Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Syro-Palestinian Archaeology and Isolated Artifacts

Using isolated artifacts with no associated provenience data seems to be all the rage amongst biblical archaeologists of late. First we have the controversies surrounding the Talpiot, or Jesus Family Tomb – an isolated artifact said to simultaneously verify (because it formally names Jesus and members of his family) and repudiate (because a resurrected body would leave no bones to bury) the authenticity of Jesus. Earlier we had issues regarding the James ossuary as a potential artifact authenticating the existence of James as the brother of Jesus. We also have the Jehoash Inscription describing repairs made to the temple in Jerusalem by Jehoash, son of King Ahaziah of Judah – an artifact authenticating biblical references in 2 Kings. There has also been King Solomon’s Tablet of Stone and more recently online discussions regarding authenticity of the Ivory Pomegranate, said to be a relic from King Solomon’s temple. Much is written evaluating the potential of these items for archaeological interpretation and there seems to be no end to the controversies surrounding their potential meaning for Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Setting aside for the moment the problem that interpretation in Syro-Palestinian archaeology is hamstrung by theological entanglements that inherently force it outside the proper bounds of scientific application (I shall return to that below), the question at hand is just how useful are unprovenienced artifacts in archaeological research?

Here in northeastern California, we maintain a collection of approximately 100,000 items confiscated from a looter caught illegally digging on national forest lands in the mid-nineties (he paid fines and served jail time in addition to having his collection confiscated). As archaeological collections from northern California go, this one is splendid – replete with all those “diagnostic” artifacts we find important for determining chronology, tracking population movements, even understanding ideology, including several classes of projectile points, beads, copper and sandstone pipes, burial goods, and a variety of additional items. In effect, these items were looted from significant assemblages that undoubtedly would address many of the important archaeological questions in California and Great Basin prehistory – questions that are analogous to those asked in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Unfortunately for us, these artifacts are not merely of limited archaeological value, they offer us nothing of interpretive value whatsoever. Without the necessary provenience data (location (both geographic and site), depth, mapped association with other artifacts, etc.) and discussion of excavation methodologies, the only legitimate interpretations given would have to be tagged with the following disclaimer: “trust me”. Oh, some graduate student might get creative and propose an interesting analysis using inherent characteristics of the artifacts themselves (using obsidian hydration, for example, one might date various point styles to assess the consistency of style and chronology) but the best that could be accomplished is descriptive analysis that skirts the larger questions of archaeological importance. The collection has been most useful for public displays and classroom talks. It is one of the few collections I can afford to allow school children to directly handle - an accidently dropped and broken arrowhead results in no net loss to the “interpretive value” it lacked in the first place.

From a strictly archaeological perspective then, isolated artifacts with no associated provenience are simply useless for archaeological interpretation. Information offered on their basis is nothing more than un-testable speculation. I would suggest this goes for Syro-Palestinian archaeology as much as it does for Californian archaeology. The unfortunate difference, of course, is that assemblage interpretation in Syro-Palestinian archaeology is not simply a function of applying archaeological principles and methods as it is elsewhere. It also tainted by religious zealotry that demands “archaeology proves the bible”. Long-proven methods of archaeological analysis are called into question when the results don’t conform to pre-conceived theological interpretations, data are ignored or “explained away” when they contradict biblical passages or stories, or worse…data are outright fabricated to demonstrate the authenticity of sacred texts. The degree to which these efforts occur are subject to debate, but one conclusion cannot be avoided: the potential for archaeological malfeasance of one type or another is extremely high in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Much higher than it is in other areas of archaeology. It is not surprising that controversy surrounds the proliferation of “biblical” artifacts suddenly making the news. Christianity has a long history of miraculously coming up with “sacred artifacts” (none with verifiable provenience) that offer the faithful some history upon which to hang their theological positions. To the faithful, there can be no objective doubt offered regarding such artifacts, and the complexities of scientific knowledge can be sufficiently tweaked to minimally open the possibility of authentication. For a broader public uneducated to such matters this is more than sufficient to ignore or denigrate whatever contradictory science is available. The Shroud of Turin and Juan Diego’s cloak, both “appearing” in the 16th century, can be added to this laundry list of items proving Christianity’s authenticity (and conveniently lacking the history and provenience necessary to confidently address claims of authenticity). The Ivory Pomegranate and Talpiot Ossuary are merely the current extension of such efforts.

