Sunday, July 30, 2006

Part I: Nature of the Problem

(This is Part I of the article I introduced in the previous post. It describes (for a general audience, remember) the issue of IDT as a legitimate alternative to evolutionary theory and asks whether this would have implications for how we manage natural resources.)

Was Darwin Right? And Should the Forest Service Care?

Part I: Nature of the Problem
The yellow pines and white firs of Lassen National Forest in northeastern California may seem removed from the debate over teaching Darwinian evolution or Intelligent Design Theory to high school students, but in fact they are inexorably linked. The popular struggle over which version of science should comprise the foundation of biological thought also directly impacts the foundations of natural resource management. At their core, methods of resource management, be they ecological restoration, fuels reduction, invasive species eradication, selective harvesting or a host of other techniques, are derived from assumptions about the way in which the natural world, specifically forest ecosystems, operate. To the extent that management techniques provide us with a desired result they are successful precisely because they have gotten the underlying assumptions correct.

The assumptions to which I refer, are of course the mechanisms for how species reproduce, compete, adapt and subsequently change through time. Not quite 150 years ago, Charles Darwin referred to this as “descent with modification” and proposed the mechanism of “natural selection” as an explanation for how these processes work. Although the terms have come to have different meanings in different contexts, the broader concept Darwin advanced is more popularly recognized today as evolution. Individuals vary in their characteristics (some are shorter, some are taller; some reproduce faster than others; some resist fire more effectively, etc.) and these are passed from generation to generation. However, because of these character differences, some individuals are better able to cope with changing conditions in the environment. In effect, some individuals are better adapted to their environments and as a result, tend to leave more offspring than those who are less adapted. Over time, characteristics providing better adaptations become more common and the make up of the population appears different. Because many of these adaptations are physically apparent, later generations actually begin to look different from earlier ones. The numerous transitional forms we see in the fossil record, which show accumulated change through millions of years, are best explained by the processes of natural selection.

The reader is probably familiar with the concept of evolution through natural selection (what I refer to as Darwinian evolution), at least on a general level. And unless you have been living in a cave for the last several years, you are probably also familiar with the growing controversy over whether Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) should be taught alongside evolution in public school science classes. The components of IDT vary, but are summarized largely as follows: First, IDT proponents claim there is evidence for design among living organism and that natural selection is not sufficient to account for that design. In effect, there must be a Designer that is responsible for species’ origins. Although such a position has significant religious implications, serious IDT proponents make no claims about who or what the designer might be, maintaining that this question is irrelevant to the methods of revealing design in nature, which they consider a legitimate pursuit. The second component follows directly: IDT proponents claim theirs is an idea fully consistent with the framework of science and is not religious creationism in disguise. Third, IDT proponents argue that Darwinian evolution is flawed and that IDT serves as an alternative explanation for how the natural world operates. Taken at face value, these arguments for IDT would appear sufficient to legitimize it as a theory worthy of discussion in high school biology classes. So what do these two, supposedly legitimate, theories have to do with contemporary natural resource management?

In science, theories are not “educated guesses”, although this is the popular perception. Theories are well-substantiated explanations of some aspect of the natural world. More importantly, theories comprise a body of knowledge against which scientists can test new ideas. In effect, theories should guide practical applications of scientific knowledge. When a significant number of observations repeatedly fail to be explained by the theory, then the theory itself is in need of revision, or outright rejection and replacement by a different theory that better explains the scientist’s observations.

Two questions arise from this line of reasoning. First, does natural resource management rely on an underlying body of theory at all? Are the principles of natural resource management dependent on assumptions derived from more general statements about how the natural systems of the world develop, interact and change? Second, if there is indeed a greater body of theory forming the foundations of day-to-day decisions in natural resource management, then what are the implications if we change that theory? If principles of Darwinian evolution currently form the bedrock of biological thought, then what are the implications for how we manage natural resources if IDT is a viable alternative?

Upcoming Article Posts

Some time ago, while researching the "what practical applications does evolution have" issue, I wrote an article on the relationship of forest management and evolutionary theory. It was written for the layperson working in land management agencies and members of environmental groups - in fact, I had specifically written it for the audience of Forest Magazine. I even submitted some paragraphs, hoping they'd request the entire article for review, but I never heard back from them. Since then it has been gathering the equivalent of electronic "dust" on my hard drive. It does seem, however, that the blog might be a good forum for its debut.

