We appreciate the help

There’s a rather interesting effect I’ve been noticing for a while now, and I like it. The popularity of blogs and discussion forums online has taken over where the print articles, editorials, and occasional letter to the editor used to reign. Opinion has now become a much easier thing to express, and a more common thing to encounter.

I can see your eyes widen with incredulity from here – not at the idea that people can express opinions where they couldn’t before, but that I would actually like this. You’re thinking of YouTube, Facebook, and the comments on Cracked.com. So I’ll clarify and say that I’m talking about opinions, not offhand comments, and in forums where discussions actually take place, rather than sniping. I’m talking about mostly blogs, but also the increasing number of online periodicals that are allowing comments. Yes, many of these get their share of insipid, anonymous graffiti (and there’s more than enough to share,) but they also get their share of reasoned, careful posts and rebuttals, and these are something new in the dissemination of information.

What many people never realized, never knew about, was that there’s an undercurrent of misinformation that’s been present for a long time, spread with the intention of maintaining support for a viewpoint. Mostly, this is religious, but there’s other areas that see such tactics, like alternative medicine, alien visitation, and politics. I’ll concentrate on religion for the most part, just recognize that this applies to other topics as well.

Churches and (especially) religious youth groups have been spreading a lot of intentional misinformation for decades now, and actually have coordinated, specific programs, scripts, pamphlets, books, and even children’s videos dedicated to the pursuit. Don’t believe me? Check out the Index to Creationist Claims, a website that addresses the most prevalent cases, or simply Google “Chick Tracts” – seriously, if you’ve never heard of those, look them up, because they’re very popular.

You may want to argue that it isn’t intentional, or perhaps isn’t coordinated. I’ll tell you to look at it closer. Virtually all of these little bits of information have been countered long ago, usually long before you were born, and yet still get used by churches. These are things like, “man descending from monkeys,” “just a theory,” “the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” “how can so many people be wrong,” and “Hitler/Stalin was an atheist.” I’m present on enough discussion groups to see the trends, and know that there’s actually popular approaches at given times – the wielding of the term “scientism” went through a phase last year, punctuating a more common rant against “materialism” – this is the idea that it’s a scientific approach, mind you, and not the psychological concept of gratuitous possessions. I’ve talked about this concept before.

What the discussion forums bring to the table now is the ability to address all of these, usually in detail, and occasionally with the contempt they deserve. The church youth who have been fed these during their adolescent years in a sheltered, controlled environment suddenly come across the distinct reasons why they fail. They’re introduced, sometimes harshly, to the nature of what science really is, and what it has investigated; to what evolution is and how it works; and to logical fallacies that they never realized existed.

Moreover, it happens publicly. Many people who see these arguments don’t bother addressing them, because they feel that “you’ll never convince the devout.” While this is a frightening thought in and of itself – are there that many religious fanatics out there? (yes) – there’s another point which they don’t consider, which is that there’s a certain number of people reading along as well. Let’s face it, you’ll rarely come across a discussion or argument where one party goes, “Wow, you’re right, and I was wrong” – it just doesn’t work that way. The best you can hope for is to plant the doubt and let it grow on its own. But while you’re doing this in a forum, lots of other people who may not be quite as fanatical but have heard the same misinformation are following along.

It’s fairly well known now that church membership, for most denominations, is dropping, while “unassociated” and “atheist/agnostic” populations are rising. And the churches see this too, and have redoubled their efforts to combat this, on occasion rather vehemently – the current pope compared atheists to Nazis, something he apparently felt qualified to speak on from his time in the Hitler Youth. What they’re not realizing, and I get quite a kick out of, is how much they’re throwing their bullshit into stark relief. In mere minutes, gross misinformation is called out, highlighted for what it is, and trashed resoundingly – very publicly. The more such attempts are made, the more the churches are shown to be manipulative, deceitful, and dishonest. Those youth told in their church groups and in handy dandy little pamphlets how physics has so much wrong, or how ancient geology can be explained by the great flood, bring such topics up triumphantly and find out that none of these points is even vaguely supportable. Many of these people, perhaps the sharper thinkers, realize that the church led them astray, fed them lies, and (let’s be blunt about it) tried to brainwash them.

For my part, I love this help! While the pope undoubtedly thought he was shoring up the crumbling walls of catholicism with his atheist/Nazi remarks, what he really accomplished was making even fundamentalists aware of how badly he was grasping. Just mentioning “Nazis” in the same discussion as “catholics” opens that rather nasty door to just how complicit the pope was to Hitler’s programs, and just how religious Hitler actually was. Suddenly, there’s the opportunity to remind people of the anti-semitic background of Europe at the time, and the bare and simple fact that Hitler did not work alone, but with the complicity of millions of catholic and protestant Germans.

