Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Monday, October 31, 2005

Not-So-Funny Pages

Every Sunday I head to the store and pick up a copy of the local paper. I quickly discard the ads I don’t need and sections I won’t read. Eventually, I get to the multi-colored jewel at the heart of the paper, The Comics. I love the comics. Well, some of them anyway. A few are simply dreadful, but the good ones, ah the good ones make me howl. Other parts of the paper can make me howl too, but in an entirely different way.

This week’s edition had a couple of major howlers in it. The first was a story concerning Halloween. The lead-in hook consisted of commentary from an Eastern European refugee family. They never celebrated Halloween in their home country, but now that they were US residents they decided to do their best to fit in. The mother of the family said she didn’t quite understand why she was dressing up the kids in costumes but she didn’t want them to feel left out. I kind of like that; the desire to assimilate into a new culture. They have no plans on going back to their old country, so fitting into their adopted home makes a lot more sense than isolation.

Following this was quite a bit of commentary from a variety of people regarding the history and the current macabre nature of Halloween. Some folks advocated getting rid of it. I rather like the idea of a Harvest Festival which some folks suggested. It’s sort of a combo of Halloween and Octoberfest: Cider, a doughnut, and a costume, with skeletons and bats optional. Anyway, the question was asked whether or not all of the death and dismemberment costumery was bad for kids. One local pastor said that he saw no problem with kids dressing up like Luke Skywalker or even Darth Vader, but he “sincerely believe(s) kids reading Harry Potter open the door to the desire to experiment with the supernatural. As long as there’s not that kind of curiosity, let them dress up.” I had to read that twice. Apparently, it has not occurred to the pastor that his entire religion is based on the supernatural, by definition. Now, that was a howler. As it turns out, in a perverse way I agree with him. I wouldn’t want the kids to take the supernatural, especially religion, too serious. Can you say cognitive dissonance Mr. pastor sir?

OK, so I turn the page and there’s a story about a Catholic/Christian “Faith Center” supported by local parishes which is located on the campus of the city’s central high school. Again, in my desire to stem belief in superstitions, particularly amid institutes of learning, I find this a bit disconcerting, but at least it’s not a case where it’s being funded by the taxpayers. The story includes a glowing narrative of how the center welcomes all students, regardless of their faith, with open arms. Yep, everyone’s equal under this roof, and equally respected. Then I got to this nugget: Referring to the varied student body, one of the sisters said “We try to get them to appreciate their religion – our Buddhist teens can become the best Buddhists they can be by honoring God.” Now isn’t that special? I’m no expert on Eastern religions, but from the handful of Buddhist texts I’ve read over the years I discovered that the typical Buddhist does not share the Western concept of God. So, these kids can become the “best Buddhists they can be” by embracing a tenet which is foreign to the very foundation of their religion. Beautiful, just beautiful! Makes me feel like a tabby hacking up a two pound hairball. There’s no disinformation going on here is there? No special treatment for the Christian viewpoint is there? Naaah, they’re too nice and holy and positively special to do that. They wouldn’t try to warp the views of kids, would they? I also got a howl (more like a screech of pain, actually) when I read the following quote from one of the students who regularly visits the center. She was describing how she has learned the meanings of lots of new words by going to the center. Take “dogma” for instance. She learned that “Dogma is laws that can’t be changed.” Poor sod. She got one little piece of it but not the most important part. Not understanding that a central aspect of dogma is its a priori declaration of truth, that is, its simple assertion of its claims as being self evident, often using circular logic in support, is a good example of indoctrination. Perhaps next the good folks at the center will tell her that indoctrination means “Teaching”.

Where’s Calvin and Hobbes when I need it?

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The demon haunted mind by Doc Bushwell

We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell - Oscar Wilde

A recent Sunday found my kids and me careening through the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey as participants in the local "Run with the Devil" MiniCooper rally. Yes, I own one of those goofy little automobiles, and my little devil car has struck me wild-eyed and drooling with car lust, causing me to seek congregation with likeminded enthusiasts. The rally was organized by a charming Empire-type couple, complete with accents from somewhere in the UK or its territories, who are very much into things Gothic. Last year's Halloween rally, which the Goth couple also organized, took us through haunts of northwestern New Jersey. This October, we were hot on the tail, and the tale, of the Jersey Devil.

The Jersey Devil was an unknown to me as a Midwesterner. When I lived in the Boston area, the legend barely registered in dark, brooding New England with its own rich tradition of ghosts, witches and hauntings. But the Jersey Devil occupies a prominent spot, along with Tony Soprano, in the Gah-duhn State's mythology. There are many descriptions of the Jersey devil to be found. Here are two articles which provide a reasonably detailed background:"The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens," by Anthony Perticaro in and "The Jersey Devil" by Dave Juiliano. In the many accounts of the Jersey Devil, it is emphasized that its sightings were made by "... reliable people such as police, government officials, postmasters, businessman, and other people whose 'integrity is beyond question.'"

Eyewitness accounts from "reliable people," although I might exclude some government officials from this category, are not always so...reliable. When confronted with the unfamiliar, the human mind cobbles together pieces of the known which in turn result in bizarre mental reconstructions. Subtle tweaks of neurotransmitter levels, whether by a toke of spleef, a hit of LSD, a few pints of beer, or allelic variations of serotonin receptors result in profound effects on what we see, feel, and experience. The conscious mind, that intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters, is thus prone to distraction and interference from external stimuli. Our consciousness is vulnerable to meltdown under high degrees of stress, and even with mild stress, is subject to cognitive glitches.

Humans are notoriously susceptible to bouts of mass hysteria, a phenomenon neatly summarized in this Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia offering is worth a look since it provides links to historical hysterics such as the Salem witch trials, the lively Spring-heeled Jack, "penis panic," and my favorite, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

As social animals, our brains evolved to be influenced strongly by cultural and environmental context. This certainly has its adaptative advantages to the social unit, for example, group vomiting. If we witness others throwing up, we invariably feel queasy ourselves, even if we do not actively blow chow. This makes sense if one considers a foraging band of early humans. If one of the party ate something toxic, chances were good that others also had partaken of the bad eats. The initial grazer would rid him- or herself of the offending food. Those who witnessed the purge and sympathetically threw up, might then survive to snack, and reproduce, another day. There are many other complex collective behaviors which are thought to have evolved to assure survival of the species. The flip side of these adaptations are inappropriate responses. The origins of collective hysteria likely arise from the evolutionary legacy of "group think."