So, I'll post the article in segments over the next couple of weeks (since I have not mastered the HTML art of providing you a "Read On" break in the post, it will be easier for me to post it in chunks. Plus it gives me something already written to post while I'm busy with my temporary job!). Let me know what you think.

So, expect the first portion of the article shortly...

Feeling Better....

Well, after that previous outburst, I'm feeling a little better. I'm back temporarily from my detail and so am at least trying to add a few things to the blog. However, I have encountered something interesting in the new job that I will blog about in detail upon my full time return in August. We all know the problem the political "right" has with evolution (and science in general), and we all comment on it frequently. But I'm encountering similar ignorance from some organizations and individuals on what we would consider the political "left" - certainly not near enough to counter the weight of anti-science BS coming from the right, but interesting nonetheless.

More to come....

Christian Morality at Its Finest (These Days)

I really hate to pick up blogging again being foaming-at-the-mouth angry, but the issue with the Dobrich family in Delaware really pisses me off. It is not the medieval mentality expressed by most of the people in Georgetown, Delaware that gets to me. It's not that Kenneth R. Stevens, businessman in Georgetown, is a waste of genetic material and an excellent reason why fetal tissue shouldn't be granted the celestial status the religious right wants (it might end in something like Stevens). Nor is it the fact the "Reverend" Jerry Fike knows as much about Christ's message as Ann Coulter knows about evolution. No, what really pisses me off is, WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE GODDAM CHRISTIANS WHO ARE SUPPOSED TO STAND UP FOR THE PERSECUTED AND THE DOWNTRODDEN???

I'll pick on my former church, the Catholics, but the same could be said for any other demonination. Where's the local priest standing up to this crucifixion of a family? Are there no Catholics in Georgetown? None in neighboring communities? Where's the outrage from the Bishop? Or is he too busy counting the money from the collection basket? Where's the Cardinal? Afraid to call your fellow "christians" on their despicable behavior? Or are you too busy sucking up to the politics of the religious right to be bothered with day-to-day morality? Or is it that you think a few blastocystes are actually worth more than the suffering of family at the hands of christian thugs? And where's the fucking Pope on all this? Too busy getting his feet washed? This is why I washed my hands of you bastards a long time ago...I know more atheists, gays and Muslims who individually act in more Christ-like morality in a single day than you sons-of-bitches could collectively do in a lifetime.

The people in Georgetown are despicable human beings and ANY Christian who does not publicly express outrage over this incident is complicit in the evil treatment of this family. I'll tell you one thing though: young Alex Dobrich has the right response:

The only thing to flourish, Mrs. Dobrich said, was her faith. Her children, she said, “have so much pride in their religion now.”
“Alex wears his yarmulke all the time. He never takes it off.”

You go, Alex. We all need to extend the middle finger of rebellion to these Georgetown scum and their advocates. And good Christians need to get off the fence, quit worrying about "Christian unity" and stand up for morality for a change.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Missionaries and Morals

I recently received an email from a person in Europe mournful over my position on missionaries outlined in my post on End of the Spear. Two comments struck me. First, his experience seemed to have been much more positive and it reminded me that I did not adequately draw the distinction between long-time European missionaries and American ones. Europe of course has a historically long presence in Africa, and those missionaries I did have respect for inevitably came from Europe, had been there often for generations, knew local customs and language, and were there almost exclusively to help people. American missionaries, on the other hand, were only there to get "soldiers" for Christ, had no respect for local culture, would not even bother speaking the local language, and generally ran rough-shod over local people (any "success" they had, they bought by throwing money around). I wouldn't consider the distinction hard and fast, but in general that's been my experience. Nonetheless, I still do not consider "missions", be they European, American or otherwise, to be positive institutions over all - again, the whole idea is to destroy native culture and replace it with something else.

Secondly, he suggested that by lying to missionaries on a regular basis I was also engaged in dishonorable behavior. First, I only lied about the fact that I was working with directly with local people - it was none of their business anyway, and I certainly didn't want a truckload of missionaries descending upon the groups I was working with - for their sake, more than mine. I would consider this no more a dishonorable act than I would a native Iraqi lying to American military personnel (or an American lying to Al Qeada personnel). If you think lying to missionaries is bad, I knew researchers (very few, by the way) who absolutely refused to help them under any circumstances - "If God's on their side, let God help them" was the attitude.

