Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Luskin Doesn't Ask The Right Questions

I hope Afarensis gets involved with this, but Casey Luskin at Evolution News & Views just posted one of the most misleading assessments of human evolution that I have ever read. If you're an idiot, you'll comment on Luskin's post, congratulate him on once again defeating Darwinism, and pat him and yourself on the back for how outlandishly clever you are. If you happen to be a curious, sentient being who maintains any kind of knowledge regarding evolution in general or human evolution specifically, you might wonder if, as Luskin insists, there is only one member of the family Hominidae who walks upright: Homo sapiens. You might ask whether Luskin has even the most basic knowledge of taxonomy. You might ask about ask if there are other species of Hominids that Luskin forgot to mention that also walked upright: oh, say, Australopithicines (several species), Paranthropines (several species), Kenyapithecus, Ardipithecus, or perhaps several that we're currently unsure as to if they walked upright or not (Orrorin, Sahelanthropus). At this point you might also ask why not all cats have stripes if they work so well for tigers, or why not all mammals swim in the ocean if it works so well for whales and dolphins.

If you really think Darwinism is a "...theory that explains everything, therefore explains nothing" without understanding the data behind it, you should also consider the possibility that God is an entity that also "explains everything and therefore explains nothing". After all, God is apparently responsible for rain and no rain; falling off a bike or winning a bike race; causing earthquakes or saving people from them; car accidents that kill people, those that simply injure people and those in which people walk away; God is apparently the source of mercy, hatred, justice and injustice all at the same time; God dislikes one race during one historical period then favors them during another; God causes me to loose my keys and another person to find hers; God grants touchdowns, home runs and bigger bucks to those who attend church on Sunday; God is telling you not to take Spanish when you fail an exam or is the source of your ability when you ace one; God is testing those whose children die, but is rejoicing with those whose children live; God cures some cancers but is simply exerting his "will" with those who don't recover from cancer; God will "provide for us" in our hour of need, "test us" if we continue to need and "reward us" if we no longer need.

God...."explains everything....therefore explains nothing"....

Update: Really, God is apparently nothing more than one big post-hoc accommodating argument...

A Preview Of Lassen County Science Camp

The Girl Scout trip to the Eagle Lake Field Station a couple of weekends ago proved to be a lot of fun as well as highly educational. For me it was part revelation, part confirmation. It was revelation in the fact that several of the girls who I originally thought might be more interested in boys, church or other societal distractions turned out to be quite interested in science and the process of discovery, to my surprise and amazement. It was confirmation in the fact that I have always suspected exposing students to actual science and nature might bring to the surface some inherent interest in discovery being suppressed by the cultural context of their communities. In other words, the educational system (at all levels) in Lassen County has largely failed to expose students to actual science despite claims to the contrary; when these students are actually given an opportunity to ask questions and seek answers without their pastors looking over their shoulders, they get really excited about the opportunity and want to pursue it further. We talked about all aspects of the natural history of Eagle Lake basin flora and fauna, saw examples of all the major classes of animals in the region, talked about morphological and skeletal similarities and differences between animals (an introduction to taxonomy and common descent), collected and identified skeletal remains on in the area, went to the “bat cave”, went on a night drive and all other kinds of things. Of course, we had plenty of time for swimming and fishing!

The skeletal identification proved to be a challenge, but one the girls relished – we couldn’t leave until we figured out the species to which the bones belonged. The skull was particularly difficult (I have only a superficial knowledge of specific bird anatomy, but I learned a lot in this exercise). We finally found the skull fragment to be from a western grebe (Aechmophorous occidentalis) – a common bird on Eagle Lake, and one we should have looked at first! During the night drive we encountered cottontails (Sylvilagus nuttali), black-tailed jackrabbits (Lepus californicus), pinyon mice (Peromyscus trueii), and one striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)! A couple of girls I wouldn’t have pegged as interested in fauna were the first out of the truck with the nets, trying to catch spotlighted animals. Our only success in this regard came down by the creek that night where several of the girls successfully netted bull frogs and tadpoles (Rana catesbeiana). During the day we encountered mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). The western pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus hesperus) had largely abandoned their cave, except for one lone female who had several young clinging to her back. The girls really enjoyed looking at the mama and her babies through a red light (so as not to disturb her) – it was probably more exciting than seeing hundreds of the little animals hanging from the cave ceiling!

