Book Review: Why Evolution Is True

I know it might seem like I have a theme going, but it’s unintentional; the book lineup just kind of fell together. Nonetheless, the progression is actually interesting. Previously, I reviewed Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails), which was tailored to addressing the attacks on evolution by creationists, thus not a reference suited towards a full explanation of the evolutionary process. This was followed by Your Inner Fish, which gave a tremendous amount of evidence that we know evolution has occurred (and the fascinating details therein,) but didn’t address how the selection process works. Stepping up to the plate now is Jerry A. Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, which details both the evidence and the process, and points out how creationism fails to explain the evidence while it’s doing so.

If you’re familiar with Coyne’s website of the same name as the book, you know his writing is readable, direct, and smooth – he doesn’t write for fellow scientists, but for the general public, and does a good job of it. The book is no different, and is easily grasped by adolescents and onward. Like his colleague Neil Shubin (they both teach at the University of Chicago,) Coyne is an educator, and aims for as broad an audience as possible without excluding anyone. Briefly, I caught some sections early on where just a little biological jargon slips in without explanation, but this occurs only once and doesn’t detract significantly from the passages – otherwise he manages to reach practically all readers and keep them interested with direct prose and excellent flow.

Coyne is careful to detail the genetic processes themselves, which provide the primary function of evolutionary change and speciation, showing how such variations crop up in individuals, and how these incorporate into an entire species. He also addresses the timelines, and how long changes can take, showing that we have had more than enough time to see the changes that we have. And he shows the various selection processes themselves, explaining how different factors produce change in different ways. His explanation of sexual selection and the production of traits that should be detrimental to survival, such as flamboyant peacock tails, shows why it still makes sense, highlighting the undirected and goal-bereft process that yet provides benefit to the species. He makes it clear that selection produces “better,” not “best,” and relates only to passing genetic traits to offspring, not necessarily living to a ripe old age.

The book is honest, and admits to a few areas where the information we have about certain factors is sparse and speculative, and even debated among biologists. Yet it shows how these factors don’t affect the Theory of Natural Selection in any way – details about how a result is reached do not mean that the result is not plainly visible. Coyne is exceptionally fair, and shows that the scientific process is careful to avoid assumptions, instead making inferences of what might be expected, then testing them to see if they hold up. He never asks the reader to take his word, but provides plenty of endnotes referring to specific studies on what he presents. While natural speciation takes far longer than we have been observing, we can see every factor required for it to take place, and have reproduced most of them in labs. We also have the distinct fossil evidence that upholds the suppositions without any contradiction, and experiments that show how the processes result in benefit to species. Through breeding programs, we knew long before Darwin came along that species are changeable – Darwin simple showed that it takes place on its own, and we’ve been finding further evidence for this ever since. Throughout it all, without engaging in digs or insults, Coyne shows how creationism provides no explanation whatsoever for most of the factors that biologists deal with routinely. Essentially, all of the evidence points to natural selection, repeatedly and testably, and nothing else has come close to explaining why we see all of the facts that we do. Indeed, the traits of countless species show that “design” isn’t really a word that can sanely apply, any more than most rivers can be said to travel “directly” to the sea. The fascinating part of evolution is how, through very simple environmental influences, species can nonetheless achieve a high degree of specific functionality. It’s slow, it’s haphazard, and it can result in complete dead-ends, but it still accomplishes a stunning amount.

Coyne saves the most contentious for last, dealing with human evolution in the final chapters. Scientifically, this isn’t contentious at all – such things come only from selfish emotions. We have a hard time simply accepting plain facts about ourselves when it comes to trashing some cherished belief, which is pathetic for a species claiming such high ground, really. Yet the evidence for human evolution is not lacking any more than the others. Coyne, again, is careful to state things very honestly, showing that the oft-quoted genetic similarity to chimpanzees of 98.5% doesn’t mean what we may think; genes produce proteins during fetal development, and such proteins shape the way we develop. Like a road map, one small turn can deviate from a path significantly. He also points out that the fossil record of hominids, our various ancestral species that split from chimpanzees roughly seven million years ago, does not present a distinct line. Fossil records are dots in history, and indicate an unknown number of branches and subspecies – indeed, we should not expect to find a nice progressive lineage, due to the specific conditions needed for fossilization and the low likelihood of the resulting fossils surviving intact to present day. There is no “line” running from Australopithecus afarensis through Homo habilis to Homo sapiens, and we cannot be sure that this is direct ancestry; but we can be sure that all are related, as they show development of distinct traits in stages leading up to modern humans, exactly as natural selection predicts. No other species possesses the traits that develop, nor do they fit the timeline. “Lucy” may be a distant grandmother or just an aunt, but is certainly one or the other.

I know from his website that Coyne isn’t terribly fond of evolutionary psychology, though he keeps this hidden when addressing it in the book. The reason for his skepticism, I believe, is that specific suppositions within are extremely untestable, and far too open to speculation without any ability to confirm. Evolutionary psychology postulates that much of our behavior stems from selected traits for survival in our ancestral species, which, overall, is a reasonable assumption and explains a lot about ourselves. As he puts it:

If we take the beginning of “civilization” at about 4000 BC, when there were complex societies both urban and agricultural, then only six thousand years have passed until now. This represents only one-thousandth of the total time that the human lineage has been isolated from that of chimpanzees. Like icing on a cake, roughly 250 generations of civilized society lie atop 300,000 generations during which we may have been hunter-gatherers living in small social groups.

Thus, we can fully expect to have some psychological or emotional traits induced by past pressures, which have not vanished under the extremely brief time that we’ve spent as we picture ourselves, the “rational human being.” I highlight this because it goes a long ways in explaining facets of our behavior, such as competitiveness and aggression, and can help us to understand that our motives may not solely be the rational thought processes that we believe. We know that various subconscious factors are at work in our psyche, we just cannot establish how and why they developed, buried as they are in non-fossilizing soft tissues of past brains.

Coyne presents a book for the public understanding of evolution, and takes pains to show not only that biologists (and the vast majority of other scientists) do not question it, but that we’ve established excellent reasons why not. Unlike the dogma it is often portrayed as, natural selection withstands every test we’ve thrown at it and grows stronger constantly with new information. I am not personally fond of using “truth” because it is a horribly abused word, but Coyne’s title is apt. Evolution is True, and it’s about time we accepted that and adapt to it.

Too cool, part nine: A star is born

As wintertime drifts away here in the northern hemisphere, we’ll lose the opportunity to see the most recognizable constellation on earth in the universe by human standards still visible in the evening sky: Orion. Shown here, but technically not in its entirety (there are more stars making up the bow and such, out of the frame,) this large and distinct constellation is usually the first learned by stargazers, and one of the most photographed by amateurs and professionals alike. The bright yellow star at extreme left is Betelgeuse, which is in the final stages before going supernova, whereupon it will likely become so bright it will be visible during the day, provided it happens sometime in northern hemisphere summer, or seriously light up the night sky for a few weeks if it happens in the opposite season. This will happen “soon,” meaning anytime within the next million years or so, making astronomical predictions somehow even less accurate than weather reports.