Finally, a Christian commenting on my own moral behavior is the pot calling the kettle black. Christianity as a whole is not functioning as a good role model for behavior - this community has some serious house-cleaning to do before they can claim any sort of higher moral ground.

Intermittent Posting

My posts will be intermittent over the next couple of weeks. I've taken a detail (temporary promotion) as a District Ranger in a neighboring forest for 60 days - after the first week I can tell you that it's an interesting position and one requiring an understanding of the science behind the decisions to be made on forest management. More later.....

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Forget Kindergarten...We Need an Adult Reading Program

From Stranger Fruit this morning (via BoingBoing)...

58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school.
42% of college graduates never read another book.
80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year.
70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

As John points out, this goes a long way toward explaining why anti-evolutionism in particular, but anti-science in general, are so prevalent in the U.S. It also probably explains why Bush got elected twice...

Monday, July 03, 2006

What Archaeology IS NOT....

Archaeology has got to be the most publicly abused science in the world. These guys apparently never saw Stargate. There is of course, no archaeological data associated with any of this; just like there is no archaeological data (and no archaeologists) associated with this, this, this, this or this. Apparently any dumbass who picks up an arrowhead thinks he can interpret anything he sees on the ground. At best, these guys are frauds and worst, they destroy authentic archaeological information and should be jailed.

See this...BASE says this is part of Noah's Ark. It is not. It is a fucking rock. BASE personnel do not have the experience to tell basalt from coprolites. They have no knowledge of archaeological methods. They cannot produce a report on anything they claim to have found. People who buy into what these archaeology charlatans put forward can only be described as STUUUPID...

And as for the warning BASE puts on these photos,

This article and the pictures are copyrighted. You may quote the first couple of paragraphs and then link to this site but you CAN NOT duplicate the article in its entirety and you CAN NOT COPY ANY OF THE PICTURES without express written permission from Worldview Weekend, Brannon Howse and Bob Cornuke.

I suggest they look at something called Fair Use. (Yes, I've just extended the middle digit of my hand to you BASE bozos).

(Thanks to Afarensis, Dispatches, Hot Cup of Joe, Abnormal Interests and some others for having defended the archaeological profession from this kind of intellectual prostitution).

Ok, I feel better....

Want to Live in the 15th Century? - Go to Delaware

A great example of 15th Century behavior and what the Founding Fathers of this country were trying to prevent with the Constitution.

(Saw this at both Pharyngula and Dispatches from the Culture Wars)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Teaching The King James Bible

I actually wrote this a couple of years ago and submitted it to the Lassen County Times, although it was never published (I'm not necessarily suggesting anything nefarious on the part of LCT - it is a bit long - just noting a historical fact). I know efforts to teach bible classes in public schools are still prevalent, so here is my advice to those seeking to do so (references to my being active in Catholicism are all honesty I'm tending more toward PZ on the subject, but that's another post for a later date):

I understand a petition is circulating around California in support of an initiative to teach the Bible (King James Version) in our public school system. I support this endeavor and would encourage all to sign. Unlike my more liberal friends, I firmly believe this country needs an open discussion of religion: there is far too much whining over one’s right to parade their religious perspective in the pubic square. Our Founding Fathers encouraged freedom of religion and we should take them at their word. Of course they also believed that public display requires public debate and it is important for students to gain the critical thinking necessary to distinguish fact from perspective. Presumably, the class would encourage questioning and debate, both of which are easily prompted by even the most superficial reading of the bible. I assume the class would start by reflecting on bible origins: its multiple authors, problems associated with translations from different languages, the variety of writing styles used (historic, poetic, metaphorical, etc.), who decided which books make up the bible, and similar points of discussion. Regarding the latter, I assume some discussion of the lost Christianities, such as the Gnostic Gospels, would be in order, as well as the historical contexts that prompted Irenaeus to envision and Constantine ultimately to endorse, the Nicene Creed in the fourth century AD. This is an important issue and should prompt students to appropriately question why the church hierarchy selected, as reflecting true Christianity, the Gospels that endorse a church hierarchy over those (Gnostic and other) that endorse the primacy of the individual in seeking God.

