Saturday, December 30, 2006

National Park Service Refuses To Tell The Public How Old the Grand Canyon Is

PEER (Public Employees for Envronmental Responsibility) has an update on the continuing effort to change geological science so that it better fits with a biblical (Iron Age) worldview. If you remember, the controversy began in 2004 with the proposed sale of a creationist book at the visitor center that describes the Grand Canyon as having been carved out by Noah's Flood. Of course professionals who conduct actual geologic research protested, but to little avail, other than the Park Service said it would review its decision. Now, from the new headlines:

HOW OLD IS THE GRAND CANYON? PARK SERVICE WON’T SAY — Orders to Cater to Creationists Makes National Park Agnostic on Geology

And from the introduction:

Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees. Despite promising a prompt review of its approval for a book claiming the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood rather than by geologic forces, more than three years later no review has ever been done and the book remains on sale at the park, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Bear in mind, this is the ONLY way creationists can gain acceptance for ludicrous ideas that have absolutely no scientific backing: it will have to be legislated so that everyone must follow this idea or else. PEER's Executive Director says it best:

“In order to avoid offending religious fundamentalists, our National Park Service is under orders to suspend its belief in geology,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is disconcerting that the official position of a national park as to the geologic age of the Grand Canyon is ‘no comment.’”

Park officials have completely aborted their responsibilities to promote quality education and present the best science available. Instead they cower to fundamentalism and promote fairy tales as fact. In doing so, they have made a mockery of the National Park Service regulations (from the 2005 NPS Director's Order #6 on Interpretation, ironically approved after the creationist book went on sale):

8.4.2 Historical and Scientific Research. Superintendents, historians, scientists, and interpretive staff are responsible for ensuring that park interpretive and educational programs and media are accurate and reflect current scholarship…Questions often arise round the presentation of geological, biological, and evolutionary processes. The interpretive and educational treatment used to explain the natural processes and history of the Earth must be based on the best scientific evidence available, as found in scholarly sources that have stood the test of scientific peer review and criticism. The facts, theories, and interpretations to be used will reflect the thinking of the scientific community in such fields as biology, geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and paleontology. Interpretive and educational programs must refrain from appearing to endorse religious beliefs explaining natural processes. Programs, however, may acknowledge or explain other explanations of natural processes and events. (Emphasis added)

Well, they missed implementing this regulation by a long shot. The book is neither written by anyone within the "scientific community", nor was it "peer-reviewed", nor does it represent the "best scientific evidence available". The larger question, however, (and as implied by the PEER article) is whether officials and park interpreters are actually allowed to public discuss the scientific evidence for the age of the Grand Canyon. If not, I would have hoped that a minor rebellion had ensued at the office. As a government employee for the Forest Service who is also responsible for interpretive materials on our forest, I would be going ballistic if I were told not to discuss scientific facts on the prehistory of the forest. Understandibly, there are jobs at stake (again, creationists need to threaten people's livelihoods to get their message across - it has no integrity of its own), but somebody at the local level must be ignoring such directives if they do in fact exist.

Friday, December 29, 2006

In Non-Belief More Prevalent Among Social Scientists?: Some Comments on the Harris/Prager Debate

In an online debate with conservative talk-show host, Dennis Prager, Sam Harris responds to Prager in the context of a discussion on the prevalence of belief in God among scientists:

An article in Nature recently reported that no scientists doubt the existence of God more than biologists, followed closely by physicists and astronomers. I’m not aware of the data you cite on social scientists, but if it is as you report, and they are more atheistic still, it would not surprise me. After all, these people spend a lot of time thinking about things like self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty that keep religion in such good standing in our society.

Prager specifically wrote the following:

My point remains valid, as you graciously concede. Scientific knowledge hardly invalidates belief that there is a God. On the contrary, there are more believers in God in the natural sciences than in the social sciences. This suggests that it is the virtual absence of God in education, not knowledge of science, that likely accounts for the atheism of academics.

Given that anthropology in general and archaeology specifically are considered “social sciences” and that my professional experience and training are in both, allow me to comment. First, I do not know that social scientists are less likely to believe in God than natural or physical scientists. Prager threw that out there without any data to back it up and so it remains nothing more than personal opinion. Secondly, I do not know what Prager is implying here. It almost seems as though he considers “social sciences” as non-scientific relative to the natural sciences and that therefore the supposed absence of belief among the former must be the result of a general state of education and not familiarity with science. I don’t know if that is what he means, but if so, the argument is completely fallacious. I spend significant time in my Anthropology class dispelling this mythical dichotomy between the “hard” sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and the “soft” sciences (biology, anthropology, etc.). Most of the social science disciplines are as equally versed in the methods and philosophy of scientific investigation as their “hard” science counterparts and so I reject the notion that scientific literacy has something to do with differences Prager perceives. Nonetheless, his suggestion that there may be fewer “believers” among social scientists than natural scientists deserves further exploration. Harris documents some good reasons for why he thinks a greater prevalence of non-belief among social scientists might not be surprising: these people concern themselves with the all-too-human characteristics of “…self-deception, wishful thinking, cognitive biases, and the other enemies of intellectual honesty”. Certainly, the human propensity to deceive other humans for purposes of gaining political (i.e. religious) power combined with the evolutionary establishment of humans as pattern-seeking primates (hence, being willingly deceived) is a common theme throughout history.

But there are other historical observations that can be added to this mix by those of us who study the past. Archaeology has shown that the number of gods and deities (and their attentive human populations) that have fallen wayside over the millennia are legion. There is some historical substance to Dawkins’ claim that all of us are really atheists in the context of the multitude of gods who have come before – he and others just choose to go one god further. Humans have changed the nature and beliefs about their gods so often that it is mind-boggling. What makes the current iterations any different than those that have come before? In addition, once writing was established we know that these “religions” all found justification in ancient texts, described as divinely inspired for those who bought into whatever version was being offered at the time. It is hard to fathom the smorgasbord of religions, no different in substance or justification than the current suite, that have come and gone through the ages.

As anthropologists most of us have also witnessed first hand the despicable behavior of missionaries bringing the “word of god” to indigenous cultures. We have certainly familiarized ourselves with the numerous historical accounts of missionaries spreading religion by force, be it the Hittite invasion of the middle east, Boer occupation of South Africa, Cortez and the Spanish friars brutalizing the Aztec people, or Native Californians enduring the mission “concentration camps” (which, by the way, is how most Native American friends of mine describe them). It is difficult to buy into a just god who would tolerate such behavior from his messengers. When you look at history, it is really difficult to envision any religion that wasn’t ultimately used to further economic and political gain among a small proportion of its advocates.

Given this I can certainly understand why social scientists may exhibit a higher proportion of non-belief, although again, I have seen no statistics to suggest this may be the case. But another question arises. What is meant by “non-belief”? Prager and other religious conservatives equate belief directly with church attendance – anyone not “active” in a religious institution is effectively an atheist. My anecdotal experience would suggest that this is probably the case among social scientists I know: almost none actively or regularly participate in religious organizations. Or are we talking non-belief in religion as an institution? I would argue that “spirituality” is not the same as “religion” – this is a distinction we have ingrained in our children. If this is the case, I would certainly argue that most of my colleagues pursue spirituality in any number of ways, none of which involve regular church attendance.