So, as someone who espouses critical thinking and careful examination, let me extend my thanks, and my welcome to those arguments! By all means, bring up Darwin’s repenting on his deathbed, and how micro-evolution might be real but macro-evolution isn’t. Stump us all with the avowal that everything must have started somewhere, and how Einstein and Newton believed in god. Come in proudly with that special information your priest or church vouchsafed to you, and be confident, triumphant, and even condescending if you like. It makes for much better reading when you find out the truth.

Ummmmm…

That’s really all I can say right now. Just, “Ummmmm…”

It’s too late to suggest this, but this script better have some great catchphrases, regardless of how good the movie actually is. Otherwise it’s a completely wasted opportunity.

Odd memories, part four

Every once in a while, some random event in my life makes me remember an encounter from, wow, over 20 years ago now. It sits indelibly in my mind as do those things that must certainly be of some radical importance, and it only remains upon me to gain the understanding of what this importance must be.

A friend, whom I shall simply call, “Wendy,” since that is coincidentally her name, and I were attempting to visit a discount outlet in Syracuse. I had never been, and Wendy was fairly sure she could remember how to get there. I will totally ruin the literary foreshadowing by keeping this story very far out of the realm of literature, and besides that simply by saying we got lost as you expected, but don’t feel too clever with yourself since no one tells a story about traveling straight to their destination without incident.

After eventually determining this without much doubt (the lost bit, I mean,) we decided to go ahead and ask directions. Since we were in a quiet and semi-residential section of the city, it took a couple of minutes before we finally located someone within easy calling distance on the sidewalk, so Wendy rolled down the window and hailed him.

He was an elderly man, dressed in rumpled clothes and bearing an umbrella, who I might possibly describe as “African-American” except that I have no idea whether either of these terms is accurate, so I will settle for “black” instead. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I had developed an affinity for the older black gentlemen and their distinctive manner of speech and storytelling, something I won’t try to emulate here because I simply cannot do it justice. Suffice to say that it doesn’t matter what the story might be, the value is all in the delivery. He stopped when called, stooped slightly, and when challenged by Wendy to provide us with direction to Ra-Lin’s, he pondered for a moment, peering off down the street ahead of us as if recalling the ancient legends.

“Head straight on up this road,” he began, emphasizing the directions with dramatic movements of his hands as if he was willing his golf ball towards the cup, “and turn left at the light. Stay straight, through maybe three, four stop signs, straight, straight, straight,” chopping the air to keep us from veering to either side, “and go under the bridge,” with a swoop that indicated we might actually have to burrow. “Head on up to the light, and then just… follow t’ crou’!”

Now, this isn’t an attempt at his dialect, because if I were doing that the entire passage above would be written very differently. Instead, this is my rendering of the words he appeared to use. Neither of us was sure if he was actually saying, “Follow the crowd,” or not, and asking him produced only the assurance that we had heard him correctly. Wendy thanked him, and I started to put the car in gear.

“Wait!” he bade us, suddenly reconsidering. “You go up this road, and turn left at the light, the stoplight,” he said, perhaps thinking we would get confused with some other electric filament along the way and crash through a bank or something. “Stay right along that road, straight on, straight on, and go under the bridge…” emphasized because vaulting the 690 overpass with my peppy little Datsun 200SX was certainly a distinct possibility – this is not long past the era of The Dukes of Hazzard, after all. “Get to the light, then… follow t’ crou’!”

It wasn’t lost on either Wendy or I that he had actually repeated his previous directions, and had reiterated the last vague part exactly as he had before, making it no clearer the third time around. We thanked him, and once again I was putting the car in gear as he stopped us again, excitedly.

“I am going to San Francisco!” he told us loudly and exuberantly, despite the fact that he was facing East. He whipped the umbrella around his head in a gesture that would have decapitated anyone within four feet. “Around the world in eighty days!” And then, he bent low to bring his face to our level sitting in the car, perhaps to allow a straighter air path for his next expulsion, rather than requiring his breath to make that tricky right-angle turn at the back of the throat. “I… AM… GOING… TO… AFRICAAAAAAA!

