Thursday, March 8, 2018

Evolution Outshines Pensiveness

My style of dress has evolved since my days of playing Gertie the Garbologist at an outdoor school.  

 is a process of continuous branching and diversification from common trunks. This pattern of irreversible separation gives life's history its basic directionality.
 —Stephen Jay Gould

By Bob Ferris

During the break between finishing my undergraduate degree in biology and attending graduate school, I took a little time to finish my thesis for my second degree in environmental studies and consider my options.  Part of how I occupied this time was teaching at a residential outdoor school for two seasons (see above photo).  Basically this was sixth-grade camp, though we did have some students who came earlier or from middle schools.  The first season went well, but during the second the rains came.  

The Ark.

Not quite forty days and forty nights worth, but enough so that we had to move our school from its traditional location to another one that the district rented from a local Christian organization.  The site served but also came complete with a reproduction of Noah's Ark which was essentially a large classroom element.  In the shadow of this structure is where I generally taught evolution to the visiting students.  

Since 1950, developments in molecular biology have had a growing influence on the theory of evolution. —Nature
I think about this now as I watch with rapt amazement the rapid development of our understanding of human evolution, in particular, the stories told us by genetics and physical evidence surrounding the Neanderthals (see John Hawks lecture video above) and the Denisovans.  This process includes near constant adjustment of our grander family trees and long-held concepts such as when DNA analyses indicated that the so-called Cheddar Man from Britain's distance past had blue eyes, but black curly hair and dark skin.  Cool.

In Darwinian evolution, the basic mechanism is genetic mutation, followed by selection of the organisms most likely to survive. —Pamela Weintraub
It is hard to reconcile these impressive developments with those thoughts shouted by forces discrediting evolution by attempting to characterize it as only a theory or something weakened by these discoveries.  The theory of evolution (a process) is not threatened by new knowledge or changes in the family tree of man, on the contrary.  This faulty line of reasoning would be similar to arguing that the discovery of a new ancestor or relative through research compromises the idea of genealogy or even reproduction.  These are, of course, silly notions.  But...

In addition to characterizing Mel Gibson as the pinnacle of human evolution and incorrectly describing evolutionary progression as linear rather than branched or blended (see Gould quote), Mike Pence makes both the specious "theory" claim and presents the notion that new knowledge weakens rather than strengthens understanding.  He does all this while embracing and forwarding teachings that have remained largely unchanged for two millennia and seem absolutely immune to new knowledge and evidence.

Cavities and other tooth ailments were attributed to worms of even demons in the 18th century as these carvings from the period attest.
Pence's argument regarding the Founding Fathers is problematic also.   Many of those involved in this progressive experiment of ours were men who had a great interest in science.   Some, such as the Deists, were in the early stages of weaning themselves from the day-to-day aspects of religion.  This was also before the time of Darwin (born 1809) so they would hardly have been subscribers to a theory that did not yet exist.  That said, folks like Thomas Jefferson were holding in their hands with curiosity the clues that would eventually lead to this line of reasoning and set of scientific disciplines.  These Founding Fathers wanted to know where this evidence led and were headed in that direction.

Moreover, Pence's Founding Fathers comment seems to argue that if it was good enough for these founders it should be good enough for us.  This fails to acknowledge the vast body of scientific discoveries since that time.   Mr. Pence should also remember that blood-letting, Phrenology, and any number of torturous treatments for mental illness were also accepted at this time.  And that electrons (1897), photons (1905), and DNA (1953) were unknown during this period.  So it appears he is asking us to step backwards in our knowledge and understanding.

I understand that not everyone will have the interest or background to enjoy an hour-long lecture on Neanderthals by John Hawks or be engaged enough in this topic to take his free on-line course on Coursera.    But I would ask people to watch the question and answer portion of Dr. Hawks' talk and compare it to this short interchange with Mike Pence above.  One represents the free exchange of ideas in an evolving and exciting landscape and the other is an example of avoiding answering honestly and stonewalling at every turn.  This is more than one being a likable and knowledgable individual you would want to invite to dinner and the other more like your rigid relative who gives you heartburn at every meal, it is really about how we see the world and the future.   I would select a future of knowledge, honestly addressing what we know and do not know and seeking answers where gaps exist.  But too many for comfort, exemplified by Pence, would have us drift back to an earlier time when science was ignored, because it serves them economically...for now.

Who knows what was running through Ben Franklin's mind.  But I suspect his thoughts were not about the present, but rather about an enhanced future he was trying to create.

