trunk right alongside the path, wings still not dried from its new molt and transformation from larval stage, I sat down and start taking photos of it. For forty five minutes.

Many normal people might say, “Forty five minutes? On one dragonfly?” while nature photographers (and their long-suffering significant others) will shrug and say, “That sounds about right.” When you come across an interesting subject, especially one illustrating some trait or behavior most people don’t get to see, you make sure you get plenty of decent frames, and you explore the possibilities of angles, lighting, background, and so on. You may wait, patiently, for the behavior to unfold or the conditions to change favorably. Part of my time was spent anticipating the sun breaking through the leaves to fall onto my subject, bringing out a little more color and lowering the contrast between the sunny background and the dragonfly, until then in shadow. I also got out the strobe unit and experimented with lighting levels that looked relatively natural, and angles that brought out the best facets from the wings – which, as I watched, slowly extended from vertical to horizontal, over the course of perhaps twenty minutes; I could see the tips twitching from the fluid being pumped into them.

Even though I was traveling with the “light” kit, I was prepared, having with me the tripod, macro extensions, strobe, off-camera cord, and IR remote release. These let me do detailed closeups with a high depth-of-field and balanced lighting, with the tripod and remote allowing me to use exposures up to three seconds without worrying about camera shake. Yes, it is frequently a pain to be carrying all of this stuff, even though I often carry more. But there’s no substitute for much of this, and handholding the camera isn’t an option for most macro work and at least half of the high DOF shots, even with pushing the ISO way up. Not to mention, the higher the ISO goes, the lower the quality of the image. The rule is, if you don’t have the stuff you need, you don’t get the shots, and for subjects like mine here, that’s an opportunity wasted that I have no idea when I’d come across again (and if I was once again traveling too light, I’d miss it then, too.)

So carry whatever you can, realizing that without certain types of equipment, you can’t capture certain kinds of photos – you have to judge on your own what you want to carry versus what you can afford to miss. And don’t let yourself be influenced by people remarking about how much shit you bring along, or how long it’s taking you to get “a picture.” But yeah, nature photographers travel alone for a good reason, often enough ;-)

I also did a number of frames to play around with high dynamic range (HDR) photography, which I’ll talk about in a later post.

But how? Part three: Complexity

Walkabout podcast – But how? Part 3

For the next part of this series, we take a look at one of the more interesting aspects of the religion/evolution debate, that of complexity. This one is much more the victim of misunderstanding (and intentional misinformation) than the previous two, which require the effort to see things from a different perspective more than anything else.

While the concept of complexity has been brought to the forefront by the intelligent design movement, it’s long been one of those things that makes many people wonder how simple evolutionary processes can produce it – or, too often, categorically deny that this is even possible. Single-celled organisms are one thing, but just looking at the myriad processes in our own bodies is enough to make one wonder how such interacting, interwoven, complicated things can come about without guidance. And unlike many religious arguments, I actually identify with this one because it has some legitimacy – the level of detail is astounding. But it’s not enough to find it hard to believe, therefore impossible; that’s a thinking/debating fallacy called an appeal from ignorance, paraphrased as, “I don’t get it, therefore it makes no sense.” If one runs into something that’s hard to understand, this is actually a call to examine it in detail, rather than dismissing it as bunk. Not everything in the world is easy to understand, or can be explained in a paragraph or two, and I’m not going to do it justice in a blog post. I can provide only the overview, but hopefully enough of one to demonstrate that it is indeed possible; it is up to the doubter to be honest with themselves and find out more detail as needed – preferably from a source that doesn’t have an axe to grind. You know what I mean by that.

First, let’s get “irreducible complexity” out of the way. This is the rallying cry of the intelligent design movement, and a clever one, in that it seems to convey its meaning without explanation. Except that, when you ask what exactly it means, you actually get two different answers, and these change as the situation warrants. The first answer is: it means if you remove any portion of a complex organism, it fails to work, therefore it could not have evolved over time – the example given is that of a mousetrap, which will not work as a mousetrap if you remove any portion of it. The second answer states that an organism is irreducibly complex if you cannot trace back the origins of some aspect to a simpler, less complex source.

The first doesn’t often appear anymore, because it makes no sense in and of itself. If you break something, it doesn’t work as it did before – well, duh! Not to mention that it applies to designed things as much, if not more so, than it does for evolved organisms. And we, wonderfully complex as humans are, can function just fine without many aspects of our bodies, such as arms, legs, eyes, kidneys, portions of the brain, portions of the digestive tract, and on and on. All of this is needless misdirection, however – evolution has nothing to say about the necessity of any particular aspect of an organism, only how they came about in the first place. Since it is undirected, we should actually expect to see some extraneous details, and we do – look at your fingernails for a quick example. So the salient point really is, could such details have come from simpler beginnings, which is where the second definition of “irreducible complexity” comes in.

To establish this, however, we would need to show that such details (blood clotting and bacterial flagellum are the most frequently forwarded examples) do not have a simpler form, or some kind of ancestral example. But to really establish irreducible complexity as a valid concept, we would have to show the spontaneous appearance of some detail with no ancestral or base version visible in other organisms or the fossil record. This is a little tricky in the two examples given, since neither the clotting chemicals nor the bacterial flagellum show up in the fossil record, because such things cannot fossilize. So we would instead need to show that the components do not show up in a different form in other current species, and/or that other species do not use a simpler method of blood clotting. I probably don’t have to tell you that both of these examples have indeed been disproven as irreducibly complex, because simpler, source, and variant organisms have all been found and showcased. Nowhere to be found is anything that spontaneously appears in the fossil record, but even if it did, this wouldn’t really constitute proof – the fossil record is not a unbroken line of changes, but spot samples of life from various periods. It cannot be used to establish firm lineage because it is far too sporadic, so even a spontaneous appearance could simply mean we haven’t found the transitions yet. Real proof would only be the sudden appearance of a trait in an existing species, and more than once, as well.