The sheer defiance of this statement was unquestionable, and he was certainly quite happy to inform us of these plans, perhaps daring us to suggest a swimsuit along with the umbrella. Wendy, at that time working for the airlines and thus requiring the type of always-cheerful plastic demeanor that you find nowadays only in Human Resources, wore a smile you couldn’t shift with a brick. I did my best to emulate her, nodding appreciatively at the gentleman’s gleeful grin and murmuring through clenched teeth, in a way I would describe as sotto voce except I don’t speak French, “Roll the window up, Wendy. Roll the fucking window up, Wend…

We bade him goodbye and moved on without incident or further travel plans, as he waved happily to us with a huge grin that suggested he knew exactly the effect he had provided. We made the next turn and I pulled over into a parking lot so we could laugh ourselves sick without risking other traffic, occasionally repeating his itinerary to one another through the tears. Eventually, we drove on, and followed his directions (indeed, remaining under the bridge despite temptation) until they’d petered out with the enigmatic “crou'” to be followed. Sitting at a light and wondering, “What now?” we spotted our destination half a block away to the right. It bears mentioning that we’d gotten to this point by driving along Crouse Ave, and the place was very crowded when we got there, so either way he was accurate.

Even now, twenty-some years later, I can look at the map and know almost exactly where this helpful gentleman was, and also that I can get back to Ra-Lin’s effortlessly. Given that, I certainly hoped he enjoyed San Francisco and Africa, because he undoubtedly got there.

Sampling of the season



While I have unfortunately been unable to get out and do justice to the autumn season around here, I feel obligated to at least get a few examples up. The biggest issue I have right now is with trying to get my digital images to adequately represent the colors that I’m actually seeing. The sky in particular has been remarkably clear and rich in color, but the digital camera simply isn’t capturing the right range of color, and this requires a bit of tweaking to try and correct.

Conditions like this cry out for slide films like Fuji Provia and Velvia, which provide deep contrast and vivid colors where digital has a tendency to wash out and either overexpose or lose saturation in certain color registers. But it takes a while for slide films to get back, and I’m planning to do a proper film session shortly, with both 35mm and 645 in a setting that begs the attention, so right now we’ll go with what I have from the past couple of days.

For some reason, this area is prone to leaf damage, blights or insect infestations or whatever, and finding a few nice, shapely leaves without spots and holes is actually challenging. Anytime from late spring on means I’m often being very selective about what foliage I use as a subject or background, because even out of focus, the subtle message is one of disease or trouble.

The color is an interesting trait by itself. There’s a theory being examined right now that says the red color of many species is a warning to predatory insects like aphids, allowing the trees to retain more of their nutrients heading into winter. The dominance of red colors among North American trees, as opposed to the yellows of Europe, may stem from the terrain in the different areas and the advancement of the glaciers. The big mountain ranges in North America, such as the Rockies and the nearby Appalachians, run north-south, which allowed herbivorous insects to migrate southward as the glaciers advanced down from the northern climes. In Europe, however, the mountains run east-west and formed an impassable barrier to insects as the glaciers came down, wiping out many species. So the trees in Europe did not develop the specialized resistance to insects over the time periods that the North American trees did, since those withstood the predation over a much longer period and had more chance to develop protective traits.

We’ve actually been a bit luckier this year, in that the typical fall storms and winds have been largely absent, so the trees are retaining their colors much longer – last year a gusty storm rolled through right at peak color and swept much of the foliage from the trees, trashing the plans I had to capture the colors. I can’t speak for other nature photographers, but I’ve spent many years making plans and having to change them for one condition or another, and that’s simply how it goes. You can’t predict, you can only go with the flow.

Guest Book Review: Framing Innocence

Once I completed the previous book review, I dropped the authors a courtesy note to make them aware of it. This led to some correspondence, with the result that Matt Young, a professor of physics at the Colorado School of Mines and the author of several works, has offered a book review of his own. I am happy to host him as a guest reviewer, and while I have not yet read this book myself, I have more than a passing interest in the matter. In legal action regarding potential child pornography and abuse, the justification of “protecting the children” is frequently an emotional response, and may not take into consideration the traumatic and damaging nature of actions like protective custody, which can be invoked well before evidence is even presented. This has questionable merit for cases where guilt is well established, and is reprehensible when innocence prevails. Harming children (and adults) to save children, sometimes from absolutely nothing, is an action that requires critical examination.

So herewith, Matt Young’s review of Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response by Lynn Powell:

This is a book that should never have been written, because it details a prosecution that should never have been brought. Very briefly, Cynthia Stewart took photographs of her 8-year-old daughter washing herself in the bathtub and was prosecuted for obscenity.

I played a bit part in the drama — having inadvertently inspired the title of the chapter “Rorschach” — and I read the book not so much with interest as with growing consternation. For the first two-thirds or so, the book reads a bit like a novel, but then it unfortunately becomes anticlimactic, as you desperately want something dramatic to happen. Life is rarely like art, however, and the author was stuck with nasty facts. Very nasty facts.