The Jersey Devil sightings likely arose from gross misinterpretations of natural phenomena spliced with collective hysteria. Notably, the Jersey Devil was said to be a harbinger of war. No doubt many were under stress at the time of the spate of sightings in 1909, the eve of World War I, so "reliability" is a relative term. Curiously, Jersey Devil sightings were mot reported prior to the Iraq incursion or before the World Trade Center towers were decimated in September 2001, the latter affecting many Garden Staters whose family and friends worked at the WTC. Perhaps 21st century life is so saturated with stress that the Jersey Devil has become an anachronism, no longer to be summoned in times of turmoil.

Nonetheless, it was good creepy fun to peer down the sandy road toward the ruins of the Shroud house in Leeds Point, allegedly the birthplace of the inexplicably long-lived demon, and to indulge those tingles of weirdness and the little thrills of warning skittering around in my nervous system. Many humans like to be scared. We like horror shows. We read scary novels. We pay to be frightened.

I like to be frightened, and even when I was a kid, I got an adrenalicious charge out of scary stories and from the dark, hidden places on our family farm. My brother is ten years my senior, and he took particular delight in frightening the bejeezus out of me. His efforts were as simple as foisting off especially rank sci-fi and horror stories on me, and encouraging me to watch television shows like "The Outer Limits." The Outer Limits episode entitled "The Zanti Misfits" kept me awake long into the night, much to my mother's consternation, as I imagined arthropods with humanoid faces scuttling about under my bed.

My brother went to more elaborate lengths to scare me. The rustling and muffled thumps in the dim hayloft of the old barn made me nervous. My sheep, a 4H project, resided in this outbuilding, and in the fall and winter, the interior of barn was ink-dark when I attended to my wooly charges after school. Logically, I knew the bumps and rustling in the loft were the signs of mundane hayloft critters such as rodents and raccoons, but in an effort to allay my irrational fear, I jokingly suggested there might be a hay monster living amongst the bales. Naturally, my brother capitalized on my confession. During his periodic visits home, (he was a grad student in engineering physics at the local university), he secretly constructed a faux hay monster from a dry cleaner's bag which he spray-painted black, and for good measure, added a Zanti-Misfitish visage. He then rigged it up in the rafters of the corn bin, a side room for grain storage in the barn, from which I retrieved ground corn for my sheep. He positioned two small jars, one filled with baking soda and the other vinegar, such that when I opened the door of the bin, the vinegar would spill into the baking soda, inflate the bag with carbon dioxide, and allow it to slowly fall in front of me. That was the theory.

He clandestinely set this up one weekend, and that Saturday evening, accompanied me to the barn to feed the sheep. When I opened the door of the corn bin, my brother and the hungry sheep trailing, I was startled by the two jars clambering down in front of me. I was so discombobulated that the identity of these everyday objects did not register. The jars were followed by an amorphous black thing which settled down on the pile of corn in front of me. I shrieked and jumped back as the sheep shot out the barn door, and my brother emitted a stifled gasp, which in retrospect was probably a laugh. He inched forward as I quavered, "What is that!?" He responded in an uncertain tone that he didn't know, and moved closer to the black object which was now writhing on the cracked corn. He moved his hand forward toward the bin door with caution. Suddenly, the undulating mass burst upwards, and again I jumped away, but at the same time, saw my brother's face grimace in repressed laughter. I then realized he pulled the "monster" up from the corn by means of an invisible-in-the-dark black thread attached to the bag. His plan was for it to inflate with the thread, which was tied to a rafter, to hold it in a vertical position so I could get a good look at the Zanti face. That design failed but the undulation of that bag on the corn was effective. Although I got a good adrenaline rush out of this, it was short-lived since my brother's presence kept me from being well and truly frightened.

Some weeks later, I ambled to the barn at dusk on a Monday evening, and as usual, my sheep followed, eager for their grainy treat. When I opened the corn bin's door, something shot out of the pile of grain straight at me. I tossed the can I used to dip out the corn at the monster, screamed shrilly as only a 12 year old girl can, and sprinted out of the barn. Yet even as a prepubescent sprout, some bit of rational thought clicked away in my head, a vestige of my characteristic skepticism glowed, and my inherent curiosity caused me to go back in and investigate. There, dangling from the rafter in the corn bin, were the remnants of the "hay monster" bag. My brother visited that weekend, and had taken pains to bury the bag in the corn. He swung the thread up over a rafter and tied it to the door such that when I opened it, the hay monster would spring forth from the grain...right at me. Because I was alone, the effect was that much greater, and to this day, I give my big brother a tip o' the harlequin prankster hat for his efforts.

I got a charge out of my brother's scare tactics, and be assured, my dear bonobos, he was the victim of my revenge when I became a young adult. But why did I like these frights? Why do I enjoy Stephen King's novels as I turn the pages for the next thrill? Why did I indulge myself in feelings of unease in the Jersey Devil's territory? I believe that many humans enjoy being frightened because it may be "practice" for real situations of danger. When we are frightened by what we know in the back of our minds is imaginary, our fear is on a tight leash. We are in control of the situation. I am no expert on evolutionary psychology, and as a practitioner of the "hard sciences," I am inclined to view that field as rife with speculation, but I wonder if these bouts of controlled fright constitute a survival mechanism. Perhaps practicing fright conferred an adaptative advantage to those who reflexively were able to maintain some control over their fear when confronted with a real danger.

However, humans can be scared witless, individually and collectively. Humans all too frequently fool themselves into believing quite irrational things are real. The title of my piece alludes to the late Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's wonderful book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. For those of us who look upon the ghouls and demons who will fly through the dark during All Hallow's Eve as quaint figments of imagination, as convenient tools for controlled fear, there are those who are utterly convinced that UFOs routinely abduct hapless humans, that alien fetuses are implanted in human women, that we can dredge up real memories of past lives, and that by a laying on of hands and a hearty "Praise Jesus!" someone can be healed of terrible afflictions. Our demon haunted minds are fully capable of misleading us.

The Demon Haunted World was published in 1996, and nearly ten years later, Sagan's clarion call for rational thought is as urgent as ever. Although the initial rumblings were audible when Sagan was alive, the cacophany of borborygmi has reached new levels since his death. You might ask, my gentle bonobos, what is "borborgymi?" This is the plural of borborygmus, which means "bowel sounds." More and more, it seems that many Americans devalue expertise, and instead elevate "gut-level feeling" as a guide to their thought, to their reality.