Unfortunately, the science of archaeology is being enlisted to aid theological confirmation of these relics and in the process archaeological integrity suffers. In the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Editor Hershel Shanks protests use of the words “relics” or “curiosities” to refer such isolated artifacts of mostly dubious history. He writes,

Now I happen to disagree with that. I believe that, if these items are authentic, they have much to teach the scholar…If they are authentic, they connect me emotionally and even spiritually to times and events that give meaning to my life. I don’t like them referred to as mere “curiosities”.

Shanks’ arguments epitomize the problem with much of Syro-Palestinian archaeology: it is too enmeshed in theology to confidently consider it as a historical science. Archaeological research here will always be viewed with theological oversight. Mere possibilities from fragments lacking provenience will be elevated to the level of “proving the bible correct” and textual contradictions backed by solid research will be dismissed. This comes less from the discipline’s primary scholars, many of whom appear to make valiant efforts to separate the archaeological science from the theological implications, than from meddling groups outside the field. As someone who actively works to provide opportunities for non-professionals to participate in archaeological research it pains me to say this: Syro-Palestinian archaeology is far too “public” for its own good. Shanks seems to understand that the “mere curiosities” lack appropriate archaeological information, but he nonetheless wants to give them some sense of respectability. It is ironic that he later bemoans archaeologist Jonathan Reed’s assessment of the intellectual challenges facing Syro-Palestinian scholars:

In a recent book on the historical Jesus, archaeologist Jonathan Reed…tells his fellow scholars how “difficult” it is to “overcome the caricature of Biblical archaeologists seeking relics [there’s that word] or sinking their spades in the ground to find sites listed in the Bible or artifacts mentioned in the New Testament.” To his scholarly audience, Reed is making fun of the Christian pilgrim who comes to the Holy Land to find spiritual nourishment in its stones and antiquities…

I don’t know if Reed is making fun of the Christian pilgrim, but if he is not he should be. It is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will return to tell his home audience how archaeology “proves the bible” without understanding the nature of the archaeological research; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will sift the science so that theological implications are justified; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will ignore or dismiss contradictory evidence that doesn’t support his belief system; it is precisely this Christian pilgrim who will turn mere rocks into the hull of Noah’s ark. Shanks berates Reed and other professional archaeologists for discussing the relic-seeking caricature of “biblical” archaeology while simultaneously promoting such a caricature by refusing to take the discipline seriously. As long as Syro-Palestinian archaeology remains overshadowed by discussion of isolated artifacts with no provenience its professional respectability will be doubted.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Creationist Essay Winners Versus True Young Scientists

Answers In Genesis has announced its winners in the creationist essay contest for young people. Zeno and Bay of Fundie provide appropriate evaluations of these essays, which meet the predictions we would all expect from homeschoolers and the religiously educated who have been successfully sheltered from actual science. Zeno sums up the expected content of the essays:

While it's not fair to expect teenagers to write purely original essays, all of the winning papers suffer from the suffocating effects of their reliance on recycled creationist propaganda. Time and again the writers make demonstrably untrue statements (and they probably don't know any better). In this, of course, they simply mirror their elders.

Through random chance (or should I attribute it to divine intervention?) the very antithesis of an Answers In Genesis sponsored essay contest also published their winners this year. In my current issue of Natural History (arriving the day I first learned of the AIG essay winners) the American Museum of Natural History also announced its 2007 Young Naturalist Awards winners. From the article:

Every year scientists from the American Museum of Natural History travel far and wide on expeditions to learn more about the natural world. The Young Naturalist Awards, now in its tenth year, invites students in grades 7-12 throughout the United States and Canada to follow in those footsteps, embarking on their own expeditions in areas of biology, Earth science, or astronomy. Their research can be conducted as to home as their backyard or a local pond or stream.