Similarly, I would think that historical, cultural and natural contexts are crucial to understanding the goals of the bible authors, and I know signers of the petition would want students to appreciate these nuances of biblical interpretation. Nothing is ever written in a vacuum. For example, while Sodom and Gomorrah were certainly destroyed, presumably at the hand of God, it would also be worth asking how else a population with infantile knowledge of geology might explain earthquakes and other natural phenomena 7000 years ago (the hand of God?). No doubt teachers will want their students to consider whether Genesis refers to an actual six-day creation or is best read as a metaphor not intended to contradict current science. I would certainly hope that the class would once and for all trash the popular myth that Christianity and evolution don’t mix. The fact is that not all Christians agree on how the Creation came about and the only justifiable course of action would be to offer all alternatives as an example of the wonderful diversity of Christian belief. For example, students might be asked to reconcile a literal interpretation of Genesis with the fact that 99% of all species on this planet are currently extinct. Or whether “random” selection as defined by Darwin is really much of an issue for a God of infinite time and space. Personally, I would also like to hear an explanation of who, exactly, Cain “knew” in Genesis 4:17 if Adam and Eve were indeed the first humans and Cain and Abel their direct (and only) prodigy. Regardless of the nature of a Genesis discussion, I would expect those teaching the class to encourage their Native American students to enlighten Christian students by presenting their own Creation stories. This will emphasize the fact that 1) creations stories are a vital part of almost all human cultures; 2) almost none of them are alike; and 3) there is no way to distinguish the historical “correctness” of any of them.

Given the many Christian sects in Susanville as elsewhere, teachers will have no choice but to emphasize the fact that not all Christianities look upon the Bible the same way. Some prefer a literal interpretation over one that’s more metaphorical. More “fundamental” sects of Christianity prefer the former. Catholics like myself are not as tied to biblical literalism as a cornerstone for faith in God. In fact, a recent Pontifical Commission referred to biblical literalism as “intellectual suicide” and of course, everyone knows that the Pontiff settled once and for all the fact that evolution has no adverse theological implications. It will be important for teachers to point this out to their Protestant students lest they be accused of religious bigotry. Of course Catholic students will need to understand that our Protestant brethren do not always hold with our own cherished beliefs. Catholics tend to deny that Jesus had any brothers or sisters, whereas Protestants generally accept that He did (even as a Catholic, I personally have to side with my Protestant friends on this one – although whether or not Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is another question). And of course morbid fascination with the dark side of the Passion has historically been more a Catholic “thing” than a Protestant one, so I’ve been a bit surprised at the non-Catholic obsession with Mel Gibson’s film. Regardless, the film might be a useful tool for launching discussions about the search for the historic Jesus in our forthcoming public school bible classes. Mr. Gibson is convinced that the film accurately portrays events as they are described in the Gospels. While that might be the case, the real question is whether the Gospels themselves are historically accurate. I would hope that the students of our Bible course discuss the fact that the Gospels were written as late as a century after the events depicted in the Passion and no Gospel author was actually present at Jesus’ trial. This observation, combined with the cultural context of a heightened Jewish-Christian antagonism during the First Century AD, should lead our students to discuss whether the Gospel authors didn’t actually contrive some events in order to spurn separation between the two religious communities. Similarly, a brave teacher might raise the question as to whether the seemingly prophetic passages are nothing more than “post-hoc accommodating arguments” developed by Gospel authors who already knew what Isaiah and the other Old Testament authors prophesized and were simply writing the passages to meet the expectations. A really brave teacher might raise Shelby Spong’s thesis (and he’s not alone) that the virgin birth is a superfluous myth not intended to be taken literally by the Gospel writers.