I am sure this is not a satisfying answer to Prager and other religious conservatives who prefer allegiance to religious institutions. In fact, I would bet that Islamic fundamentalists are held in higher regard among the “religiously active” than those who seek spiritual enlightenment along other paths – after all, at least Muslims suicide bombers go to church regularly!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Discovering Sam Harris

Sam Harris has become one of my favorite authors. Although my personal views are somewhat at variance from his, I fundamentally agree with his thesis that faith (in particular, faith that is publicly acknowledged and governmentally sanctioned) poses a serious and significant threat to the future existence of world civilization, especially the current iteration of it in this corner of the plant that we call "American". In this sense, I think Harris has something much different to offer than Dawkins' mere atheism. Don't get me wrong, I still adore Dawkins as a writer and a scientist. However, he was recently described as an "evangelistic atheist", in the sense that he has a point of view he wishes to spread to others, and I believe this particular moniker fits quite well. Harris, on the other hand, suggests that faith in omnipotent beings is not just foolish - it is downright dangerous. And he does not single out Christianity as the pivotal culprit in all this. On the contrary, he is very hard (and in my opinion, correctly so) on other faiths. Of the Islamic "faith" he writes the following in a fascinating exchange with conservative talk show host Dennis Prager:

And yet, while the religious divisions in our world are self-evident, many people still imagine that religious conflict is always caused by a lack of education, by poverty, or by politics. Yet the September 11th hijackers were college-educated, middle-class, and had no discernible experience of political oppression. They did, however, spend a remarkable amount of time at their local mosques talking about the depravity of infidels and about the pleasures that await martyrs in Paradise.

How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don’t know what it is like to really believe in God.

There is another problem here, of a particularly American nature, that I believe largely hamstrings our efforts to "defeat" Islamic fundamentalism. We are not willing to go the distance and realistically discuss world terrorism as a consequence of religious faith, focusing instead on the particular Islamist variety that currently plagues us. Ultimately we simply seek to replace one religious dogma with another. Both, however, are the current extensions of Iron Age mythology and both ultimately will result in fanciful excuses to first, limit people's rights to make their own choices; second, begin to require allegience to a particular god and its spokesmen; and eventually begin to demand the death of those who do not believe appropriately. The processes are the same and have been repeated throughout history ad nauseum. Only the name of the religion changes.

Harris' broader message I think is clear: society's best hope lies with secularism, not religious fundamentalism.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Hats Off to UPS and FEDEX

Hey, I just want to give a "hats off" to all the UPS and FEDEX employees who must be working their butts off at this time of year. I was just tracking some items I ordered and noticed that several are probably going to arrive today, just in time for Christmas. These were things that I really didn't need in time for Christmas. The UPS and FEDEX folks don't know that but it seems obvious from the time schedules on the tracking that they're assuming everything is needed for Christmas and are working hard to make it so...

So, give these folks a hearty "Happy Holidays" when you seen them and thank them for the effort. You may not get it when you want, but it's not for lack of trying! (My advice is to order earlier next year!).

What Intelligent Design Can Achieve

Intelligent Design advocates are getting desperate. They have no research; they have no data; they have no hypotheses; they have nothing to do with science. As I have said before, the best intelligent design can currently achieve is front runner of a prima donna popularity contest among the scientifically illiterate. However, when they start to loose even that avenue, anything apparently goes. They seem very capable of resorting to personal attacks quite effectively, as the examples here, here, and here demonstrate. They are also pretty good at creating martyrs.

John Lynch and Ed Brayton sum up the "Year in Review" for intelligent design advocates. It consists largely of court defeats and political campaign losses. Ed has a good overview:

A. The one state where they had actually been successful in getting their "critical analysis" strategy into the curriculum, Ohio, has completely reversed itself, and it did so explicitly as a result of the Dover ruling. Gov. Taft asked the state board of education to reconsider the policy in light of the Dover ruling and they voted it out.

B. On top of that, the voters then voted out the most prominent ID advocates on the board of education, including the DI's most reliable mouthpiece, Deborah Owens Fink.

C. The only other state where the IDers had managed to take control of a board of education, Kansas, again voted out the ID advocates, and will now reverse the changes in the science standards before they could even be implemented.

D. The Cobb County case got settled, again because of the Dover ruling. Once Eric Rothschild and the legal team from the Dover case got involved, the school board quickly decided to cut their losses and settle the case.

E. Attempts to get ID into schools in one form or another failed all across the country, including here in Michigan where the IDers tried about 3 different ways to do it. And their pro-ID governor candidate lost badly.

So, everywhere Intelligent Design or Creationism was introduced at the local level, the efforts were eventually defeated. As in the case with Dover, this usually came at a huge cost to school districts that can ill afford such expensive forays into non-science simply to appease a small proportion of the population that wants to win the popularity contest. Now, ID/Creationist advocates are nothing if not persistent, so this will not be the last time we have to confront such illogical efforts to change the nature of science as it is taught in schools. Small, rural communities in particular often seem to think they are culturally monolithic and can get away with such shenanigans unscathed. They can't.

I'll just let that hang in the air around here....

Friday, December 22, 2006

On Wisconsin Letters About Science and Evolution

The Summer 2006 issue of my alumni magazine On Wisconsin, lead with a story about evolution and intelligent design entitled Putting Faith in Science. The following Fall issue published a large number of Letters to the Editor in response. There were many letters in support of intelligent design, all of which quoted the same mischaracterizations of evolution, the same fake evidence provided by ID advocates, and the same claims of scientific dispute over evolution that Johnson, Behe, Dembski, and others have offered time and again and which have been thoroughly corrected, demonstrated and debunked ad nauseum. I was somewhat taken aback that so many graduates of such a fine science-oriented university as Wisconsin would so blithely consider ID as valid science. I was gratified to see, however, a letter in the current Winter issue that, again, strikes to the inherint error in these responses:

Perhaps the greatest fallacy in these letters is the repeated assertion that science cannot properly support the idea of evolution, and that scientists are at odds over the question of whether evolution occurred. The reality is this. The peer-reviewed scientific literature generates approximately 1.4 million papers every year, with many of them either providing new substance to the theory of evolution or relying on that theory to provide the context for important new discoveries.

The geological record, the fossil record, the record of change in the genome of every organism, every aspect of modern biology fits together to provide evolution as one of the most compelling and exciting facts ever uncovered by science. There remain robust debates in scientific circles about new mechanisms of evolution and continued efforts to fill in gaps in the records. However, the general idea that extant living organisms evolved over billions of years with shared ancestry was settled many decades ago. To suggest that there is a scientific controversy about whether evolution occurred is simply nonsense.

We do see Intelligent Design (and whatever it evolves into after the Dover decision) as a threat to science education. The future of science in this country depends on sensible people seeing through the ID charade.

This is an abbreviated version of the letter that appeared in the current issue of On Wisconsin. You can go here to see the full version (signed by forty-three professors, scientists and faculty from the UW system).

Can Christians Be Conservationists Without Science?

Red State Rabble is reporting an Ashville Citizen Times article discussion on the growing number of evangelical Christians who are becoming active environmentalists. I remain significantly dubious about Christians as Conservationists. It is not that I wouldn't welcome such a significant political bloc to the cause of environmental conservation (environmentalism could really use the muscle); it's that I doubt the level of commitment. Too many of our most critical environmental issues derive from a science that evangelicals almost wholly reject and would require economic lifestyle changes of such magnitude that the conservative Christians would never stand for it. Michael Caddell comments on the story at Red State Rabble and hits one of the major issues right on the mark:

Yada, Yada, yeah it's a good thing handing out low energy light bulbs and setting up aluminum can recycling trash bins in the parking lot, but it's a far far cry from what needs to be done nationwide...Try federalizing the automotive industries; forcing hybrids or electrical cars into mass production, defunding the Pentagon for funding village by village wind, solar electrification projects and watch those tongue talking, wailing "pro-lifers" scream for blood, flags and guns against the encroachment on their grossly indulgent, cluttered life-styles.

As did David Orr in several pieces from Conservation Biology last year, which I commented on previously (see above). Even if some evangelicals see environmentalism as God's calling, they are far outnumbered by conservative Christians who see no problem in wedding economic gain with their own biblical interpretations:

…by becoming an active political force on the extreme right wing of U.S. politics, conservative evangelicals have made an unholy alliance with the vendors of fossil fuels, climate changers, polluters, sellers of weapons, the military, imperialists, exploiters, political dirty tricksters who assume that the ends they’ve chosen justify whatever means they use, spin artists, those willing to corrupt scientific truth for political gain, and those for whom law and the Constitution are merely scraps of paper…But against the example of Jesus who refused to be tempted by the prospect of holding political power, conservative evangelicals are now complicit with the political forces sweeping us toward more terrible violence and the avoidable catastrophes of climate change and ecological ruin.