Another point that is often missed in here is that, under the idea of an intelligent designer, change of any kind is completely unnecessary. Competition among species, adaptations, speciation, extinctions – all pointless, or at the very least evidence of gross mistakes. Intelligent design is a concept that tries to borrow the legitimacy of our scientific knowledge of species, since this knowledge is undeniably present and useful. Scriptural descriptions of animal “kinds” simply do not match what we see every day, and offer no recognition whatsoever of the myriad extinct fossilized species that we know of. The weight of the evidence rests solely with science, which even allows us to produce vaccines in rapid order for each year’s new influenza strains. People know science works and still want its authority, thus intelligent design is an attempt to disguise religion as science.

Ignoring all of that, we still have to deal with the idea that something complicated can come from something simple, most especially with nothing but natural laws guiding it. There are a few key factors to this: change/mutation, duplication, and time.

Most people have no problem accepting that small changes might occur in, for instance, a newborn: birthmarks, extra fingers, cleft palates, hair color, and so on. We know mutations and genetic drift can occur, often benign, so it means we can accept that reproduction is not free from error or change. These changes have a source, and it’s the DNA, which serves as the control center of developing cells, sometimes referred to as the instruction sheet even though this is a little misleading in itself. Changes in the amino acids are not only possible, they’re relatively common, and more than once I’ve read that the average number of mutations in any human is 100 or so. Even without mutations, there is the gene-mixing of sexual reproduction to consider, though this even has some variations to choose from because of genetic change. Can you find a genetic trait that you have that neither of your parents have? I myself have wicked bad sinuses, several problematic allergies, and weird knees, any of which could be genetic mutations, and who knows what’s going on inside?

But those are changes to existing structures or functions, and not increasing complexity, aren’t they? Unless they result in duplication, such as the polydactylism (extra toes) that is often seen in domesticated species, like the Hemingway Cats (great podcast there.) Duplicating genes is even easier, and the duplicate is often inactive – its job is already being done by the source twin. This isn’t an increase in complexity either, it’s just an unnecessary redundancy – until the duplicate changes.

A small aside here, since another of the misleading challenges to complexity is called the “increase in information.” Deniers maintain that changes to DNA do not result in increasing information, so the complex organisms we have today could not spring from the single-celled organisms that life would likely have started from. And duplication of a gene or sequence is not an increase, only redundancy. But “information” is interpreted poorly, since information within DNA is nothing but combinations of amino acids (like words are combinations of letters.) While neither change nor duplication is an increase in information, a duplication that then changes is – both steps are required, but it’s not like this is impossible, simply rarer than either step alone. It’s hard to believe this is treated as a major stumbling block, but the arguments against complexity are motivated by something other than basic science.

Now we get to the selection part. Many people have a tendency to think of this as directed to some extent, that nature is selecting the parts that work best and eliminating the rest, but that’s not quite accurate. All genes get passed on to the reproductive process, such as the egg or sperm, and will make it to the offspring unless blocked by a stronger gene from the mate, or dropped out by the same kind of changes that produce mutations. The question is, does the individual, the parent, make it to reproduction? This is where selection actually takes place. If the change to the individual from the genetic variation hampers its ability to survive to reproduce, or to be selected as a viable mate, that genetic variation may not pass on. So harmful changes/mutations have a tendency to get weeded out by selection, but beneficial or neutral changes tend to get passed along. Using the Hemingway Cat example again, those extra toes don’t generate a particular advantage, but no disadvantage either, so they can continue in the genetic line.

Should, however, those cats start swimming for some reason, those extra toes now provide a distinct advantage, as would webbing, longer legs, more body fat, and many other traits. Now, the change becomes not only an increase in complexity, but potentially a benefit over other examples of domestic cats. If their food, or greater chances to mate, came from the ability to swim, the extra toes would almost certainly start to appear more often, since those possessing them would pass their genes on more often. The swimming example is simply one that I made up that would put those extra toes to good use, and while it could be argued that cats would never have to swim, it’s actually an interesting example; they live on a small island, in hurricane central, so the chances of their environment changing to the point of less land and more water is actually quite high. Those toes would help with muddy areas too, just like snowshoes work in snow, so it becomes very easy to see how such simple changes can become useful in certain circumstances, and this is exactly how speciation occurs.

And that’s where the last element of time comes in. Genetic benefits are only tendencies, not changes to species – it takes a large viable population to maintain a genetic change throughout enough individuals and generations to create a species change. Unlike the idiotic rantings of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, individuals do not produce offspring with abrupt changes, much less different species altogether; speciation takes place from very small changes built up over long periods of time (and usually isolation from another population, which might offset the genetic changes with their own lack of the same.) For instance, lions and tigers, though separate species, can interbreed, since they have not been geographically separated long enough for their genes to fail in making viable offspring, but in a few thousand years, perhaps only a few hundred, this change will almost certainly take place. Random genetic changes, unmixed between the two different populations, will eventually prevent lion sperm and tiger egg from producing a viable fetus. Small changes can and do add up, assisted by the advantages that they provide to their host species.