Archeological evidence is often cited in biblical interpretation and a bible class would be a good place to address archaeology’s role. Being an archaeologist myself, I would encourage this (and volunteer my own expertise to the classroom) particularly since most Christians have this annoying habit of confusing theology and history. No doubt, archaeology has identified a number of places named in the Bible, and some events are corroborated with physical evidence. But others are not. Demonstrating that the walls of Jericho fell (they did, but no less than 17 times through several millennia) is one thing, but to follow that with the conclusion that Israelites accomplished the task through divine intervention is a matter of faith, not archaeology. After all, Schliemann found Troy, but that doesn’t make Cyclops and Medusas real creatures by default. Interestingly, archaeology has been unable to find evidence of an Exodus out of Egypt despite claims to the contrary, but has recently identified evidence of Noah’s flood event. Demonstrably catastrophic in nature, the flood was actually confined to the Mediterranean Basin, although it certainly appeared to be “worldwide” from the limited perspective of those it affected. And just to get this off my chest: the Shroud of Turin is not old enough to be from the time of Christ, despite the methodological gymnastics engaged in by the critics of carbon dating.

Finally, I would hope that students, particular those who have faith in whatever God they personally choose to accept, would ask the question: if I have faith in God, does it matter whether the earth is six thousand years old or several billion? Certainly to some it will. There will be those who find logic in the assumption that Christ’s resurrection cannot be true if God’s creation wasn’t also limited to a literal six days. And that’s fine. There should be a place at the public table for those beliefs. Just as there should be a place at the public table for those of us who have found God without the crutch of biblical literalism. Or those who have alternative beliefs. Or those who profess no belief at all. I would assume that the signers of the petition have the intention of fostering such a diversity of opinions and ideas as they relate to the Christian bible…or am I wrong?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Catholics Condemn Philanthropy

Well, this friggin' figures...

Update on My Letter to the Lassen County Times

Ok, they did publish my letter to the editor in this week's version of the Lassen County Times. A couple of things: First, it was printed in total and unedited, but the LCT Editor seemed to take offense that I suggested the paper would probably never allow a rebuttal of the same length. At the end of my letter, she wrote:

Editors Note: Anyone who wants to rebut Mr. Ashmore's Where I Stand will be treated to the same criteria. This paper welcomes a rebuttal of any length

Ok, fair enough. I'll just keep that one handy for future reference. I will point out, however, that A) The Lassen County Times spends a lot of space promoting Christian viewpoints; B) I have NEVER seen a "Where I Stand" editorial of that length at any time in the LCT; and C) my own "Where I Stand" editorial (not on the same subject) some time ago, was definitely edited, presumably for space (in all fairness, the editing did not seriously affect my overall point, but nonetheless it was shortened).

Second, a second letter questioning Pastor Ashmore's "correlation" was also published in the same issue, but the author took a much different tact on the Ashmore piece that was really interesting. Matt Mullin wrote:

Let me see if I understand what the author of this article was saying....His god is manipulating the natural forces of the earth, and creating anomalies with the world's economies, in order to murder millions of innocent humans for the purpose of teaching the surviving humans a lesson about morality.

His god is willing to murder thousands of innocent humans in retaliation for what the author describes as the murder of innocent humans through abortion. Those living an alternative lifestyle choose to publicly celebrate that lifestyle, and BAM, his god murders other innocent humans as punishment...

Yep, you have to wonder what kind of god people like Pastor Ashmore serve. Mullin ends his letter with impeccable logic:

If the author is correct in his rather gnostic description of his god's behavior, perhaps it is better to choose eternal damnation, rather than serve such an evil being.

On the other hand, if the author is wrong (and I suspect he is), his discourse only acts to fan the flames of intolerance, and promote the oppression of those with views, lifestyles and beliefs different from his own.

Amen, brother.

Note: There may yet be an Act III to this saga...the LCT often publishes letters in response to letters from the previous week. I'll let you know if anything further develops.

The "Pharyngula Effect"

Ok, I know some of you bloggers out there have experienced the "Pharyngula Effect", but it just amazes me when it happens. Here are my daily average stats for visits on Northstate Science:
Notice the really big spike today - pretty much all of that is due to PZ linking to my Lassen County Times letter to the editor (I'll update everyone on that in a moment). Hopefully, everyone also saw the longer post I initially wrote on the subject. I have to give credit to Afarensis who also significantly helps my stats when he links to something I've written, but when PZ links to it, get ready for a ride! (This happened once before in April - log on in the morning and I'm at 20 hits...then PZ links and an hour late it's 1200+...).

So, PZ, if I ever get back to the Midwest, I owe you a beer (or two!)....