But additionally troubling for me is that there is no recognition of environmental science underpinning this so-called "green" movement of conservative Christians. The Ashville Citizen Times articles quotes the Rev. Austin Rios as saying “It doesn’t matter whether you believe in creation or evolution, caring for the Earth is something we agree is right." I'm sorry, but it does matter, particularly if you want to tackle environmental problems beyond simply replacing energy efficient light bulbs. From my previous post, Christians as Conservationists:

There is another problem I have with the concept of conservative Christian conservationists. None of the respondents to Orr’s article defended science as the means for identifying and implementing conservation efforts and environmental protection. Turning back to the current National Parks article, Peter Illyn writes the following:

My faith tradition teaches that humans are unique in all of God’s creation—only we are made in the image of God, and we alone have the divinely given capacity of self-awareness and of free-will. We alone create art and music, build tools, and construct language. Humanity has an exceptional place in the created order, but we seem to have forgotten that we were created last and designed by God not to be independent of the rest of creation. We were made from the dust of the Earth, we are still connected to the Earth, and we will return to the Earth. This is the epiphany of interconnectedness.

If Illyn invokes this as a religious metaphor, that’s great…but the view does nothing to aid in conservation goals. If it is intended to a statement of science, then we have serious problems that really lie at the heart of differences between science and religion for approaching environmental preservation and sustainability. Our “interconnectedness” with the rest of the earth is rooted in our shared evolutionary history and ecological relationships with every aspect of every ecosystem across the planet. Humans may have the cognitive ability to create oral, written and artistic facades of uniqueness that serve to convince us of a special position within the hierarchy of life, but we are still ecological beings. We suffer from pandemics of disease; we must find and use resources and structure our social lives around those resources; when those run out, we must find more; we must compete, fend off attacks, raise our young to compete in the world and successfully raise their own offspring. And, a la Eric Pianka, we are as subject to vagaries of population pressure as bacteria in a Petri dish. Our archaeological past tells us that the human species has survived only because technology mediated its effect upon us or increased the efficiency with which we extract resources. But technology has not altered fundamental principles of competition, resource extraction and depletion, reproduction…or mortality. Technology has only changed the scale at which humans function within ecosystems. And make no mistake…along the way, there have been casualties, lots of casualties. The archaeological record is replete with extinct civilizations (it’s what keeps us archaeologists in business!)…most of whom exhibited “faith” in some kind of god or deity. But extinction ignores religion.

I would also add that archaeology is now suggesting that many of those civilizations collapsed from environmental degradation, most probably because they had "faith" that their gods would provide for them or return to take them to a better way of life. True conservation needs to be rooted in science. Evolutionary science. Without that, it doesn't really matter how many light bulbs you change.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Catholic Defends Marriage by Assaulting Woman

Dispatches reports on violence against a counter demonstrator at an anti-gay marriage rally:

Sarah Loy, 27, of Worcester was holding a sign in defense of same-sex marriage amid a sea of green "Let the People Vote" signs when Larry Cirignano of Canton, who heads the Catholic Citizenship group, ran into the crowd, grabbed her by both shoulders and told her, "You need to get out. You need to get out of here right now." Mr. Cirignano then pushed her to the ground, her head slamming against the concrete sidewalk.

As Ms. Loy lay motionless on the ground, crying, Mr. Cirignano ran back behind the lectern, where moments before he had opened the afternoon rally by leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ed then makes one of the most on-target commentaries I have ever read about the whole event:

I'd love to see the schedule for this event.

12:45 Recite pledge of allegiance in the name of God to a country that guarantees freedom of speech for all citizens.

12:47 Throw a woman to the ground and give her a concussion for actually practicing that freedom of speech

12:49 Praise God for giving us the strength to cause concussions in said woman.

Believe me, I would loved to have been holding that sign when Cirignano made his move - he would still be seeing stars. But it sounds like this guy wouldn't have had the guts to aggressively approach anyone but a woman anyway.

Unfortunately, I wonder if this isn't becoming the norm for pro-Catholic advocates - again, this is one of the major reasons I left Catholicism: the Catholics I grew up with would not have tolerated this man within the church - now, it seems they not only tolerate, but welcome this kind of sick reaction to someone they disagree with. Cirignano should not only be arrested and jailed for assault and battery, he ought to be excommunicated by the church for representing Catholicism in such a violent manner. But I bet he gives handsomely to the church, so we know that isn't going to happen.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ah, the Shame...

Afarensis shamed me into it (even though I'm not part of the ScienceBlogger cadre)...actually, I think it was the threat of a Holiday haunting...

Here it is...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Lassen County Times Starts Proselytizing Again

Our local newspaper has been relatively quiet since the furor over an editorial bashing teachers as lazy in mid-September. It has largely functioned as a provincial newspaper should, sticking to reporting on local events, weather, Friday's football game highlights, etc. Unfortunately, the holiday season brings out the religiously inane, and the staff at the Lassen County Times cannot keep away from their pompous proselytizing for too long. So in last week's paper we have a full page article on the missionary exploits of a local pastor to the Ukraine. Of course this is not enough, and the byline indicates that this is only the first of two-part series to which we will be treated. I can hardly wait!

Three things really bother me about this article. First, everyone who reads my blog knows that have a serious disdain for most missionaries and the concept of missionary work. I don't see a lot of difference between the "missionary" work of Fernando Cortez in the 16th century and the goals of today's missionary cadre. More subtle perhaps, but the goal (destruction of native or traditional culture) is still the same. Second, the local pastor responsible for this Susanville-Ukraine connection, Mike Cornelison, gives us the usual "God wants me to do it" excuse for just about everything: God planned his family moves, God picked the poor people of the Ukraine for Cornelison to minister to, God "has been planning" the Susanville-Ukraine connection for years (apparently omnipotent deities have to operate within the same planning timeframes as us poor Homo sapiens) - I'll bet Cornelison thinks it's God and not his bladder that forces him to the bathroom every once in a while. But all of this isn't really the issue. If anything, the article once again proves to the thinking individual that missionary work is only possible among those at the lowest levels of the economic and educational ladder. But what I'd really like to explore is why the good taxpaying people of California are being forced to pay for Cornelison's playtime. According to the paper, Cornelison "retired" from the California Correctional Center (one of our local prisons) because of an injured back. Now, I often hesitate to criticize correctional center officers (and I recognize that the CCC is different from the adjacent High Desert State Prison) in public, in large part because I know several good officers who clearly have a difficult job (one that you couldn't pay me enough to do!) and I don't wish to lump them into a generalization. But enough is enough and the majority of prison guards generally have some common behavioral baggage. The fact is that I can't think of another job on the earth that gives someone such a high salary for so little education as a prison guard. I also don't know a group of people who express as much arrogance and disdain for almost everyone else in society without considering that their own societal "worth" is not too many rungs above the people on the other side of the bars. We academics might be arrogant from time to time, but at least we have something to back it up. And no one has a disability program like correctional officers. I personally think it borders on fraud as every "disabled" officer I know is getting loads of money from the State of California (at taxpayer expense) and has questionable injuries. At minimum they could be doing some other kind of work within the correctional system. And they have the gall to complain that public school systems are too expensive! Unfortunately the correctional officers union is too large for the assembly to tackle, although I understand there have been attempts. Because it is fraud, wasteful and we're paying for it. In picture accompanying the article in the paper, Cornelison is sitting on table, smiling happily after one of his many excursions to the Ukraine since his "back injury". I wonder if God directed him to fleece the rest of us here in California in order to carry out his mission?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sorry For The Long Absence

My apologies for the long absence. I ended up taking another detail as District Ranger and have just returned full time to my normal duties in the office. While the detail work is a great experience, it is clear that to do it full time would mean giving up a lot of the extra-office work in the community, with schools, etc. that I really enjoy. Not to mention there's absolutely no time to conduct any kind of research. I'm just not ready to give that up and head out on another career path at this point.