The entire experience encouraged me to discuss the possibilities of a “Lassen County Science Camp” up at the field station, and I discussed the matter with a review team from CSU that was up here this weekend exploring the possibility for other bringing other educational groups here to use the facility. I of course discussed the general lack of science exposure to students in rural northeastern California and the need for some alternative to a weakly developed Lassen County Science Fair and a high school biology field trip that was, until recently, largely run by evangelical Christians with limited science background. The problem of rural students entering the CSU or UC systems with little or no background in science is recognized and we discussed plans to pursue the project.

Of Local Interest

Via Kurt, a new Lassen County blog with some very nice pictures of the area. The sequence on the recent Antelope/Wheeler Fire is pretty good...

God's Design

Intelligent Design proven with the "dick-plant"....

Secular Student Alliance Website

Just received an email newsletter from the Secular Student Alliance linking to information on their organization, articles and news on various events around the country, including the highly succesful 2007 season of Camp Quest (you remember...the humanist summer camp for kids that Virginia teachers actively sought to block students from receiving information on, just after these same teachers had complained the school district discriminated against them for refusing permission to hand out flyers promoting Christian organizations). Ed Brayton recently posted on an interesting twist to the issue here.

I think Eagle Lake would be a perfect location for another western states Camp Quest....

Monday, July 23, 2007

Science and the Susanville Church of the Nazarene

There are certainly a number of conservative Christians who have argued that the truth of evolutionary theory has no adverse implications for the Christian belief system and as such, there is nothing really unique in blogging on these individuals. However, I ran across this article on Richard Colling, a professor at a university run by the Church of the Nazarene and someone who apparently defends evolution unabashedly. One telling tidbit:

"It pains me to suggest that my religious brothers are telling falsehoods" when they say evolutionary theory is "in crisis" and claim that there is widespread skepticism about it among scientists. "Such statements are blatantly untrue," he argues. "Evolution has stood the test of time and considerable scrutiny."

Of course this is contrary to what is preached by those in the Church of the Nazarene, although Colling (and others) are clearly trying to change that. What peaked my interest is that my own town of Susanville has a local Church of the Nazarene, which I believe to be a primary source of anti-science sentiment in the community. I am wondering how many of them have heard of Richard Colling?

Prison Town, USA

My understanding is that PBS will be airing a documentary this week entitled “Prison Town, USA”, about Susanville, California, where I currently reside. I have not seen this documentary nor have I read a detailed summary of its content; however, the subject matter clearly concerns our town in the context of having High Desert State Prison as its economic focal point. The Lassen County Times has already expressed some angst over the airing of this documentary, replete with the usual conservative sniping at “liberal” PBS and the media. I have mentioned the prison here and commented on the nature of the local prison culture in previous posts. I have been somewhat reticent to comment on this aspect of our community, in large part because I have friends who are employed at the prison – our local “gated” community, as someone once quipped – and their attitudes, demeanor and intelligence are the exception to the rule. Many clearly take the job of correctional officer, or CO as we call them here, out of necessity, historical circumstance or lack of opportunity – I rather doubt many intentionally choose it as a career path. Not everyone should be judged by the majority, despite the fact it is Homo sapiens’ inherent nature to do so.

The fact is that the prison culture of Susanville, although perhaps good for the local economy (an arguable point in and of itself), also brings with it a load of negative baggage that prison town proponents choose to ignore. I suspect the documentary may uncover or at least allude to the significant downside of being a prison town and having this information aired nationally probably scares the hell out of prison proponents. Social, educational and economic problems spawned by the presence of prison are swept under the rug locally and probably intentionally covered up at the state level. There is certainly no effort to calculate the long term effects to a community outside of the immediate economic benefit gained by establishing a facility housing an inmate population and its high-priced babysitters. But then, county boards of supervisors, city councils and other local government entities are not known for intellectual ability to consider anything other than short-term profit.

While there is a laundry list of negative issues with living in Prison Town, USA, my primary concern is the effect on education, both locally and as a larger cultural issue. The prime motivation for working at the prison is money. More to the point, the prime motivation is the ability to garner a huge salary without the need to demonstrate skill or intellect. As one CO friend of mine pointed out, about all you need to qualify for employment in the prison system is a heartbeat. Apparently, you also only need an education to the 9th grade. I can think of no other profession, other than prostitution, that rewards individuals so handsomely for having absolutely no skill and no intellectual ability.

