Worst 4 years ever

28 02 2007

I got a chance to check out the documentary Go Tigers! tonight and it brought back a lot of memories of high school (no, not good ones). This Green Day song, being released in October of my senior year, essentially sums up my feelings on that time in my life

Now, my school was nowhere-near as football obsessed as Massolin, but football players did have a certain privalege and I could recognize all the same “characters” of the documentary from my own high school; classic football jocks, airhead cheerleaders, parents who buy beer for their kids to puke up on Friday nights, that crazy fat kid who thinks he’s funny but really looks like he’s going to have a heart attack, the young football coach who prays with his team just before cursing them out, etc. To put it mildly, I really hated high school; it was the worst 4 years of my life. Granted, I didn’t go to football games or take an interest in getting drunk on weekends (I had integrity), but in general it was just not a happy time. I was a dork, classes were boring, girls ignored me, the popular kids made fun of me nearly daily, and even amongst my friends I felt somewhat second rate. College hasn’t fared much better (although I don’t have to be at school all day every day now), the same high school drama just changing faces. Indeed, everyone here at RU makes a big deal about football but who can be bothered to protest yet another tuition increase or decisions to change the name of my school (Cook College)? Hell, when I graduate I don’t even really want to go to commencement because I don’t have much of a connection with this school; why should I sit and listen to people gab on about this being the “first day of the rest of my life” when I don’t really care? I just want to get out and start learning about the world and making a difference in it, and I guess the only reason I’m still in college is because the piece of paper is the first step to getting there, even though it doesn’t really say much about who I really am. *sigh* I want a do-over.

Screw Japanese culture, whaling is wrong!

28 02 2007

After fights with the likes of Greenpeace and an engine fire, the Japanese whaling fleet is headed home “hundreds of whales short” of their goal. While the news reports go along with Japan’s claim that their whaling practices are somehow scientifically motivated and important to our understanding of whales, the truth of the matter is that Japan wants to continue to hunt whales and sell the meat for profit, which typically goes right back into hunting more whales the next year. While this years murderous cull was indeed cut short, 508 whales were killed, the original goal being 860 (the article does not mention what species were taken). We’re likely to see a replay of the drama in May when the fleet is scheduled to take 350 whales in the Pacific northwest, all of this is allowed by the International Whaling Commission according to the Yahoo!News article. If this is indeed true (no mention of Japan’s whaling practices is mentioned on the IWC website), then perhaps the IWC should take down all the beautiful pictures of whales jumping and swimming and replace them with what’s happening on the deck of the Nisshin Maru.

What really pisses me off is this line from the article

Tokyo maintains that whaling is a national tradition and a vital part of its food culture, and argues that whale stocks have sufficiently recovered since 1986 to allow a resumption of limited hunts of certain species.

Perhaps whaling was a part of Japanese culture at one time but to the best of my understanding, the people of Japan did not starve in 1986 when whaling was outlawed. Indeed, the attitude of “Well, it’s a cultural tradition, so who are we to tell them they can’t do it” helps no one and is downright daft. There is no reason that whales should be harvested, even if certain populations have rebounded. Beyond ecology, there is a strong ethical component that the Japanese have not responded to; whales are among the most intelligent creatures on the planet and have emotions, family groups suffering from emotional stress when members are lost. Is it ethical to continue hunting and killing animals that certainly feel pain and perhaps even understand they are dying when they’re being killed? The hunt is certainly not humane and there is no reason for it other than some people want to eat whale, similar problems still existing with the practice of shark finning because of the status eating shark find soup brings. The pseudoscientific medicinal culture does not help either, nearly everything being an aphrodesiac or making he who consumes a powerful animal embued with its power; such beliefs must be abandoned if we are to conserve wildlife.

The Japanese can continue to pay lip service to the rest of the world and say the hunt is for scientific purposes, but it doesn’t appear to be the case at all. The Yahoo!News article states that the hunts help identify population size, location (duh), and feeding habits of the animals, but couldn’t much of the data come from (gasp) not killing the whales? I guess these gives have never heard of the “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” philosophy to ecology. If this is really a scientific excercise, the boats would be outfitted with the best scientific equipment and scientists from around the world would get together to study cetaceans, but instead we find commerical whaling boats dedicated only to the hunting of these animals. I don’t know why countries that oppose whaling continually turn a blind eye to Japan or why the IWC allows this; what’s Japan going to do if other nations put their foot down? Cry like a baby? As mentioned before, this is not just a question of ecology but of ethics as well, and I think we know enough to say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the hunting of cetaceans is barbaric to the individual being killed and the family they leave behind (if there’s any family left). Much like other ecological problems, there is a moral imperitive to do what’s right regardless of what was permissable in the past or certain cultural beliefs. How long are we going to continue to commit sins against ourselves and nature simply because it’s comfortable to do so?