However, I can't blame my absence on the detail alone. I was also trying to teach class, finish and submit an NSF grant, complete two presentations and travel a bit. All of which I'll blog about in the next couple of days.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Evolution Crackpot Index

Heard of the Rapture Index? Here's the Evolution Crackpot Index. Higher scores get you closer to "revolutionary" thinking in creationism and intelligent design.

From John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts (via The Crackpot Index):

A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to biology.

1. A -5 point starting credit.

2. 1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.

3. 2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.

4. 3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.

5. 5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.

6. 5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.

7. 5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).

8. 5 points for each mention of "Heackel", "Dawkin", "Steven Gould" or "Eldridge".

9. 10 points for each claim that genetics or evolution is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

10. 10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity. An extra 5 points for citing your engineering, dentistry, medical or computing degree as authoritative in biology. An extra 5 points for a pseudomedical qualification (such as homeopathy or holistic massage).

11. 10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it.

12. 10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don't know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.

13. 10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory, or to anyone who can prove evolution is true.

14. 10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at genetics, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".

15. 10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it.

16. 10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a "mechanism".

17. 10 points for each claim that Punctuated Equilibrium Theory, or some similar recent view in biology, in evidence of creationism (or some similar view such as Intelligent Design or, or claim that modern biology is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

18. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift" and that we need to go beyond Darwinism.

19. 20 points for suggesting that you or your hero deserve a Nobel prize.

20. 20 points for every use of religious or science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.

21. 20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.

22. 20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary" or "Darwinist establishment" or cognates.

23. 20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy" or cognates.

24. 30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported (e.g., that Darwin recanted on his deathbed).

25. 30 points for suggesting that some major scientist, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.

26. 30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by a pre-industrial culture (without good evidence).

27. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, eugenicists, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

28. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

29. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.

30. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant, especially after their death, or for announcing the "death of Darwinism".)

31. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions, formal models, or exact hypotheses.

32. 10 points for every claim of lurker e-mail support.

33. 100 points for asserting that molecular evolution of complex proteins is impossible because of the large neutral gaps that selection would have to cross, or that there are boundaries between species or other groups of organisms that evolution cannot breach.

What's He Talking About????

My favorite local conservative, Kurt Bonham at FlyAtNight appears to take exception to my recent take on Lassen County's performance during the election. I say "appears" because Kurt's ufocused style of "there's a point in here somewhere" style of writing makes it somewhat difficult to understand where he's coming from.

The first thing he writes is that I'm a "quasi-local Blogger". What the hell does that mean? Living and working in Susanville doesn't qualify me as "local"? Or is Kurt one of those geographic "traditionalist" dinosaurs who believes you can't be considered part of the community unless you were born here? Got news for you, buddy: I was born in San Francisco (ah, gasp!). In Limbaughian logic I guess that makes me and Nancy Pelosi bosom buddies.

The next point Kurt tries to make is that I have some kind of distorted view of the military. He writes the following:

The Professor also provides us with his point of view about the military

And then cites the following paragraph from my post:

“Supporting the Military” in Lassen County means slapping magnetic stickers on your car and rooting for the demise of “islamo-fascists” in front of FOX News from the safety of your up-to-date hi-tech entertainment center; all the while basking in your own tax cuts, going to church on Sunday to pat yourself on the back for being so moral, and adding to your collection of ATVs. But God forbid you would help pay the cost of the “war on terror” with increased taxes or be inconvenienced by a reduction of services or volunteer your vacation time to assisting the war effort, or foregoe profits in your business until the war is over. Whatever analogy FOX news pundits need to conjure up regarding the current war on terror, it is no where near to the sacrifices paid on the home front during WWII. For those without relatives in combat, this is a leisure-time war on the homefront, not far removed from world-wide video game pumped into your house every night.

Only a conservative would take a political accusation against himself and tell the whole world it was really an insult to the military (which is why everyone in the world but conservatives knew what John Kerry was really joking about!). Kurt and his fellow conservatives need to learn how to read and stop trying to "Swiftboat" everything. I was making two very clear points in that paragraph and several others:

1) I find it ironic that Lassen County voters by and large supported sleazeball Doolittle 2:1 over Lt. Colonel Charlie Brown (a man who serving his country while Doolittle was figuring out how rich he could get with political power) and then claim to "support the troops"; and, more importantly,
2) I think "support" for the troops is largely feined by anyone who is not personally connected to the war. It's a cheap argument if you don't have loved-ones doing the fighting.

This is NOT about the military; it is about those who claim support FOR the military while paying no costs themselves. However, in the interest of clarifying my position, let me be clear:

- my thoughts and prayers go to our men and women who are doing the fighting, and to their relatives back home doing the worrying (that includes you, Kurt, if you have relatives in Iraq or Afganistan); I don't believe the Iraq war is doing one thing for our personal security here, and I think the troops need to come home, but don't think for one minute their lives and their relatives' piece of mind aren't important to me;

- I think everyone else has no personal connection to the war and therefore talk is cheap. I think if this is really a "war", then everyone should be paying a cost to support it. If you aren't serving yourself, you should be paying significantly higher taxes to defray the costs from future generations. I don't think businesses should make profits from the war, or during it. If you really want public buy-off on this war as important, then the cost should be shared by more than just those doing the fighting;

- Tell you what else I think: If you think there's no support for the war now, I bet if we were paying high taxes to support it, there would be almost zero support. That's because I don't personally think too much about those who claim to support the war if they haven't demonstrated a personal connection to it. I think most "support" is limited by the pocket book - it's a good thing so long as someone else is doing the dieing and we don't have to shell out any money in support.

So let me ask the Kurts of this world a simple yes or no question: do you think everyone should share the cost and burden of this war?

Kurt then goes on to make the following statement:

The use of the word “God” is a slap at those with religious beliefs. The Professor rants about things he has little knowledge of simply because he has summarily dismissed non-progessives as non-entities. So much for unbiased science.

What is he talking about? Since when is use of the term "God" a slap at those with relligious beliefs? When did I dismiss non-progressives as non-entities? Where was I talking about science in that post? Does Kurt actually understand the English language?

Finally, this gem:

The Professor, an instructor at an institution of higher learning, certainly has a strange view of the educational system

…we will need to continue fighting against using ancient texts written by primitive people as a basis for 21st century policy.

Textbooks are not supposed to promote public policy. Textbooks are supposed to impart the current thinking and historical perspective on the subject being taught. The re-writing of history is not the purpose of instruction. How history is interpreted is fair game. Unfortunately, the Professor wants to re-write educational policy in his own likeness.
What should concern parents and administrators is that the Professor apparently instructs and researches with a predetermined bias that excludes all possibilities that don’t fall within his universe of thought. This is not unbiased science but political thought injected into what is supposed to be science.

Uhh...I was talking about the Bible. But thank you for proving my point. "Textbooks are supposed to impart the current thinking and historical perspective on the subject being taught" - I couldn't agree more!...and the Bible provides no "current thinking and historical perspective" for use in a classroom. As I said, it's an ancient text written by a primitive, tribal people with no understanding of modern science, history or almost any other subject. It shouldn't be used as a textbook or as a basis for public policy (although folks like Doolittle seem to think it justifies the war in Iraq). Thanks for agreeing with me on that point, Kurt.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is There a "Biblical Archaeology"? Some Comments

In reading the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, I happened to catch a letter by James K. Hoffmeier at Trinity International University objecting to the substance of a previous editorial from Professor Ronald Hendel at UC Berkeley. In “Is There a Biblical Archaeology?” (BAR July/August 2006), Hendel suggests that biblical archaeology in the tradition of William Albright has been largely abandoned. Albright sought to verify the historical nature of the Bible texts through archaeological excavation and research (although often portrayed in this manner, Albright’s theoretical perspectives on biblical archaeology were more complex and, like most scholars, changed through time). This endeavor, Hendel suggests, “…did not illumine the times of Abraham, Moses and Joshua. Rather, it helped to show that these times and events are largely unhistorical”. Hendel further opines that the only folks engaged in Albrightian style biblical archaeology are fundamentalists and evangelical Biblical scholars.