The main character in the book is Cynthia Stewart, who is described as an aging hippie and who also appears both naïve and uncommonly stubborn (though some would call it principled). The best advice she got, which was unfortunately correct, was not to expect justice from justice system; she did not get it. Indeed, she and her family probably would have been bankrupted but for $40,000 in contributions.

The most interesting character in some ways is the guardian ad litem, the official appointed to look out for the interests of Stewart’s daughter. This woman looked for all the world like a right-wing anti-pornography crusading lunatic, but her commitment to truth and fairness far exceeded her anti-pornography zeal: she took one look at the photographs and pronounced them perfectly innocent. She did everything she could to protect not only Stewart’s daughter, but also Stewart herself.

The same cannot be said of the prosecutor, Greg White. White is somewhat difficult to get a handle on, partly because he refused to be interviewed for the book on what appeared to me to be a pretext. Nevertheless, he initiated a prosecution that the city attorney had declined and at least briefly subpoenaed an 8-year-old to testify against her mother. I thought at first that he had finally recognized that the prosecution was, at best, ill-advised but was too obstinate to back down. Later, though, he seemed genuinely bewildered that court-ordered counseling had not changed Stewart’s mind about the photographs. I do not know which was worse, but I came away with the feeling that the only perverts in this case were in the prosecutor’s office. White went on to become a US attorney and now is a federal magistrate.

I can think of several reasons why the photographs were not published in the book, some good, some bad. They were probably destroyed, but I do not recall the author actually saying so (and the book has no index, in my estimation, a cardinal sin for a nonfiction book). I think, however, that the reaction of the guardian ad litem and almost everyone who actually saw the photographs is convincing evidence that Stewart and her family were, well, framed by overzealous prosecutors. And, as the book details, she was by no means the only one. Let us hope this book provides an object lesson to all future zealots.

* * *

Once again, thanks to Matt Young for this guest review and the book image.

Pharyngula: Too little, too late

I debated for a while about actually posting this, because it strikes me almost as a selective rant that wouldn’t appeal to many others, but then I realized that the background message is something most skeptics should probably be aware of.

Over at Pharyngula a few days ago, PZ Myers tasked his numerous and active followers to help select who, among the frequent commenters he sees, should be added to his Dungeon, the list of people blocked and unable to comment – the point being, his commenters often include regulars who troll, derail, or disrupt threads. Among the suggestions he was receiving were a few people who opined that his comments section had become fairly insular and unwelcoming to new contributors overall, and I chimed in with agreement, following up (after being urged by one to actually contribute) with the reasons I had for seeing it this way.

It didn’t go well at all, and I was both labeled a “concern troll” and excoriated for displaying assumptive attitudes, something I felt I was fairly clear about not having. You are welcome to examine this if you like, since I post there (and elsewhere) as “Just Al,” and the replies to me are usually designated as such. I quoted whoever I was responding to as I went, but there are still 266 comments to pick through. What the experience told me personally was not only that I was correct in my evaluation of the comments section, but that they were not terribly open to a difference of opinion, much less constructive criticism.

The amusing part came a couple of days later, when Myers admitted that he was testing his commenters, having noticed the behavior himself. He had included a stipulation that the nominations include a self-evaluation of the person doing the suggesting, as a subtle means of getting commenters to examine their own behavior. It doesn’t appear he was impressed with the results. (I admit that I did not evaluate myself, partially because I do not contribute too often to Pharyngula – the comments reach ridiculous numbers in very short periods of time – and because I had nominated no one myself, for the same reason; basically, I wasn’t familiar enough with specific names to single them out.) How this whole exercise actually went over with the Pharynguloids I cannot say, because after my fun experience I simply gave up on reading their input.

Okay, that’s the back story; now the part that, to me at least, has more bearing. Pharyngula appeals to outspoken atheists, critical-thinkers, and similar personalities, because that’s what PZ Myers displays. He’s unapologetic about his views, but makes a good case at the same time. However, it appears that no small number of people feel that being outspoken about the same topics means they’re being smart, which hardly follows. Moreover, free-thinkers (another phrase I don’t like but have nothing to replace it with here) sometimes get the attitude that this brilliance from possessing the same opinion means they do not have to communicate with the peons that hold differing opinions – or that when they do, they’re justified in copping an attitude.