This year's Young Naturalist Award winners are:
Ashley Hunt (Grade 7) - Algae in the Weiva River: Is it Helping or Hurting Water Quality?
Noah McDonald (Grade 7) - The Toads of Delaware County
Alexandria Day (Grade 8) - An Analysis of Water Quality on the Severn River over Two Years
Ryan Wham (Grade 8) - Lighter, Brighter, and Cooler: An Analysis of the Effects of Roofing Albedo on Ambient Temperature
Alex Nagler (Grade 9) - Investigation of Water Quality in Mercer County Lake
Jon Atkinson (Grade 9) - Barn Owls on the Side of the Road
Viola Li (Grade 10) - From the Desert to the Subalpine Forest
Nikola Champlin (Grade 10) - Thigmomorphogenesis in Pisum Tendril Development
Anastasia Roda (Grade 11) - Human Factor IV: The Impact of a Boiling Water Nuclear Reactor on the Plankton, Benthic, and Biofouling Communities in the Reactor's Intake and Discharge Creek
Arjun Potter (Grade 11) - A Survey of the Birds of Indroda Nature Park in Gujarat, India
Joanna Nishimura (Grade 12) - More Than Meets the Eye: Do Himasthla sp. B Cercariae Use Chemo-orientation?
Jeremy Koelmel (Grade 12) - Lichens as Indicators of Vehicle Pollution
More on the contest winners may be found here.

The distinction betwee these kids and the winners of the AIG creationist contest is quite clear. The Young Naturalist winners followed the dictates of science by asking questions, gathering data and then reporting on where those data led them in their interpretation. The ground rules of the contest made this quiet clear:

After identifying a question, students plan how they will gather information, conduct outside research to learn more about their topic and possible methodologies, observe their subjects, and record their findings. Finally, their data analysis results in conclusions that either answer the original questions or lead to further inquiry.

By contrast, the AIG essay contest winners had already determined their conclusions before even beginning any research. Research was largely confined to those sources that already agree to their position and anything presented in alternate sources was either falsified, mischaracterized or the data ignored so that the biblical mythology could be upheld.

So which group is conducting the better science?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Question For The Archaeology Blogosphere

In my previous post on historical inscriptions at High Rock Canyon, I got sidetracked with the discussion of religious intolerance and neglected to pose a question to my fellow archaeology bloggers (or anyone who wants to weigh in on the matter): should sites like High Rock Canyon be opened to the public?

As someone who is in the business of managing the nation’s cultural resources, this is a constantly debated question. On the one hand, allowing public access and promoting the existence of a cultural site (be it historic or prehistoric) poses the risk of individuals who will vandalize, or worse, loot the site. Many of my colleagues in cultural resources management feel very strongly that public access to archaeological sites should be severely restricted. There are many of us, however, who believe (equally strongly) that the appreciation for history is collectively fostered by education and access. If we are not protecting sites for public benefit then why bother? Certainly there are all shades of opinion in between. No one arguing for public access is suggesting we post site records on the internet (although we have had interesting discussions locally whether certain high profile archaeological sites shouldn’t be on visitor/interpretive maps). The questions for me are 1) what are the costs/benefits of public access?...and 2) to what degree should access be afforded (advertise the site? Provide a location on a map people may or may not pick up? I’ll tell you if you ask?...)?

So, what do my fellow archaeologists around the blogosphere think about public access to sites?

Gotta Love Sweden!

Here’s a nation that has its priorities right. From Martin at Aardvarchaeology I read this post on the nature of the “religion debate” in Sweden. Basically, the issue of whether religion should be discussed seriously as a alternative to other explanations of how the world works and humans should behave has been moot in Sweden:

The question posed is whether the same debate could rise in Sweden. The answer seems to be a definitive no. The role of religion in Sweden is peripheral, and the power of the religious communities is relatively weak. The major media; our national papers, the big tv channels and the national radio are all expressly secular. There simply aren’t any strong religious counterweights to the secular forces. There’s also a lack of numerous religious grassroots organisations that can mobilise the people in a defense of traditional superstition and bronze age morality.

The question, it seems, is not whether organized religion (as opposed to personal belief systems that carry no political weight) can bring anything substantive to the intellectual table. The question is whether a religious viewpoint should be tolerated at all. I don’t believe the author is implying that religious viewpoints should be legally restricted – and as an unapologetic defender of the First Amendment I would reject any notion that religionists should be unable to voice opinions – it’s that Swedish society at large has progressed beyond the need for primitive mythology to explain their world. There is simply no serious consideration within Swedish society that religious viewpoints would be tolerated as a likely explanation for anything. To borrow an idea from Dawkins, the Swedes apparently consider all religion in much the same light as American Christians consider Greek mythology – nothing more than an interesting historical experiment.