Hoffmeier disagrees with this assessment, accusing Hendel and others in the so-called “minimalist axis” of dismantling the Bible’s historicity. He cites in support William Dever’s assessments of minimalist (revisionist) archaeology as “anti-Biblical archaeology” and Dever’s criticism of minimalists for using data selectively and cavalierly. Hoffmeier further uses Thomas Levy and Mohammad Najjer’s recent archaeological work in southern Jordan supporting a re-thinking of the level of societal complexity achieved by the biblical Edomites. [In brief, the issue here is that the Bible refers to David having battled the “kingdom” of the Edomites in contrast to current archaeological data suggesting that the Edomites were a tribal level society at the time of David and unable to field an army of sufficient size to have been accurately described in the Bible. Levy and Najjer’s work suggests highland sites in the area have been overlooked and these suggest a higher level of Edomite complexity than previously thought]. Hoffmeier clearly thinks Biblical Archaeology is not dead, and in fact evangelicals are contributing significantly to its advance.

Two observations struck me while reading Hoffmeier’s letter and returning to the original articles that he cites. The first is that I question whether the whole minimalist/maximalist debate in biblical archaeology is really a construct of biblical fundamentalism more than it is a theoretical debate in archaeology. Supposedly “minimalists” see the Bible as offering little or no history verifiable through archaeological research. At the other end of the spectrum, “maximalists” see the Bible as mostly historical, documenting people, places and events frequently verified by archaeology. Although I have not read every piece on this subject, I simply don’t see those accused of “minimalism” defining themselves that way. What I generally see instead is maximalists defining any archaeology that disagrees with biblical literalism defined as “minimalist”. It is not just that there is a minimal view of the bible as historical; it is that suggesting any biblical passage fails a test of historical verification is itself considered a minimalist position. Along the supposed continuum from minimalist to maximalist, for fundamentalists and evangelicals it appears minimalism occupies the range from 0 to 99%.

Secondly, I see the same selective interpretation and quotation mining among those criticizing the axis of minimalism as I do among creationists and intelligent design activists criticizing evolution. Hoffmeier’s letter, far from convincing me that Hendel was incorrect in his assessment of Biblical Archaeology, suggests quite the opposite. Typical of those who seek to defend the theological nature of the Bible as historical in and of itself, what Hoffmeier doesn’t reveal about his sources’ positions on the matter is far more enlightening than what he actually cites. Hoffmeier cites Dever’s critique of minimalism as the quintessential last word on the subject. I do not claim to deny Dever’s position on the issue (and I would argue that he is correct in the selective use of data often seen in minimalist approaches to bible archaeology) but as usual there is a deeper context to the statement. Dever, in the very same article cited by Hoffmeier (Dever, W. G. 2006, The Western Cultural Tradition Is At Risk, Biblical Archaeology Review Vol 32 (2)) , indicates the following (p. 76):

We cannot turn the clock back on the time when archaeology allegedly “proved the Bible.” We must allow archaeology as it is practiced today to challenge, as well as to confirm, the Bible’s stories. Some things described there really did happen, but others did not. The Biblical narratives about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Solomon probably do reflect some historical memories of actual people and places, but the “larger-than-life” portraits of the Bible are unrealistic and are, in fact, contradicted by the archaeological evidence. Some of Israel’s ancestors probably did come out of Egyptian slavery, but there was no military conquest of Canaan, and most early Israelites were displaced Canaanites. Monotheism may have been the ideal of Biblical writers, but many, if not most, Israelites throughout the Monarchy were polytheists.

For any fundamentalist defending the theological historicity of the Bible this is “minimalist” or “revisionist” archaeology! If you don’t confirm what we already know, then you’re not doing appropriate archaeology! Hoffmeier cites Dever again, specifically from the latter’s chapter on “The Current School of Revisionists” in his What Did Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, in an apparent effort to further show that archaeology is moving away from the minimalist/revisionist perspective and toward demonstrating the historical nature of the Bible. But while Dever clearly has issues with revisionism, they are base on issues of archaeology, not theology. In reference to his debate with Finkelstein (who, by the way, Hoffmeier clearly impunes as a bible revisionist – not at all the sense I get from actually reading Finkelstein's work!) on Israelite ethnicity, Dever notes following:

But it is significant that ours is a strictly anthropological and archaeological difference, one that has nothing to do whatsoever with biblical maximalists and minimalists…(p.43)

In citing Dever several times I cannot help but conclude that Hoffmeier is trying to conflate Dever’s critique of revisionism from a strictly archaeological and anthropological perspective with Albrightian bible archaeology. In this context it is interesting that Dever suggests Finkelstein, in questioning Israelite ethnicity on archaeological grounds, is an unwilling pawn in the minimalist-maximalist debate. However, I also wonder whether Dever is himself a victim in the manner in which his revisionist critique is selectively quoted by those defending a greater theological confirmation of the bible. Dever is correct: “Biblical” archaeology has changed dramatically over the last decades (and he himself is largely responsible for introducing such innovations as Binfordian processual archaeology to the methods employed by those conducting professional work in the land of the bible), but there are many who won’t let the extreme theological positions complete their overdue death.

Hendel is also absolutely correct: “The only children of this divorce who are still doing Biblical Archaeology in the Albrightian style are fundamentalists and evangelical Biblical scholars.” (Is There a Biblical Archaeology? BAR 32(4) 2006). Hoffemeir doesn’t accept this, and cites Dever to further his position. But ironically for Hoffmeier, Dever himself seems to accept Hendel’s proclamation:

What the revisionists seem to mean by “biblical” Israel is the Israel of mythic proportions. This is the Israel reflected in numerous “stories” that are embellished with exaggerations and fanciful features such as miracles, compiled partly from sagas, legends, folk-tales, and outright inventions. Above all, it is the story of an Israel that is set in an over-arching theocratic framework whose intent is always didactic. It aims not at historical narrative per se, but at elucidating the hidden theological meaning of events and their moral significance. Of course this “Israel” is not historical, except for revealing something of the historical context of its writers and final editors. But then few modern readers except Fundamentalists ever thought that it was. (Dever, W. G. (2001) What Did Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Pp. 46).

I can see no reason not to conclude that only Fundamentalists are conducting “Bible Archaeology”. Residents in my own town of Susanville have participated in these projects and then returned (along with their sponsors such as Carl Baugh) to proclaim that “archaeology is proving the Bible correct”; without having the foggiest notion about current methods or theological positions in archaeological research in the Middle East. Even the term “Bible Archaeology” has been dropped in favor of “Syro-Palestinian” archaeology!

I have often made the case that a methodological and philosophical connection exists between those who engage in traditional “Biblical Archaeology” and those who advocate Intelligent Design and other forms of Creationism (and by extension, why archaeologists should engage in the evolution-intelligent design debates and not eschew their responsibilities to their biology brethren). Finally, Hendel makes this connection in referring to Biblical Archaeology scholars of today and in doing so nails the core flaw of intelligent design:

But these scholars often eschew the critical methods of Biblical scholarship and historiography, and so relegate themselves to the margins of scholarship. They are like the advocates of creationism or “intelligent design” in the field of biology – they adopt critical methods when the results do not conflict with their theology.

Only fundamentalist advocate “Biblical Archaeology” and “Creationism” – the real scholars in archaeology and biology left these folks in the dust long ago.

Friday, November 10, 2006

PZ, Lassen County And the 2006 Elections

I couldn't help but catch PZ's morning-after cynicism regarding the election - quite frankly, I was having similar thoughts. It is a good thing that power has shifted back to the Democrats, but that is largely superficial and a closer look at the election results belies some major problems bubbling beneath the political surface.