This is a common enough trait, seen throughout the internet anyplace where groups of people with the same interest gather, whether it be in sports cars, gaming, conspiracy theorists, pet psychics – whatever. There often becomes a distinctive “us” and “them,” with little grey area. I have posted about this twice, so obviously I have issues with it. The disturbing part about finding this on Pharyngula is that it is supposed to support critical examination, and the very concept of free-thinking relies on being open minded. Forums such as his should be prominent examples, rather than just another select clique. Worse, if anyone really feels that things like atheism or critical-thinking should be more accepted within society, they have to demonstrate why they’re beneficial, and what they can do. If you’re trying to sell the idea of giving weight to all evidence, you have to be open to that evidence first, and open to those with a different viewpoint.

I have no doubt that Myers is a pretty good example of this – he’s certainly displayed it numerous times in debates, discussions, and interviews. Perhaps, however, this isn’t as prominent in his blog posts, where he targets the extreme examples of religious abuse, bigotry, and warped thinking. And while he admits that he only skims his readers’ comments, how unaware was he of their slide away from unbiased thinking and into self-congratulation? Of all people, did he forget that this is a standard facet of churches, and even cults?

Further, he may even have supported this, admittedly subtly. There are few blogs where the owner not only has a distinct following, but recognizes it and addresses them by a specific name, creating an “in group.” It continues with Myers’ encouragements of “Pharyngulation:” linking to an online poll with the express purpose of overwhelming it; and with his “Order of the Molly” awards for commenters who exemplify… well, it’s not clear what they exemplify, except perhaps outspokenness. There really isn’t a definition of what the title, proudly displayed by many Pharynguloids, says about the winner, and the selection process is by nomination within the group. There is something to be said when someone can both win this award and nearly get banned, and it’s apparently happened twice now.

Finally, there’s the return of Phil Plait’s infamous advice. Many people, me included, didn’t agree, but in some cases people took it as a challenge to go exactly in the opposite direction – again, this is polarized thinking, not terribly useful. Myers himself addresses this only semi-effectively; while encouraging forceful and merciless responses, he manages to inject some caveats about doing so with good arguments. This is a bit backwards, as far as I’m concerned: emphasis should always be on the argument, and forcefulness is a tool, only a tool, for specific circumstances.

The point is, even among atheists, free-thinkers, critical-thinkers, and so on, there are good and bad examples, and human traits still remain human traits. But it isn’t enough to declare yourself among some group of special brains, and certainly not an excuse to stop engaging them or get egotistical about it. This goes for any select group of people, regardless. But it’s most especially disturbing, even embarrassing, to see something like this coming from people who proudly consider themselves open-minded. It’s not a title, it’s a practice. You don’t pass a test to be considered such – you have to demonstrate it every time. The moment you stop, you aren’t. It’s that simple. And if you feel you’re doing just fine because you’re among people who won’t correct you, you’ve failed – you correct yourself. Peer support is for the weak.

It is also wielded impartially. Even if you know a commenter or poster from long association and are largely in agreement, this isn’t an excuse to let them slide when you disagree, most especially when it’s a topic you openly address with someone you don’t know. If your standpoint on an issue is based on careful deliberation, then presumably it doesn’t change based on who disagrees with it, does it? That’s certainly one of the messages that critical-thinking carries, and even names as a specific fallacy: “Appeal from Authority,” the practice of assuming that someone is so highly regarded they cannot be wrong. We shouldn’t actually need to create a subset of this fallacy called, “Appeal from My Homeys,” should we?

I came close to removing Pharyngula from my blogroll over this. Not as an act of spite, and it was even the perception of this that actually stayed my hand. However, I maintain that short list over there as my recommendations of both interesting posters and good approaches to thinking, and while Pharyngula remains, because Myers’ posts still demonstrate it, his commenters have become just another chanting rally, which is worthless.

Frustrations, part five


Now that the season for such things is effectively over, I can admit to myself that I didn’t get what I was after this year, and go with what I have so far.

The Sphingidae is one of the more interesting families of moth. While not as big or impressive as Luna moths, they have a very finely developed protective camouflage, which is exhibited not only in coloration, but in body size and habits as well. At top, a Hummingbird Moth, also known as a Common Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) displays the traits that make it so special: it looks almost exactly like a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird when feeding, even possessing a tuft of body hairs at the end of the abdomen that resembles the spread tailfeathers of a hummingbird. The illusion is also assisted by the largely transparent nature of the wings, which helps them become a blur during flight, much like a hummingbird with its much faster wingbeats. And like a hummingbird, they move rapidly from flower to flower, with only brief pauses at each. Thus the frustration part, since they barely hover long enough to achieve focus, and are pretty careful to avoid close approaches.