Clustered throughout most of the lower half are some of the more elaborate nebulae, including the Orion Nebula and the Horsehead Nebula, homes to brand new stars forming as you read this. Don’t bother running outside to watch it happen, since the nebulae aren’t visible to the naked eye, and star formation is a terribly slow process. The three belt stars, the very distinct line of stars almost vertical in this image, are truly just three stars – but the sword (ahem) stars visible nearby, dimmer and at a 45° angle, are entirely different. Looking like only three stars, binoculars or a low-power telescope will reveal there are actually many distinct stars in there; three in the middle, two at one end, three at the other. More resolving power will bring out many more – this is a neat thing about initial introductions to astronomy, since those blank spaces become stuffed with stars as you gain resolving power. And with a good scope, you can see the hidden secrets of Orion. Those sword stars are surrounded by the vast cloud of M42, the Orion Nebula. And in that cloud of gas and dust, we can see evidence that our speculations about the formation of planetary systems, like our own solar system, is accurate.

Backlit by dust illuminated by the energy streaming from other stars, this little dark spot, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope right in the heart of the Orion Nebula, is actually a fetus of sorts. The vast clouds of dust and gases that compose nebulae are usually hundreds of light-years (that means trillions of kilometers) in size, slowly twisting and boiling like smoke. And on occasion, coming together in more concentrated forms. Seen here, accreted gases have coalesced into the center and contracted under collective gravity, smushing together with so much force that the heat and pressure have begun a nuclear fusion reaction, creating a new star shining forth. But the light from it is mostly blocked by a cloud of remaining dust in a fat disk, seen edge-on to us here. Over the next several million years, this dust will likely clump together through random encounters, gaining gravitational influence from each growing blob, until rings of planets form – a new planetary system. And what happens on those planets depends on far too many factors that cannot be predicted. The possibility exists, small perhaps but we really don’t know how small, that right there sits the future home of new life.

Or maybe not. The presence of other nearby stars could prevent that, or destroy it soon after beginning. The same conditions that make this nebula such a great region to see stars form also makes it less likely to produce the kind of planets we’d like to see: those capable of supporting life. Things are too crowded, and stars have some bad habits, like putting out huge amounts of powerful radiation and ending their lives rather spectacularly. Earth, brimming with life, exists in a special place in relation to our own star (we call it the “sun”) in that it is close enough to receive a certain amount of heat without getting overheated, and far enough not to have the oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere blown away by stellar winds. The atmosphere itself blocks a lot of the radiation that the sun hurls outward, so our delicate little bodies don’t get bombarded with Incredible-Hulk-producing gamma rays. Earth’s orbit is actually a “just right” distance for the size and nature of our sun, a place called the “habitable zone.”

Some maintain that the chances of this happening are so small as to be, literally, nonexistent, and that it was no accident that the Earth sits here. Statistically, this is utter nonsense – there are no probabilities that pass a certain point and become impossible. But the Earth can actually inhabit a broad band of orbital distances from our sun, broad enough that Mars almost sits within it – indeed, Mars shows signs that it once had an atmosphere. And bear in mind that the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, and it varies in distance form the sun by five million kilometers (three million miles) throughout the year. We can see how thoroughly this affects us here in the northern hemisphere by the fact that it’s the hottest when we’re the farthest from the sun (it’s the axial tilt of the Earth, and how both oblique angles and length of daily exposure affect the warming of the atmosphere, that makes our seasons.) There is nothing “too special” about Earth.

However, that little baby planet system up there might not be so lucky. Stars that are very big, or stars that are reaching the end of their lives, throw down some serious bad shit, a can of cosmic whupass that could take a protective atmosphere of gases and disperse it back into the nebula – our own sun will do that a few billion years from now (just not into the nebula, since we ourselves are not within one.) So having lots of stellar neighbors may not be so, um, stellar. It could mean that, just as life starts settling in and thinking of redecorating the ecosystem with more oxygen and carbon-exchanges, some big bad wolf huffs and puffs and blows the whole floating rock bare. Forever. Or at least until the home sun goes blooey itself and scours its orbiting system clean.

There’s a faint hint of it here in my shot showing just Orion’s Sword, corner to corner, but the brightest of those three stars making up the middle “star” of the sword is actually a cluster of stars itself, referred to as the Trapezium. The brightest of that cluster, called Theta1 Orionis C (or θ1 Ori C,) is our big bad wolf.

θ1 Ori C is a large powerful star blowtorching much of the nebula around it, so much so that some of the new neighbor stars are losing their encapsulating dust and gas clouds to its stellar wind, making them take on a comet-like appearance. Conditions like this can prevent planets from forming, or can turn formed planets into barren rocks. This image shows four such examples of this occurring, all because of having θ1 Ori C as a neighbor. I mean, forget about noisy parties or the dog crapping on your lawn – this is worse than letting black holes into the neighborhood.

The timing of this is interesting, as well. The stars shown here had to have formed before θ1 Ori C reached its own strength, otherwise the stellar wind from it would almost certainly have prevented the coalescence of gases that eventually resulted in star formation. So this brash young upstart grew up in an established neighborhood and started wreaking havoc, driving the property values down for light years around. Now you know why homeowners’ associations exist. But don’t be too harsh on the lad, since the debris being blown away from those stars is exactly what can form life in other systems, as well – fused atoms of “heavier” elements that react much more readily to energy exchange at “low” temperatures, such as the kind we experience here on Earth. The spring wind destroys the puffball of the mature dandelion, but only succeeds in sowing those seeds elsewhere.

So, think about this the next time you’re gazing aloft on a cold clear night. That little speck of light in the middle features a maelstrom too tiny for our eyes to make out, but unbelievably vast in size nonetheless, and possibly seeding the surrounding emptiness with the building blocks of life. Most of the very atoms within our bodies went through conditions very similar, and will again, too. In fact, we haven’t the faintest way of determining if any part of us once resided within another lifeform from far away, billions of years ago. The possibility certainly exists.

Now, a little better news

Okay, as much as I shy away from things like this, I find that, if I’m reaching anyone at all with this blog, I am a little obligated to wield that power like a flaming sword of redemption try to alert this audience to some worthwhile goals. Skepticon IV is on its way, a skeptical convention (Ah! That’s where they got the name!) being held annually in Springfield, Missouri. The previous three grew remarkably fast, demonstrating that the appeal of critical-thinking is both distinctly present in this country, and growing.

Just recently, they received word that a matching grant was being made available by Polaris Financial Planning – but only if Skepticon meets their fundraising goal of $2,800 for the month of March. If not, zero funds from Polaris. This is doable, and a worthwhile challenge.

Now, you may have noticed that there are no ads on this site, and there never will be. Nor is there a paywall or anything else, which means that I ain’t receiving bupkiss for any of the effort I put into this. That’s okay, and has never been the goal – I write what interests and motivates me, and if you’re getting something out of it, cool! Sure, it’d be nice to get paid for it too, but that’s not the way the world works right now. Writing is a disposable pursuit anymore.