Pro-science candidates and issues generally faired well in this election, at least in Ohio, Missouri (stem cell initiative passed) and Pennsylvania (where anti-science Santorum finally got the boot he deserved!), although Red State Rabble and others will have more work to do in Kansas where two creationists maintained their positions on the state board. On the other hand, gay marriage bans passed in several states, meaning that most people prefer basing their decisions on texts written by tribal peoples than on reasoned thought. And the fact that the Missouri stem cell initiative only barely passed furthers suggests a large number of people still believe a hundred blastocytes are the equivalent of the 5 year old neighbor kid riding his trcycle down the street. Unreasoned religious fanaticism remains a problem at all political levels: local, state, national and the world.

Locally, the election results were less heartening. Lassen County remains culturally primitive, although there is some encouragement that the view might be changing (albeit at a geological pace!). In looking at the overall results, approximately 60% of Lassen County voters tended to go for conservative candidates, 30% for liberal candidates and 10% for everyone else. Most disappointing was that Lassen County voted to keep one of the most vile, corrupt and morally reprehensible members of Congress we have nationwide: John Doolittle. In doing so, they rejected an individual who actually served his country with honor. "Supporting the Military" in Lassen County means slapping magnetic stickers on your car and rooting for the demise of "islamo-fascists" in front of FOX News from the safety of your up-to-date hi-tech entertainment center; all the while basking in your own tax cuts, going to church on Sunday to pat yourself on the back for being so moral, and adding to your collection of ATVs. But God forbid you would help pay the cost of the "war on terror" with increased taxes or be inconvenienced by a reduction of services or volunteer your vacation time to assisting the war effort, or foregoe profits in your business until the war is over. Whatever analogy FOX news pundits need to conjure up regarding the current war on terror, it is no where near to the sacrifices paid on the home front during WWII. For those without relatives in combat, this is a leisure-time war on the homefront, not far removed from world-wide video game pumped into your house every night.

As for the propositions, Lassen County voted against education, for parental notification, against the prospect of alternative energy and to enable developers' to run roughshod over local governments under the guise of "preventing government acquisition of private property". Fortunately the rest of state was somewhat more sensible in its approach. It's going to take a lot more work to bring Lassen County kicking and screaming out of the 19th century.

Locally, I am somewhat discouraged by school board elections. Several potential creationist candidates were elected (I base "potential" only on my assumptions of their positions based on their religious backgrounds - there have been no publicly overt statements regarding changing science curriculum in the community). Of course I'll be watching school curricula discussions closely and the staff at most schools in the area know they have my support (and that of the NCSE and others) should any intelligent design or other creationist "proposals" come forward.

Despite the euphoria over the election, I agree with PZ that the nation (and the world) continue to teeter on the edge of the cultural abyss. At the bottom of that abyss is religious fundamentalism. We will need to continue to fight for the rights of those who do not share the views of religious conservatives; we will need to continue fighting against pro-biblical versions of science that eschew reason for mythology; we will need to continue fighting efforts to place religions of all stripes on a political pedistle free from critique; we will need to continue fighting against using ancient texts written by primitive people as a basis for 21st century policy. We still have a lot of work to do.

Four Stone Hearth: Second Edition

Check out the second edition of Four Stone Hearth, the new blog carnival specializing in anthropology. It's being hosted by Afarensis. The next one will be November 22, hosted by

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Tales From the Crypt: What Teeth Can Tell Us About Life, Death and Prehistoric Human Behavior

In the inaugural edition of Four Stone Hearth, Afarensis posted on the amazing information even fragments of teeth can provide researchers on evolutionary relationships, diet, and a whole host of additional features of an individual's life history. In the comments to this, Kambiz remarked on another type of tooth analysis that can yield important information on the age of animals at death and provide important insights into prehistoric behavior. It just so happens that much of my graduate research focused on the exact method Kambiz references: dentali increment analysis.
Teeth are comprised of three tissues: enamel, dentine and cementum. Most of us are familiar with enamel – it’s the white stuff we see forming the crown of the tooth. Dentine forms the body of the tooth and may also be familiar to most of you (if you haven’t been properly anaesthetized, you’ll know real quick if the dentist drills past the enamel and into the dentine!). Most people are probably not familiar with the third tissue: cementum (my own dentist actually wasn’t!). In general, cementum forms along the roots of teeth within the alveolar (bony) socket of your upper and lower jaw. Its function is to do exactly as its name suggests: it is quite literally responsible for “cementing” your teeth within the socket so that they don’t loosen. You exert great pressure (longitudinally and laterally) when you chew, and without deposition of cementum your teeth would be loosened from your skull. Cementum is also added to continually erupt your teeth so that they maintain occlusal contact (ideally, when you bite down the tops of your upper and lower teeth should remain in contact). Because you wear the enamel down as you chew, the constant eruption of the teeth through your life maintains your ability to keep the surfaces in contact and allow you the ability to masticate (chew) your food. Every other animal within the class Mammalia also deposits cementum on the roots of their teeth.
So cementum is deposited throughout the life of an individual. That information would be of little use except for one other characteristic that cementum possesses: it is deposited in distinct layers that correspond to seasons of the year and by extension, track the age of the animal until death. We refer to these layers as “cementum increments” or “dental increments”. The figure here shows incremental layering in a typical mammal (a bighorn sheep) under high magnification (the basic method of “dental increment analysis” is to cut thin sections of teeth (specifically the roots) and examine them under a polarizing light microscope – it’s more complicated than that, but I won’t bore you with the details here). In general, dark or opaque layers represent seasons of stress: dry season in tropical latitudes, winter in temperate latitudes. Light or translucent layers represent seasons of growth: wet season in tropical latitudes, summer in temperate latitudes. A combination of one opaque and one translucent increment represents a year in the animal’s life. More than that, by understanding the rate of growth in each of the increments, we can estimate not only age-at-death, but also season-of-death. In other words, I can take a tooth from an archaeological site and tell you not only the animal’s age at the time it died, but also the time of year that it was killed. Age and season information can tell give us wonderful insights into prehistoric human behavior on a number of levels. In the photo at left, a total of five pairs of increments are identified, indicating an animal approximately 5.5 years of age (there is some adjustment that needs to be made for tooth eruption - increments don't actually start to form until the tooth comes into occlusion - that time varies by tooth).
For example, much of the work I conducted on the applicability of this method to tropical taxa such as wildebeest and zebra, was done in the context of Hadza hunter-gatherers in East Africa. Observations (and increment data) suggest Hadza hunters take far greater numbers of older zebra when hunting from ambush sites such as blinds near water holes than they do impala, which tend to be younger. Moreover, they take many more male zebra (sex is defined on the basis of tooth remains, but not through dental increments – there are also other aspects of bone morphology that can be used to identify the sex of an individual). The traditional explanation of this is that Hadza hunters, like many aboriginal people throughout the world, act in a conservatory manner: generally taking only those individuals that no longer contribute to the reproductive potential of herd – in this case, older males that have lost their harems to younger males. In effect, native people like the Hadza are thought to manage game populations through selective harvesting. Turns out, this isn’t the case. While Hadza do tend to take more old adult males from ambush hunting during the dry season (confirmed through dental increment analysis) during other times of the year when hunters encounter them randomly through encounter hunting, they take males, females, old and young in roughly the same proportions as they occur in a living herd. There are a number of things at play here (season, age, herd social dynamics, Hadza hunting technique), but the data suggest that, because of their particular behavior around water holes, male zebra “bachelor” groups tend to be more vulnerable to Hadza hunting techniques. The Hadza are not “selecting” for older male zebra. They are simply taking what is being more readily presented to them in a given situation. In contrast, Hadza hunters take far more female impala while ambush hunting: again, this suggests they do not actively select for specific age and sex classes, but take what is easiest. I have found no data to support the claim that aboriginal people engage in active management of game populations.