Their cousin, the Bumblebee Moth, or Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) instead mimics a bumblebee, which makes it possess a different biological trait, too. Both moths are often considered examples of convergent evolution, where the coloration of the moths developed alongside the coloration of the species they resemble, in order to mimic the other species and avoid their own natural predators. In the case of the Bumblebee Moth, however, it can also be called Batesian mimicry, which means a species that develops the aposematic (warning) coloration of a dangerous species while lacking the actual defense of such species. Birds that would feast on the tasty moth avoid it because they mistake it for a bumblebee, which are known as, to use the technical term, “owie hurties.”

Of course, we can’t see the various species change over time, and it’s rather difficult to determine if, for instance, the avoidance of those bright warning colors is instinctual or learned – mostly, it is considered learned. Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has a post regarding this development within a species. The reasoning goes, bird attempts to eat bumblebee, wasp, monarch butterfly, has bad time (stings them, tastes yucky, et cetera.) Bird learns things that look like that are bad, remembers it from then on. Therefore, even if one example of the species is injured or killed, it still performs a protective function for the species overall. This kind of sacrificial species defense can also be seen in honeybees, whose barbed stingers will lodge in whatever animal they sting and get torn out, killing the individual bee yet probably driving off the predator who would destroy the hive or queen. It is also seen in bioluminescent dinoflagellates (cool video there, though apparently a bit inaccurate – cuttlefish are not found in Puerto Rico where the video is implied to have been taken.) A key factor in the process of developing defensive mechanisms is that the species is very distinctly different in appearance from a species with no defense, so the predator can tell them apart easily and thus learning to recognize them has a purpose.

In order for this to work for our bumblebee mimic, among others, there has to be more of the dangerous species than the mimic, so that the predator is far more likely to encounter the dangerous species first, and learn to avoid that coloration, rather than the tasty moth first and learn nothing. So the population of the mimic species can actually start to lose all benefit of this evolved trait if their numbers get too high in comparison to the species they mimic. They cannot expand outside of the area where that species is found, either, lest they encounter predators that haven’t learned their lesson.

Here, I got lucky enough to catch both the moth, and the bumblebee it mimics, alongside one another so you can see the comparison. The difference seems obvious, but think about how often you can see a bumblebee this close as it goes about its business – that’s what you rely on us nature photographers for ;-). But there’s another difference that actually makes Bumblebee Moths easy to spot, even from a distance, and it’s shown right here: the moths do not land when feeding, but continue hovering. The bees themselves always land on the flower. The pointed head of the moth, versus the broad black-eyed head of the bee, is also easy to see.

While these photos serve well enough to illustrate this post, they’re not up to my usual standards, and won’t interest an editor. So, they’re one of many subjects I’ll be watching for when the spring rolls around again. To nature photographers, there’s nothing like seeing a cool subject but being unable to get sharp, compelling images of it to make you get semi-obsessive.

Book Review: Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails)

First off, a small admission: This book jumped ahead in my review lineup because I won it as a prize in a photo competition held by Panda’s Thumb. I feel I owe it to them ;-)

Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), by Matt Young and Paul K. Strode, was written in response to a determined movement solely by religious organizations to discredit a fundamental tenet of science and biology: evolution. Or to be more specific, the theory of descent with modification by natural selection. And that is the only place where resistance comes from. There are only a tiny percentage of biologists that question the theory at all, and absolutely none that I have determined that somehow do not work religion into the discussion.

This by itself bears some examination, since there is little religious effort put into discrediting geology, cosmology, thermodynamics, or history, all of which present us with hard evidence that scripture is wildly inaccurate. There seems to be something about evolution, most especially human evolution, that really annoys the hell out of many religious folk, so much so that it requires obvious and coordinated efforts to demean.

As Strode and Young demonstrate, however, there isn’t a rational argument against evolution at all. Science has a very distinct method of ensuring accuracy, and this does sometimes mean that theories are refined as we get better information – refinement, however, is not the same as eradicating or replacing, and the fundamental aspect of descent with modification not only has not changed in the time since it was proposed, it has actually been strengthened by this new information, so much so that no one who understands it seriously questions it in the slightest. Religious arguments often involve the idea that science changes, as opposed to (supposedly) perpetual scripture, but this should actually be expected. Humans are not perfect nor omniscient, so our knowledge base will naturally grow, and the ability to change and correct ourselves is how progress is defined. It is similar, in many ways, to a murder mystery, but in real life there is rarely a j’accuse that wraps everything up; instead, we have only the weight of the evidence to go on, and given enough evidence, one is left with the difficult proposal of explaining how any other conclusion could result in the, literally, hundreds of thousands of clues we have.