But, let me put this to you: If, at any point, you’ve read anything here that has struck you the right way, motivated you, entertained you, moved you, or even pissed you off royally, found some photo appealing or used some of my advice in that regard, then do me a small favor in return and throw a donation at Skepticon IV to help them meet their fundraising goal this month. Doesn’t matter how much – it’s more than they would have had before. Almost certainly, I’m not going to be able to attend (it’s one of the reasons I made the comment about distant events for the initial “Rock Beyond Belief” post,) but it would be great if I can help in this way. The matching grant makes your money go twice as far.

If you’re new to the site, I ask that you read ten posts, any ten, and if I haven’t reached you at that point, fair enough. I’ll try harder. But if you’ve gotten something out of the efforts I put into this, then kindly consider this my tip jar and accept my gratitude. I’m not affiliated with the event at all (maybe someday,) I just find this to be a great cause.

Also note that this is a monthly fundraising goal, and while the Polaris match is only for March, Skepticon still needs to keep it moving, so making this a regular habit wouldn’t hurt in the slightest. I’m betting I can spark your interest every month.

Thank you, very sincerely.

As long as he’s got his religious ethics

Very frustrating, yet entirely expected news: The Fort Bragg Garrison Commander, responsible for the final approval of the aforementioned Rock Beyond Belief event, did not. Despite claims, and in fact the legal requirement, that the US Army would treat the secular event with impartiality, Garrison Commander Colonel Stephen J. Sicinski denied the level of funding that they provided to the religious (and thus unconstitutional) event hosted the previous year. In fact, the funding was 23% lower for the secular event, as projected, and would likely have come in even further down. Note that the airfare for the speakers was already provided by donation, and while I cannot be sure, it appears that much of this was lost because bookings (for an event now only a month away) were already made.

Blag Hag has further details, including contact information to let your displeasure be fully know. As has been pointed out, this is not at all unexpected, at least among those of us who know just how religious “ethics” work – basically, it translates to, “I will do whatever I damn well please and then claim to be moral and ethical.” Please don’t try to excuse any such behavior, no matter what reason: the funding issue could easily have been addressed months ago when this event was first proposed, but was not – the issue was dodged and explained away by promising the “same level of support.” This was a purposeful, calculated move to not only disallow the event, but to slam all of the careful planning and efforts that had been put into it.

Kindly make this point, as clearly and reasonably as possible, to whoever you can. It is only through making our voices heard that the magnitude of this impropriety will reach the powers-that-be. Myself, I’m sympathetic to the ones that chose to enlist and, supposedly, “serve their country” – they’re at the mercy of those who apparently feel that they’re both exempt from the duties of their office (an oath to uphold the Constitution is required of all US military personnel,) and free of the burdens of accountability and ethics.

Not as I do

This follows from an earlier post about science and religion, as well as numerous other posts where I’ve talked about respect, accommodationism, and double-standards. They’re not necessary to make sense of this one, but I recommend checking them out anyway for a deeper appreciation of the points I’m making.

A very common occurrence right now, especially in the blogoblob, is someone reprimanding the so-called “New Atheists” for their incivility. There are countless examples, but the primary culprits are bloggers such as Josh Rosenau (who should not be confused with Jason Rosenhouse,) Jean Kazez, Jeremy Stangroom, and the vapid Chris Mooney. If you’re looking for further details about this, Jerry Coyne has posted about it and links to several of the more distinctive posts from others.

If it helps, the term “New Atheist” doesn’t have a distinct definition, but generally refers to atheists that publicly address the issues with religion, most especially if they have published books or receive innumerable hits per day on their blogs – by most accounts, that’s not exactly me (“four” is not innumerable.) This led to another, satirical term, “Gnu Atheists,” which basically means the same thing but is self-inflicted, a matter of pride rather than, as “New Atheists” is usually expressed, an epithet. The reason behind using the epithetical term is to try and create a special distinction of person, a particularly reprehensible and loathsome class much worse than simply the worldview of atheism. If you doubt this, simply note how the phrase is often used.

Invariably, and tiresomely, the principle argument is that New Atheists are resorting to incivility, being shrill and strident when addressing how religion affects the world, and of course, whether science and religion can coexist in harmony even better than Felix and Oscar. On the face of it, this sounds perfectly reasonable – addressing perceived problems shouldn’t have to be confrontational or abusive, and are almost certainly received better without derision.

However, that really isn’t what is being said, as countless bloggers have pointed out. The issue isn’t so much the method of addressing religion, which quite often is perfectly civil. The issue is addressing religion in any way. You see, religion is treated as an inalienable right, not just to pursue, but to pursue free from criticism, examination, or rational support. Religion is, supposedly by its very nature, a special privilege and exemption.

Provided, of course, that it’s your own. Someone else’s religion, naturally enough, can be treated any way that you like. Because, you know, your own is truth and light and all that jazz, but everybody else is being fatuous and following superstition. And the way that this is supported, the rule or guideline or test to demonstrate such selectivity? None whatsoever – that’s also special privilege.

The sarcasm in that previous section hopefully denoted the idiocy of this standpoint. You might also have noted the hypocrisy, especially if you’re from the US: the various rights that we’re guaranteed as citizens not only provide for the right to religion, but the right to free speech as well.

A frequent argument, at least by implication if not outright admission, is that Free Speech can not be used to deny Freedom of Religion. What’s missed, of course, is that these don’t relate. My questioning anyone for being religious does not actually prevent their religious belief or expression in any way. The laws are not changed by someone pointing out that some expression, while freely given, still constitutes irrationality. And there is no right of respect, no guarantee of freedom from offense. Because that would actually deny free speech, wouldn’t it?

We can, of course, play the game by those rules, and assume that freedom from offense actually exists. So go on, guess what offends me? Guess what offends New Atheists? Shit, that was too easy – how come none of those other bloggers up there ever seems to catch that one? Freedom from offense is a painfully idiotic concept, but many people still seem to think it makes sense.

There are much worse implications of all this, though, and evidence of just how damaging arguments over civility really are. I hinted above at the idea of the rights of another religion, but let’s take this exercise right along with the simple substitution game. For instance, islam requires women to remain chastely covered up, and it is thus disrespectful and a denial of religious rights to ignore this practice, right? No no, I didn’t ask how that applies to christians and jews, because this is not about what they get to decide on their own. I’m talking about denying the rights of muslims by any female refusing to wear burqas.

While that might seem ridiculous, change that example to something like laws restricting gay marriage or abortion. All of a sudden, the issue switches from “freedom” to “the word of god” or “the will of the majority,” doesn’t it? We suddenly aren’t talking about whether someone is simply pursuing their own personal belief system, but about what they can decide for others. How come? Should we consider the rights provided by our forefathers to be something we should change based on how the majority feels? Well, we’ve done it before – we openly ignored the rights of both women and non-whites for many decades, willfully finding excuses for those very passages that guaranteed their rights. So what the hell, yeah? If you’re not part of the crowd, you don’t belong – join up or get lost. Too fucking bad you were born that way, I guess.