Charles Pierce recently published a sharp indictment of this "thinking-with-the-gut" tact in Esquire magazine: Idiot America. To read the whole article, one must fork over $2.95; Pierce's piece has the five Bonobo Hoots of Approval from Doc Bushwell, so it is money well spent. Commentary on Idiot America is making the rounds in the rationalists' corner of the Blogosphere, e.g.,Pharyngula and on one beaming visionary's blogspot among many others. Pierce's words are acerbically witty and angry. With reference to the borborygmic yammerings in our country, he writes:

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense." The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the "yuck factor." The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

It's a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, "faith-based," a cheap huckster's phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It's a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.

After all, faith is about the heart and soul and about transcendence. Anything calling itself faith-based is admitting that it is secular and profane. In the way that it relies on the Gut to determine its science, its politics, and even the way it sends its people to war, Idiot America is not a country of faith; it's a faith-based country, fashioning itself in the world, which is not the place where faith is best fashioned.

Hofstadter saw this one coming. "Intellect is pitted against feeling," he wrote, "on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical."

The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
  3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

...and as kemibe has noted in his latest three part tour de force in this very blog, truth becomes subjective when ruled by the Gut.

Gut level thinking may serve useful purposes, for example, the instincts which take over and aid us in responding to dangerous situations, thus saving our own hides. But we need to keep much of that gut-level thinking reined in with our rational minds, because allowing the Gut to take over our thoughts leads to uncontrolled, collective fears. These irrational fears clamor that one cannot elevate intellect without sacrificing love and affection, that if one is rational, one cannot be altruistic, and that if one has faith, one cannot give full merit to science. The pervasiveness of the Gut as described in Idiot America makes us vulnerable to collective hysteria. A world of darkness then descends, and our demon haunted minds perceive the ghosts, ghouls and goblins of fear as real.

There are two pumpkins, each carefully selected by my teenagers at a local farm market, sitting on my front stoop. Both kids like scary books and movies as I do, and still relish Halloween, one of the most ancient of holidays in the Western World. They will hollow out the gourds and carve frightening visages on them to scare away the demons and just maybe the Jersey devil. We will light small candles which will flicker in the dark, protected by the pumpkin lanterns. Just as Carl Sagan described science as a candle in the dark world of superstition, so must we nurture our intellects and those of our acquaintances, our families and our communities to keep our demon haunted minds from gaining the upper, and sometimes deceitful, hand.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The throaty cry of the Black Knight

Many Americans who believe in a Creator do so quietly, harboring as much scorn for their outspoken "leaders" as do the militant atheists allegedly taking over the nation. But the most visible and yammerprone Christians rail incessantly about the leftist American media's failure to properly represent them, and as usual they're campaigning against a phantom adversary. Today, finding media outlets supportive of one's political stance, however paranoid or ramshackle, is not difficult; the Christian world view is scarcely a marginal matter, and every misshapen brainchild of the religious right's singularly rancid collective consciousness is duly cast squarely into the mainstream.

For all their complaining, Christians prone to agitating for patently theocratic aims have done well for themselves in painting those decrying their bigotry and underhandedness as inimical to humankind. Any writer or philosopher who takes aim at religious superstition (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris jump to mind) is tagged intolerant; anyone who does it serially is called an "enemy of God."

Even other skeptics often miss the point, which is never that faith in the supernatural itself -- while inherently nonsensical -- is necessarily destructive, but that faith used to leverage or justify gross political or social misconduct is a vile enemy in every imaginable dimension, because its proponents can justify virtually any solecism, burst of idiocy, or abomination on the basis of an unseen, powerful approbator. Americans forget this far too easily and at a time when it is especially dangerous to do so.

Presently, in the whole kingdom of vile and violent religions, Islamic fundamentalism, with its atrocities toward women, its continual parade of suicide bombings and its anti-Western orientation occupies the throne. But Christians, though less prone these days to outright bloodletting owing more to cultural circumstances than to an intrinsically more humanitarian or useful assortment of beliefs, exhibit no smaller degree of outright lunacy than do Koran warpers and literalists.

Like ultra-high-fidelity malware wrought of a diseased engineering revolution -- the tour de Republican force's astoundingly mindless 21st-century bullshit campaign -- the sizable moron arm of America, which enjoys a near-complete overlap with its most ardently religious demographic, lays the blame for every one of its real and imagined ills at the feet of The Liberals. Despite the fact that Republican Party carries both houses of an unusually redneck-laden Congress in addition to occupying the Oval Office, despite the Plame and DeLay and FEMA scandals and the public revulsion to God-fearing conservatives insinuating themselves in full vainglory into the Terri Schaivo mess, these hapless, nonthinking, nonseeing haters of The Liberals believe that this strawman enemy, not reality, is to blame.

Why? For one essential reason: The Liberals won't roll over and allow Christianity to have its artless, grunting way with schools, with private sex lives, with public policy from A to Zed. Committed Christians are quite literally unable to see what it is that they're demanding, or that their demands conflict not only with constitutional law but with the most permissive of logical frameworks, and are devoid of anything resembling a "love they neighbor" bearing.

A corollary to this is the moron battalion's steadfastly unawareness of the impotence of its own arguments. Its members unfailingly cast forth the gleeful fantasy that they have trounced the opposition even as they nominally choke on the shit sandwich that has just been rammed down their ululating throats. This illusion is easier to maintain in online media, where it is common practice to simply ignore items that damage, inconvenience or dismantle thoroughly any coherent points the morons may have tried to advance.

All of this brings to mind a memorable scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, wherein King Arthur, upon being denied passage over a bridge by the Black Knight, systematically dismembers his adversary with his sword, leaving the Black Knight first hopping on two legs, then one, and finally rendering him a bleeding, sputtering torso. Throughout the "battle," the Black Knight maintains, loosing at the confrontation's terminus a triumphant cry: "I'M IN-VINNNNNNNNNCIBLE!"

Remember, the important thing here isn't that the Black Knight has been sliced to bits. It's that he believes he has won. Any great satirist recognizes that the human capacity for self-deception is indispensable to his trade, and the creators of the Python cinematic series are no exception. And Christian "horsemen" -- in arguing fervently against evolution, against non-Christian religious adherents, against "Nigers," against liberals, and fundamentally against enlightenment, education, and palpable truth -- have this one element on their side: conviction. Conviction breeds effort, and this assures that no matter how extraordinarily fuckheaded or odious or oppositional a given Christian cause becomes, they will stand solidly behind it, throwing into and behind it as much money and votes and force and they can. It's the kind of wide-scale bullying that occasionally raises doubts about whether reality and truth will always prevail in the end, at least stateside, where history is seemingly on the side of the cognizant and the collected.