There is a certain and obvious irony in me teaching evolution in the shadow of a building shaped like an ark.  But that phenomenon also exists with those wanting to curtail the scientific revolution embraced by a number of our Founding Fathers.  For we would have no one shouting "but her e-mails" had some scientists not first discovered and then harnessed the power inherent in electrons. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dunce Dynasty, Dumb by Design

Duck Commander Phil Robertson (video here).
By Bob Ferris

There is an element of the animal rights side of things that is conservative and often evangelical in nature.  Seems odd, but true.  Occasionally, someone of this mind set friends me on Facebook because of my past work with wolves and wildlife.  This relationship cruises along until something like the above video shows up on my feed.    Part of me thinks that the intent here could have been to friend me so I would see this video or others because I am obviously a scientist, progressive, and an unwashed pagan at heart.  The other part of me just sighs as there are some in the world who just buy messages such as this like garage-sized packages of toilet paper at Costco.  Unfriend.

Some will question my quick jump to the unfriend button.  Why wouldn't I reach out and seek a dialogue?  I have been known for that in the past, why not now?  Good question.   My response would be that I used to throw a discus in high school.  I tried to sail it as far as I could, but I knew that I could never toss that rubbered disk across the Grand Canyon.  Similarly, I know unfriending is most reasonable course here, because of two unsupportable threads of reasoning in the video that just sting parts of my brain and being.

Phil Robertson founded the Duck Commander empire.  Part of what they sell on their website is duck calls.  They have pages and pages of classic, premium, and specialty calls all designed for certain species often under differing circumstances.  This makes sense as you would not try to call Canada geese with a mallard or gadwall call let alone the high whispers of a widgeon call.  That would be silly.  Kind of like hunting ducks with a .30-06 or a Red Ryder BB gun.  Wrong tool for the wrong moment.  It is important to understand how deeply Mr. Robertson's company and its success is grounded in this idea of the properly designed product for the appropriate circumstance.

Yet here is Duck Commander Phil in the above video trying to make it sound like he would not use a rifle specifically designed to kill kill people.  Given the above, this is a phenomenal disconnect.  Something like a carpenter claiming that a hammer was a can-opener and hoping never to hit a nail with it.  I am sure it would be fun to open cans with a hammer, lots of fun, but that is not its function.  Never was.  Same with the AR-15 and its derivatives that were designed to be sold to the military not hunters or recreational shooters.

This idea of assault-style rifles being sporting weapons is a purely manufactured one that more than likely springs from the National Shooting Sports Foundation that has pushed the idea of recasting AR-15s as  "modern sporting rifles."  Not surprising that an arms industry group like NSSF would want to re-characterize assault rifles in this way.  I wonder what their motivation could be?  Hmm.  Not sure, but I suspect their motivation lives somewhere at the bottom of the ocean under clouds of cetacean-generated detritus as does Robertson's...he of the deeply discounted bobble head fame (above).

Detail of David taking Goliath's head by Michelangelo. 

But Mr. Robertson goes deeper into illogic.  It seems almost as a test of how far he can go into this realm where reality is of little consequence.  How else could one claim that embracing the Bible would lead to the stopping of killing?  The Bible itself talks about God killing literally millions of souls.  Yes, there is that commandment thing about not killing.  That would taken seriously, but too many of those mentioned in the Bible and praised, like David above, have gotten get-out-of-jail-free cards.   This admonition seems to be a monumental "wink and a nudge." 

History too does not support this line of reasoning as far too many to count have been killed by those fully embracing this book.  I am sure those hung witches in Salem, those killed during the Inquisition, or Joan of Arc (about to be fired above) would not subscribe to this notion of this book stopping killing.  The same could be said of the young man beaten to death in upstate New York, those killed at family planning agencies, or the many Americans killed or injured because they were different by those licensed by this book to do them harm. 

So we are stuck with a video of someone who should know better trying to normalize ownership of a weapon meant for killing people which will certainly result in more deaths.  He is also making this indefensible claim that the Bible, which is loaded with killing, is a killing killer.  Neither line of reasoning holds much water, but still they are made.  My sense is that progress on these fronts will not be realized until we address both issues openly and honestly.  We need to see assault rifles for what they are and determine who should logically own them.  And we must understand that blind adherence to a book--any book--in the absence of intelligent and informed teaching in morality and ethics is of little value or benefit to this country or the world.    We should not be fooled by the amount of tape wrapped around either item or argument.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Holes in Daddy's Arms Argument

In the early 1970s, about the time that I received my draft number, John Prine released an iconic song called Sam Stone.  My draft number was 344.  I remember my number because it was monumentally important to me and I remember a line in that song for similar reasons.  The line is: There is a hole in daddy's arm where all the money flows.  This obviously speaks about the harm of addiction as well as the impacts of war, but the line is on my mind because of the assault weapon debate.

Why? A woman on Facebook was making the argument that a friend of mine was insensitive to the devastating financial impact that an assault ban would have on those who had invested their hard-earned money buying these weapons.  Hmmm?  Interesting argument but I suspect that there is some sort of law of logic or math that would counter-argue that if it is a financial burden for the weapons to be banned or taken that a similar line of reasoning could be applied to their purchase in the first place.