There’s another aspect, too. I’m not sure how we got so far along this path, but our culture seems to think that criticism is somehow uncivil, inhumane, and damaging. It’s a shame that anyone actually has to point out how ludicrous this is, yet the arguments that revolve around this idea remain. Anyone can consider their test grades to be criticism, or a traffic ticket, or employment evaluations, or even safety standards and contamination prevention. The focus is on the negative aspect, rather than the positive one of setting reasonable, worthwhile goals. A world without criticism is a world without improvement.

So should religion be free from criticism? Well, of course, because it’s a manifestation of perfection! Those parts that we find to be imperfect and damaging, petty and abusive are simply because we don’t understand the will of the creator. Oh, wait, you meant those other religions – no, they’re just bullshit, we can trash those all we want. But ignoring the sarcastic approach for a moment (it takes special effort, so be patient,) what is it about criticism that gets religious folk so defensive, anyway? You would think that not only would it be exceptionally hard, dare I say impossible, to offer distinct faults with the creations and will of a perfect being, it wouldn’t matter anyway, because mere human discussion couldn’t possibly affect such a powerful being, right? Why worry about atheists, muslims, christians, or anyone else speaking against the one true faith – what could mere words do? Apparently, judging from the fear, vehemence, and drastic accusations from the overly defensive religious folk, the answer is, “a hell of a lot.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe they’re wielding ultimate truth, isn’t it?

So what? The arguments in favor of religion should be able to carry themselves. Yet, they don’t. Actually, the argument against incivility is the best that’s being offered anymore. “Ultimate Truth” has now resorted to addressing tone, not substance, and trying to pretend that this is all that matters. It’s really quite pathetic. Of course, the tone used to describe those New Atheists doesn’t actually count, no no! Nor, apparently, does accuracy or even avoiding outright lies. Those are okay, because, you know, as long as it’s done in the name of religion, it’s all good.

The right religion, mind you.

We, as a species, should welcome criticism. We should treat it with utmost seriousness, embrace it, and learn from it. The only way to be right, to know what correct even is, is to recognize that being wrong is possible, even likely. Disallowing naysayers in any manner is to admit that we are openly afraid of what they say, an admission that we already know that we’re wrong. It’s no way for responsible adults to behave. Not listening to the music doesn’t mean it isn’t playing.

The issue of proper tone is nonsense, as well. Tone is an indicator not just of disagreement, but of how much. I can simply say that stealing pencils is wrong, as is raping parishioners. You’d think I was mental to compare them in any way. Yet that’s exactly what is being demanded by those named bloggers above. But only, mind you, from the New Atheists – the incredibly forceful, demeaning, and arrogant tones from the religious are not actually addressed. Ever. Funny that. It’s almost as if, despite their claims of neutrality, they were being paid to promote religion.

Tone is a serious tool in communication, everywhere. It varies from person to person, of course, but the ability to distinguish such subtle nuances is something developed over time, usually by the age of twelve. Naturally, there is a difference between a frothing rant and an incisive takedown of abject irrationality, and this is determined by examining the content as well as the tone – and being able to understand big words. If something strikes you as particularly nasty, you’re probably well aware that the author isn’t supportive of the subject. But the ability to determine if they’re making cogent arguments, regardless of tone, is paramount here. The myriad bloggers who concern themselves over tone believe (or at least are certainly making the case) that most people can’t actually handle this crucial aspect, and/or need to be protected from big meanies. Myself, I give my audience a little more credit than that.

As far as I am concerned, however, the tone is entirely intentional, and I won’t be drawn into some misleading discussion over its appropriateness. If I seem disrespectful, it’s because I am. If I sound disparaging, it’s because I find the subject asinine. That’s the whole point – I mean, fucking duh! Someone who believes Africa is a country, and someone who believes homosexuals should be persecuted because a scattered and contradictory old book tells them so, are engaging in two entirely different levels of “wrong,” and I will openly and unmistakeably distinguish them. I put rational thought and critical examination on a much higher pedestal than someone’s feelings. I’m funny that way.

Various bloggers and pundits can write whatever disparaging articles denouncing disparaging tones that they like – and I, of course, may point out their hypocrisy and lack of usefulness, and most especially their dodging of salient issues to bring up “politeness” as if it suddenly had bearing in the matter. I will very likely treat it as contemptuously as I view it – but never without providing my reasoning behind it. If anyone cannot distinguish the pertinent content, my posts aren’t for them. And of course, anyone scared or threatened by words on a blog is openly invited to hide under the covers and sob.

Rock Beyond Belief

Rock Beyond BeliefIf you’re like me and have been muttering that all the cool stuff seems to be happening on the west coast, this one’s for you. “Rock Beyond Belief” is a first, a brand-new, secular-themed one-day festival taking place in the parade grounds at the US Army base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. So dump any plans you’ve already made for April 2nd and join in the fun from noon to 7:30-ish. Admission is free, there’s going to be cool music and some great speakers – like Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, Ed Brayton, and Richard Dawkins! And, because of my timing in contacting them, I actually have a scoop on some info that hasn’t been officially released yet. It’s over there in the poster, one of the new musical performers.

While new secular organizations are always good news in and of themselves, this event in particular has a little background. It seems the US Armed Forces have somehow been forgetting that, as a government organization, they’re not really allowed to promote religion of any kind, and most especially not a particular religion above any others. Last year, this was demonstrated in a rather obvious way with the Rock The Fort event, organized by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Despite many claims of playing neutral on the whole religion thing (yeah, Billy Graham’s organization was just doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,) the event was quite clearly intended to convert people to christianity, and they even bragged about their conversions onstage afterward. There’s also the not-mandatory-but-you’ll-be-prosecuted-if-you-don’t Spiritual Fitness Test that is currently being administered to service members.

There’s really no reasoning at all behind this, so some people have been fighting back to maintain the constitutionality of serving our country. The Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (M*A*S*H) and Military Association of Atheist and Freethinkers (MAAF), with little advance time and some apparent resistance from the powers-that-be, organized a major event “for the rest of US.” It’s not a de-conversion or anti-religion event – it’s simply a fun get-together with a secular theme, making the presence of atheists and freethinkers known just a wee bit more while providing some entertainment free from opportunistic huckstering.

So check it out, and watch for the bearded guy running around with the camera – I’ll be more than happy to meet anyone that has actually found this blog. And in the meantime, spread the word and link to the Facebook page – making this bigger than Billy Graham’s event would be freaking hilarious! But on a more serious note, the military is paying attention, and if you support the idea that they should be concentrating on the defense of the country and not favoring religious recruitment, let them know about it.

This really has nothing to do with whether or not anyone finds religion to be useful – it has direct bearing on whether our armed forces (and our government) swearing to uphold the Constitution isn’t just an outright lie. Isn’t there enough bullshit going on everywhere else?