I'll delve into specific examples later.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Big Cheese Speaks to You

Yes. Yes, I am. I am a Cheesian. I believe in the power of Cheese to change people’s lives. Not just any cheese. I’m talking about the Big Cheese. The One-And-Only Original Cheese. No False Cheeses here. No solidified dairy product substitutes of any kind. This is the real deal; The Cheese To Believe In.

I wasn’t always a Cheesian. As a child I knew nothing of Cheese. My parents, strict vegans, forbade even a mention of it in our house. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I knew something was missing in my life. Some of my childhood chums came from lactose-friendly families, but I found their devotion to the Almighty Aged Curd somewhat foreign, and perhaps a tad mysterious. It was this mystery that was to dog me as I grew. As a teenager, like all teenagers, I had a rebellious streak. I’d go to parties and inevitably, someone would start talking about Cheese. OK, I was curious. I’ll admit that. I figured, nothing serious: a little discussion on Cheddar, perhaps some Brie-talk. But soon my daydreams were filled with thoughts of good, aged Stilton while my intellect was racked by the social and political ramifications of an extra creamy Havarti versus a summer sausage, and beyond. The years passed and the questions deepened. Far into the wee hours I would ponder “Bleu or caviar? Jarlsberg or a hot pretzel?” Finally, one night, filled with an ever deepening sense of desperation, I looked into the bathroom mirror and asked “Straight up or on crackers?” My body shook under the strain, but my heart would shout back “We don’t need no steeenking crackers!” I came to understand that crackers are anathema to the true Cheesian.

And that’s how I was saved. After a decade of wandering aimlessly in the barren aisles of the grocery store of life, past shelves of shiny packages delivering little more than the broken promises leading to a gnawing personal emptiness, I had, at last, accepted the power of the Big Cheese in my life. I was “re-curded”. I had found The Whey. I wasn’t alone. There were others, Cheesians just like me, each of whom had their own conversion experience, and who welcomed me into their community. I joined a study group and began to immerse myself in “the good book of Cheesianity”: The Cheesle. It answered many of my questions about life, the history of mankind and Cheese, and my place in the grand scheme of things. I was filled with a sense of belonging, and a strange, almost overwhelming knowledge of my own knowledge of the overwhelming knowledge and goodness of The Cheese. And, of course, I was filled with the desire to share my overwhelming knowledge of the overwhelming goodness and knowledge of The Cheese with everyone, so that they might also feel this overwhelming overwhelmingness. I met, courted, and married a young woman from my study group. We have three children and we’re home-schooling them in Cheesianity. I figure if it’s Gouda ‘nuff for the old man, it’s Gouda ‘nuff for them! (And some people say Cheesians don’t have a sense of humor!)

This brings me to our present situation. Cheesians are under attack in this country by the lactose-intolerant media giants who control our airwaves and newspapers! Every day, I hear another story regarding anti-Cheesian activist judges or see yet another Hollywood movie promoting anti-Cheesian lifestyles. This country was founded by men who were Cheesians of the highest order! Men who raised dairy cattle on their very own farms! The rich heritage of Cheesianity runs through the history of our country like veins of mold through Roquefort, and it cannot be removed, no matter how hard the revisionists may try.

A case in point is the recent controversy regarding certain theories of the origin of the moon, and the way it is being taught in our schools. All good Cheesians know, even a child of six or seven years knows, that the moon is made of Cheese. It says so right in The Cheesle: “And The Big Cheese placed above the Earth the full Moon, heavy and full of curd, so that man would not have to walk alone in the darkness of early morning, and thus trippeth over yonder milking stool.” (Cheesesis 1:12).

Modern so-called “scientific theories” postulate that the moon is made of rock. This is an absurd idea on its very face as everyone knows rocks sink in virtually any liquid while cheese can float, thus begging the question “Why hasn’t this big rock sunk down to the Earth?” Some may argue that the Apollo program brought back “moon rocks”, but many believe that the “moon walks” themselves were faked. Numerous Internet sites attest to this fact. Further, we must not forget that “Rock-Moon” is just a theory. As such, it would be entirely inappropriate, and certainly unscientific, to proclaim to impressionable youth in our public schools that it is a fact. Cheesians are not asking that the Rock-Moon theory be removed from the classroom. That would be just as bad as leaving it in. All we are asking is that schools “teach the controversy”. In the spirit of honest, open, scientific debate, both sides should be presented to the students. Students should not be fed a theory as a fact by government entities with their own agenda. To do so would be intellectually dishonest. We are willing to include both explanations so why are the Rock-Mooners afraid to? What do they have to hide or fear? Is their position so weak that they can’t afford to offer equal time to other, highly valid, explanations?

Teach the controversy. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the American thing to do!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On the subjectivity of truth: part 3 of 3

So much for hand-wringing and pointed examples. The scary part? Regardless of the subject matter, to the terminally committed, beliefs that are sufficiently widespread and charged with enough demagoguery do indeed take on the relevance, importance, and power of truth. This might not matter if elected officials were above this grisly trend, but if anything they are especially susceptible, at least under the catastrophically backward ethos of the Bush administration. A superb example is Cheri Yecke, Florida's brand-new K-through-12 education chancellor and an established shitwit who was ousted from a similar post in Minnesota, allegedly owing to a Democratic vendetta. Yecke, the latest in a long line of rowdily inept politicos from afar -- such as the now-exiled Jerry Regier -- who have staggered into the warm, welcoming arms of Florida Gov. Jebediah Bush, exemplifies the sort of state-sanctioned backwardness that has become de rigueur in recent years.

Yecke is a creationist who claims that her personal beliefs will not influence her policy decisions in Florida. Leaving aside the fact that a creationist is indisputably unfit for the post Yecke now holds, she's left a clear trail of creationist machinations in her wake. If it's not her personal beliefs that have driven her attempts to soak all children in her bailiwick in creationist bullshit, then what? A thoughtful examination of the evidence? Accepted NCSE standards? Yecke clearly has no problem substituting beliefs for facts, and in her case such tomfuckery carries dire implications for an already benighted state.

Now this is really disappointing to me. It doesn't bother me that people believe in insensible, contradictory things if it makes them feel better and doesn't interfere in the lives of others. However, there's no such thing as a growing movement that keeps its collective idiocy to itself. And the more their solecistic chattering peppers airwaves, newspapers and the Internet, the more validity their quests appear to hold and the louder they squawk.

The motives of the belligerently incorrect are clear, but has this sort of thing always been so, well, okay? Is is a matter of the blogosphere giving voice to misguided opinions formerly limited to inane reveries and conversations with one or two kindred spirits? Is there a solution?