Starting COs make somewhere in excess of $7000 per month…starting teachers make something like $2000 per month. We build more prisons than universities or colleges. This alone is an indictment on the nature of American priorities…and ultimately a recipe for societal collapse. In Susanville, this is further compounded by the fact that the teachers are fighting to fend off a cap on their benefits, while COs enjoy significant raises and lots of overtime. While the teacher’s union is certainly large and prominent in California (and maligned heavily by conservative radio talk show hosts) they are no match for the correctional officer union, which basically has the California state government by the nuts. Teachers, who have skills, education, and dedication, must constantly fight for benefits and salary, while COs, who have basically no skills, are barely literate and whose only goal is apparently the accumulation of wealth, generally get whatever they want. And when the correctional officers get what they want, the cost is paid by teachers, other service providers, health care, environmental protection, and the other priorities a decent society should focus upon.

There are other effects as well. I have been asked to several “career day” events at the local schools. Many of the organizers have explicitly stated the goal of these events is to show students, particularly young boys, that there are other careers out there that will be far more rewarding. It is difficult, however, to compete against the vision of large houses, expensive vacations, ATVs, motorcycles, huge four-wheel drive trucks and lots of other “toys” that a $7000/month income can provide. The example provided by COs is generally that kids can ultimately get lots of goodies without having to do much educationally or vocationally. And many of the COs are young, bringing with them an immaturity and disrespect for anything that doesn’t personally benefit them that would normally be weeded out by educational programs or vocations requiring actual commitment, learning and competition. It is not surprising to me that most of my CO friends are older, have been in the system a while, and have avoided (or at least survived) the social and moral pitfalls entrapping so many of their colleagues.

While I malign the COs, it is the system and not the individuals that are the problem. That greater society allows such a system to exist is the ultimate problem, not that individuals take advantage of it. And of course there is a cost to the CO’s themselves that is rarely considered. While the job itself requires little in the way of skill or education, no one can doubt that it is one of the least desirable jobs on the planet. One of the reasons the salaries are so high is that most people don’t think the salary is worth the cost of the job (although one of the reasons I have no problem maligning individuals is that clearly most consciously choose the job for personal financial gain, without weighing the effects to themselves, their families, and the community). Many of my friends in the system actively discourage others from applying for the job – for the intellectually astute, at some point financial gain is not worth the sacrifice in intellect and self esteem.

Ultimately, the identification of Susanville as “Prison Town, USA” is not a moniker to be desired. It is one to be shunned at all costs. While we have fallen into the trap because of poor leadership, it would be wise for any community contemplating such a move to think long and hard about it. Hopefully, this documentary will scare the hell out of any community contemplating construction of a prison…and finally begin to expose the dark “belly of the beast” that is our state prison system.

Some Hadza Updates

Afarensis and Tim at Anthropology.Net have some new posts up regarding the current situation with the Hadzabe. Both discuss a recent Daily Mail article on the Hadzabe regarding their way of life and efforts by the United Arab Emirates to have them evicted from their own lands (the picture of Gonga with the article's author is the same Gonga I knew and hunted with in the late 1980s/early 1990s - I even have a few examples of his arrows in my collection).

I have been in contact with several individuals regarding the Hadza, although I have yet to post on these developments. Part of the problem is the lack of information regarding the actual state of negotiations between the UAE, Tanzanian government and the extent to which the Hadza may or may not be involved (or other organizations are involved on their behalf). It has been suggested that we not "rock the boat" too much in the blogosphere given that there may be negotiations taking place that could be compromised by too much media attention in the West (the old " westerners interfering with sovereign people like they always do" argument). On the other hand, the UAE is apparently sensitive to publicity (particularly negative publicity - the fact that the UAE and Tanzanian governments are now accusing researchers and tourism operators of violating Hadza rights in order to shift blame (as if they really cared!) is suggestive that outside word about this shady deal may be having an effect); plus I have had some indications that the transfer of Hadza land to the UAE royal family is a "done deal".