Science and religion

[The following post was originally written some time back, when the referenced posts within were still “current.” For one reason or another, I never finished it off, which I now find unfortunate because it contains several factors that I want to use as a springboard. So I’m resurrecting this post, and ask that you excuse the reliance on ancient-in-webby-terms, yet still relevant, links.]

While I have actually addressed some of these points before, I feel the need to revisit them, because there are some salient details that deserve better attention.

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True had the opportunity to publish an article in USA Today regarding the compatibility of science and religion. Short answer: they’re not compatible. And I really can’t disagree with that – science is about examining evidence, about testing ideas to see how well they apply, about not fooling ourselves, about determining a set of criteria to allow us to predict what will take place. Paramount in there is not having a foregone conclusion that you then try to justify or find support for. Religion, on the other hand, is about… well, it’s really hard to put a definition on it, to be honest. The best that can be said to apply almost universally is that religion involves organization around a non-materialistic cause. What’s missing, rather distinctly, is the ability to determine what this cause is, or even the reasons to promote it. In other words, latching onto the cause is first, and the why and how are not considered necessary criteria.

Is this useful, in any way? Does deciding on a conclusion first, then looking for ways to support it, make sense to anyone? Apparently, it does, because enough people engage in it, but call me crazy, I prefer to base conclusions on evidence and facts. I call this, “living with reality.” Amazingly, until we actually started determining knowledge in this way, we made little advancement as a species. Once we did, our knowledge base exploded. Historically, this is called the Enlightenment. I can’t help but wonder if that is a tongue-in-cheek dig, since the term “enlighten” almost always refers to religion or spirituality.

Naturally enough, the article received a rebuttal, not through USA Today, but on The Huffington Post, a site I link to reluctantly because their editorial standards are somewhat cavalier (read: flakey.) It’s not that I try to keep people from reading something I consider insipid, I just don’t think the site deserves any supporting traffic. No matter. Michael Zimmerman, who’s quick to tell you he founded something called the Clergy Letter Project, presented his case about why science and religion are compatible.

Except, he didn’t. He simply maintained that Coyne was wrong and ignorant of the vast majority of religious leaders who accept science and religion without issue. Feel free to read the article, and see where he actually addressed the issue of science and religion. See if, for instance, he managed to distinguish his case in any way from what Coyne addressed in the original article: that scientists being religious doesn’t indicate compatibility between the domains, anymore that married couples being unfaithful indicated compatibility between monogamy and adultery.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula had a grand old time with this, because Zimmerman was silly enough to put forth his Clergy Letter Project as an example of religious people accepting and even promoting science. Myers offered the following example, straight from the Project and written by Susan Andrews:

I have come to believe, in my own journey of faith, that God lives in the questions. I believe that seeking understanding with my mind is the preparation I need to trust with my heart. I believe that faith is the frontier beyond the limits of knowledge. I have started looking for portents – in the sky, in the newspaper, in the textbook, in the science lab, in the hospital room, in the darkness as well as the light. Yes, I have started looking for those signs of a God who is trying to do a new thing. And I have discovered that it is in the process, and in the journey, and in the questions that new knowledge and new understanding is usually found. Specifically in this peculiar American controversy about intelligent design, I have come to believe that evolution is intelligent design. And that the Intelligent Designer is the One whom I call God.

Okay, what? No, seriously, what the flying fuck was all that? If you’re familiar with religious writing, you’ll recognize it as typical, but if you’re expecting the promotion of science, you’re having some difficulties right now, I imagine.

There are eight sentences in that enthusiastic little avowal, and only one that does not specifically say, “I am finding god in every vague way I can” – that sentence is the one having to do with Intelligent Design. ID is very distinctive in that it has repeatedly and determinedly established that it has nothing to do with science, has no testing or experiments behind it, and in fact no research at all, no peer-reviewed papers, and most egregiously, no intelligent designer. No, not even inferred. The only evidence presented to support this lamebrained idea (it does not qualify as a theory) has been trashed from almost the moment it was proposed. ID actually had its day in court, the opportunity to demonstrate that it could qualify as an alternative theory to evolution – and failed miserably. One of the prime proponents even failed to show that he could be considered a working biologist.

As I mentioned above, this is common stuff from religious folk. Notice the lack of evidence, the lack of anything that could possibly be viewed by anyone else. Personal experience, or in this case, not even experience but simply interpreting everyday phenomena the way she wanted, is supposed to be the message. I was born in the mid-sixties, there was certainly no shortage of such messages then, usually involving various pharmaceutical substances. But even leaving behind the snark (it’s hard,) what does this provide for the human condition? How does this work? What does it promote, or predict, or correct, or control? Isn’t it self-indulgent to go looking for the answer that you wanted in the first place, and find it in totally meaningless ways? Is this what passes for religion and science?

One can certainly put forth the argument that such meaningless bullshit is a personal decision and choice, and not meant to provide anything for anyone else, just like having a favorite song. But that ignores the deeper, and very pertinent, issue of what religious motivation gets itself up to. Our politics in this country all revolve around whether any candidate fits with some public idea of religiosity – does that sound like a personal choice kind of thing? We constantly deal with new proposed laws that limit personal freedoms depending on some vague and totally inappropriate interpretation of scripture – I’m hoping no one considers this supportive of “personal choice.” Education standards are getting attacked constantly throughout this country to try and make them more compatible with religion – is that freedom to believe what you want?

Religion is faltering under the knowledge base that we have been building for a few centuries now, as more and more scripture becomes completely irrelevant to everyday life. Morality has long been established as a human trait, not induced by religion. Our origins can be traced back, in multiple agreeing disciplines, far beyond the supposed creation. Science, by finding answers in nature, points out how utterly wrong and misguided scripture and religion really are. And remember, science is not scriptural itself, it is simply a method of learning. If religion gets the short end of the stick when we look at the geologic or biologic record, nature is to blame.

So to try and counter this, people like Susan Andrews above put forth this festering pile of rotting chicken entrails that she considers a journey of faith. “It’s okay,” she says, “call religion any goddamn thing you want, and then you’re justified in trying to change people to be as godawful stupid as you are.” Let’s not forget that religion, as a motivator of actions, is supposed to be justified by being the will of ultimate authority. And lest this turn out to be total fantasy, we have feelgood mantras like that quoted above to try and dismiss the fact that the world itself calls it all a complete lie.

Because, god forbid (I’m a hoot,) somebody actually deal with reality, and with making decisions based on what works best. Fuck, that would require thinking! If god meant for people to think, he would have given us brains!

Let me give you an example of why this fails. Stem cell research is a promising line of medical advancement, because it deals with individual cells that can actually be instructed how to grow, what to produce. A stem cell can become a healthy kidney, a section of aorta, a skin graft, and so on, simply through the way it’s cultured. And with absolutely no rejection issues, because to the patient, it is their own tissue. Note that this is not “in theory,” because it’s already been done to a limited extent – what’s needed is the research to refine it and get consistent results. Some lines that work very well are what’s called embryonic stem cells, because they’re found in the early stages of an embryo.