We don’t do well in dealing with long periods of time – we have a hard time grasping them. But 3.8 billion years, the length of time we’ve had since the first cells produced evidence of their existence in the fossil record, is long enough to accomplish many, many things, even with tiny steps. Homo sapiens left Africa about 100,000 years ago – that’s 1/38,000 of life’s history on earth, and in that time we’ve expanded across the planet, changed languages several hundred times (if communication by abstract symbolism wasn’t actually created within that time – there’s no way to tell,) and developed racial traits appropriate to our climate, like darker skin in the equatorial areas and thicker bodies in the arctic. All of the genetic changes that we call “races” among humans occurred since that migration. Counting a generation as an average of 18 years (reproductive age, and I’m being generous,) that’s over 5,000 generations. Remember that figure of 100 mutations per human, average? Some of them are bound to produce radical changes. Yet, Homo sapiens is still largely considered the same species that left Africa – Australopithecus afarensis, otherwise known as “Lucy,” is roughly 35 times older than that, and still remains in the most recent 0.1% of life’s history on earth.

While we’re at it, let’s clear up “species” as well. The bald truth is, we developed the original concept of species because it was visibly obvious – cats are obviously not dogs, and so on. But from a scientific standpoint, species can only be defined from the differences between two examples, mostly their ability to reproduce. There is no point, no recognizable change, where a species “crosses a line” and becomes something new, and in some cases biologists actually struggle to determine whether two examples are really different species or not, such as the great blue and great white herons. When we gained the ability to read DNA, we found that appearances could be deceiving, as in the case where the elephant’s closest relatives are manatees, dugongs, and rock hyraxes – not hippopotamuses or rhinoceroses as one might suppose.

“Transitional forms,” as that video clip demonstrated (I apologize for that, but Comfort and Cameron are the most astoundingly bad promoters of creationism,) is another aspect grossly misunderstood. Nobody in their right mind ever proposes one species turning into another existing species; what the evolutionary change provides for is an entirely new species. Religious apologists proclaiming that the world contains no “combination” species are simply demonstrating their profound ignorance, dismally, since this information is readily available even online. If you really want to see a transitional species, look no further than penguins, birds that cannot fly but swim exceptionally well – preyed on, no less, by sea lions, mammals that lack feet anymore (though their skeleton betrays the ancient evidence of them) that also swim better than they walk, yet still have to breathe air, not water. Both of these species, and many more besides, are completely pointless and inept from a design standpoint, and would be much better off with traits that fish have, like gills and scales. They possess the traits that they do because selection makes them work from the changes that the species have undergone in times past. Smaller wings does not do much for flying birds, but they offer an advantage to swimming birds. Fins would be better, but fish have had a much longer time to specialize in their swimming appendages, so penguins and sea lions cope with modified limbs from times when they were flying or walking species.

The funny thing is, none of this is guesswork or supposition, since the genes show traces of their lineage in many ways – two of the books that I’ve reviewed, Your Inner Fish and Why Evolution is True, talk about this in detail and cover this much better than I have here. People that have received a decent background in evolutionary theory have no issues with understanding complexity whatsoever – but not enough people have received that background. While this should be one of the many basic concepts taught in schools, we have numerous religious folk who simply can’t have that, and enact all sorts of methods to try and prevent it.

There are some interesting implications surrounding that, too, but that’s a topic for its own post.

Of dolphins and dedicated driftwood

This brings us to the last of the trip posts – I think, anyway. I’m not promising that I won’t write about some curious aspect of something I noticed while away, but at least this is the last describing the rough details of the trip. Feel free to be relieved. In years past, you’d have to blame the babysitter to get out of sitting through vacation slides, but here you can duck out and I won’t even know it.

We left Pinckney Island, mentioned in the previous trip post, and grabbed a quick lunch, checked into our suite (provided by our friends – suites aren’t something that The Girlfriend and I spring for,) and dashed back out to keep our appointment for a dolphin tour. Such tours are very popular, at the very least, in the southern reaches of the Atlantic coast, and probably through the Gulf of Mexico as well, and they vary greatly. We’d opted for an inexpensive, shorter one, and perhaps this showed. We certainly saw enough dolphins, but I’ve known for a while now how hard it is to get decent looks at dolphins and manatees, much less good photos. Dolphins often treat surfacing as a mere necessity, not anything to take the slightest interest in, so they do so very briefly and with almost complete unpredictablility. The appearance may be as long as two seconds, often shorter, and since the most interesting aspect – their faces – leads that appearance, you pretty much have to be lucky enough to be pointing in exactly the right direction and quick on the shutter to pull off a decent portrait. I’m still trying.

The tour area was a small bay where the dolphins frequented, probably drawn by the fish that were in turn attracted by some food source the bay provided. I know of tours where the dolphins come right to the boat, most likely drawn by being fed frequently, but these are often frowned upon by more than just myself. Wildlife should not be treated as pets, and inducing habituation for the sake of tourists is a pretty dismal excuse. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), like any other species, can be aggressive, defensive, or simply clumsy, despite their “smiling” visages, so encouraging close contact is simply inviting issues. These tours, however, merely took us into their midst, making a careful attempt to keep us facing in a decent direction, but nothing more.

We weren’t far from shore, either, and the view was almost as good from there, though it appeared to be private beaches. There was plenty of dolphin activity in our area, and in every direction – we even got glimpses of a “baby” dolphin (years in wildlife rehab make me put that in quotes, since the more appropriate term is “juvenile,” it just doesn’t give the right impression.) Speaking of juveniles, the young children on our boat were a hoot, excitedly pointing out every last appearance, though occasionally they were a bit misleading. “Mom! Look!” they would cry, and as nearly everyone on the boat craned around to see where they were pointing, they’d exclaim, “Jellyfish!”