Young and Strode lay out the case, building on it with each successive chapter, taking the time to establish why there is so much support for this mere theory (and of course, debunking the hoary old “it’s just a theory” meme as they do so.) Each chapter deals with a different aspect of the discussion in detail, simultaneously showing both the support for evolution and the weaknesses behind the opposing arguments. I feel obligated to point out that this is not an anti-religion or atheist book (leave that to me,) but deals solely with evolution. To their credit, they not only say they are not addressing religion as a whole, but feature two religious authors with their own discussion against the inerrancy of scripture, perhaps the biggest issue brought up in opposition to evolution. Strode and Young are conscientious enough to differentiate “creationism” from “religion,” and deal only with that which tries to dismiss or deride evolution.

Initially, I had some misgivings about this book based on the title, since I felt that the target audience, those who feel evolution is untrue, would specifically avoid the book because of it. Not far into the book, however, I corrected that: it’s aimed more at those who have to debate this issue themselves, such as educators, and alternately for those who have heard arguments in both directions and want a better understanding. To that end, it provides an excellent example of building the case. It shows the functional attributes of the scientific method, specifics pertaining to Darwin’s original theory and the later refinements from genetics, the flaws of the opposing arguments and the nature of pseudoscience, and even includes essay questions at the end of every chapter – these are not aimed at reviewing the material, but to encourage the application of the thought processes towards deeper understanding. While the material within the book is accessible to any adult, or even young-adult, the questions reflect college-level exercises intended to evaluate content rather than regurgitate it. It could almost serve as a textbook, though it would be hard to justify a course with the goal of trashing an approach, even one as untenable as creationism. There are those who will not be reached by the material, to be sure, but this book isn’t targeted at blind faith; it is instead aimed at those willing to discuss issues and weigh evidence fairly and openly.

In a few places I found some points that could have borne greater detail or support, since I recognize the kind of opportunities creationists look for to drive some doubt into the discussion. These were outweighed by the detailed examples in opposition to the common arguments, examples such as the unintelligent design of the human knee, and the differences between morphological (appearance-based) and molecular (gene-based) phylogenetic trees, better known as “family trees.” One gets a necessary glimpse into the incredibly involved world of biology, and is reminded that evolution isn’t some casual talking point, but remains wrapped inescapably within a body of knowledge that simply wouldn’t work at all without it. It’s easy to say, “the vast majority of scientists accept evolution,” but another to show that decades of research and medical understanding would be totally dysfunctional in its absence. One cannot simply make up a detailed theory and have tens of thousands of scientists working in the field never realize it, and this book provides some recognition of such a ludicrous idea. Without once, I should add, coming out and saying how ludicrous such ideas are.

For the individual interested in understanding more about evolution itself, this book provides a basis, but lacks the detail that it should have for that goal. Since it is not aimed at that, but rather at those engaged in the debate between evolution and creationist/religious arguments, it serves its purpose well, and includes copious notes and a complete glossary and index. The science teacher who gets too many of those “challenging” questions their students have been primed by their churches to ask would be well served to keep this handy – initially, I was going to say, “well out of sight in a drawer,” but then considered that having it out in the open provides more chances for students to thumb through it on their own.

The book is also useful to those who accept evolution with little reserve, but find themselves ill-equipped to debate it effectively. It not only deals directly with the evolution/creation issues, but also with some of the more common fallacies and misleading approaches that invariably crop up, and prepares the reader well for the creationist who resorts to switching tactics when their first arguments fail. In this way, it is more valuable than simply knowing evolution well, since many of the arguments deal with unrelated subjects like probability and cosmology, also addressed by Young and Strode. Subtly, this is damning by itself, since it becomes clear that creationists rely heavily on the misrepresentation of science in as many areas as possible. It is hard to believe that so many “innocent” misunderstandings could exist, and continue to exist – and of course, they don’t. The fact that such a book needed to be written shows us that religion, contrary to the assertions of many, is not about providing answers.

*      *      *

When I took the photo for my last book review, I discovered that too few people noticed the inclusion of a vague human shape in the dark background that I had taken pains to capture, so I went for a more obvious thematic setting when composing the accompanying photo.

This

One of the best things about this is, we have grandstand seats to see this in person, every one of us, just by ducking out from under our roofs when the weather is clear. We are surrounded by something so stunning, so overwhelming, and all we have to do is be aware of it. There are no word games to play, no philosophy to explain it, no greater understanding to be sought. Just the knowledge of the distance, the time, and maybe even the energy that it takes is all that is needed.

There are photons pouring down right now, ending a trip longer than we’ve been human. Catch them, collect that energy, start that tiny chain reaction from your optic cells into your brain, and tell me that’s not the coolest thing ever.