Eliminating bad beliefs would be helpful, but this is not feasible; it's not difficult to suggest reasons for why they persist, so a better strategy is to simply treat them with all the "respect" (something their proponents claim, a priori, such befuddled histrionics require) they've earned. That is, mock them to the edge of the earth. No amount of iterating and re-iterating how howlingly wombat-shit-stupid these ideas are is too much. If this means making an otherwise "good person" not capable of viewing the world sensibly feel bad, tough shit. A rabid dog isn't morally responsible for its destructive behavior either, but if it attacks you, you're still obligated to beat it down.

At its core this issue is really very simple. I have no quarrel with Christians, fat people or joggers, or, for that matter, people who enjoy wanking to photos of syphilitic cartoon mules with strong NRA ties. But it rankled me when people squander their brains at the clear expense of the general ebb and flow of society. There's enough calamity in the world without mixing in bullshit that cannot fairly be called, as some would have it, a "healthy exchange of ideas." If your Christianity has you yelping inanely about what I should do with my penis, uterus, or petri dish and rushing to the courts in an effort to ensure that your archaic, senseless views are imposed upon others, then I'll tell you you're diseased and if I discover your blog I'll litter it with incendiary rhetoric.

The most troubling thing for you is that I'll be right. The most disturbing thing to me is that I'm outnumbered by decerebrates.

This is no call for a world devoid of fantasy, a universe populated exclusively by soulless, Spocklike organisms whose only purpose is the bland execution of rational acts. I'm as creative as the next person you'll meet. Hell, I even enjoy making up words as I go along, rather like a Shakespeare without one one-thousandth of the skill or notoriety, but thrice the facility with profanity. I merely think that people should confine their lies to purely self-serving motives, as with philanderers aiming to keep suspicious spouses at bay or moneygrubbers on the run from the SEC or the IRS. No one needs to be fed bulshit about the natural world. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to take a turn at being correct, with the dullards among us being disproportionately but rightfully deprived of their chance to shine. Assigning equal value to every idea is intellectual welfare, which is inarguably bad policy.

I'm also weary of the people screaming about the inherent lack of morals and values in the god-free mind. That's perhaps the biggest crock of shit of all. Atheists understand all to well how dear our time on Earth is, and are more troubled by the sheer unfairness of the deaths and ruination of innocent life than are the faithful because they do not self-indulgently place such goings-on in the context of sin and an inscrutable (yet certainly caring) deity whose morality -- despite, of course, his very human distaste for homosexuality, atheists, and uppity women -- is "unknowable to us." More than anything alse, I'm just grateful no one tried pumping my head full of this bullshit when I was young. Better to be beaten regularly with a big-buckled belt.

Most people who believe in a divine creator aren't fundagelical yammerbags, and most overweight people aren't self-deluding haters of everything they're not or fails to support their agenda. But the increasingly equivocal use of terms like opinion and the perceived interchangeability of words like evidence, thought, and faith and observation, belief and assertion does not bode well for anything or anyone, anywhere. The world has undergone considerable reformation throughout human history, but hiding from the truth has, I am sure, never proven fruitful or progressive.

Friday, October 14, 2005

On the subjectivity of truth: part 2 of 3

While religion may be the most prominent locus of shameless bullshit producton and dissemination, it's not the only significant one. (That religious fervor has parallels in other wishful-thinking realms is instructive from the standpoint of viewing a belief in a conscious deity as nothing more than an easily rationalized outcropping of human psychology, but just try to get the afflicted to appreciate this view.)

We now live in a culture in which a mindlessly passionate subset of overweight people -- whose numbers in the U.S. are swelling as quickly as bloatfolks' individual waistlines -- can, motivated by insecurity, rage and denial, sincerely dismiss the numerous well-established health risks of obesity as propaganda churned out by a murky, profiteering cabal comprising Big Pharma, the $40-billion-a-year weight-loss industry, and medical doctors themselves. Never mind that researchers were warning of the health risks of being fat long before opportunists such as Weight Watchers cropped up; set aside also the fact that, as a cardiologist friend of mine notes, "If I were really interested in just my wallet and not in my patients' health, I'd not only tell them to get even fatter, I'd put cigarette vending machines in my waiting room." But this kind of thinking doesn't wash with fat activists, whose credo is all too famailiar: When a group of people is unhappy with their circumstances and cannot change either them or themselves, their best strategy is to simply shift the goalposts. Silly? Not in a culture in which it's increasingly kosher to substitute sheer noise for knowledge.

Strident people of size do not comprehend what a colossal non sequitur it is to go from "Fat people are objects of unnecessary ridicule" to "it's perfectly fine, health-wise, to be fat, even when the chief causes are inactivity and a junk-laden diet." A glance at their bloggery demonstrates that they are not pro-fat so much as they are anti-everything else, including overweight people with the temerity to drop tonnage. As with ID creationism, all it takes is one or two glib spokespeople to serve as patron saints for a given cause -- and obesity has a pair in author and crank extraordinaire Paul Campos, whose "debunking" of obesity's medical implications has been rejected by scientists from coast to coast, and food-industry shill Sandy Szwarc; both know just enough to be dangerous -- and that's all those embracing a given chunk of mottled, moldering bullshit need. (Campos agitates for his cause against a pair of Harvard obesity researchers and rabble-rousing king Michael Fumento here.)

Fat people who have long struggled to lose weight and are well aware of society's often harsh or at best bemused treatment of them are naturally going to lean toward a world view in which the problem isn't obesity but everyone else's rigid insistence on thinness. So the hand-wave and eye-closing techniques of dismissing evidence have become ever more popular, while angry law professors and portly shut-ins have managed, in their minds at least, to elevate their analytical acumen and medical insight to that of MDs and PhDs on the faculty of the world's pre-eminent research universities.

The parallels here with the attacks on the work of investigators with doctorates in the biological sciences by "creation scientists" are striking and undeniable. There is nothing conventionally religious at stake here, but you'd never know it.

In a more sociologically localized vein, a great example of far-flung bullshit in distance running is the well-known "run-walk" method by which undertrained citizens strive to complete 26.2-mile marathons. There is certainly no mark in using this no-hurry strategy -- most often credited to former American elite athlete Jeff Galloway -- but only through egregious leaps of poor reasoning can one conclude that something sufficient to get people to the finish line in one piece is also the most efficient. Galloway, whose efforts have helped fill both marathon fields around the country and his own pockets, has at times been drawn into discussions in which he oversteps the boundaries of his so-called philosophy and finds himself unable to support his more avant-garde claims with anything culled from exercise physiology; at times, it seems he cannot even do basic math. Yet those free of other reference points who complete marathons thanks to this "method" are immediately numbered among his most ardent defenders. He does look more than a little like Jesus these days.