We weren’t the only ones out there at the time. Another smaller tour boat was doing the slow circle with us, about 100 meters away, and a fishing boat. A father and his young son got some nice close encounters on a personal watercraft at idle (yes, they really do idle,) and a mother and daughter in a kayak did as well. I’m only guessing they were parents and children, though – perhaps this is the replacement for the windowless van painted with “Free Candy!” on the side; “I’ll take you on the dolphin tour your parents won’t spring for!” One would have to have a patience for jellyfish to pull that off…

I, just barely, managed to snag a face, more by chance than anything else:

… but as for adding to my stock with some nice, sellable dolphin images, it didn’t really happen. Those, and manatee photos, are subjects more accessible to photographers with decent underwater rigs and scuba-certification, who have frequent access to the areas where either species lives. North Carolina is not a scuba state – even the coastal waters are murky with poor visibility, and one can just about write off the inland lakes and ponds because of sediment. After all the snorkeling I did while living in Florida, I’ve been going through withdrawal, and while I had the gear with me on this trip, it received no use. The possibility of surf snorkeling was there, and we did get a chance in the morning to do some swimming off the beach with little wave activity, but sandy bottoms are boring. Rocky or plant-heavy inlets are much better for seeing something interesting. The Savannah area wasn’t a good choice either, since sediment is stirred up by the major port traffic and other areas are wetlands marshes, next to impossible to gain access to (unless you like long slogs through deep mud.)

By the way, if you’ve noticed that much of what I’ve posted here previously has been macro work, that’s primarily because that’s what I’ve been having the greatest opportunities for where I live – there’s little in the way of useful landscapes, sunrise/sunset opportunities, and of course exotic wildlife. But macro is a field I enjoy, however, and so managed to fit a little in while on this trip as well. The southern states are also well known for lizards, primarily the anoles and skinks, and several lived under the porch of my friend’s house, like this green anole (Anolis Carolinensis.)

We’d planned to get down to the Hilton Head lighthouse at sunset, but scheduling that simply did not work out. So seeing as how our suite was on the beach, I ventured out near midnight to go for a moonlit walk on the shore, all alone because the rest of the party was pretty wrecked by that point. While this might sound romantic and idyllic and all that, it probably fares much better without the large number of teenage idiots attempting to surf fish with no idea what they were doing, or setting off fireworks, or simply sitting around with the boomboxes blasting – do you get the idea why I don’t like tourist areas now?

The night was partially cloudy with a decent breeze, which meant times with very low light interspersed with brilliant moonlight from a waxing gibbous. Looking out over the waves, I saw a great effect as the moon, shrouded from me by the clouds, illuminated the distant water with a curious glow, and I could watch this approach as the clouds moved. Unlike what you might imagine, there was no rush of the light’s approach ended by a sudden glare (even a dim one); instead, when the light was still hundreds of meters away, the ambient light near me would simply increase and I would be in full moonlight as it edged past the amorphous clouds. A very neat effect.

Returning to our rooms, I came in quietly and set the alarm to get up before sunrise, because that’s what you do – not to keep repeating this point for anyone who’s been reading a while, but the best light is near sunrise and sunset, so if you’re serious about nature photography, you arrange your shooting schedule around these whenever possible. I had planned on slipping out without disturbing anybody, but The Girlfriend heard the alarm and roused herself to come along while our friends continued snoozing, which was fine by me.

The teenagers were all gone by now, having drowned (or maybe they just went back to their rooms,) but the beach was far from deserted, now populated mostly by couples waiting for sunrise like ourselves, and here and there by joggers. Shore images, naturally, work much better without crowds, but you can get away with couples or solitary people, so you choose your framing carefully, which can be difficult. I eventually sidled up to another photographer and explained how I didn’t want to get in his shot, nor did I want him in mine, so I was going to shoot alongside him if that was okay. He just laughed, and hit me in the head with his Nikon.

I also did a bit of photography just behind some of the dunes, which gave a bit more foreground interest and worked well to block many of the people on the beach (little tricks, little tricks.) In one location among the beach grasses, with a little footpath through the dune, sat a long piece of driftwood which bore a brass plaque: “Reserved for Hilton Head Island Photography.” Cheekily, I perched The Girlfriend on this and did some of my own shots, ’cause I’m a rebel. Nearby, the beach grass had been carefully gathered up and held down by clothespins so as not to interfere with portraits. This did not help my impression of Hilton Head Island Photography, since these were a cheap substitute for the professional Beach Grass Portraiture Retainers available from professional supply stores for $128 apiece…

This was the last day of our trip, and a nice way to start it off – sunrise on the outward leg had been spent on the road just outside Raleigh, woo hoo. The Girlfriend maintains that it was the best trip she’s taken, and she brought back lots of photos herself and several additions to her sea-turtle-themed decorations (anyone in the area will be able to recognize her car easily.) Since I caught flak for being slightly negative about our Florida trip on the blog, I’m avoiding any comments about this one ;-)

How about a little fire?

A few other bloggers have eviscerated this article, and I’ve specifically avoided seeing what they had to say because I wanted to read the article first. Once I did, I found I needed to make my own comments. So while three of my four readers might already have seen those same bloggers, I’m taking the chance of sounding like a broken record by posting my critique of Be Scofield’s 5 Myths Atheists Believe about Religion.

Scofield gets off to a decent start, really, by admitting that atheists on average know more than most religious folk, an interesting fact demonstrated by more than one exam on scriptural passages. And he says something I’m in total agreement with:

But of course simply knowing more than other religious people about their traditions doesn’t preclude holding to false beliefs of their own.