But increment data are not just applicable to tropical mammals. I have also been looking at deer teeth from archaeological sites along western slope of the Sierra Nevada in California. In this region, dental increment data on seasonality and death of large numbers of deer remains (and other data) are forcing a different view of the prehistory. This is the area of Ishi, the lone Yahi who left the rugged “front country” of Mill and Deer Creek drainages in 1911 and entered the world of Euro-Americans, ultimately dying of tuberculosis in Berkeley in 1916. Traditionally, and based largely on the recent ethnographic and historic record of Ishi and the Yahi/Yana Indians (and less on solid archaeological work) the region was assumed to be the traditional homeland of the Yahi/Yana. Therefore, the expectation is that this region will contain village sites and logistical camps associated with a broad spectrum of human activities conducted by males and females of all ages. Conventional wisdom has it that the major rockshelters and midden sites within the area represent village sites and associated activities.
Much of this expectation is severely biased by too great a reliance on Native American ethographies – what is often referred to as the “tyranny of the ethnographic record”. Except for the very late period, dental increment data suggests the region of Ishi was largely used for the seasonal procurement of game (particularly deer) and did not see establishment of major village locations. Dental increment data from a number of sites suggests limited seasonal use of these locations as deer hunting camps. Seasonal signatures from deer tooth increments are commensurate with Hadza kill sites. In other words, the range of seasonal “readings” is very limited and suggests these sites were used for very limited duration, unlike village sites, where animals would have been introduced over a longer time frame and reflect a much greater range of seasonal signatures. This is further supported by skeletal part representation at most of these sites – deer skeletal parts are dominated by skulls, backbones and ribs, indicative of the major meat-bearing bones having been transported somewhere else and not consumed onsite. Interestingly, the seasonal ranges reflected in the increment data show two very clear time frames of site use: late fall and early spring. Today the deer herds migrate from higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada to the

In the bar graph above, green and yellow bars indicate timing of the migration for today's deer herd occupying the Ishi Wilderness region of California. Red bars indicate prehistoric timing of the migrations indicated by dental increment data. The earlier summer/fall migration seen today is thought to result from hunting pressure during the current summer archery season, which may be responsible for pushing the deer out of the higher elevations earlier than the prehistoric pattern.
Sacramento Valley in the fall where they remain throughout the winter. In the early spring, the deer reverse the process and migrate back to higher elevation. Dental increment data suggests this patter of migration has been in place in this region for the last 2500 years and is not simply a phenomenon of historic times.

Finally, age data from these sites is suggestive of increasing hunter pressure on deer herds over the last three millennia. Prime-age adult deer comprise a progressively smaller proportion of the deer taken prehistorically beginning about 3000 years ago. By 500 years ago deer kills are predominately comprised of yearlings and two year olds, suggesting the herd has become largely over-hunted. This is consistent with data suggesting an increasing population of aboriginal people on the landscape during this time and other data which suggests a declining efficiency of taking larger game. It also further dispels any notion of aboriginal people as being wise stewards of the land. Given enough time and larger populations, humans of all cultural backgrounds can take a toll on wild game and will do so if it is in their best interests.

I have necessarily abstracted many of the details regarding dental increment analysis and application, but hopefully this will provide some background on the method. For further reading I recommend the following:

Lieberman, D. E. (1994). The biological basis for seasonal increments in dental cementum and their application to archaeological research. Journal of Archaeological Science 21: 525-39.

Lubinski, P. and C. J. O’Brien (2001). Observations on seasonality and mortality from a recent catastrophic death assemblage. Journal of Archaeological Science 28(8): 833-842.
O’Brien, C. J. (2002). A re-evaluation of dental increment formation in East African mammals: implications for wildlife biology and zooarchaeology. In (Pike-Tay, A. and D. Weinand Eds) Assessing Season of Capture, Age and Sex of Archaeofaunas: Recent Work. University of Victoria, International Council for Zooarchaeology.

O’Brien, C. J. (2001). Seasonality Studies and Deer Teeth: An Introduction to Dental Increment Analysis in California. Society for California Archaeology Newsletter 35(1).

O’Brien, C. J. (1994). Determining Seasonality in East African Archaeological Faunas: An Ethnoarchaeological Application of Cementum Increment Analysis. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Pike-Tay, A. (1991). Red Deer Hunting in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwest France: A Study in Seasonality. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series, 569.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

What "Supporting the Troops" Means To The GOP

From Positive Blasphemy:

This cartoon just says it all. How dumb do you have to be to understand that Republican "support" of the troops is limited to slapping magnetic stickers on their cars. One of the problems with the Iraq situation is that there is no real buy-in from anyone who doesn't have a family member serving in the military. Talk and magnetic stickers are cheap. Would Republicans still be in favor of the war if we raised taxes by 2-300% to cover the costs of the "war on terror"?. Perhaps no business should be allowed to make a profit until, as Bush says, "we win"...whatever the hell that means. The ONLY people paying a cost for this war are those in uniform. And that's not morally right.

Happy Birthday Earth! You Just Passed 6009!

Via Threads From Henry's Web, I see that my favorite Christian fundamentalist apology website, Worldnutdaily, is ecstatic over the re-release of Bishop James Ussher's Annals of the World. Those familiar with the history of science (and those having taken my Anthropology 1 course) will recognize Bishop Ussher as the 17th century Anglican bishop who determined that the earth was not only created in 4004 BC, but that he also figured it that it came into existence on October 23 of that year (we apparently missed the earth's birthday two weeks ago - perhaps Bush and his fundamentalist buddies can make it a federal holiday?).

Worldnutdaily reports that everyone will be happy except for us Darwinists:

Of course, there will be those who disagree with Ussher's calculations of time – especially evolutionists who need billions of years to explain their theory of how life sprang from non-life and mutated from one-celled animals into human beings.

Of course, there will be those who accept without critique Ussher's calculations of time - especially creationists who require a 6000 year old earth in which to fit their personal interpretation of Genesis, written by tribal folks with no knowledge of science. Henry's Web calls it as it is:

But the article also calls this book “. . . a favorite of homeschoolers and those who take ancient history seriously.” That is simply incredible. Practically the entire field of ancient near eastern archeology has been created since that book was written. It is, itself, a historical artifact, and not a good source for the facts of the history of the world or of their interpretation. If homeschoolers are being taught history in this fashion, we have a great deal to be worried about.

One of the main reasons why I'm not all that excited about homeschooling: most of it is an attempt to limit knowledge, not expand it. I will probably purchase a copy of Ussher's book - in the context of a history of people trying to understand the world around them I think it is probably a classic. But to consider Ussher's book as having any practical application today is nonsense. His views went the way of the dodo long ago.

New Edition of Four Stone Hearth Coming UP

Afarensis is hosting the next edition of Four Stone Hearth - a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology. If you're interested in anthropology, please check it out. And feel free to submit something.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bosnian Psuedo-Pyramids Just Won't Die

Afarensis reports that Bosnian pyramid pseudo-archaeologist Sesmir Osmanagic has re-emerged, hawking his snake-oil archaeology to none other than a willingly duped ABC. The network obligingly reports, Afarensis notes, "...the worst piece of dreck passed off as science reporting that I have seen in quite a while".

Osmanagic uses the same logic as Noah's Ark enthusiasts to suggest that any geologic pecularity that he can't personally explain must be the result of human manufacture. (Come to think of it, this is the same logic used by Intelligent Design advocates...I wonder if Osmanagic's "pyramid" meets Dembski's definition of "specified complexity"?). Hot Cup of Joe further devastates Osmanagic's logic as well as ABC's credibility when it comes to reporting science:

Osmanagic's main contention seems to be that the hill is pyramid shaped and the orthogonal jointing present in the bedrock are both evidence of man-made. There are a lot of reasons why it should be obvious to major media outlets like ABC's Nightline that Osmanagic is decidedly not an archaeologist and not a scientist. Of them, failing to recognize orthogonal jointing in bedrock is one. This is a process that is fairly well understood in geology and can form a "ladder-like" feature in sedimentary strata with systematic joints that occurs at 90 degree angles and form during uplift and erosion. The very systematic, "ladder-like" pattern that I've seen depicted in some of the Osmanagic photos may be evidence of 90 degree rotation of tectonic stresses. The primary joints are created first by tectonic force, then the tectonic stresses over time are applied in a new vector creating a new set of joints at 90 degrees from the original.

