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 ;-)

Ghosts and ironwork

Two posts about the trip, and we’ve only covered one day, but now we’ll step up the pace a little bit. Naturally enough, when visiting the Savannah, Georgia area, we tooled around in historic downtown Savannah. I’m not much for chasing historic areas and visiting old buildings, and I don’t do the tourist thing too often, so if you’re looking for a comprehensive travelogue telling you all about the city, you need to be looking elsewhere (I imagine you can find a travel blog or two someplace.) But there were still some things that struck me about the place.

I currently live in a town that has some historic sections of its own, but this is night and day in comparison with Savannah. We have a couple of older buildings and cemeteries (one of which is almost completely trashed,) but that’s about it. Savannah was a more prosperous city, being a trading riverport, and maintained this level of income to this day, so an astounding number of the buildings downtown are in great condition and date to colonial times. They also realized that this was a tourist draw, and so keeping or restoring the buildings is an investment. While modern life takes place in the heart of the city, it often does so in classic structures. They have also maintained some of the original roads down to the riverfront, and many of the iron gaslights. In fact, ironwork abounds in the city, and my speculation is that this was a status symbol of the time, the colonial equivalent of a Lamborghini. The well-to-do flaunted their success with iron facings, accents, gates and lamps, much of which remains today.

The main road through the city, separated from the river by only one row of buildings, sits roughly two stories higher than the river, so you have to actually descend sharply to remain at “groundlevel,” and in many places this is by original stairs and alleys. We take for granted the building codes that make stairs uniform in height and angle, and this becomes remarkably clear when you take a flight built before this standardization and try not to fall ass over tip. Choosing the original roads is virtually no better, since they’re paved with large round ballast stone – you understand that “cobble” and “hobble” probably are related words as you attempt not to twist an ankle. Yes, they do provide safer access down to the river, but that’s for weenies.

We opted for a trolley tour, which has its merits. While open and not air-conditioned, something that is quite noticeable this time of year, the driver provides plenty of details about the buildings and history while freeing you from the efforts of driving in downtown, and this is no small thing. On top of the fact that the streets are a little narrow and naturally busy, Savannah has this little trait created centuries ago, that of putting a park where a normal streetlight would be. So instead of a grid layout, imagine taking roughly every other crossroads and planting a square right at the center, then detouring the roads around this. You do not drive straight through this section, but spend a lot of time turning right, left, left, and right to get back to your original direction of travel. On the other hand, Savannah has more trees than any other city I’ve seen, and they are ancient, huge, and as mentioned, dripping with Spanish moss. Letting someone else drive is much better, and the trolley tours are such that you can disembark at various stops and rejoin a later trolley, getting a chance to walk around, eat, shop, and do all the touristy things. For our own part, this included rescuing a baby bird dangling from its nest in the City Market, which is the art gallery and café section of the town.

Yes, of course I’m noticing the wildlife anyplace I go – you really didn’t expect else, did you? This applied to a couple of evenings later too, when we watched flying squirrels flashing from tree to tree in the twilight, too fast and unpredictable for me to capture on film (silicon, whatever.) We were downtown to catch an historic ghost tour, departing from the gates of the cemetery seen here. Tours are Savannah’s raison d’être it seems, and Savannah is considered the most haunted city in the US, so we couldn’t pass up a ghost tour – we’d already been by several of the haunted buildings on the trolley tour, but on a sunny day this doesn’t have the right atmosphere. So we selected a candlelit walking tour in the later evening.

If you’re at all familiar with this blog, you may be anticipating my dismissive, skeptical reaction, but believe it or not I was a good boy. As expected, these were simply accounts of what others had experienced in many locations around the town, and not statements about the existence of ghosts nor the attempt to experience them ourselves. I have no problem with good fun, and am not terribly concerned with whether someone is curious about the accounts and experiences – inquiry is just fine in my book, and in fact preferred. The caveat that I make is that it is reasoned inquiry, not committing to any presumed existence or lack thereof, but able to determine what decent evidence really is, and able to look for alternate explanations of phenomena rather than settling for something that seems “positive” and ignoring all else. Waving around an electro-magnetic field meter means absolutely nothing if you have no idea how often EMF occurs nor why ghosts in particular should emit or disturb them (hint: my computer monitor produces beaucoup EMF, as does any electrical device with decent amperage and low shielding.) And of course, photography is even worse, usually capturing far less light than our eyes can, and only occasionally modified to image spectra that we do not see ourselves, like near-infrared and ultraviolet. You did, of course, see the “ghost” in the cemetery photo here, on the grave markers themselves? You can see more here. I can assure you that we did not see any of these with our naked eyes, simply because they’re reflections inside the lens array of the cameras themselves.