… which is a fine point and a good thing to remember, even if he only made the comment as lead-in to his top five list. Nonetheless, Scofield mostly remains careful to make distinctions rather than overgeneralize, and certainly makes an effort to be fair, for which I give full credit.

So we move onto the myths, counting down from #5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism. Scofield relates, accurately, how some prominent atheists maintain that even moderate religious belief allows for extremism to be present or grow, in essence stating that even a mild belief system can foster the damaging aspects of rabid fundamentalism. Scofield finds this to be exaggerated, and draws several analogies:

Are the people who casually smoke marijuana in any way responsible for the death of someone involved in a violent heroin drug trade? Is a social drinker of alcohol creating the environment that leads to alcoholism? Should they be shunned for supporting conditions that cause tens of thousands of alcohol-related unwanted deaths? Is a pediatrician responsible for Nazi medical experiments simply because he or she participates in the field of medicine?

Let’s get that last out of the way first, since it’s a terrible example of a Slippery Slope fallacy and doesn’t even make sense (and Scofield even provided more, just as far afield.) The other three are more on target, but demonstrate an oversimplification of the issues that misses the thrust of the debate. Change the second question is a small way, to, “Does a culture that permits and even glorifies alcohol lead to alcoholism?” Does this sound a lot more like what religion actually does, and if so, what now of the answer? Scofield hopes to draw a parallel between the actions of an individual and religious belief within a culture, but obviously this is hard to support. Religion is not, and has not ever been at any point in human history, a personal choice kind of thing; if it was, there would be far fewer people decrying it. But when there are active movements throughout the US to teach it in schools, enforce it through laws of the states, and define or take away individual liberties based on some supposed divine authority, to then try and compare this to personal preference or action is juvenile at best, but I’m going to go for incredibly dishonest myself.

Scofield may want to label such actions as “extremism,” but the amount of support for these is not coming solely from radical churches and individuals – it’s pretty pervasive, and can be traced by state, not by (as one might expect) proximity to a radical church. One could ask whether Scofield thinks the various senators, congresspeople, and state representatives who support bills against gay marriage are considered “extremists.”

Regardless, there’s another point in there that’s completely missed, which is how moderates actually respond and react to extremism, something I’ve brought up numerous times before, here and elsewhere. Our culture is deeply involved with the idea of religious people being “good,” and rarely makes the distinction between the label and the actions thereof. It takes no effort whatsoever to find plenty of people finding ways to defend priests and churches caught deeply involved in unethical and criminal acts – this is not done by people who can distinguish good from bad in the slightest, but only by those who want to blindly defend the label of “good.” Those that consider themselves moderately religious are virtually never seen speaking out against extremism, most especially from their own particular tenet of religion, and, like Scofield, become quick to defend religion from a standpoint of the good it does rather than accepting any blame for the bad.

I could list example after example, but to state my point simply, the more rational and tolerant uses of science, religion, medicine or government cannot be blamed for the destructive and harmful uses of them.

Of course, right off I’m going to ask what the rational use of religion is, which is one of the points that is made often by atheists; you cannot consider it rational if it has no premise to base rational thought upon. As soon as you go outside scripture to say something like giving aid to the homeless is good from a sympathetic, societal point of view, you have eliminated religion as the pre-eminent cause of such altruism anyway.

There is also the recognition, conveniently ignored here, that religion is an ideology, and as such, doesn’t really compare in any way to science and medicine, and only vaguely to government in the broadest of senses. Ideology can guide science, medicine, and government – it does not stand as a body of knowledge, but as an instigator of value itself. It can, most certainly, be blamed for destructive and harmful uses.

Further, what Scofield dodges with this analogy is that a cultural dependence on supernatural causes and beings allows for the more obvious abuses thereof. Religious folk are very fond of claiming that we have no way of knowing what might lie outside our immediate physical senses, but somehow this does not slow them down into supposing and even asserting what this must be. And once you’ve opened the door to unprovable assertions, you make these permissible to use by others. Religion relies on a special exemption: not only we are allowed to believe in ethereal concepts, we are actively encouraged to, and requiring some kind of supporting facts for a standpoint is considered blasphemy, sometimes literally. In this way we have created a culture of reliance on, and deference to, imaginary ideas. Yes, they are indeed imaginary – there is absolutely no way anyone could examine the pantheon of religious belief and find any consistency whatsoever, much less testable facts, so what else could it possibly be called? And it is this point that the more prominent atheists have made. Nowhere else in our culture, or any culture, is someone allowed to dodge providing support for their viewpoints or proposals by invoking unknowable sources. When people do this with topics such as alien abductions and government conspiracies, we consider them cranks. Why do we allow this inconsistency to continue?

Scofield continues with #4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God, which would seem to be in response to the point I made above about imaginary ideas. True enough, the dictionary definition of religion is rather broad, and plenty of people chose to interpret it as they see fit, sometimes merely as “spirituality.” In practice, however, what anyone hopes to accomplish with this kind of argument is exactly what I pointed out above: exemption from examination and proof (as well as granting importance to their emotions.) While the majority of people behind any movement such as denying gay marriage or women’s rights will be theistic, specifically christian or muslim, apparently addressing the majority reliance on an unprovable source of authority means that atheists are finding “easy targets.” And despite his desire to refer to dictionary definitions to make a weak point, he misses the exact same point with atheism, which by definition means “non theism,” and theism doesn’t refer to spirituality or vague earth consciousnesses, but only a singular, active god. In reality, though, most atheists are such because they require something concrete, not to believe in, because belief is considered a corrupt crutch on thinking, but to actually provide some reliable effect. As such, every vague definition of “religion” that Scofield would like to wield falls flat. Not much of an argument for a top five.