We need to wake up

28 02 2007

I hadn’t heard the song before Dan put it up on the ever-wonderful Migrations, but I love this song. It’s good to actually hear something with some substance (unlike the HUGE disappointment the new Ataris album, Welcome to the Night was). I have to agree with Dan, however, in that just “waking up” is not appropriate at this stage of the game. He writes;

I understand focusing on one issue, but I’m not content with just “waking up” on the issue of climate change. The issue is larger than that – we as a society need to operate less on superstition and magical thinking, and more on facts and reason. Yet we still live in a society where the popular discussions of science are dominated by global warming skeptics, creationists, and Right-wing (for a lack of a better term) bioethics (e.g. the stem cell issue); about one in six Americans is scientifically literate. Why is this situation tolerable?

Indeed, just being aware there is a problem is no different from being complacent. Even so, I think there are plenty of people in the scientific community not pulling their weight to communicate how important ecology is to everybody, and the popular media constantly fumbles the ball through error or giving cranks and crackpots “equal time.” A free press is not about making sure everyone has equal time; it’s about reporting honestly and accurately. Anyone can criticise any given point, but not all criticism is equal. When it comes to climate change (and ecological destruction, which has been going on for far longer in general terms) no one is innocent, and people need to hear how we are at a critical time when it comes to preserving ecology. Perhaps one of the most striking images from Gore’s film had less to do with climate and more to do with population; there are more than 6 billion people on the planet, the result of a tripling of global population in one generation. Such fast growth does not come without consequences, especially when many of us require far more resources than we need to survive (we may be small in relative terms, but in terms of the resources an individual consumes we have no equal in all of history). Hence, not only does the public and government officials need to “wake up,” but more and more scientists need to speak out about important issues like global climate change, evolution, etc., otherwise we’ll simply be left to lament our own complacency.

It’ll make you feel like you should probably do something

28 02 2007

For those of you (like me) waiting for Futurama to come back on the air via Comedy Central and give a damn about global climate change, here’s a promotional clip for An Inconvenient Truth that I somehow missed whenever it aired;

Who’s driving the car?

28 02 2007

I hadn’t heard about it previously, but my wife told me about a book entitled Survival of the Sickest she caught wind of via an NPR interview today. While I’ll do my best to reserve judgement until I read the book (my wife told me one of the authors described themselves as a neo-Lamarckian, *shudder*), I think the effects of disease, insects, and other often-overlooked factors should be researched more thoroughly when it comes to evolution. Evolution is the unifying concept of biological science and there is simply too much more any one person to know, but sometimes I get the feeling that species are viewed as distinct from their environment, almost as if they were in a vacuum or held in constant conditions. We know this is not the case, of course, and I firmly believe that there needs to be a greater integration of ecology and evolution; you can’t fully hope to understand one without the other. How can you understand how an ecosystem forms and behaves (be it energy cycling, who eats whom, etc.) without evolution? How can we understand how creatures evolve without understanding the resources available to them and pressures put on them by the surrounding ecology? Lab tests and coming up with theoretical intermediates is certainly interesting, but I personally think that evolution cannot be fully comprehended apart from understanding ecology. Even in general, I think science would be far better-off if at least some scientists were more skilled in interdisciplinary research, or at least kept up with what has been happening in related fields. Granted, I’m just a young start-up who isn’t really a part of the “scientific establishment” yet, but I think scientists in all disciplines need to do a better job talking to the public and talking to each other.

Sean B. Carroll podcast

28 02 2007

If you haven’t already, check out a podcast featuring an interview with Sean B. Carroll over at the WSST Lab Table blog. I’ve been bad an haven’t had a chance to read either of his books yet (shameful, I know), but I’ve definitely been impressed with everything I’ve seen from him so far (i.e. a chapter on “fossil genes” in Natural History magazine last October). The interview goes over his books (and why you should definitely pick them up ASAP), icefish blood, the popular vs scientific understanding of DNA, the importance of evolution in the classroom, the scientific vacuity that exists in America today amongst the public and government officials, potential economic ramifications of denying evolution, and much more. It’s not the most exciting interview I’ve ever heard, but it’s definitely worth the 1/2 hour I spent listening.