If you’re one of those who is getting all huffy right now, put it aside, engage your brain instead of your emotions, and keep reading.

Federal funding for any research involving such tissue has been blocked for years now, which means that medical researchers intending to investigate this line of research cannot in any way be funded by government grants, or even be associated with any department that does. Hah, blocked that abortion issue handily, right?

Except that, embryonic stem cells are taken entirely from zygotes created during the process of In Vitro fertilization, otherwise known as “test tube babies.” This is a common, legal, and beneficial process taking place routinely in this country, and allows women with fertilization issues to still have children.

What happens is, it often results in zygotes, fertilized ovum or, if you prefer, early stage fetuses, being nonviable for later implantation within the uterus. But, they still have stem cells. Until this was discovered, the zygotes were donated to others or simply discarded.

Now that the funding block is in place, the zygotes are donated to others or simply discarded.

Lest I haven’t been clear enough, let me state it plainly: Some vote-seeking politicians have made some religious idiots happy by changing absolutely nothing in terms of fetal tissue creation, destruction, or disposal – they simply prevented any further benefit from coming of it. The religious idiots, with kneejerk reactions to hotbutton words like “embryo,” bought it entirely. In Vitro fertilization still goes on. And the politicians involved probably rode a nice voter wave of support for that bit of nonsense. Whether or not they understood the science involved, they knew how few constituents did. Wave the religious flag, and plenty of people climb aboard. It’s Pavlovian, really.

Now, it’s certainly okay to question what is ethical for the handling or treatment of fertilized ovum. But you know something? Religion provides no guidance on this. Seriously, look it up, see what scripture says about eggs and such. Haven’t found it? Neither has anyone else, because it’s not there. Whatever someone might think is the case does not come from scripture in any way. No less a religious authority than Thomas Aquinas argued that “ensoulment” came at “quickening,” or the period of fetal movement, about 40 days into the pregnancy. He certainly knew his scripture, but still didn’t have anything to base it on. And the real sticking point to all of this is, if life begins at conception, original sin damns all the non-saved babies to hell.

But if you treat the “soul” as simple mythology, and “original sin” as a cheap ploy to force piety, and the afterlife as wishful thinking, and consider “life” not the key factor, but perhaps “suffering,” what then? Does the idea of an embryo that won’t be born, lacking even a heart, brain, or nervous system, that can save other current yet endangered lives through medical research, sound like a good thing? Isn’t that what jesus was supposed to have done anyway? Isn’t that what killing abortion doctors is supposed to do?

And the nasty question, do we put more value on life that is small and vulnerable than we do on life that is conscious and active? The person that dies of kidney failure, waiting in vain for a compatible donor, has quite a few things that the embryonic stem cells do not: feelings, emotions, thoughts, memories, family, friends, responsibilities – oh, hell, let’s stop trying to make a complete list and simply call it, “a life.” Because that’s exactly how we define our own, isn’t it? Would we be happy to simply have a beating heart, a sparking brain, or cell division? That’s how the religious want to define “life,” but call me crazy, I like to have the ability to live it.

Even if you want to buy wholesale the doctrines of original sin and life beginning at conception, with eternal damnation unless the living being accepts salvation through an act of will, you still need to know that a high percentage of normally fertilized eggs (you know, people) spontaneously abort anyway, through no action of the parent or medical intervention. There’s already lots of babies in hell, and only one being put them there. That’s, of course, if the whole concept is correct, though since scripture doesn’t address when ensoulment occurs and is pretty vague on hell and original sin anyway, and there’s no evidence to support these pronouncements from religious philosophy, “correct” is not something that can be established in any meaningful way. Facts are not determined by discussion or consensus.

So this is where things break down. Even if you’re entirely devoted to following it, scripture doesn’t have rules to apply to every situation. No matter what, in many cases you’re simply on your own. You can’t abdicate thought – you have to be able to make reasoned decisions based on the factors involved in order to do the least harm, the most good. Interpretations, pithy sayings, and little rhymes aren’t any kind of substitute for reason. If anyone really finds this so hard to tackle, they aren’t required to – but they should then shut the fuck up and leave it to those that can.

Is that clear? If thinking is hard for you, don’t hurt yourself and let the professionals handle it. But if you feel up to tackling this gargantuan task, then give it a try. Hey, sometimes those cute little sayings and rhymes can be correct! Sometimes, the manufacturer’s claims for their product can be correct, too. The thing is, you won’t ever know for sure unless you examine them.

Here’s the really trippy part: that’s science. That’s all it is: examining, testing, proving. That’s why we use it. And that’s exactly why religion and science are incompatible. Bold assertions from scripture, pronouncements from religious leaders, and self-indulgent avowals do not affect, in any way, how the world works.

It’s easy to imagine lots of people vehemently arguing against that last statement. And I can show you an easy way to have them agree with it entirely. All I have to do is apply it to some religion other than their own.

Because the truth of the matter is, very few people have considered religion from the standpoint of comparing the multitudes of faith throughout the world and seeing which one has the most evidence, applies the best to what we experience every day of our lives, or predicts behavior and reaction, both human and non. Very few who dismiss ancient Greek and Norse religious structure (wholesale referred to as “mythology”) can demonstrate how their own religion has more function and evidence behind it than those, or any other. Few who consider muslims “fanatics” with weird ideas about 72 virgins have contrasted it with the resurrection and the bizarre events that supposedly saved us all from sin, only not really.

When we send a probe to Mars, which orbits that planet then soft-lands a soil sampler in a fairly precise location, and discover that the soil composition matches some Antarctic meteorites closely enough to determine, with a high degree of certainty, that Mars rocks have actually crashed on our planet, we have effectively trashed every collection of religious scripture ever written about how the Earth formed. When we create a vaccine against each season’s new strain of influenza virus, we have proven without doubt that common descent is a fact – if you question that, you should get educated as to what vaccines really are. When the nice little GPS voice in our cars accurately gets us right to our destination, we have established that the Earth is round, that electromagnetism travels at a fixed speed, that relativity accurately describes how time and gravity works, and that electron theory has lots and lots of uses. This is just a small sampling of our reliance on knowledge gained only in the last hundred years. It simply works.

It absolutely boggles my mind that anyone at all could possibly consider religion to hold any importance whatsoever to us today. All of this knowledge that we have gained through not trusting scripture and priests, but by simply examining the world in which we live, works for everyone, regardless of religion, salvation, working nervous system, or even cell division. It works whether we are here to witness it or not. There is no “word” to spread, no special action to engage in, and most especially, nothing to try and think of to explain why we have no evidence of it – or as seen above, how to change the definition of evidence to make us “right” all along. Intellectual honesty requires simply seeing how the world works. Anything else is abject denial.

It is long past time to abandon it. We’re bigger than that now.