Taking the bronze is #3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior, which is a favorite among many.

A common way for atheists to denounce religion is to simply list all of the horrors that have been done in the name of religion and then say, “Look how awful religion is!” Religion becomes synonymous with all of the bad things done by religious people. But is religion the cause of bad behavior or simply a mitigating factor?

Scofield then goes on to extensively quote Christopher Hitchens as saying, very clearly, that bad behavior is a human trait, only exacerbated by religion. I can’t help but think that it might have been better to actually demonstrate that the myth exists, rather than quote a prominent atheist debunking it, but at least he’s not avoiding the evidence of contradictory viewpoints. The discussion about religious violence has progressed far beyond religion as a root cause for decades now – the question has long been, “How much does religion encourage, allow, or condone violence?” One must ask, if they have any sense whatsoever, why religion is so very frequently found inextricably tied up with violence throughout the world? While correlation is not necessarily causation, correlation is a very distinctive indication of relation, and one that bears careful examination. To ignore that a lot of people throughout history have been moved to violence by the belief that they are doing something “good” is nothing but abject denial.

Of course religion is also a very powerful re-enforcer of our most beautiful, inspiring and profound aspects as well. It can inspire the best and worst in us.

Scofield seems to want credit for bringing up here that religion is indistinguishable from ordinary human behavior. There is a distinct point, however, that gets conveniently ignored every time such arguments are used: religion is specifically supposed to be a force for good. If it isn’t, why fucking bother? And that’s where we find atheists pointing out how often religion fails to inspire good deeds. There is a difference between saying “religion makes people bad” and “religion fails to make people good,” but this distinction is lost on people like Scofield (or, more likely, ignored in favor of an easier argument.) There is no shortage of people willing to give religion credit for all the good that people do, and even for the medical advances and expertise that science has provided, but this is very selective. When someone dies in a pointless way, religion is not to be blamed (or, occasionally, we’re supposed to believe there’s a higher, yet still good, reason.) This is nothing but confirmation bias, like a child proudly proclaiming their superiority when they successfully called a flip of the coin.

And we return to myth #5 as well. The deference to religion, the belief that it just might explain how the world really works, leaves us with absolutely no answer whatsoever to religious terrorism. We cannot pronounce a suicide bombing or the beheading of a heretic as “bad” whenever a religious motive is claimed, because we have a culture that glorifies religion and allows it to exist without rational support. True enough, many individuals decide on their own what religion is “real” and thus all others are false, but there is no way to establish this in a reasonable way – it can only be arbitrary. Humans need a method of establishing “good” and “bad” outside of the realm of religion, to which religion must defer and be subservient, if we are to have any expectations of countering extremism.

So far, our best point was at #5, and we’ve been going downhill ever since; Scofield does not break this trend with #2. Atheists are Anti-Religious. We see here that Scofield can indeed determine what atheism actually means, and this little point is one that occasionally crops up on forums.

Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion. It is simply the assertion that god does not exist, nothing more and nothing less.

This is useful only to people who lack the ability to think on their own so badly that they need everything rigidly defined for them. There are definitions for Democrat and Republican too, and what those parties are actually supposed to be in favor of – who really fucking cares? Does it actually apply to what most Democrats and Republicans support? Should there be some kind of effort to coin terms referring specifically to anti-theism, anti-deism, a-spirituality, and whatever else someone wants to be pedantic about? Maybe I’m a vastly superior exception to most of the human race, because I can read, and thus determine what attitude someone has from the points that they make; but I suspect this ability is more prevalent than that, and handy-dandy labels aren’t really needed.

Scofield here demonstrates something that crops up way too often from religious apologists, and often merely from everyday religious folk as well: that everyone else is stupid and needs help understanding simple concepts. I have made the point myself, several times, that I’m more into critical-thinking (or skepticism if you like that label) than atheism, since it covers topics unrelated to religion as well, but it doesn’t stop me from using the term atheist, nor do I think I’m drastically misleading people this way. Am I also anti-religious? Yes, from the standpoint that it is used to determine cultural standards and ideal behavior; no, from the standpoint of what someone wants to believe on their own without dictating terms to others. What’s the label for that? Who cares?

The downward spiral actually lessens a bit with #1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”, but still doesn’t rescue Scofield from poor arguments. Instead, we start to get wrapped up in value judgments:

Many atheists often claim that they are wrongly accused of not understanding the differences between religions. “Of course we do!” I’ve heard them say. But yet this is meaningless unless they are willing to treat these differences differently.

Scofield then goes on to quote Greta Christina, who talks not about the differences between, for instance, buddhism and christianity, but on the common factors that get them labeled as religion in the first place. The point is valid; reliance on immaterial, unprovable, and untestable assertions is a pointless way of attempting to choose what works for people.

Now, you have to recognize someone who quotes just one person, attempts to redefine what it is they’re saying, and then lists this as a myth that atheists are prone to. You recognize them, naturally, as someone who really can’t find a decent argument, and all he needed to get to was five:

For example, by using the term “all religions” she conflates a church attending atheist Unitarian Universalist with a Bible believing, homophobic theist. The venerable Vietnamese Buddhist religious leader Thich Nhat Hanh becomes synonymous with Pat Robertson simply because they are both religious leaders. Dr. King is in the same category as Osama Bin Laden.