One of the most interesting points one of the hosts brings up is very relevant and important to the discussion of evolution; animals do not choose to adapt a certain way. To take the hosts example, a walking stick was not once some other bug that thought “Hey, it’d be advantagous if I looked like a stick” and designed itself to develop adaptations to camoflage itself. This is the standard explanation I remember from grade school, and even last night one of my professors here at Rutgers attempted to explain the mimicry of Monarch butterflies by Viceroy butterflies by suggesting the Viceroys chose to change, almost like they were in on the “secret” that Monarchs taste terrible to birds. Now, it’s easy to explain how such mimicry comes about via natural selection (elimination of most Viceroys that don’t naturally have a variation that makes them look like Monarchs), but for some reason so many teachers mess up when it comes to how adaptations arise, almost as if evolution doesn’t apply.

Hat-tip to the Panda’s Thumb for the story

And it’s not even Shark Week!

28 02 2007

According to news blurbs on Yahoo!News and LiveScience, approximately 20 new species of sharks and rays have been found in Indonesian waters. Rather than scouring every inch of ocean in hopes of finding new specimens, the researchers visited fish markets over 5 years, such markets often getting to the fish before scientists can. Indeed, the past month has produced headlines featuring colossal squid, goblin and frilled sharks, and a slew of new critters from Antarctic seas, so it’s definitely been an exciting time for all those interested in marine biology. I have to wonder, however, if more deep sea species are being caught as a result of environmental changes. As for the new sharks and rays, even though they are newly discovered they may already be in deep trouble, Indonesia being hard on fish of all types and notoriously difficult to regulate when it comes to anti-poaching and conservation measures. Hopefully scientists will have a change to observe the animals in their own habitat, rather than adding a brand new species to the endangered or extinct list.

Photo of the day

28 02 2007

Just because my mind is blank at the moment (3 hours of bio 102 lab will do that to you), here’s a photo from my trip to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom this past summer;


It’s a fiesty male Gerenuk who very much wanted to mate with a female in the enclosure (much to the chagrin of the nearby parents).

Woohoo! I’m famous… sort of

27 02 2007

Paranoid blogger that I am, I did a search for my name on google and found out that I’m now an official part of Wikipedia! This is probably trivial, but it feels good to know people actually are reading what I have to say. Even so, I don’t have enough notoriety to have anyone case what my name is, haha, the article saying

One critic of Wells said “If one reads Wells’ criterion for his bogus A-F grading scale for the textbooks in Icons, it quickly becomes apparent that even publishing illustrations that resemble Haeckel’s to illustrate his folly will garner the book a D, the only difference between a D and an F in Wells’ mind being a ‘D’ grade book selecting a few embryos rather than publishing the full swath Haeckel originally doctored.” [emphasis mine]

This, of course, comes from my post about the “Hoax of Dodos” video the Disco Institute put up, inspiring me to have a look through some of the textbooks I own to see if I could spy Haeckel’s embryos anywhere. I also meant to mention, as a point of interest if nothing else, that Carl Sagan actually speaks of Haeckel’s embryos in a positive manner in the 1976 book The Dragons of Eden, using the defunct recapitulation hypothesis to help readers understand that our brains can tell us something of our evolutionary history. I’ll have to go back and reproduce the passages from the book, but it did get me wondering if the idea of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” not because it’s being taught or is in textbooks, but rather it is a popular misconception, being deemed scientifically accurate in some dated popular books (like Dragons and a TIME/LIFE science series I had as a child) and in films (like The Prophecy and Peter Benchley’s Creature). Regardless of all this, Randy Olson is right to point out that the Disco Institute fixating on this issue is trivial, the group doing little to nothing to refute the larger claims of Olson’s documentary Flock of Dodos.

Anyway, whomever listed me on Wikipedia, thank you for reading and quoting me. It feels good to be appreciated. 🙂

A vaccination gone bad

26 02 2007

The Times Online has a piece from William Ress-Mogg today entitled Religion isn’t the sickness. It’s the cure, and as you can imagine it’s a very painful read. Mogg jumps right into the fray with this gem

From the earliest days Christianity has been opposed to slavery. In his Letter to the Galatians, St Paul wrote: “As many of you that have been baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. We were all one in Jesus Christ.” Undoubtedly Christians have compromised with slavery — as with other social evils — in the course of history, but the orthodox Christian doctrine is one of liberty and equality.