I reported an interesting blog piece on this back in September, where a geologist reports that the Osmanagic "pyramid" is nothing more than natural sandstone features, just as Hot Cup of Joe suggests. ABC should learn to do a bit more research.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Charlie Brown Surpasses Doolittle in Funding

Some more political news (then I'll get back to science and archaeology!)....From the Friday Sacramento Bee:

Brown fundraising surges past Doolittle's for month of October

From the article:

New reports filed by the campaigns with the Federal Election Commission show that Doolittle raised about $207,000 during the first 18 days of October, and since then has reported large late contributions totaling about $48,000.
During the same period, the Brown campaign reported more than $416,000 during the first 18 days, and $84,500 in large late contributions.

But there's an interesting tidbit...apparently Doolittle's campaign has some debts. This one in particular is curious:

The debts also included $39,595 in fundraising fees owed to Sierra Dominion Financial Services, the company owned by Doolittle's wife, Julie, and operated out of their home in Oakton, Va.
When that bill is paid, it would bring to almost $107,000 the amount Julie Doolittle's company has been paid for fundraising for her husband's re-election during the 2005-2006 campaign.

Doolittle said he pays his wife a flat commission of 15 percent on what she raises. At that rate, she would have been paid commissions for raising about $700,000 -- or roughly a third of her husband's total receipts.

So is it no wonder there's a follow-up story in today's Sacramento Bee on a potential Doolittle indictment?:

Doolittle legal fate uncertain
Voters go to polls not knowing if he'll face Abramoff case charges.

Voters in the 4th Congressional District will go to the polls Nov. 7 to decide whether Rep. John Doolittle deserves an eighth term without knowing whether he will face federal prosecution in connection with the ongoing investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

And further on in the article:

Additionally, the company of Doolittle's wife, Julie, was hired by Abramoff's law firm from September 2002 to February 2004, receiving more than $66,600.

Her company was initially hired to raise money for a fundraiser for an Abramoff charity; she stayed on the payroll for months after that event was canceled.

A federal grand jury investigating Abramoff subpoenaed records related to her work for Doolittle. But John Doolittle said in February that federal investigators later asked for information about his wife's other clients, which would have included him since his campaign pays her a commission for fundraising work.

Doolittle may have been trying to get his wife on Abramoff's payroll as early as 2000, according to a recently disclosed e-mail written by Kevin Ring, a former Doolittle staffer who later was hired by Abramoff.

The 4th District Congressional race is, like many across the country, very close. Doolittle may still retain his seat at the end of the day on November 7. But if he does so, it will be at the voting fingertips of those who lack moral judgement and moral character.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Aspiring To The Knowledge of Gods

In perusing the internet this morning, several times I came across Jacob Bronowski's 1970s documentary The Ascent of Man and reference to one particular scene. In referring to a piece he wrote on the need to recognize doubt and uncertainty, Andrew Sullivan, following advice from a reader, linked to this superb video piece of Bronowski commenting on the ultimate cause of the Nazi death camps. PZ Meyers, in answering the question of what was the all time greatest science show, also comes up with the same Bronowski episode. The video is powerful and I recommend you watch it and think about it. But here are Bronowski's words in the shadow of Auschwitz:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

But I offer it a second time, with the request that the reader reflect on the nature of the links provided in context of Bronowski's words. The image provided is mine, but I believe it reflects a coming era unless politics change.

"It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods".

What more can be said?

Support Charlie Brown for Congress

Ok, I know I've gone astray on the congressional races this year, but it IS an election year, it IS an important mid-term election, and I DO want Brown to beat out Doolittle....So, just to prove I'm doing what I can around town:

Also wanted to let NiteSwimming know that I really did put the bumper sticker she gave me to good use:

Why Should Anyone Vote For John Doolittle? No, I'm Serious, Really...Tell Me Again...

To suggest Doolittle supports our troops in Iraq and elsewhere with anything other than a dollar bumper sticker on his car is an immoral statement to make. Doolittle and the Republicans have already started to "swiftboat" Democratic and Independent veterans who actually bothered to join the service and, well...serve. (Which makes it clear to me that it's not about supporting the military, it's all about supporting the Republican Party). Just compare Doolittle's actions on supporting the military with Lt. Colonel Charlie Brown's:

A career military officer-- so expect the Republicans to swiftboat him and disparage his service like they do with all American fighting men and women who challenge them-- Charlie was flying rescue helicopters in hostile fire while in Vietnam while Doolittle was seeking 3 consecutive deferments. "He talks the 'support the troops' line, but he always votes against benefits for veterans and troops when it comes to spending dollars on medical care, education and equipment for active duty servicemen... He votes no on a bill that would have given $430 million to the V.A. for hospitals but turns around and votes to approve $700 million for a train track to benefit casinos in Mississippi." (from Down With Tyranny!)

So how many deferments did Doolittle get? And why? And why would anyone think that someone who went to all the trouble to get deferments would now be accurately touted as "supporting the troops" (yeah, from a distance!)...

Here's another one I found, although somewhat dated, written by an Iraqi War veteran:

Doolittle suggests that if you do not agree with the political decision to go to war, then you do not support the troops. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve traveled all over this country, and met people both for and against the war. Regardless of which side they fall on, everyone I meet supports the warriors. Many send care packages, body armor and helmets. Others advocate for veterans rights or volunteer to help homeless veterans and families coping with the absence of a loved one. Actions speak louder than words.

Career politicians like Doolittle say they support us, because that’s all they can do. Yet their voting records, official actions, and appalling misuse of taxpayer dollars tell a very different story. Veterans, both past and present, are not fooled by the empty rhetoric.

Finally, this take from ActBlue sums it up nicely:

Before you look into who Charlie Brown is, you might already know something about the incumbent he’s running against. John Doolittle is one of the most venal and corrupt Republicans to ever walk the halls of Congress. The people of CA-04 would actually be better off with no representative at all instead of this brazen political prostitute they have now, someone who is readily available for all Big Business interests—as long as the money is right.

So tell me again, why should anyone vote for John Doolittle????????

Doolittle: ACLU Membership = Supporting Pedophilia

Congressman John Doolittle has nothing of substance to offer the people of the Fourth District here in California, so in order to get you to vote for him, he's forced to has to go through extreme twists of logic to claim that his opponent, Lt. Colonel Charlie Brown, is in favor of protecting pedophiles. Here's the logic: Brown is a member of the ACLU; the ACLU defends rights of the citizens of the US to constitutional protection; the US Constitution grants freedom of speech, freedom of speech allows you to say things that are not correct, moral, valuable or true, but that's a right you have that's guaranteed; organizations like NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) put out a magazine that is for most of us, quite vile, but that's a right they have under the Constitution; two members of NAMBLA once raped and killed a boy (not a "right" under the constitution in anyone's book, even the ACLU); the right of NAMBLA to put out vile material was defended by the ACLU;

....hence, Doolittle's logic that everyone who supports the ACLU also supports pedophilia.

Doolittle is a mental midget and the only people who buy into his kind of "logic" are equally dereft of any intellectual ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Unfortunately, Doolittle depends on the intellectually vacuous to get votes. He can't win with thoughtful people - people who actually stop to think of why they pick a candidate, as opposed to those who vote based on whose name happens to be on the last yard sign they passed on the way to the election precinct.

Only a stupid person actually believes Charlie Brown (or any of us card-carrying members of the ACLU) actually supports pedophiles.