No, she said nothing of the sort, and claiming that she did is fatuous. What she was talking about was the basis of religious belief, as she clearly outlined, and thus, each of those figures is equally corrupt in claiming authority and justification for their actions, as opposed to using reasoned and/or scientific or biological facts in their decisions. This does not mean that what they do with this belief becomes exactly the same, and this comparison is shamelessly opportunistic (much like Pat Robertson.)

But again, I feel the need to point out the subtle argument here. Scofield is clearly trying to make a distinction between “good” religious behavior and “bad” religious behavior, but religion cannot, by definition, be qualified that way – religion is the force for good and/or “truth,” as we are constantly reminded. As such, there can be no “bad” religious behavior unless we deny that religion bears that definition. Once we do, of course, we have to consider good and bad from another standpoint, such as what works best for society as a whole, whereupon religion becomes just another political movement. The authority of supernatural guidance or spiritual knowledge cannot hold up for all religions – they are irreparably contradictory, and so one must seek a method of determining which is more “true” than the others, something that has been going on without progress for a few thousand years. Or we can simply go with what works better for people, and use that as a sole (and perfectly functional) authority, and have done with all of the failures of religion that Scofield has been kind enough to outline above.

Misdirection and misunderstanding of useful values is nothing new, and neither are Scofield’s arguments. About the best that I can say is that he may not have intentionally exploited this, but might actually have been honest in intention, if not exactly on target. Then again, who cares? Whether you’re intentionally lying, or innocently misinformed, when you offer bad information makes no real difference.

Amusingly, Scofield makes several points about lumping religious people together throughout the article, but never realizes he attempts to define atheists in exactly the same way. Atheism isn’t a goal, cause, or movement – it’s a standpoint. Whether some statement is made by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina, or anyone else really doesn’t matter to me, nor to many atheists I’ve encountered – what matters is what anyone says, and quite frankly, everyone should be following this guideline. While we sometimes find that we (the human “we”) determine that most things expressed by some individual are intelligent or insightful, we sometimes invert this to mean that this person will thereby always be intelligent and insightful, changing the value judgment from the idea expressed to the person expressing it. But it should forever remain on the ideas alone, recognizing fallibility as a human trait, and keeping us alert to distinctions rather than abdicating thought.

For those who missed the significance of the title, it’s a quote from the Wizard of Oz, as the witch sets fire to the scarecrow. Despite Scofield wanting to highlight atheist strawmen with this article, there was no evidence that he had the ability to identify them in any way. Or hoped to misdirect the reader away from his own – one or the other.

My kind of exploring

On this recent trip, we actually got into three different wildlife refuges, although none of them at an optimum time (and all of them in South Carolina.) Nevertheless, we managed plenty of sightings and a few photographs here and there. I am, for some unknown reason, having a hell of a time getting the slide scanner to lock onto the colors, so these images are less impressive than they should be, and I apologize.

On the drive down, we stopped at Santee National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Marion near Summerton, SC. This has easy access off Interstate 95 and is well-marked. We were there at midday, not the best of times, and the heat seemed to have kept many critters less active. I was on the lookout for water moccasins, something I have yet to capture on film in the wild, but we saw only a few lizards, deer, and a raccoon that scampered off before I could retrieve the camera from the bag. I have no doubts that there would be lots more to see, judging from the area and their visitor’s center, but we were on the outward leg of our journey and not going to tarry long.

A few days later, we checked out Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which is actually just over the border into South Carolina from Savannah. Many of the trails and the vehicle drive were closed due to maintenance, so we saw only a tiny fraction of the area, and were delayed getting out of the house on both days we visited, so again, not there at optimum times. Despite the fact that we were only accessing the walking trail (between sections 7 and 8) and kept that to a minimum because of the heat, both times we were greeted by American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) almost as soon as we got out of the car – quite literally on the second day. Seen at the top of this post, one gator turned and headed straight for where we stood, plainly obvious on the bank – there is no doubt in my mind that people have been feeding them. It halted before it reached my “return to the car” line, apparently because we weren’t actually exhibiting any signs of offering food. I make it a point to maintain safe distances and practices with wildlife, knowing all too well that they can be provoked into protective or territorial behavior by cues we’re not familiar with. Someone might have an impression of the “intrepid” nature photographer braving danger to get that really cool shot, but that’s a stupid nature photographer, and needs not be encouraged. If you’re that close, you’re not only putting yourself at risk for a mere photo, but interrupting the natural behavior of the animals and providing a bad example for others. People often consider nature photographers to be naturalists in their own right, knowledgeable about habits and behavior of their subjects and thus a good person to emulate, but owning a camera with a long lens does not grant automatically this knowledge.

The most common subjects we saw in this refuge were the purple gallinules (Porphyrio martinica,) where the males displayed rich, iridescent blue/purple coloring, but the females a very drab black. About the size of bantam chickens, we had arrived at fledgling time, and numerous mothers were out with their chicks showing them how to forage for food. Most areas of the walking path were shrouded from the adjoining channel by tall cattail reeds, and it often required shooting through a screen of them. The gallinules frequently called to one another, as well as maintaining quieter clucks to keep the chicks oriented with their mother. The Girlfriend and I had witnessed the same thing in the NC mountains with the wild turkeys there; the mothers provide a near constant series of quiet, muttering calls which don’t carry very far, which the chicks know to keep within earshot. These calls are faint enough to avoid attracting attention from greater than 15 meters (50 feet) or so. If the chicks stray beyond hearing range, they frantically start a louder call to try and find mama.