Either the newly-released William Wilberforce-centered film Amazing Grace was on his mind or he’s presupposing one of the most often-contested aspects of religion; it’s tolerance for (and even endorsement of) slavery. Many Christians attempt to dismiss the Bible’s passages on slavery with a wave of the hand, saying that God only condemns some forms of slavery (i.e. based upon race) but other forms really weren’t “slavery” at all. I find this to be an awfully flimsy argument, attempting to uphold the “inerrancy” of clearly unethical and immoral social policies because “God said so.” I’ll let the verses speak for themselves;

Deuteronomy 15:12-15

If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

Ephesians 6:9

And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.

Colossians 4:1

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

The above verses primarily concern themselves with the “proper treatment” of slaves, but others are far more disturbing, as can be seen in Exodus 21

Exodus 21:2-11

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.

But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.

If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as menservants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.

Exodus 21:20

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.

To this we can add the strange and often disturbing rules found in Leviticus

Leviticus 25:44-46

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

There are plenty more verses to select from, but this smattering of material from the NIV translation clearly shows that rather than outlawing slavery and regarding it as a sin (why not make “Thou shalt not keep slaves” as the 11th commandment?), it is to be structured and condoned, women (of course) having even less rights than male slaves, and non-Hebrew people being worse off all around. You would like to think that such an unconscionable practice would have disappeared in antiquity, for surely Christians would have understood how you cannot love your neighbor when you keep him in chains. Such optimism would be misplaced. Here is the statement of a much more eloquent man, Frederick Douglass, on the subject;

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst. No, a darker feature is yet to be presented than the mere existence of these facts. I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the greater sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. (Deep sensation). While America is printing tracts and Bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the Gospel in foreign lands, the slave not only lies forgotten—uncared for, but is trampled under foot by the very churches of the land. What have we in America? Why we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed institution, as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward, and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed (Loud cries of “Shame!”) They stand forth as the foremost, the strongest defenders of this “institution.” As a proof of this, I need not do more than state the general fact, that slavery has existed under the droppings of the sanctuary of the south, for the last 200 years, and there has not been any war between the religion and the slavery of the south.

Whips, chains, gags, and thumb-screws have all lain under the droppings of the sanctuary, and instead of rusting from off the limbs of the bondman, these droppings have served to preserve them in all their strength. Instead of preaching the Gospel against this tyranny, rebuke, and wrong, ministers of religion have sought, by all and every means, to throw in the background whatever in the Bible could be construed into opposition to slavery, and to bring forward that which they could torture into its support. (Cries of “Shame!”) This I conceive to be the darkest feature of slavery, and the most difficult to attack, because it is identified with religion, and exposes those who denounce it to the charge of infidelity. Yes, those with whom I have been labouring, namely, the old organization Anti-Slavery Society of America, have been again and again stigmatized as infidels, and for what reason? Why, solely in consequence of the faithfulness of their attacks upon the slaveholding religion of the southern states, and the northern religion that sympathizes with it. (Hear, hear.)

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again, even since I came to this country, but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. (Loud cheers.)

I love the religion of our blessed Saviour, I love that religion that comes from above, in the “wisdom of God, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. “‘a I love that religion that sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of him that has fallen among thieves. I love that religion that makes it the duty of its disciples to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction. I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man (cheers); which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by. If you demand liberty to yourself, it says, grant it to your neighbours. If you claim a right to think for yourselves, it says, allow your neighbours the same right. If you claim to act for yourselves, it says, allow your neighbours the same right. It is because I love this religion that I hate the slave-holding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America. (Immense cheering.) It is because I regard the one as good, and pure, and holy, that I cannot but regard the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. Loving the one I must hate the other, holding to the one I must reject the other, and I, therefore, proclaim myself an infidel to the slave-holding religion of America. (Reiterated cheers.)