Americans, by contrast, aren’t even close to this phase of intellectual enlightenment. There are still too many in society who consider religious viewpoints not just as tolerable with respect to others, but actual believe them to be superior (otherwise we wouldn’t be having conversations about creationism, gay marriage and blastocyts as human beings while simultaneously justifying the war in Iraq on the basis of a few lines from a Bronze Age text).

Predictably, the American religionists are not happy with the Swedish take on things. And, like explaining lack of rainfall, or the high school team winning the championship, they are quick to invoke their personal knowledge of God’s feelings on the matter: God hates Sweden. And Sweden’s response? A classic comeback: they don’t care for Him too much either…

Relilgious Graffiti At Historic Sites

This is part of the Applegate emigrant trail through the High Rock Canyon in northwestern Nevada. The trail was established in 1846, offering emigrants an alternative to the northern routes along the Columbian river. Why anyone would want to travel this route by oxen-drawn wagon is beyond me. We were in 4WD much of the time and had to negotiate steep inclines and large boulders. Obviously, the emigrants improved the trail as they went, possessed infinitely greater patience than we exhibit today, and were, how shall we say it?…a lot tougher (natural selection acted on these folks in ways we could not fathom today). Nonetheless, the going was rough for the emigrants passing this way. Upon entering the canyon in 1849, J. Goldsborough Bruff remarked:

“We found that generally the bed of the stream was unavoidably the line of travel through this very rugged mountain pass. This pass, for trail there was none- was filled with stumps of Cotton Wood Trees, large fallen trees, stones and rocks of every size. Dead cattle, broken wagons and carts, wheels, axels, tires, yokes, chains, etc- testimonials of its difficult character.”

Bruff would eventually make his way along the Nobles and Lassen trails across Lassen National Forest here in northeastern California, maintaining a wonderful diary with sketches that give us a fantastic glimpse of Euro-American emigrants during the mid 19th century.

Back on the Applegate Trail through High Rock Canyon we came to “Post Office Rock”: a place where many of the emigrants left their names and dates of passage. Sometimes short messages were left for emigrants traveling behind or returning through the route. The trail and the names carefully scratched or painted on the rock of High Rock Canyon provide a brief glimpse into the life of 19th century emigrants traveling across a rugged landscape. They are relics of a presence and activities that took place more than 150 years ago.
It is amazing what context and time will do to the remnants of human behavior. The majority of the names and dates scratched into the stone at the Post Office are, by today’s standards, nothing more than graffiti. But add time and a context, and the words become a priceless piece of history.

Graffiti, however, does exist alongside the historic gems of the Post Office. Here someone has much more recently added his or her own monogram alongside those from the 19th century. Several aspects of this recent addition immediately came to mind when I first saw it. First, it is an act of vandalism and desecration. The mere presence of these words bespeaks disrespect for history and for those who would follow this person to view what had previously been a pristine historical site. It also denotes lack of intellect and a demonstrably absent appreciation of historical context and respect for those who came before. The name “Calvary Chapel” further suggests that this individual holds his or her own spiritual values as more important than those maintained by anyone coming to this place either before or after. That the name of a church would be used to deface this sacred place also hints at the misplaced priorities of a nation. Any group of people who consider the possibility that religion should ascend above respect and deference to those who hold alternative views needs to reevaluate the basis for its assumptions. Consider this: had Jesus Christ himself written his own name on this place it would be considered defamation.

This is from one individual within a larger group. But context plays here as well: the social and cultural context this individual finds himself within clearly promotes the idea that their views should take precedence. And they no doubt justify their actions by appeal to an unseen, undemonstrated higher power. This is the point that Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others have made – appeal to deities of any stripe, without recourse to reason and criticism, allows individuals to justify their behavior in any situation. I have to laugh when religionists claim morality exists only with belief and faith. On the contrary, history is littered with the human debris of religious subjectivity: ultimately anything is permissible if enough people are lead to the idea that “God wills it”.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Lassen County Camp For Secular Kids?

I have posted several times on the issue of Virginia teachers suing the district for permission to hand out flyers and announcements on Christian bible camps, organizations, etc., but then refusing to hand out flyers promoting Camp Quest. Well, a good friend of mine in Lassen County (and a fellow LACIS member!) recently told me that he read about the camp on my post and attempted to enroll his kids in the California Camp Quest. Unfortunately California Camp Quest was overbooked (a good thing!, but...) and he couldn’t enroll his kids this year. However, that did spark a conversation on setting up a similar type of camp at Eagle Lake. I’ve been thinking about a Camp Quest/Lassen County Science Camp for a while and the two of us (plus some other folks) are going to try to pull one off next summer. This is all in the planning stages at the moment, although we’re looking into curricula, activities, etc. We also have an initial group of people to contact who we think would be interested in giving their kids and opportunity like this next year.