And finally, we go back to that original question, about the compatibility of religion and science. I feel the need to point out that the question itself can really only be asked because science works, undeniably so, but people are simply too reluctant to give up the faith. So they try, really hard, to find ways to make religion work in a world that has no use for it. They rationalize it, and try to reduce the influence they claim it has, and fight desperately to change scripture into something that might, if you squint and turn your head sideways, maybe slightly kinda matches a loose definition of some facet of proven scientific knowledge. But show me in what way this is different from, “Smoking relaxes me,” and, “I only drink socially.”

Yes, of course it’s addictive behavior. I won’t bother getting into the idea that somebody personally finds religion beneficial to themselves, though I bet I can trash that idea handily. The public face of religion has not ever, in any point in history, been about personal benefit – that’s simply the whiny excuse that is resorted to when someone (like me) is crass enough to point out that denial of rights and broad condemnations are being issued on the basis of a vacuous and wildly inaccurate collection of old scripture. The list of justifications for religious belief is exceedingly long, and yet somehow lacking in any quality approaching “reason.” It practically makes me wonder if the same species actually came up with both scientific principles and religion, since one is enormously functional and the other based solely on emotional appeal.

No, seriously. Try and find the evidence supporting religion as a functional source of information and guidance. Scripture admitting openly and distinctly that it’s the word of god? Yeah, it also says to avoid women when they are “unclean” (while, of course, not allowing them to have any rights that a man does,) where to obtain slaves properly, and that beating children is recommended. The amount of bloodshed and strife is astounding, really, and then we get treated to someone telling us that this is a loving god. I’m not into sado-masochism myself, thanks all the same. And I just realized I also answered the “ethical guidance” argument too, something I’ve never really needed in the first place – I can determine ethics through both empathetical tendencies built right into our species, and using that ol’ brain up there. It’s not freaking calculus, you know.

The desperation to substantiate belief goes so out-of-control that people actually resort to arguments such as “most of the world is religious” (an interesting argument when religious conflict takes up so much of our species’ time,) “the universe/laws of physics are too fine-tuned for us to be an accident” (as long as we don’t go into space without protection against temperature, null atmosphere, and fatal radiation, or go underwater, or go too high up the mountains, or try to live in high desert,) and “I can imagine a perfect being so there must be one” – fuck, no, seriously, this is the heart of the Ontological Argument, considered by those same desperate people to be a leading philosophical argument for religion, followed closely by the Kalam/Cosmological Argument. Even if they made any sense at all (they don’t,) neither one actually supports religion in the way that anyone wants to practice it. There are an awful lot of missing steps between something being responsible for First Cause, and the loving-yet-infinitely-punishing-because-you-didn’t-worship-me-properly god with which most people concern themselves. This is obviously not about making sense, or even finding a personal outlook that works. This is about rationalizing actions and prejudice so that, god forbid, we never admit that we’ve been wrong.

That’s fucked up. There really is no other way to put it.

Coming soon: the repercussions of saying that last sentence.

Cue Barry White

Yesterday I met a student at the local botanical garden and arrived early, so I did a quick tour. The NC Coastal section had been burned off recently, part of the biological maintenance which helps the new plants grow, but it meant there wasn’t much to see. However, a mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) flew up to a branch very close by, which started a slow stalking sequence as he went back and forth down to the ground and up to the fork of a tree – my part was attempting to follow this action with the camera.

This pattern told me what was happening, confirmed after a shift in my position revealed the female in the fork, maintaining and rearranging the new nest as the male brought home materials. The location was excellent from their standpoint, but less so from this nature photographer’s, for exactly the same reason: it was extremely difficult to see. Hampered slightly by the garden trails I was requested to keep to, I had a difficult time getting any vantage that allowed a clear look past obscuring branches and foliage, but she obliged enough to sit up a little higher and appease the paparazzi, so I didn’t have to fetch a ladder or helicopter. Since she barely moved from position, I suspect she was either laying or already in possession of their eggs. For any birder seeking to spot nests, this is perhaps one of the easiest birds to choose, because their wings make a distinctive corduroy-like “wheep”ing sound that makes them effortless to follow. They’re also relatively slow fliers and fairly plump, which is why some people refer to them as “Accipiter Food” – accipiters being the birds-of-prey in North America that catch other birds on the wing. One could be blind and snag a mourning dove…

I mentioned earlier that the hawks were very active, and I’ve been watching them like, uh, a nature photographer to try and capture something interesting. Before I even left for the garden yesterday, The Girlfriend and I got lucky lucked out. The gusty winds have been very helpful to the buteos, the class of raptors most distinguished by their heavy bodies – flapping burns a lot of energy for them, but windy days mean they can soar with exceptionally little effort. Tracking the loud calls, a trio of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) circled overhead at fairly good altitude, making it hard to get a detailed image, then abruptly descended, with a pair obtaining a perch in a not-too-distant tree with excellent light and pretty decent vantage. They waited patiently for me to get the 170-500mm lens locked onto the tripod before getting right to business.

Yes, I probably should have issued a warning for all the sensitive folk out there before slamming this picture up, but I suspect I’ve chased off any sensitive folk long ago anyway. This is indeed what they look like mating – don’t ask me if it’s typical for the female to look bored in a variety of species. A day earlier I had missed just this item of behavior, potentially from the same pair, due to much worse conditions and my inability to find them in the viewfinder fast enough (when the lens provides high magnification, just like with binoculars, seeing something with the naked eye and then finding it with a much narrower field of view can be difficult, and this was proof that I haven’t fully mastered that yet.)

Afterward, they perched together, and I’d like to anthropomorphize even more and claim that this is the equivalent of small talk, but more likely, they were watching the nearby crows who had worked themselves into apoplexy (as crows are wont) because of the hawks’ proximity. This area is highly competitive, with songbirds, crows, and raptors all using it for nesting and food, and none of them liking the others nearby. The crows are the most obnoxious, often ganging up to harass other birds they consider a threat, but the raptors can usually hold their own. With the frequent displays of territorial and mating calls, from both the red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, the crows have been maintaining a constant presence, only not too close – don’t piss off a hawk during Singles’ Night. About the only ones not appearing to react to others are the woodpeckers, who have been continually going about their business while all of this goes on, sometimes noisily, around them.

The male is on the right here. Typically, female raptors are bigger, but you may be able to see that the male is fluffed out a bit because, well, size does matter. In my experience, this is atypically pale for a red-shouldered hawk’s coloration, and he has fooled me before when wheeling overhead, because the light underside with speckling is a characteristic of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis,) the other buteo that frequents the area; spotting a perched one earlier was what started the whole photo session.

The moment was brief, and both soon launched themselves into the air to circle overhead a few more times before drifting off, leaving me with little clue as to where the nest may be. I hope to spot this soon before the spring foliage makes such impossible, because it would be nice to follow the hatching and raising behavior, something I haven’t yet accomplished. We’ll see.

What was I thinking?

So, one of the images in my slide collection is seen, full-frame, at left – this is the small cascade of a feeder stream that leads into Window Falls at Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina. And yes, it appears I didn’t concentrate on keeping the camera level.