Have fun.

Thanks to PZ Myers at Pharyngula for this one.

Odd memories, part three

When people think of animal shelters, they mostly think of cats and dogs, whether it be cute little puppies and kittens or mangy unwanted crossbreeds, but the fact is, shelters see a large variety of animals, even when the bulk is still cats and dogs. Case in point: my little buddy above.

The shelter I worked for a few years back had night deposit cages, actual locking kennel cages accessible from the outside, with food and water and heated from inside, that allowed people to drop off found (“stray”) or owned but no longer wanted (“surrender”) animals after normal operating hours. They were asked to fill out a form detailing either the location where the animal was found, or the circumstances of its surrender, but you can imagine how that goes. So one morning after a rather cold fall night, we found this gal (I believe) in one of the cages, with no other information.

When I say the cages were heated, this is relative – furred animals would be okay, but reptiles requiring a much higher base temperature of roughly 30º c (85º f) were not going to be happy. So when we discovered the iguana, she was in a state of torpor and very cold, with minimal response. She was medium-sized for a Green Iguana (Iguana iguana, no, seriously,) roughly 30cm (12 in) in body length not counting the tail, which doubled that. Iguanas can get up to 1.5 m (5 ft) in length overall, which would have made my next action a bit harder. To warm her up, she got tucked against my chest inside my winter jacket with a warmed bag of Lactated Ringers solution serving as a hot water bottle, and there she stayed for half the day as I worked at my desk, sweating like a pig. Meanwhile, since I was inexperienced in iguana care, I contacted Triangle Iguana Rescue nearby, whose volunteer kindly provided me with critical care information should I be successful in getting the poor thing past the very dangerous condition she was in.

By early afternoon, the iguana was responding to the warmth and started moving about alertly, so I transferred her into a cage in my office (where I worked as administrator) and set up a heat lamp. Initially, she was semi-force-fed baby food, because her system probably wasn’t up to full digestive power, and in a few days she was convinced to eat on her own. Iguanas are actually fairly high-maintenance pets, since they require specific temperatures and UV levels, and a diet of fresh prepared vegetables and fruit with vitamin supplements – you cannot feed them on any commercially available food pellets and expect them to be healthy. Her muted color might actually have been testimony to such a poor diet before. I remember getting razzed by other staffmembers regarding the amount of time I spent preparing her food, but frankly, if you’re going to do it, do it right.

We did eventually find an adoptive home for her, after interviewing the new parent fairly rigorously, again coached by Triangle Iguana Rescue. While they could have simply taken her off our hands, they were loaded themselves, and this does not appear to have changed since then. The exotic animal pet trade is a problematic and frustrating one to many animal advocates, including most animal shelters. Too many people get pets based on their “cool factor,” uniqueness, fad appeal, and other similar reasons, never realizing that such pets are rarely adapted to domestic life and require much more care than dogs and cats. When the novelty fades, the animal gets discarded – sometimes to overloaded volunteer organizations, sometimes to night deposit boxes (to be fair, I cannot vouch that this simply wasn’t a found escapee that someone kindly turned in, but there’s no way of knowing either.) Iguanas, like virtually all reptiles and amphibians, have little personality to speak of and do not warm up to their owners, do tricks, or learn to use a specific potty spot – they simply lack the brainpower, and the best that can be said is that they have particular temperaments. Improperly handled, they can be dangerous, but even in the best of conditions, a significant cage space must be devoted to them – picture “aviary” rather than “cage” in this case, since they need room to climb, higher temperatures than most households prefer, specific spectrum UV lighting, very high humidity, and nice cleanable surfaces.

So if you’re considering some kind of exotic pet, think carefully, and do your research. Don’t let yourself get carried away by the appearance, the novelty, or impulses, and get informed about their health and care requirements – it’s cruel to subject your pet to improper diet or living conditions, and the non-profit organizations that see all of the castoff animals after the novelty fades really don’t need to pick up after you. In all seriousness the exotic pet trade should be eradicated entirely, because it serves no purpose (and there are more than enough cats and dogs already seeking homes.)

Because of this experience, naturally when the next four iguanas came into the shelter over a period of time, they all got to stay in my office. A couple were monsters, close to maximum size, but the first was the little girl above, who even shows faint traces of greenish-yellow baby food on her snout in the photo, taken a few days after her arrival (as well as some dark patches from rubbing against the less-than-ideal cage we had available.) Not many people can say they wrote monthly reports with an iguana stuffed in their armpit, so you know that goes right to the top of my résumé.