What I would like to know is if any Lassen County readers of Northstate Science (or anyone from surrounding areas) would be interested in having their kids attend something like this? Again, it’s still in the planning stages, but I’d like to get a sense of just how many might send their kids.

Talking To Kids About Science

I gave a talk on the interpretation of bones to the Summer Reading Session at the Lassen County Library last week and there was a nice little blurb in the Lassen County Times (for a change!). The audience was made up of about 20-30 kindergarteners through fourth graders. I had been asked to give a discussion on dinosaurs, which is not my forte; however I fortunately have a collection of fossils (including vertebrate fossils), shells, belemnoids, gastroliths, and a few other things. I think the highlight might have been the fossilized Carcharadon tooth (white shark) that all the kids thought must have come from the biggest shark in the world….until I showed them the Megalodon (extinct cousin of the white shark) tooth that was easily five times the size!

Before pulling out the fossils, however, we looked at bones of modern animals and talked about the kinds of things you can tell from bone: the species, how it might defend itself, sometimes the sex of the animal…but most importantly we talked about diet. One thing I’ve noticed about kids this age: they’re pretty smart, and most can use their reasoning skills to put two and two together. So, it became clear fairly quickly that the type of teeth an animal has is a really good indication of its diet. This is a point these early grade schoolers get but one that seems to be lost on Ken Ham and the Answers In Genesis crowd. I made it a point to talk to these kids and let them use their own reasoning to solve a problem based on an understanding of the natural world around us. Creationists like Ham won’t allow their children to reason, ask questions or explore alternative explanations – the only answers they accept are the ones they’ve contrived from biblical sources and the only science they’ll accept is that which gives them the answers they expect. (And if they get any political power, they won’t allow our children to reason and ask questions either!).

It is extremely important that those of us in science fields get out to talk to kids as often as we can. First, to insure that they understand what science and reasoning is all about, but secondly, so that they will know they’re not alone when other adults in their lives start to close the cultural blinders on their curiosity. You never, ever know the full extent to which you’ve influenced a child, even if they seem to appear bored while you’re talking about zebra teeth. I know from experience that it’s the little things that make a difference.

It’s also quite rewarding on a personal level: kids really do ask great questions and make wonderful observations. Even when they’re off the mark, they’re not off it by much. I just shiver at the thought of kids living in Ken Ham-like households where truth is a construction of their parents’ fears and reality is limited to what can be supported by a two thousand year old text written by primitives. Kids have a right to explore the world around them – those of us in professional science fields have a duty to give them that opportunity as often as we can.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

And A Good Example Of Catholic Science

My father-in-law sent me a link to Bellarmine’s magazine, Connections, the current issue of which contains a number of articles on the school’s alumni and their take on various views of science, including evolution and intelligent design. Bellarmine is a Catholic college prep high school in San Jose, California and my father-in-law has always been proud of his attendance there. He should be. While reading the articles I again found a bit a hope that the Catholic educational system (of which I am a product, at least partially) hasn’t completely teetered to the side of anti-science advocacy. (Unfortunately, I merely have to read Michael Behe, Denyse O’Leary, Benjamin Wiker, Richard Newhouse and numerous authors in First Things, or visit a host of “Catholic Answers” web pages to realize there is still a large and vocal group of Catholics wanting to return science to the 12th century). Nonetheless, the articles clearly showed a group of scientists who, while maintaining their own faith, clearly understood that science pretty much tells us the truth about the way in which the world works. The article on “Finding Frontiers in Science” highlights the amazing scientific discoveries of the last decade, including “…new discoveries of hominid skulls in Kenya leading to breakthroughs in studying early man”. In an interview with several Bellarmine alumni scientists, Dr. Richard Nevle says

Now, it’s pretty clear that shallow seas once existed on the Martian surface. But back in the mid-eighties the notion of water on Mars was still very speculative. Holding pieces of Mars in my hand was pretty cool. And that is the reason, to this day in my geology class, I pass around meteorites to my students, because there’s nothing neater than holding on to a 4.6 billion year-old piece of history.