Now, I’m not sure this is really the case. When taking long exposures of running water, they can be deceptive. Water splashing sideways – in other words, seeing the cascade from an angle rather than dead on – can appear to be leaning when it all blurs together, and the rock strata can certainly be layered at an angle since uplift and tilting occur frequently. I do occasionally miss leveling the camera perfectly, even on a tripod, but this is a bit extreme. And I don’t remember inducing the angle intentionally to cut across the frame or make a tilted composition.

The trees in the background are no help at all – they support both ideas, since some of them obviously are leaning significantly. I’m just not sure which ones. The series of slides that I took all feature this vantage and angle, since I only changed the zoom setting for the other shots. That’s one of the things that supports the idea that this image is not leaning, since I can see taking one image at a “creative” angle, but not a series. By the way, this is another reminder to take multiple images of a subject, using the zoom and different shooting angles or perspectives to appreciate the possibilities a subject might provide.

Ah, but wait! I have another frame from further back that shows the cascade in the background with some helpful people standing nearby! That should answer the question.

Or maybe not. The women (I don’t know them) aren’t really supporting either angle, and when I tried tilting the image to see which angle looks most accurate, either one works. The woman on the left has her back arched, possibly against leaning forward, while the woman on the right could be leaning to see around the outcropping. The rock strata makes things even worse. The foliage seems to be supporting the original angle from above, but since this is a mountaintop, it could be leaning over from winds and erosion at the edge of this cut. While the top image was definitely taken on a tripod, this one was likely shot freehand candidly. This image was really no help at all. Maybe gravity is all messed up – I seem to recall this happening in various places around the world…

(Please don’t comment to correct me on the various gravity “anomaly” tourist traps – that was tongue-in-cheek.)

I’m now almost bugged by this enough to have to return and confirm just what angle this landscape sits at, maybe shooting a plumb line just for proof. Anyone that wants to clarify this issue should feel free to help me out – this is at the top of Window Falls, hiding behind the little porthole in the rock that can be seen from the finished trail – that’s what the one woman is taking a photo of, but I’m edge-on to it here. It’s only mildly tricky footing to reach this point off-trail. I have no idea of actual compass direction, but supposing that I’m facing 0° (North) with both of these images, Window Falls sits behind me to the right, traveling over the lip facing roughly 120°.

Or maybe I can get my buddy to chime in, since he was there too and has his own images. October 29, 2005 if it helps, dude ;-)

UPDATE: He bit ;-). JL Kramer was also present for this trip, and took his own pics of the same cascade, seen here at left. We see that I did indeed have the camera tilted, just not half as much as it appears. Kramer’s photo matches the angle that I have in the second pic (but has a much nicer composition than my first – the foreground rock is a great element,) so it appears I wasn’t meticulous about leveling the camera. I’m not terribly surprised – there was nothing to align it against or with nearby, but still…

Notice the tree trunk at top, just right of center. This was essentially growing at the top of a huge break in the rock strata that defines this section of Hanging Rock, and may have been leaning from either erosion or the wind, or both. The notch that this cascade sits within is part of a jumbled mess that, only a few meters to the right, drops off suddenly to create a gorge, and the cliff that Window Falls tumbles over. As falls go, Window Falls isn’t remarkable, but the nearby Upper and Lower Cascades are a bit better. I’d love to see them in freezing weather, but the trails to reach them would become so treacherous that I’m almost positive park access is denied during such conditions.

Equinox, schmequinox

When I lived in central New York, I used to laugh at the idea of Groundhog’s Day: “If the groundhog sees its shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter.” Seriously, half the freaking country considers mid-March an early spring. And the same held true for the Official First Day of Spring falling on the Vernal Equinox (March 21 or thereabouts) – we could almost always expect a good snowfall sometime after that point.

But we’ve had a couple of lovely days here recently, and while the grass is still brown and trees have not started to bud, I’ve been able to find some nice signs of “spring,” especially if I kept my sights low – in this case, down at the ground at the macro scale. While one of my two lens issues will soon be resolved, I decided to try another avenue for closeup and macro work. The 80mm macro lens for the Mamiya medium format camera isn’t intended to be used on any Canon EOS cameras, but mating together a body cap for the EOS and a rear lens cap for the Mamiya makes them fit together just fine, and the Mamiya has a auto/manual aperture switch that overcomes the lack of aperture control from the EOS system. Exposure is far from automatic, but this is simply one example of what can be accomplished if you’re willing to experiment. Both the flowers above and at right are barely visible while standing directly over them, measuring less than a centimeter at most. I don’t even know where to begin to look these up, so if anyone wants to chime in and tell me what these are, I’d be more than happy.

Finding these has been good, since I’ve practically been going through withdrawal without anything interesting to shoot. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks in the area have been courting, doing a lot of calling to stake territory and pausing at optimal vantage points throughout an area in pursuit of a mate, and I’ll probably feature a few pics of those shortly – I’m aiming for something more dynamic than merely perching against a drab sky, which is what I’ve captured so far. So while that quest is ongoing, I took to turning over some rocks to see what could be found.

The snails haven’t ventured out into the open yet, and rarely do even in the best weather (which for them tends to be very humid and out of direct sunlight,) but they can be convinced to pose a bit if you place them in the open and have a little patience. They’re also hard to identify if you don’t have a decent reference and are simply putting search terms in Google, so once again, chime in if you know your gastropoda. This specimen is about 5-7mm across the shell, and the shell aperture has three “teeth,” two on the outer lip and one centrally against the inner shell, making it seem awkward to try and squeeze past.

What surprised me the most, however, was coming across several members of the species Storeria dekayi, otherwise known as the common brown snake. These should not be confused with the various species from Australia bearing that name, since these are very small and not venomous, unlike every species of animal found in and around Australia save for some of the earthworms (and those are just a matter of time.)

While I’m rather unimpressed with the originality of anyone who names a species “brown snake,” I’m fond of the snakes themselves. Found under rocks and leaf litter, they’re a bit secretive but there’s a spot where I can find them dependably. I didn’t expect to see them active this early, and truthfully they’re not really active yet – several were found clustered under rocks that were absorbing the bright sunlight, warming themselves while remaining perfectly safe from everything except impudent nature photographers. They’re totally non-aggressive and easy to handle, and will often remain very still and count on their camouflage to protect them – when that doesn’t work they resort to finding cover rapidly. They’re also quite small, only a little larger than large earthworms and often mistaken for “babies.”

If it helps, here’s another view of my model, clasped gently in my left hand while the right juggled the camera. My little finger is the background (looking disturbingly aged from this close,) and the green line spanning the crease of the first joint is a measured 4mm – an average pencil measures 7mm. Even if these snakes were venomous, there wouldn’t be anything they could actually bite except maybe your earlobe. Since their diet is grubs and worms, it’s safe to say there isn’t any other species that pales at the sight of a brown snake, so it’s embarrassing that too many people freak out at the mere sight of a snake and feel inclined to kill them. It’s like being scared of fish.

We’ll almost certainly get another spell of cold weather here, but right now I’m enjoying the break and anticipating the arrival of more photo subjects. Really, I have to move to a tropical rainforest or something…