The tour itself was interesting, but not as dramatic as you might expect – other ghost tours and noisy buses going past don’t lend themselves to the right kind of atmosphere. We did not go into any of the haunted buildings – most of them are in regular use as inns or offices, and while some such tours undoubtedly exist, they’re also probably a lot more expensive. I amused myself by attempting several long existing-light exposures as we went along, sans tripod since I didn’t desire the encumbrance, so I braced where I could to try and reduce camera shake. In one such image, I discovered the secret of the historic ghost tour, seen here. I thought it meant it was a tour about historic ghosts, but our guide’s right arm seems to indicate that I was mistaken. Always check the fine print.

The empty sleeve effect even looks great at full resolution, and not half as fake as many feeble attempts at double exposures. If you’re wondering, it was merely catching (unintentionally I admit) our guide waving her arm during the 1/5 second exposure time, so that it blurred into indistinction – she otherwise held still enough to appear mostly sharp. I have plenty of other blurred photos, including one with a remarkably creepy effect from her facial movement, but since everything else is blurred it’s not half as interesting in appearance as this one.

The nature photographer part of us was not left behind at all, and later in the trip we got out to chase some critters. I’m not using the royal “we” in this case – The Girlfriend did no small amount of her own shooting, even though she doesn’t pursue it like I do. Now that my slides have returned from the lab, I’ll be sorting and scanning while I select some further post topics, and will be back shortly.


So, not long after I put up a post about deconstructing arguments, I find an example about arguments that really don’t need it, because they weren’t even constructed in the first place. Over at, we get to see a classic example of what passes for journalism these days, where some nitwit named Giles Fraser attempts to address a non-issue and derive some kind of non-statement from it, without ever bothering to understand what it is he’s writing about. Clueless journalists, however, aren’t the topic of my post here, any more than saying the sky is blue. At comment 6 following the article teaser, we have someone making the reply:

“What is the reasoning behind humanism? Why should we attach value to humans who are just a collection of molecules, according to the atheistic worldview?”

… which not only means he couldn’t even be bothered to look up “humanism,” but that he believes atheists deny the existence of emotions as well as gods, as if there’s some connection.

I have to admit, I have never seen any such statement from or about atheism, not even close, and nothing that can possibly be construed this way, from even any tenet of philosophy. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution makes no statement or inference to this effect – about the best that can be said is that humans are only one of many related animal species, distinguishable in no significant way from the rest of the animal kingdom. This has nothing to do with emotions, since many species possess them, but there does seem to be a prevalent misunderstanding that every species except humans operates as an automaton, slave to their instincts and “feeling” nothing.

I’ve faced this same style of argument personally, most amusingly following the complaint that most atheists never addressed the more “nuanced” aspects of religion. There are definitely times when I wished that I could discuss religion with someone who actually examined their arguments first, and I’m sure I’m not alone. The amount of time that is wasted over a debating point that’s a construction of fallacies, ignorance, and outright lies is frightening.

Perhaps the commenter is basing his opinion on misconceptions of Nietzsche’s ideas – too many people feel he espoused both nihilism and immorality, never grasping the idea that this would only be the case if one felt morality and purpose came solely from religion. Or maybe the commenter thinks Ayn Rand’s absurd idea of objectivism forms the backbone of atheist attitudes. The idea that Rand, and perhaps Nietzsche, were atheists somehow makes them atheist role models to those who can’t be bothered with details; humanism has little to do with either of them.

Regardless the misconceptions about humanism and atheism, the basic alternate viewpoint proposed by many seems to be that emotions are what defines our contact with the divine, not just something that sets us apart (supposedly) from other species. I honestly don’t know where this comes from either – I’ve found no scripture, no tenet of faith, not even a popular homily (such as “life begins at conception,” which is far more recent in origin than most suspect) that provides even the basis of this idea. Anyone that has spent any time at all around other species can see that emotions aren’t saved for humans. Nor are they all that hard to understand, any more than an orgasm is, or feeling tired after exertion, or hungry when it’s been a while between meals. It almost pains me to have to point such things out.