Now I am a hunter and I currently own two firearms--a deer rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun.  I have owned a couple of additional weapons in the past when I hunted more or had more opportunities for shooting, but my investments here and in ammunition have always been modest and nothing that even came close to causing me financial harm.    I like guns and their history particularly during the 19th century and will admit to watching many of the quirky videos on Forgotten Weapons and other Youtube channels that look at the evolution of firearms.   I also love hunting (for a number of reasons) and enjoy shooting.  Both are fun, but there is also the danger of "too much" here.  And that was the issue that this woman raised without really knowing it.

Drinking is wonderful unless you drink too much.  Being successful is admirable unless you make so much money that your need to make more forces you to corrupt an admirable political system and selfishly cause harm to many.  The same is true of religion when it wanders beyond hymn singing and moral guidance into the land of God told me hate or kill this person because they are different than me.  Which brings us back to a person who owns a gun or two and someone who buys so many guns that their regulatory control of assault weapons would cause them an "unbearable" financial burden.   These as, John Prine painted in the Sam Stone song, are addictions.

One of the hallmarks of addiction is rationalization or a suspension of logic (1,2,3).  How else could anyone argue that having an AR-15-style weapon on their wall or in their closet for any reason is more important than the lives of children or those fellow citizens recently mowed down in Las Vegas?    I have braced myself here for collective yell of "Second Amendment" roaring like a Force 5 hurricane, but here I will ask those doing so to loop back to the underlined "any" above and the fact that the courts have ruled that assault weapon ownership is not protected under the US Constitution.    But we are talking about irrationality and addiction here so I fully expect that the Second Amendment crowd will take another run at the wall.  Perhaps they will return to argue that their gathering of others with similar maladies in the woods constitutes what our Founding Fathers envisioned as a well-regulated militia.  Not even close.

Further fuel for the addiction argument comes from the distribution of arms.  Something like 55 million Americans own guns.  That is less than one in five in America.  Those folks on average own three firearms which sounds reasonable until you look at the estimates of between 265-300 million firearms in private ownership nationally with three percent of those folks holding fifty percent of the total.  Swimming around in these numbers are those whose addiction and rationalization help the NRA and others block logical and justifiable action on assault weapons.  Now I honestly do not know if the above video is a self-parody or someone making a parody of this gentleman. But I am not sure it matters, because all of us who have been around gun forums long enough have seen someone exactly like this or similar.  But I will digress. 

When my father passed a few years ago his Winchester .30-06 and treasured Fox Sterlingworth 16 gauge side-by-side (the one with the dent in the forestock from when my older brother pulled both triggers at once in a barrel blind) went to my nephew.  I do not know who will get my Marlin .30-30 or Remington 11-87 when I cruise away, but someone in the family certainly will.  My reason for taking this detour is that an arms industry centered on legacy weapons like these is unlikely to grow in leaps and bounds or make anyone super-rich.  So new markets were created and hunting opportunities broadened.  So-called "black guns"(1,2) emerged, scopes got bigger, magazine capacity increased.   Varmint shooting and predator derbies also migrated from dubious or obscure activities to "fun for the entire family." 

To many of us of an age this took hunting from the realm of a fine scotch gratefully sipped to one of two six-packs consumed nightly.  Some would disagree with my assessment but I would argue that transmuting hunting and shooting from the skill of a well-stalked animal and perfection of shot to something resembling a video game with a kick, in part, opened this dangerous door to this addiction.   Once it became a dynamic of more, farther, and most, the scramble was on.

Think this did not have an impact and was not purposeful? When I started deer hunting more than fifty years ago anyone showing up with a semi-automatic rifle of any kind got the stink-eye and was not generally invited back.   But after a generation of outdoor writers and hunting magazines portraying AR-15-style rifles as fine for deer that trepidation seems headed for extinction.   I hear this Vietnam veterans argument that you hunt with the familiar but my first hunting companions were my father's friends who were World War II veterans.  They were certainly familiar with M-1s in various iterations and machine guns, but my father's buddies had no trouble differentiating between hunting arms and those used for war.  Moreover, I never observed any driving need in my father to venture out on the weekends to fire weapons that mimicked the M2 Brownings on the P-40s he flew in New Guinea.    This strikes me as a need and desire created on the wings of massive marketing rather than natural happenstance.

NRA's Spokesperson Dana Loesch. 