Of course, it's not just right-wingers that close their eyes to truth if favor of the allure of queered notions of cosmic fairness. A fine example, this one also running-related, is the railing against the idea that certain East African peoples possess inborn traits that, on average, make them more talented distance runners. Beating the same equine carcasses over and over has its advantages, because I can quote myself:'s helpful to keep in mind that people who refuse to acknowledge that innate differences in certain capabilities between people of different ethnicities exist harbor precisely the same intractable mindset as Bible inerrantists who refuse to acknowledge the lunacy of, among other things, embracing the fable of Noah's Ark -- to say nothing of the rest of the Book of Genesis -- as an actual historical event. (Interestingly, the same people who would freely acknowledge the morphological differences between Northern Europeans, East Africans, and West Africans -- after all, they really have no choice -- bristle at the radical idea that some of these differences might translate into greater physical potential in certain sporting realms.) As with Bible literalists, facts do not sway practitoners of the liberal religion; if anything, their introduction into such discussions is regarded as an annoyance if not an outright attack. So it's pointless for a realist to argue with them if the goal is to convince them of the validity of his position or the frailty of theirs; at best, the realist may amuse himself, and at worst he may grow frustrated. That is, the parallels between hardcore Christianity and the increasingly manifest liberal surrogate are nearly complete.

Finger-waggling social-science types make all sorts of noise about correlation not being causation and the unforgiviable but evils of slavery, but regardless of what we'll one day discover about genetics and distance running vis-a-vis ethnicity, none of what they say ever applies. Like the hyper-religious, these screeching liberals are more concerned with what appears to be desirable (in thier view, that every ethnic group is on a genetic even keel in every possible way; to say otherwise opens doors to nastiness) with what is simply true.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

On the subjectivity of truth: part 1 of 3

"There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed of the vast majority by adequate government action."

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

-- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

In decades of yore, strategic, full-scale public deception was seemingly the sole purview of politicians, outright crooks, and a comparatively small number of shady businesspeople. Today, as science inexorably pushes back the limitations of technology and the number of available cable television channels expands like Courtney Love's rap sheet, North America has become so overrun with lies and deception that the inevitable has happened: Absolute bullshit -- as long as it placates someone or makes him rich -- is afforded the same treatment as plain truth in almost every sphere of existence. Penn & Teller have parlayed this stain on modernity into an amusing program on Showtime, but even exposés like theirs fail to address the implications of the bullshit epidemic in general, global terms.

Most often, this brand of dishonesty takes the form of individuals quietly fooling themselves in an effort to allay the discomfiting ache of cognitive dissonance. Such maneuvers are sufficiently commonplace to have engendered snippets of charming idiomatic bullshit, e.g., "money isn't everything," "true beauty is on the inside," "the meek shall inherit the earth," and "everything happens for a [divine] reason." Not that all of these are entirely frivolous, but it is useful to examine the circumstances and hence the rationale of those most often heard uttering such axioms.

Then there are the lucrative enterprises that feed this tendency: purveyors of penis-enlargement pills, abdominizer machines, get-rich-quick pyramid schemes, and similar hokum shown on television in the wee hours or distributed in unsolicited e-mails. But a shot of spam or an infomershill is a one-sided stream of blather, and owing to the media though which these niceties propagate, even the most unsupportable claims by definition can and do gush forth unchallenged. Even if 99 out of 100 viewers immediately smell the bullshit, the one holdout, if he bites and buys, provides enough cash flow to keep the offending company in the black. In fact, bullshitters of this variety, because they are rarely pressed directly regarding the alleged merits of their products, make no overt appeals to faux honesty. That is, unlike, say, warmongering government leaders, they don't lie about their lies and are really outside the scope of this diatribe.

More fascinating -- and pertinent -- are the people who, in an open dialogue, can simply flat-out ignore facts even when essentially pinned down and forced to eat them. Many arguments do in fact address complex issues and not-easily-answered questions, but in the online circles in which I travel, disputes far more often occur between emotion-fueled and shallow-minded reactionaries on the one hand and their equally strident but fact-touting counterparts on the other. This may sound arrogant, overly simplistic, or both, but it's true. The faith-based opinion that humans were created in a flash of heavenly magic is simply not as rationally useful as the evidence for natural selection and descent with modification. The private ends achieved by those who champion the supernatural have no worldly value.

Such stubborn assaults on facts by the proud emissaries of cherished beliefs provide an archetype of the sort of excoriating set-tos that have spilled into every cranny of daily life and consume both individuals' time and energy and public resources (e.g., taxes used to fight objectively worthless lawsuits). The evolution versus intelligent-design creationism "debate" is a glaring example of how the power of widespread, lusty and giddily blind desire coupled with political and financial motives can propel an idea with no epistemical merit conceived by and for backwater zealots fearful of science (and of an honest education in general) into the mainstream, and, if they have their way, into the science curricula of American public schools. What with the way things are going in Kitzmiller v. Dover, it's not looking like the creationists are going to score a legal victory anytime soon. But they've managed in fine fashion to convince a lot of previously disengaged Americans that evolution really is fraught with controversy, deception and gross uncertainties, and that incredulity over matters of complexity which are in fact both predicted and explained by biological models is a reasonable substitute for investigation and thought. I'm not sure how many people really do believe in a young Earth or a six-day creation, or in the sort of haphazardly evil and mentally compromised deity as exists in the Christian Bible. But whatever the number, it's too many, and it's not just the bumpkins holed up in trailers in future sites of hurricane or tornado wreckage.

Of course, religious wars -- both those involving one sect versus another and those pitting believers against "secularists" both within and outside of workaday science -- have been going on for aeons, and in a world in which successive generations are successfully inoculated with God despite mounting evidence that the Bible is not only really, really wrong, but way fucking really really wrong, they're not about to stop; despite the categorical failures of an untold number of insane prophecies to be realized, chief among them the return of Christ himself, we really can't prove that Christians have it wrong. That's reason enough for all but a handful of them to toss out facts that are inconvenient while inventing or modifying others to suit. No one should be surprised when scientists and scientifically erudite persons become fed up with the incessant stream of anti-intellectual garbage spewing from fundamentalist mouths and into the pages of mainstream publications, which have never met controversies -- legitimate or shitimate -- they couldn't sell.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Everything but a proboscis

In case you're wondering what's waiting in the shadows for America's schoolchildren should the teaching of vapid non-theories such as Intelligent Design creationism be allowed in public schools, look no further than The progressives behind this operation have set up a special section for Web-savvy kids, featuring a trio of wall-eyed young scholars and a dinosaur named Muncher.