But emotion is tied very distinctly into religion, as well as most aspects of new age thinking, and plays no small part in the art world either. Feeling emotional about something is what makes it significant, apparently, and I’ve heard this given as the “proof” of a god more often than I can count. As I’m fond of pointing out, this line of argument must mean that sports have some kind of cosmic significance, since you often don’t see better examples of emotional extremes anywhere else.

And this is why I promote critical thinking above atheism, or alien conspiracy debunking, or anything else; being aware of what constitutes a good argument, and what destroys an argument, simply makes for more reasoned decisions. This is also why we have the scientific method that we do. Feeling strong emotions in connection with rather inane and pointless subjects like “The Pennant” doesn’t really support the idea that these are transcendent in any way; seeing excitement, distrust, or frustration from a family pet means you have to explain these in some way other than “emotions” if you want to keep believing these are things that only humans possess. Watching someone wax rhapsodically over the wonders of tofu or the music of Jimi Hendrix is only another nail in the coffin. Every theory is only as good as the amount of time someone has spent examining the supporting factors, and searching for those factors which effectively disprove it. If such counter-argumentative factors are as easy to find as this, then obviously not much effort was made to ensure that emotions are both human and transcendent.

We have a remarkable, and fairly common, body of knowledge about emotions now – the portions of the brain that activate during certain emotions, the endorphins released, the link to memories, and even the stimulating effects from foods such as chocolate. While we may not have a complete understanding of how the brain works, it’s not like we don’t know what emotions are or where they come from. To connect them to some kind of transcendence makes no sense.

One could argue that strong emotions must have a purpose, and this would work for either an evolutionary or theistic viewpoint. But it’s an example of falling for misleading wording. “Purpose” and “function” are not necessarily the same thing. Most especially, “purpose” is usually taken to denote something that was intended, or consciously guided. But something can have a function without a purpose, like a tree. Moreover, when used in relation to natural selection, it shows a further misunderstanding: selection does not provide solely for function, and it is possible for any species to possess traits that serve no purpose, or which function in non-specific manners. The entire concept of natural selection is that it isn’t guided at all, and relies on survival and reproductive advantages. I’ll address this some more in a later post.

Strong emotions very often provide an advantage, and as such can be said to have a function, but “advantage” is another tricky word – it doesn’t mean “all the time,” or that every time we feel particular emotions there is good reason. We have aggressive, protective tendencies too, using the emotion of anger to ward off predators and protect our families – but fighting over a parking spot has only the tiniest of connections to this, and is pretty pointless from a survival standpoint (or any other.) Emotions can and do spring up from weak causes. Ever cry over a movie? Why? It’s a freaking play, an open lie on the face of it! It does not become mystical because we reacted – it simply exploited our traits towards sympathy. If we can feel affection towards an actor because of the part they played, or hatred towards a politician solely because of their party affiliations, obviously emotions aren’t exactly a foolproof method of divining importance.

Don’t get me wrong – emotions have their uses, and are at least partly responsible for the cultures that we have established. They’re pretty effective in their own way. But the same can be said for any tool, any function, any species on the planet (except fire ants) – this does not make any of them particularly special or potent. Most especially, if we are to make claims of great importance for feelings, we should at the least establish that they’re not so trivially easy to fool, manipulate, or provoke with pointless events.

Romantic interlude

A few weeks back now, a horde of unidentified caterpillars descended on flowering trees of a certain species in the backyard, devouring leaves at an alarming rate. I naturally took the opportunity to add to my photo stock, including some interesting compositions. This particular one always strikes me as enigmatic, for some reason. Seeing the two of them working towards each other on the same leaf puts me in mind of the spaghetti dinner scene from Lady and the Tramp. Somehow, I think the eventual face-to-face (or whatever it is caterpillars have) encounter would have been considerably less charming.

While a few were observed to have made it to chrysalis stage, most seemed to have disappeared rapidly, I suspect due to the influence of the titmice raising young nearby – more than once I spotted the adults with larvae of similar appearance clutched in their beaks, delivering food to the hungry offspring. Current films can be quite creative in how many different ways of thwarting romance are mustered up, but so far as I know, none of them have included being seized and fed to another species. I want to see Tom Hanks charm his way out of that one. If you’re a Hollywood producer, I get 4% of the gross and ten points…

Not gonna happen

I’m, very slowly, catching up on some of the blogs (mostly there in the sidebar) that I was reading semi-regularly before I went out of town. Even before that, I’d slowed down a bit, so “catching up” is not going to happen, and some of the more interesting posts that I might have commented on are well past their sell-by date now. One at Friendly Atheist featuring a clip from Dan Savage, however, caught my attention because it’s the same thing I’ve been saying for a while now:

First off, Dan can turn a phrase, I have to give him full credit for that. And he has a great point – christianity doesn’t have a firm definition; nor, for that matter, does islam, judaism, et al, making them all interchangeable for my topic here. This allows the followers to do largely what they want and consider themselves faithful. However, when atheists uses the term “christian” (“muslim,” etc.) we are often taken to task for lumping moderate, tolerant religious folk in with the frothing fundamentalists who probably just need a good laxative (or electroshock therapy.) I’m rather divided on the issue, myself (favoring electroshock – no, sorry, I mean the moderate/extremist thing); while I make it a point to judge individuals as individuals and not as labels, I can’t deny that many of these same individuals don’t bother to make the distinctions themselves, and will happily use the labels to describe themselves when it appears that this will be seen in a positive light. They only decry the labeling when some other interpretation of “christian” is in effect.

I don’t really care, one way or another – I just wish they’d settle it amongst themselves, as Dan suggests. Lots of people want to wave the christian flag but there’s no agreement on what army this actually represents. If you find that some self-professed christian blowhard doesn’t represent what “true” christianity is, take it up with them, not with me for using the same damn term they use themselves.

But, I’m well aware that this isn’t going to happen. First off, the issue isn’t with what christianity really is, because nobody actually knows – look at how many different ways this is interpreted. For ideologies that represents “truth,” as I am so often reminded, the followers seem to be all over the map (this is why I like science much better – it pins this shit down.) Let’s be real, “religious” is generally taken to be a synonym for “good,” which is one of the few common denominators among the various interpretations of any particular religion. You get people protesting only when their religion is demonstrated to be intolerant, racist, bigoted, hateful, xenophobic, elitist, and so on – all words that don’t really fit with the idea of “good.” But this cannot possibly be the fault of christianity, no no, so it’s really evidence that some of the people calling themselves christian are just posers.

No self-identified christian, however, can afford to take it up with the posers. What can they possibly say? “Real christians don’t hate homosexuality!” Except that it really is right there in the scripture, such as a couple of passages in leviticus as well as others. Such sources conflict with the ideas of tolerance from new testament passages, certainly, not to mention the various “judge not” bits and the overall idea that the omniscient deity has a reward and punishment program already in place. Things bog down pretty quickly when one attempts to use scripture as their authority, since all of it is ridiculously contradictory and vague. Basic logic tells us that “truth” cannot be self-contradictory, so the only argument that can come up is that at least some (heh!) scripture is inaccurate, if not entirely fable. Well, fine, it’s not the first time that’s been advanced. So… how do you tell the “true” parts from the fable? Which of two contradictory passages can be determined to be the one that should be followed?

Well, that’s what keeps theologians busy – for twenty centuries and more, now, though you might have noticed that they haven’t agreed on any answers yet (maybe they’ll make it by humanity’s end – too bad if you died before the guidelines had been set.) Most religious folk, however, haven’t the faintest idea what kind of theological support there is, or is not, for their position, and simply notice the bits that agree with what they were already thinking, conveniently ignoring the rest. When “the rest” rears its ugly head, they really have no way of dealing with it. When you base your worldview on following scripture as the inarguable word of the deity, because it’s much easier than bothering to make a logical case and also allows you to be as bigoted, homophobic, and intolerant as you want to be, you’re kind of in a bind when the scripture says something that you don’t want it to.

Which is why agreeing even on what “christianity” means is never going to happen, and why religion will never be a force for peace; scripture can only be followed selectively, and fails completely when any effort is made to tie it in to demonstrable reality – you know, like a round earth, evolving animals, and light coming only from stars. In fact, it usually sits so alone in its assertions that theologians seeking to resolve those contradictions can do nothing but refer to scripture itself with circular arguments, since external confirmation isn’t possible. It’s like Trekkies arguing over stardates.

Immoral atheist that I am, I figure it’s easier to earn a “good” label by doing those things that we routinely consider “good.” Granted, some people can’t instantly tell this because I have no icon to wear around my neck denoting my certifiable goodness, and they would have to perform the difficult feat of actually paying attention to what I do – this is asking a lot, I know, since thinking is so hard. It gets easier with training, though.

UPDATE: I no sooner post this and start cruisin’ the intersnarl, when I come across a nice take on theology in today’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Note that hovering over the little red dot in the lower left provides a secondary comic…