Bellarmine alumnus and science teacher Marty McKenzie:

People don’t realize it, but science is a great path for people who want to do something creative. To take a set of scientific observations, make sense of them, and come up with new experiments to test your theory — that is really a creative challenge.

No Answers in Genesis anti-science young earth creationists in this crowd of Catholic scientists. And while the Catholic journal First Things seems to be touting authors who doubt the existence, effects or human sources of global warming, these Catholic scientists view the issue less politically and more pragmatically:

Roman DiBiase:
Unfortunately, we do not have the convenience of waiting around for the best solution to appear before taking action. There are certain things we can do as a country that can help regardless of the exact nature of the problem. There is no reason not to build more energy-efficient houses, or fuel-efficient cars. Conservation is the key. The technology is available, but it requires a certain acceptance of failure on our part. People don’t want to change unless they absolutely have to, especially when the status quo is perfectly functional in our day-to-day lives. While I personally would not like to see gas go up to $6-8 per gallon, I’m sure it would jump-start a new era of energy efficient vehicles and alternative transportation.

(I agree: I’m not excited about $6-8/gallon gas, either – but it may be the only thing that gets us really serious about abandoning fossil fuels and moving into more efficient, cheaper and non-polluting sources of energy. Humans never seem to make radical jumps in their technology and cultural evolution until faced with a crisis).

Richard Nevle on the human causes of global warming:
So, with the birth of agricultural civilization about 8,000 years ago, humans began clearing land of forests to make it available for agriculture. The burning of those trees, by comparison to previous eras, was putting large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Later on, the advent of rice cultivation began to introduce large amounts of methane to the atmosphere…I and my collaborator surveyed the existing natural records of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from this time, and just as importantly, the records of the carbon isotope composition of CO2 — a chemical fingerprint, which together reveal a removal of CO2 in the atmosphere right after European arrival that is consistent with the signal expected from reforestation. All because so many indigenous Americans died from pandemics during the centuries of European conquest. Humans, we learned, seem to be changing climate even before the Industrial Era.

On the topic of Intelligent Design and Evolution, none of the Bellarmine alumni favored intelligent design. They were, however, unwilling to abandon faith completely, certainly something to be expected from Catholic scientists. I was interested, however, to read that they were exploring the intersection of faith and science beyond what we would normally read in the mainstream press. Charan Ranganath asks, “When is the imprimatur of God imposed upon matter? Is it at the very beginning of the universe — in the very nature of matter itself? For scientists who have a faith life, this is a very appealing notion. Einstein said he believed in the God of Spinoza, in other words, a god who is manifested in the order of nature…How does randomness fit with the notion of a God who is active in our lives? Now that’s an interesting question”.

There are vestiges of Gould’s NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) principle here, again something to be expected from Catholics and certainly something akin to what was presented during my early Catholic educational career. I am afraid that I have come to largely abandon the NOMA principle although there was a time when I advocated for it. During that period in my life, the randomness question was actually quite easy to solve: for a god of infinite time and space (which is presumably what we all believed in) is there such a thing as “random”? Randomness is a product of scale…and at the scale of human perception, things that appear random to us may not in fact be random to something at a much different scale.

Now, however, I think this is all a rather moot point. Personally I can no longer accept today’s religions as a window on the spiritual (I’ve read too much Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris; studied too much religious history, and know too much about human behavior). Religion (and by association, theology) is largely a product of human political agendas, disguised as something personal. But more on that later…

In the article, Charan Ranganath seems to look to further discovery in science as a way to bolster a personal faith, provided a mind is kept open: “I told him every time I’ve learned something about the brain, it gives me an appreciation of our complexity and of the delicate balance of factors that makes each of us unique. If you believe in God (or Gods), I would think that understanding our origins and our nature should reaffirm that belief, not undermine it”.
But Dr. Ranganath’s most impressive words on the subject of evolution and intelligent were the following:

When I hear about this issue, I can’t help but think that the blame falls squarely on scientists, not on the “religious right.” …Unfortunately, most scientists aren’t interested in engaging in a dialogue with the public, which is why you have the current state of affairs. If we want people to believe in science, we have to actually give them a reason, and say it clearly and consistently.