Given this rather limited information, I have a request from my fellow bloggers and any commenters:

Do you think it is better to stay relatively quiet on this matter, under the presumption that "behind the scenes" talks might be taking place that would at least give the Hadza retention of their lifestyle (and there is no indication that this would be a condition of the negotiations at this point) and so as not to jeopardize any potential deal that might benefit the Hadza? Further, should we be sensitive to the "Western intereference" argument, or is that a red herring?


Should some of us go for broke and ramp up the negative publicity (strategies are already being worked on) in an effort to completely forstall any sort of deal between Tanzania and the UAE, even if it might jeopardize a potential deal favoring the Hadza? (Let me add this: even if negotiations on behalf of the Hadza are taking place, there is no doubt in my mind that UAE royal family control of this area would still radically change the Hadza way of life).

Any comments/suggestions/advice would be helpful.

A Late Night....

Although I was able to write some posts, I didn't get logged on the server to post last night - we decided on a night drive around 10:00pm and didn't return until midnight. Of course we had to get up at 4:30am to go fishing - I don't know whether it's age (I prefer to think not!), but these consecutive days with 3-4 hours of sleep are getting tougher...

The results of our endeavors have not exactly been encouraging. So far, the night drives are Rodentia: 1, Homininae: 0. The trout have been giving us the sleep too! Tomorrow we change tactics...

Some new posts up shortly....

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still Here...

No, I'm not dead or anything...just needed to drop just about everything to put the finishing touches on a long overdue report, plus move a couple of other things off the plate. The report went into the mail yesterday!!! I'll be blogging regularly again shortly...

I am currently back up at one of my favorite places on earth: the Eagle Lake Field Station, this time for the annual Zooarchaeology Conference. Actually, this year the conference itself is on hold as we reorganize and plan for it in 2008. The Planning Committee just finished meeting and we have a great conference planned for next year! Papers, posters, workshops and guest speakers are all on tap...more as things develop over the coming year.

I'm catching up on some blog reading and will be posting again shortly. I finally got the connection going with the wireless up here and so can give everyone a play-by-play as things happen this week. Right now, though, we're getting ready for another "night drive" until midnight or so, then up at 4:30 to attempt catching some of those elusive Eagle Lake trout...

Til tomorrow...

Friday, July 06, 2007

New Four Stone Hearth

Alun at Clioaudio has the new Four Stone Hearth up...as usual, Alun does a wonderful job of pulling eveything together.

Check it out!

Off Again to Eagle Lake - More Blogging To Come

No, I haven't gone away, just got extremely busy between field trips. As I noted earlier, I recently returned from the Eagle Lake Field Station after helping to teach a course on zooarchaeology (and kissing frog paunches!) and am on my way back up there - this time with some local Girl Scouts who have, quite frankly, outgrown the Camporee tradition and need something a little more intellectually stimulating. So I and their leaders will expose them to some Eagle Lake natural history (bat caves, night drives, skeletons, animal and plant identification, etc.). I've worked with Girl and Boy Scouts for a number of years now and enjoy exposing them to opportunities they might not otherwise get in this culturally myopic corner of California. I've also been talking to my colleagues and select townsfolk about getting a "science" camp started up at the field station. Again, the purpose being to expose local teenagers to science actually taught by scientists for a change. So my bags are packed (as is the fishing pole!) and blogging will be intermittent for a couple of days.

Certainly there is lots to blog about. I missed out contributing to the lates Blog Against Theocracy, so I owe Blue Gal a post, even one in retrospect...Mark contributed a comment on my AP Biology post that deserves further comment and exposure; there are some further efforts being made on behalf of the Hadzabe, and I've been in touch with several organizations in Europe who are moving forward on aid to them; Abnormal Interests and Claude Mariotinni have been engaged in a very interesting discussion on who can fully interpret the Bible that I naturally have some thoughts on...Jim West has also engaged on this matter. And speaking of Jim, I finally joined his Biblical Studies group and have been following along on some of the discussion (although I haven't posted yet, because, yes I am a group discussion novice and am not sure my Yahoo settings are set correctly...) - I was particularly intrigued with the discussion on political archaeology and ethnicity; I am currently helping the local Native American tribe out with some NAGPRA issues (Native American Grave Repatriation and Protection Act) that bears directly on the subject of determining ethnicity in the archaeological record and its political implications (but I have to finish the final report first!!).

So, I'm actually pulling some things together...back shortly with more animal encounters at Eagle Lake...