Standard disclaimer: This is not a parody site.

Note the typical references to "evolutionists" and their wrongful ways, along with a sketch of an addled Darwin with a halo of question marks around his head. That's right -- get 'em while they're young. Ironically, the pressures of natural selection themselves are responsible for the extreme psychological plasticity of young 'uns, who in almost all cases stand to benefit greatly from believing exactly what their parents tell or otherwise convey to them. In many cases, their very survival depends on such trust ("Don't eat that nightshade 'shroom; don't feed the lions"), but of course religion -- coupling as it does fear of retribution for not believing with a perverse promise of "salvation" in return for faith -- fully exploits the same quality in a most reprehensible way.

It's no wonder Bible-boppers indoctrinated at a tender age grow up viewing scientists not only as errant but as strictly adversarial. When I was learning the basics about dinosaurs and archaeology as a five- and six-year-old, and later as a schoolkid digesting the standard tenets of the life sciences as fed to me by the Concord School District, my parents and teachers never prefaced any of their lessons with defensive-minded innuendo such as "Despite the claims of creationists..." or "Fundies in their infinite loopiness are often heard to say..." Of course, they didn't have to, and still shouldn't. But with an already choked court system now forced to deal with the implacable backwardness of American fundagelicals in Dover, Pa. (you can follow the goings-on in that case here), Kansas, Cobb County, Ga., Utah, and elsewhere, a certain amount of battling incendiary palaver with inflammable retorts has seemingly become necessary. Politeness and simply waiting for the "obvious" truth to prevail has never worked, and with Christian extremists ever more emboldened under a galactically benighted President, it's even less effective today.

It's heartening that the ID folks appear to be getting their asses handed to them in Harrisburg; they've simply left too obvious a trail over the years that they're nothing more than creationists under a flimsy guise, and thanks to the 1987 SCOTUS ruling barring creationism from American schoolrooms, this will likely kill them in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case regardless of what else is presented therein. The discouraging aspect is knowing that these misguided sentinels of God's will are never going to give up. Swatting a dozen mosquitoes to death never discouraged hordes more from piling out of the wet underbrush and onto tender skin, and these clowns, driven by even baser appetites, are scarcely different.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What's Bred in the Bones: A Special Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District Edition of Bonobic Bloviation

This illustration of Diplodocus was prepared by the artist Mary Mason Mitchell in 1910 under the direction of Oliver Perry Hay (1846-1930). Hay was not an employee of the Smithsonian Institution, but he held the title Research Associate, and had office space at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Hay, Oliver P. 1910. On the Manner of Locomotion of the Dinosaurs, Especially Diplodocus, with Remarks on the Origin of the Birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 12, pp. 1-25.

from the Historical Art Gallery, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

This summer marked the 100th anniversary of my maternal grandfather's excursion through France via bicycle. In June 1905, at the age of 21, he, along with two college classmates, boardedThe City of Glasgow, a cattle boat, in Baltimore, Maryland, to work their way across the Atlantic to England. After traveling through the United Kingdom for several days, he and his chums crossed the English Channel and disembarked at Calais, France. From there, they journeyed to Marseilles in southern France by "wheel," then traveled by train from Arles to Bordeaux then on to Paris where the little band had a few adventures. They left France by way of Le Havre, crossed the channel to England, then returned home by steamer to New York City then back to Illinois.

My grandfather kept a journal of his travels. This diary provides a glimpse at a time past and into the thoughts of a man whose familial legacy was known to me, but whom I never really knew because he died before I was born. Based on recollections of my mother, aunts and uncles, I knew my grandfather was a pillar of the community and a good church-goer, a Presbyterian, I believe. However, my grandfather as a young man offered decidedly jaundiced observations on religion. This makes me wonder if he practiced his faith in its benign form as described by Richard Dawkins' article, Opiate of the Masses, published in Prospect,

As with many drugs, refined Gerin oil [Dawkins' pharmaceutically derived allusion to religion - Doc Bushwell] in low doses is largely harmless, and can even serve as a social lubricant on occasions such as marriages, funerals and ceremonies of state. Experts differ over whether such social use, though harmless in itself, is a risk factor for upgrading to harder and more addictive forms of the drug.

Religion was not viewed as any kind of all consuming occupation of thought on either the maternal or paternal side of the family even as it served as a social lubricant in our community. My maternal grandfather vehemently believed that tolerance of others' creeds was not enough, but that acceptance was the ideal. He eschewed dogma, and thus had no use for fundamentalism of any stripe. This might explain why I was quickly yanked out of a Sunday school class after telling my mother and father that I had a heated argument with a Sunday school teacher over the question of "Does God hear the prayers of the Jews?" The instructor stuck to his surpisingly fundie-for-a-mainstream-Prod assertion that God did not hear the prayers of his Chosen People. Not long after the incident, the Sunday school teacher was no longer instructing 10 and 11 year old students. This experience left an indelible imprint on my young mind: religion could be pretty fucked up.

The study of science, including Darwin's Theory of Evolution, in my family was never in conflict with the benign doses of Gerin oil imbibed by our household. In fact, my scientific curiosity was abundantly encouraged by my father, who studied bacteriology and chemistry as a college student, and my mother, the descendant of my enlightened grandfather. There was never any doubt that we shared common ancestry with the great apes, and that all in my little world, humans in the house, cattle in the pasture, and corn in the fields, traced our lines back to primordial ooze. With a nod to Stephen Jay Gould's writings in Rock of Ages, our Sunday attendance at and activity in the local Methodist church occupied a separate magesterium from the realm of science. This was the rubric from my earliest memories.

When I was a little kid, my response to the What-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up query was, "A paleontologist!" Like many kids, I was infatuated with dinosaurs and the great mammals of the Pleistocene such as sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and mammoths. My sister was 15 years my senior so when I was around five or six years old, and squeaking out that 20 dollar word, "paleontology," which no doubt served as a parlor trick for my mother's bridge club, she let me look at her college biology textbooks. I could read reasonably well at the time, and tried to pick out bits from her books. As I grew up, I continued to expand on my knowledge, but eventually veered from the naturalist sciences to the molecular.