Certainly many scientists don’t engage the public on a regular basis. We need to step out of our ivory towers and discuss the method and results of scientific inquiry, whatever the discipline. As I’ve said countless times before, we need to compete with the creationists in constantly voicing why they are in error and we are correct. Those of us in the blogosphere are taking a good first step to counter the misinformation generated by the Discovery Institute, Answers in Genesis, and the like. It’s good to see that good Catholic institutions like Bellarmine are turning out scientists who feel the same way…

Of Capybaras And Catholics

I’ve been meaning to post on this ever since a good friend of mine brought it to my attention at work several weeks ago. Many of you may be familiar with the large capybara of South America. This animal is a member of the Order Rodentia – the same order to which mice, rats, field voles and squirrels belong – it’s just that capybara’s are a whole lot bigger. Most weigh in at over 100 pounds. Even the most taxonomically challenged would not have a difficult time concluding that this thing is a mammal (although I doubt many would immediately recognize it as a ROUS (Rodent Of Unusual Size – yes, I saw the Princess Bride). However, it turns out that the Catholic Church, through a twist of theological reasoning, proclaimed the capybara to be a fish. Yes, you heard correctly…during all those years of Lenten Fridays, while most of us were suffering through fried patties of cod, halibut or orange roughy in recognition of “meatless” observances, those in South America were happily consuming vast quantities of mammal meat, with the full blessing of the Church. Now, I do not begrudge my South American brothers and sisters the redness of their Lenten meat. I happen to love fish (although there are few who can butcher a fish meal better than a Catholic during Lent!). Nor, in all fairness, do I mock the Catholic Church over this. The proclamation was made during the 15th century, when Catholic officials in charge of such matters as meat taxonomy had little or nothing to go on other than local descriptions of the capybara – which pretty much amounted to “it’s mostly found it water”. No, I cannot mock a decision made half a century ago.

What I can mock them for is that, in 500 years since the decision (and 250 years since Linnaeus!) they haven’t changed their classification!!! The Catholic Church still considers capybara to be a fish.

The reasons for this seem to be clear. South America is loaded with Catholics who have a long tradition of eating capybara meat on Lenten Fridays (among others). In the interest of maintaining a large number of souls under the Catholic umbrella (and reais, pesos and bolivars in the collection basket!) I can understand why the Church would be so reluctant to accept modern science and maintain theological consistency. But if Catholic theology can be so easily morphed to accommodate the acquisition of political power (which is what a lot of souls ultimately buys you), then why should any Catholic Church (or any other for that matter) proclamation be considered something more than a contingency of values, as subject to the vagaries of political will as genetic variation is to the forces of natural selection?

Were this an isolated case, it might be considered something of an anomaly, but apparently the Catholic Church also considers sea turtles to be fish (and not reptiles). Local consumption of turtle meat along the Mexican coast, particularly during Lent, has compounded efforts to save these endangered animals. Conservationists and concerned fishermen pleaded with the Pope to repeal the declaration that sea turtles are fish in an effort to stem the tide of slaughter during Christianity’s Holy Week. (This was in 2002 and I can find no record of the Pope actually complying in an effort to help conservation efforts). Again, the issue appears to be a Vatican more concerned with stemming the tide of deserters than maintaining a consistent theology. This tells me that theological rules are made to be broken (or at least, never corrected)…but such is the nature of religion.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fundamentalist Christians In The Mililtary

In light of my previous blog on the issue of atheists being mistreated by our own military in Iraq, I ran across this interesting blog on the issue of fundamentalist Christians in the American military. Some frightening stuff....

What Fundamentalist Christians and Radical Muslims Have In Common

Was just catching up on my blog reading over at Dispatches From The Culture Wars and saw Ed's post on this:

Atheist Mistreatment In Iraq

No, not by radical Muslims but by our own military. This email was forwarded to me from a soldier in Iraq whose friend is being harassed at another base for organizing a meeting of atheists on the base....

Thought you'd be interested in this report of the first-ever meeting of Atheist service-members in Iraq under the umbrella of the MAAF-Iraq chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers. This meeting was put together by the same young MAAF member who recently had his second letter published in the Stars and Stripes....

Four soldiers attended this meeting - all of them very junior enlisted soldiers with the exception of one Major (an O-4), who claimed to be a "freethinker".