The screening cattails meant that we only saw birds on the opposite side of the channel, though the soft (and sometimes loud) calls told us we were often only a few meters away from ones on our side of the channel, but totally unable to see them. It is frustrating to know you’re close enough for much better images, if only you could see through the foliage. A kayak would have provided a view of both sides, though it’s unlikely the presence of such a vessel would be ignored. I have never lived close enough to a good location to construct a floating blind, but I have made up my mind that the next place I live will be in easy proximity to a lake, at the very least. A nice wetlands area would be even better…

Late in the trip, we ended up going to Hilton Head Island. This wasn’t in the original plans, but our friends treated us in order to coax us to stay a little longer – they felt guilty because of their intrusive work schedule, I think. I normally avoid touristy areas, since I’d rather be farther away from people, but I’m game to explore anyplace once. We had to wait to check into our suite, so we backtracked a little and checked out the refuge we passed on our way onto the island. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is a small place mostly made up of tidal flats, just a little turnoff between two causeways and not terribly promising in appearance. The path was a gravel road that seemed at first too open and exposed to offer much in the way of viewing opportunities. Not too far along, however, we came across a mudflat area that could have kept me busy for a while.

Once again, the fiddler crabs were in evidence, and I don’t say this lightly – it was the largest collection I’ve ever seen. The number of them was so great that one could be excused for imagining they were only stubs of plants or something, and being diminutive and off the trail a short ways, they could be totally missed if someone wasn’t being alert. I suspect I’ve mentioned before that I like crabs, and could have spent no small amount of time right there – I also could have gotten really filthy doing so, trying to get up close to a subject standing not two centimeters tall that liked soft mud. Decorum won out, however, as the patience of my friends and the prospect of getting back into their car covered in black mud prevented me from indulging in my native instincts. I still spent a few minutes chasing them and watching their antics.

Male fiddlers have a dominant cheliped (“claw”) that can be either side, but always outweighs its opposite by a wide margin – they earned their common name because they wave this in both warning and mating displays. The species – these were most likely mud fiddlers (Uca pugnax) – live in small holes dug into the sand or soft mud, and feed on little bits of organic matter in the mud, either vegetation or scavenged animal matter and plankton. While they need to keep their breathing apparatus moist, they’re not an aquatic species like a blue crab and can handle being out of the water. The eggs are released into neap tide to be carried away, and the young live on plankton in deeper water, before coming back into tidal zones as adults. Handling them, if you’re quick enough to catch one, is easy, since the chelipeds are rarely large enough to do more than pinch a bit, and mostly they just try to sidle away shyly (unlike the very aggressive aquatic blue crabs, for instance.) They’re also a subject you need very little patience for; scare them into their burrows with an incautious movement, and you only have to wait a minute or two before they venture out again.

A little further on, we watched a pair of American white ibis (Eudocimus albus) foraging in the same kind of area and tried for some useful compositions, unaware of what waited a little further up the trail. We were just thinking of turning back, partially because of the heat, partially because we hadn’t planned on being in the open so long and hadn’t applied sunscreen, when we came to what I think was identified as “Osprey Pool.” In an earlier post, I enthused about Venice Audubon Society Rookery in Florida, but I’d never heard of Pinckney Island before, and they have their own version. June seems to me to be too late to find nesting birds, especially in warmer southern states, but nobody apparently told the white ibis that – they were nesting in abundance, and much easier to photograph than at Venice as well.

Countless other species were raising their young there too. A couple of fledgling tricolor herons (Egretta tricolor,) seen at right, were flying heavily from perch to perch and making a ridiculous amount of noise, upset because their mother was trying to convince them to find their own food. A few anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) youngsters could be seen, and we spotted double-crested cormorants, great egrets, wood ducks, black-crowned night herons, and at least one example each of little blue and green herons. The activity was constant, one of those situations where you can only look in one direction at a time and thus know you’re missing something in another (that’s why there were three of us shooting.) Since The Girlfriend’s camera was being balky, she used my digital while I shot film, and so she got to be a bit more serious in chasing subjects – it convinced her to invest in her own DSLR now (and will have a significant upgrade over mine.) Among three cameras we have several hundred images, and could have remained there half the day, if we didn’t need water and shade. Next time, it’ll be a picnic lunch, I’m sure. And much earlier in the day.

The pond was little more than a moat around an island, and I’m not really sure where the fresh water came in. We were never more than a few hundred meters from the tidal flats, though, and an opportunistic alligator was in evidence here, too. It had chosen some duckweed to skulk about within, and had surfaced from underneath rather than swimming into it, resulting in a nice coating across its head, increasing its camouflage – I have no doubts that this is an instinctive habit. While there, it heard a mother gallinule hiding in the reeds of the island, and if I can judge from the different nature of her calls, she knew quite well the gator was there, and was telling the kids to stay close and hidden. We only got the barest glimpse of her and the young in the reeds, but the gator nosed up to the very edge of the water pointed directly at her location, hoping for a snack from an incautious fledgling. Some might consider the gator to be the villain in this scenario, big nasty thing feeding on cute little fluffy thing, but that’s the natural order – the gallinules themselves feed on insects and frogs as well as aquatic plants, and this is no less, or more, cruel. It is merely the food cycle, no emotions involved, and our attempts to pin some kind of value judgment on any of it is inappropriate and misleading. Just observe.

Again, I’m not in a hurry to check out Hilton Head again, being too developed for my tastes, but I will certainly try to return to Pinckney Island and spent a lot more time there. Our visit was longer than intended and far briefer than it warranted, and serious birders and nature photographers should include it in their list of locales. The benefit, of course, is that you can then crash and eat on Hilton Head rather than in a tent someplace ;-)