My grandfather mentioned "Uncle Perry" in his diary. Oliver Perry Hay was my grandfather's father's brother, and thus my great-great uncle. When I was a kid with paleontological aspirations, I remember my mother saying that her father's uncle was a paleontologist. As an undergraduate in the days before the Internet, I looked up Uncle Perry in Who's Who of American Scientists in the college biology library and learned a little more about him. I learned even more about my relative this past summer, when my mother gave me the old monograph (cover pictured along with a photo of Uncle Perry), Descriptions of Some Pleistocene Vertebrates Found in the United States, 1920, Proc. United States National Museum, 58: 83-146,written by Uncle Perry and his memorial biography, written by his son, William P. Hay. She believed I, among all the family, would most appreciate these old papers, and she was right.

Uncle Perry's primary interest was vertebrate paleontology. He published numerous monographs, including articles on evidence for early man in North America. His most significant contribution to the field was an authoritative two volume bibliography and catalogue of Pleistocence vertebrates. This remains an important reference in the field. Uncle Perry's chronology follows:

  • born in Saluda, Indiana, on 22 May 1846.

  • moved with family to farm near Bradford, Illinois

  • 1870: A.B., Eureka College, Illinois

  • 1870-1872: professor of natural sciences, Eureka College

  • 1873: A.M., Eureka College

  • 1874-1876: professor of natural sciences, Oskaloosa College, Iowa

  • 1876-1877: graduate student at Yale University

  • 1879-1892: professor of biology and geology, Butler College

  • 1884: Ph.D., Indiana University

  • 1884-1888: assistant, Arkansas Geological Survey

  • 1890-1891: president, Indiana Academy of Science

  • 1891-1894: assistant, Indiana Geological Survey

  • 1895-1897: assistant curator of zoology, Field Museum of Natural History

  • 1901-1907: assistant, then associate, curator of vertebrate paleontology, American Museum of Natural History, NYC

  • 1902-1905: associate editor, American Geologist

  • 1902: publishes his Bibliography and Catalogue of the Fossil Vertebrata of North America

  • 1907-1911: returns to Washington; pursues private investigations in paleontology

  • 1908: publishes his The Fossil Turtles of North America

  • 1912-1917: research associate, Carnegie Institution, Washington, D.C.

  • 1917-1926: associate, Carnegie Institution

  • 1923-1927: publishes his The Pleistocene of North American, in three volumes

  • dies at Washington, D.C., on 2 November 1930.

As noted in the time line, Uncle Perry attended Eureka College. It was convenient for him and moreover, according to his biography:

He was probably influenced in this selection by the fact that he had united with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and looked forward to entering the ministry of that demonination.

However, he was not to join the ministry:

Toward the end of his college course, his dreams of the ministry had faded away, and he had applied himself more and more to science.He supplemented the meager courses of the college by reading such scientific books as he could buy or borrow, and before he graduated had impressed his professors with his ability and promise in this field of work.

As outlined above, Uncle Perry's graduate training was somewhat prolonged, but he became a professor of geology and biology at Butler University. In addition to courses in his specialties, he also taught chemistry and physics. However, he did not remain at Butler:

In 1892, his position at Butler having become untenable because of his views on evolution, (italics, DocBushwell), he resigned and removed to Chicago.

Apparently, Uncle Perry's advocacy of Darwin's Theory of Evolution was more than Butler University could bear, and so, he moved on. All in all, his departure was probably for the best, given the path his career took. Here was a boy who grew up on a central Illinois farm, and knew no other educational outcome than the ministry. Apparently, little Eureka College opened his eyes. That he embraced the concept of evolution in the late 19th century and pursued his interests so tenaciously is a testament to a man of rational thought, someone whom I'm proud to call a relative.

Some 113 years after my great-great uncle left Butler University, no doubt badgered out of the institution, the anti-evolutionists are still at it with the most current and visible challenge being the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. There's plenty of press coverage:

A Web of Faith, Law, and Science in Evolution Suit

Darwin's (First) Day in Court

The National Center for Science Education's site dedicated to the trial - a Bonobo's Thumbs-up Recommendation!

Although I harbored no early ecclesiatical ambition like my great-great uncle, I likewise followed a scientific path. As I matured, the social lubricant of religion, even in its most benign form, became less and less significant to me, and I arrived where I am now: an agnostic for whom religion just isn't relevant. In keeping with my maternal grandfather's legacy, channeled to me through my mother, I typically have subscribed to a live and let live philosophy toward those who embrace faith. That was fairly easy to follow when fewer did not attempt to inflict their beliefs on me or on the public at large, which irks my vague beliefs in Jeffersonian politics.

The continuing erosion of the boundaries between church and state makes my stance of tolerance more precarious. I am not taken aback by frank creationism, i.e., the young earth concept and literal interpretation of Genesis, as taught in private schools which are founded on religious fundamentalism. That is pretty much par for the course, and at least one knows exactly the footing on which the proponents of the young earth stand.

It is the insidious incursion of creationism in the guise of Intelligent Design (ID) into science curricula and public thought which elicits an especially visceral response in me. ID is a slick repackaging of creationism which is motivated by fundamentalists in sheeps' clothing. ID does not meet the criteria for a bona fide scientific theory yet speaks in the language of science. As with its earlier incarnation of "creation science," ID has recruited a few scientists to speak on its behalf. It is often difficult for the public at large to understand that this is not a debate of two scientific theories, but of a religious belief versus a scientific theory. The popular media does not help matters much when they attempt to be "balanced" and "pluralistic, " sending in reporters who are more focused on public affairs than science-based journalists, with Cornelia Dean, a science writer for the New York Times among the notable exceptions.

As it stands, the scientific underpinnings of the theory of evolution, rightly named as the central unifiying concept in biology, are complex and cannot be readily explained in the age of soundbites and fast, flashy graphics. If it is true that many Americans cannot provide the definition of a molecule, then the scientific community is in for a real challenge, but it is one which cannot be ignored. It is essential for the scientific community to speak out against ID and in support of evolution. The National Center for Science Education (see my list of links to the right) provides a number of articles and links to prominent scientific organizations which have made public statements regarding ID.

As a practicing scientist and as a parent, I keep an eagle eye on science curriculum although in the school districts which my kids have been and are currently enrolled don't reside in communities which would brook teachings in ID. Besides, my kids are beyond evangelical hope as evidenced by their desire for Flying Spaghetti Monster posters to hang up in their rooms.

Maybe my visceral reaction to ID is bred in my bones from my common ancestry with Uncle Perry. I can only imagine that he would be thrilled by the scientific advancements in evolutionary biology which has allowed us to see our molecular fossil tree. I can only imagine he would be disheartened that the irrational, fearful reaction to evolution continues, and that people still are unable to separate the two magesteria. I can also imagine that he might just look up from his careful studies of Pleistocene fossils and add his voice to the growing chorus of scientists who are finally raising their heads from their lab benches and speaking out against ID, my small voice among them.