So here we are: the NRA flush with cash from a number of sources (1,2,3,4) with scant interest in America's safety or general welfare are working to flood our political system (1,2,3) with those willing to carry their Second Amendment and other gun myths in an effort to hold open markets to the small number of the addicted among us.   How small?  The rule of thumb in marketing (i.e., Pareto Principle) is that twenty percent of the market buys eighty percent of the product.  That pegs the core number at nearly eleven million or less than three percent of Americans.  How addicted?  Addicted enough to think that it is acceptable to smear and lie about children who were recently victims of a horrible tragedy.   The bad news is that we also have a president and Congress that seem to snort myths and pander to the few rather than most of us (see tax bill) often spitting in the eyes of both truth and democracy in the process.

So we are screwed, right? Yeah, except for...courage.  We are starting to see courage.  We have seen it in the students from Douglas High School who have stood up to the smear campaigns (1,2,3) and the avalanche of misinformation on Fox News and other outlets including what is circulated by Russian bots (1,2,3).   We see it in Delta Airlines and other companies standing up to the NRA and pressure in Georgia.  And we see in this announcement by Dick's Sports that they will no longer sell assault-style weapons.   The American experiment is a progressive, one born of courage.  And it will hopefully be saved again from these abuses by the few for the few by these acts of courage and others.  We are after all the land of the free and the home of the brave not cannot remain that if we are victims of the ignorant or easily fooled.   

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Stupid on a Stick Flu

What passes for facts in the Alt-right world (link here Caution: Language.)

By Bob Ferris

Okay.  Yeah.  I am fresh from another on-line debate.  No, that is not right.  I was expressing my outrage at the unfounded and manufactured attacks on these grieving high school students in Florida.  The response being one more shovelful of crap after another.  They are coached.  But the earpieceCrisis actors.  Not from Florida.  Already graduated from another school.  There was a second shooter.  Kind of deplorable in the full mouth of apple and half-eaten worm kind of way.  But this is what we have and we see it sprinkled over everything from the Florida shooting to the recent Mueller indictments and from climate change to vaccinations.

I tend to think of this collective phenomenon as a virus.  A societal disease that I wish was less wide-spread and not as fact-resistant as we what we see above.  In my efforts to inject facts into some of this discourse I have been told to "grow up" or "mature."  I actually have followed both those directives which is why I use calm insults rather than more forceful means when confronting those who spew unfounded rumors and disproved gossip like a Tiger Beat-reading teen. 

But holding the tone down is admittedly difficult in the face of ridiculousness when your entire being screams from the sting of acidic ignorance and the intellectual injuries resulting from exposure to the toxic twists of obvious lies and propaganda.     Take one of the vehicles used to deliver some of this morning's misinformation--a site called The Burning Platform (TBP).  They used the above graphic to protest being banned from Twitter.  Their thesis being that not all conservative websites were Russian bots.  While their claim may be valid, one of their main advertisers is Zeropark, a Warsaw-based company (see below), whose adds are frequently done in Cyrillic lettering and have kind of an Eastern Bloc vibe as does TBP's reposting of Kremlin-friendly Zero-Hedge articles.    It seems to me if you do not want to be considered a "duck," you might take steps to be a little less festooned with feathers. 

The above from TBP is illustrative also, because it presents another symptom of this insidious virus: the seductive guise of insider information that others might not have or certainly would not understand if they did.  The above is couched in what can only be classified as "conspiracy-speak."  Now I am not sure how one logically jumps to the conclusion that blind acceptance of anonymous information stored two standard deviations from the norm (i.e., MSM) is a sign of superior intelligence, but the sufferers of this malady wear this proudly like measles.     To me and many others it more closely resembles a child running naked through the streets anxious to show the world their foolishness and the large, red "F" on their report card.

We all know those so infected.  They post and post thinking themselves geniuses perhaps because of their limited or compromised lenses.  Figuratively, they stand on strange shadowed peaks not understanding that the darkness they experience comes from the shade thrown by heights they think they have already climbed, but have not.  They enthusiastically confuse earpieces used for remote interviews as mind-control or prompting and embrace the narrative that the Las Vegas shootings, like the moon landing and the Holocaust, never happened.

The woman in the CNN video clip wants to think herself a patriot.  She holds this notion even when confronted with the idea that she was connected electronically with Russians feeding her suggestions and wanting to do us harm.  The conversation follows the painfully-predictable course we have all seen as it degrades into the land of didn't-do-it, then progressing then to wouldn't-matter-if-I-did.  It seemed like it was probably warming up to a charge of ad hominem, but she retreated into her house clinging, limpet-like to her beliefs.   Knowing or unknowing collusion with our nation's adversaries seems about as far away from patriotism as one can get.  But many do strange things while they are fevered.

Hopefully, our nation is sufficiently resilient to weather this bout of flu.  Interestingly, the indications of healing seem to be springing from same source as the expressed symptoms.  That these students and others across the nation are willing to suffer this tragedy, persevere through this attack, and still speak up as those of my generation did in the 1960s is encouraging.  These student marches and protests are like the sweat of a breaking fever.  Please continue to have the courage of your convictions and lead us through this.