Such is the dilemma I myself have often faced in my own mind; who is to blame for the atrocities in the name of God? Him or His followers? It cannot be ignored that the Bible sanctions slavery (regardless of how some of the faithful try to downplay it) and that Christians have supported or at least allowed for its practice to this day (slavery still exists in many parts of the world). Now, religious folks did play a large role in the abolition of slavery and their accomplishments should be noted, but it is important to remember that (as Douglass notes) they were like infidels to the established majority, fighting against the long-accepted idea that slavery was acceptable. Religion had even gone as far to say that dark skin was the “Mark of Cain”, and thus enslaved dark-skinned peoples was acceptable because of their link to the first murderer as told in Genesis. Indeed, abolitionists were fighting against religion and entrenched dogma, regardless of their motivation, and it would be foolish to suggest that all Christians everywhere were supporters of the Underground Railroad or freed their slaves because it was the right thing to do.

Back to the article that launched my little tirade; Moggs would have us believe that the “Christian belief” that slavery was wrong inspired William Wilberforce on his long campaign to end slavery. This may be true to the extent that Wilberforce correctly noted that slavery is immoral, unethical, and irreconcilable with a loving God, but Moggs implicitly suggests that such an idea was inherent in Christianity at the time when in reality it was not (otherwise we would have never heard of Wilberforce’s long fight to get slavery abolished; everyone would have said “Hey, you’re right” and that’d be the end of it). Moggs goes on to say how many atheists are becoming worried about current religious trends (and I think rightfully so, although some more vocal members of the group lack tact), and of course no essay on the subject would be complete without a misconstrued assertion about Charles Darwin

The modernist attack on religion was based on the victory of science, and particularly of neo-Darwinism. Yet science was open to the same challenge as religion; it could explain only half the world. The scientists, or some of them, sneered at religion for being unable to explain the developments of nature. Yet science itself was unable to produce a science-based morality for society. Marxism attempted to create a scientific social order that ended in monstrous and bloodthirsty tyranny. Social Darwinism either meant eugenics and the slaughter of babies who were not thought fit to survive, or it meant nothing. The Social Darwinism of George Bernard Shaw, or indeed that of Adolf Hitler, has been rejected by mankind.

Ugh. Science is not, and should not be, a moral system; I would immediately reject any social system based on the habits of chimpanzees, Brownian motions, electron orbits, or anything else someone might try and come up with. Religion set the foundation for laws, but today law and morality are dictated from society, morality no longer the exclusive province of religion. People aren’t going to immediately start killing each other in the streets if they become atheists, but there is this belief among the religious that if you even start to question God you’re going to become a serial rapist/murderer without remorse. It’s impossible to deny that religion has indeed shaped our social values and morals, but morality is not the exclusive property of religion. Even if morality did solely stem from religion, which one would be right? There are plenty of belief systems that can be broken down to accommodate just about anything, so even among Christians the idea that any particular group has the answer when it comes to absolute truth and morality is ludicrous. Moggs also incorrectly faults Charles Darwin for the evils of Social Darwinism, but as has been gone over time and time again such a bankrupt system was not endorsed nor founded by Darwin and Hitler’s evil practices have more to do with the artificial selection of farm animals than anything from actual science.

I won’t go on much longer, but I found this passage especially interesting. Moggs writes

Broken families, drugs, booze, youth gangs, crime, neglect of children and the old, the sheer boredom of shopaholicism, terrorism, the inner-city slums, materialism itself, are all the marks of a global society in decline.

Yes, all those problems are brand new and have never existed before. It’s not like they’re mentioned in the Bible or anything. :\ If these are the benchmarks by which we measure the decline of society, we have forever been in a state of decline or disrepair; they are inescapable. There is no such thing as a utopian society and no matter how well-intentioned people may be, there will always be some work to do. What bothers me is that Moggs suggests that religion is the answer to all these problems when in reality the #1 religion in the West is Christianity, the majority of people that make up the public and government directly contributing or causing these problems. I tire of the idea that if you believe in God you get some sort of special privilege where you can do no wrong, just so long as you think God told you to do it. As far as I’m concerned, religion is not exclusively bad and is not without virtue, but let’s look beyond the eternal battle between believers and non. What about critical thinking? I don’t care what religion someone decides to be just so long as they actually use their minds, whether they believe their brains are God given or the result of evolution (or both). Just because someone is a Christian doesn’t make them a better person than an atheist and just because someone is an atheist doesn’t necessarily make them smarter or more logical than a Christian; you can ascribe to both without really thinking deeply about your own position. Reform is needed not only in religion but in people’s lives at large; we are losing our ability to think and trading it in for the instant gratification of fast food meals and beliefs that we dare not question as the answers may be unsettling. I don’t want to be comfortable or just “have faith”; I want to know, and unfortunately I am unlikely to receive the answers I desire. At least I’m trying.