Well, to make a very long story a little shorter, the Major turned out to be a fundamentalist Christian who verbally berated the other attendees, accused them of plotting against Christians and disrespecting soldiers who have died protecting the Constitution, and threatened them with punishment under the UCMJ for their activities (said they were "going down") and said he would do whatever it took to shut the meetings down. Keep in mind that by this point, he had two of the attendees (one soldier fled when the shouting started) standing at the position of attention so that he could yell at them, berate them, and humiliate them. This apparently went on for several minutes at which time the Major shut down the meeting by saying he wasn't some "push-over Chaplain" and that he would not tolerate the meetings to continue.

This Major is as much a threat to American freedom as any radical Muslim. He has no concept of the US Constitution which he claims to be protecting, its history, its principles or its ideals. He should immediately be given a dishonorable discharge and forced to apologize publicly for his despicable behavior.

Archaeology and Animal Behavior

This cute little guy is an Ord’s kangaroo rat (Dipodomys ordii). We caught this little fellow (and several more like him) during the recent Zooarchaeology Conference field trip to northwest Nevada. I particularly like kangaroo rats because they are so docile and will allow you to handle them as long as you’re gentle (pocket mice, on the other hand, are vicious little creatures and will take a nasty chunk out of you if you’re not careful!). You might be wondering why a bunch of archaeologists would be interested in setting trap lines for rodents in the middle of the hot Nevada desert, but it’s rather easy to explain. As archaeologists interested in the use of faunal remains to indicate past human behavior (zooarchaeologists), most of us further recognize the need to go beyond the bones and study animal behavior and distribution as well. Our biologist colleagues always attend the conference and field trip with us and the cross-discipline exchanges have benefitted both sides. [On a side note, I hate to brag, but it was the archaeologist “team” who “out-trapped” the biologist team on this particular trip. However, although we successfully trapped more animals, the species diversity was identical between the teams].

It’s one thing to just identify the bones to species or genus level; but understanding the animal’s behavior is crucial to understanding its relationship to past human societies: as prey, as an indicator of environment, as an exchange item, as a source of raw material, etc. All aspects of animal behavior affect the technology, organization and resource acquisition behavior of humans. It is not sufficient to simply indicate that you have bighorn sheep or zebra in the faunal remains from your site. Those remains also imply particular things about human prey selection, transport, hunting method, economic return, seasonality, abundance and distribution. Understanding the behavior of a species is just as important as being able to identify its left distal tibia.

Of course, apart from providing a context for interpreting zooarchaeological remains, viewing and learning about wildlife is fun in and of itself. On our trip through northeastern California and northwestern Nevada we also encountered pronghorn antelope and mule deer, and in the High Rock Canyon in Nevada we were fortunate to come across this group of bighorn sheep. It was a magnificent sight as these animals are generally elusive. Besides the larger game animals and rodents, we also encountered a huge variety of bird species as well. My wife and I have found the fun in bird watching and have started our own list of identified species. It's a bit short now, but that will certainly change in time.

And The Winner Is....

Well, I'm back from the Zooarchaeology Conference at Eagle Lake (and finally caught up a bit at work!). As usual, it was a great week, and the field trip through northeast California and northwest Nevada was spectacular! More on that later, but first the important news:

I won the Zooarchaeology Conference Eagle Lake fishing derby and now hold the coveted "ceramic piranha" trophy (which is, in actuality this cheesy statue of a piranha someone brought back from Brazil and for more than a decade served as a table decoration in the dining hall of the CSU Field Station...until we absconded with it and use it as the "Stanley Cup" of the fishing derby!). The contest is based on largest Eagle Lake trout caught during the week - mine came in at a mere 3lbs 3ozs. - there was a time we would regularly catch 4 lb trout, but they seem to be getting smaller. So I'll have to come back and post on the concepts of prey depression and overharvesting...

Although not part of the traditional derby, several of us had a side bet (1$ per person) on the total number of fish. I pulled it out the last couple of days of fishing and tied for the total number during the week. My daughter might have won the size contest had she landed the fish that ultimately snapped her 6lb test Maxima line - there were of course claims of tampering on my part as I was last seen adjusting her reel as she was struggling with the fish (I was trying to loosen the drag!!), but how could I do that to my own offspring?

Anyway, lots of fun and I'll post some stories and photos shortly...

Monday, August 06, 2007

Of Local Interest - Re-take

Unlike the Pope (or, maybe like the Pope, depending on your perspective) Northstate Science is not infallible. I just noticed my previous post on a new Lassen County website, Photos By Jana, I forgot to actually provide a link. So, now that I've fixed it, please visit Jana and take a look at her beautiful photography work.