Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rick Warren--Ignorant, Idiotic, Insane, or Immodest?

One of the most infuriating things about creationists is their willingness to discard the entire accumulation of knowledge of mankind. As Gary Trudeau famously pointed out about George W. Bush, a belief in young-earth creationism requires a rejection of “biochemistry, genetics, ecology, paleontology, anatomy, physics, astronomy, geology, cosmology, history and archaeology.” Of course, denial of evolution also requires a rejection of modern medicine, agriculture, embryology, and even psychology. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky stated “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution,” and, because people are biological entities, this principle can be extended outward to the whole of human society. Evidence for evolutionary change is so pervasive, so diverse, and so absolute, that when a person claims he does not believe in evolution, he must be ignorant, idiotic, or insane.

We can add another “i-word” to describe those who reject evolutionary theory—immodest. Let us consider the case of Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church of Lake Forest, California. Warren had this to say about evolution:
I believed that evolution and the account of the Bible about creation could exist along side of each other very well. I just didn't see what the big argument was all about. I had some friends who had been studying the Bible much longer than I had who saw it differently...Eventually, I came to the conclusion, through my study of the Bible and science, that the two positions of evolution and creation just could not fit together. There are some real problems with the idea that God created through evolution... My prayer is that you will have this same experience!

The Bible's picture is that dinosaurs and man lived together on the earth, an earth that was filled with vegetation and and dinosaurs lived at the same time...From the very beginning of creation, God gave man dominion over all that was made, even over the dinosaurs.

It’s bad enough—although not altogether unsurprising—that Warren, an evangelical Christian, would reject all things scientific in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis. But this interpretation also rejects some of the most respected and age-old tenets of the Christian church. Saint Augustine, writing in 408 A.D. said:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.

As P. J. Bowler makes clear in his excellent work Evolution: The History of an Idea, early Christian thinkers were not usually biblical literalists, and even many lay people understood that the scriptures were to be read as mystical, magical tales, and not as scientific textbooks. Indeed, it was not until the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation in the 17th Century that “modern” creationism was proposed (and immediately challenged by every branch of newly-emerging science), and not until the late 19th Century was Young-Earth Creationism accepted by more than just a few. Ironically, the rise of Natural Theology during the Enlightenment stripped away some of the mystical emblemism associated with plants and animals, and eventually helped lead to the formation of evolutionary ideas by those such as Lamarck and Darwin.

One might assume that a religious leader like Rick Warren would be aware of this history, since he holds a Doctor of Ministry. It seems impossible that a prestigious institution like the Fuller Theological Seminary of Pasadena, California, would bestow such a degree without a class or two on the history of Christian thought. Yet Warren rejects the collected wisdom of Western Civilization, from Augustine to Darwin, in favor of a worldview that insists that (as Lewis Black put it) The Flintstones is a documentary.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Only Another Month and a Half to Go

The Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting profile of Stephen L. Johnson, the outgoing head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Although tasked with protecting the environment, Johnson felt that it was important to do so only if there was no conflict between the science and commerce. I'm sure this has nothing to do with Johnson's education in biology at a university that apparently teaches creationism. Is it fair to expect a person who apparently doesn't understand science to understand why the environment should take precedence over the economy?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Time to Go Vote!!!!!

Frequent commenter and Friend of the Blog Steve has posted some awesome pictures of an Obama rally in northern (not the real) Virginia at this link: Obama Rally. Go give them a look, and get pumped up to go vote. Remember, in an attempt to hold down the long lines, Obama supporters vote Tuesday, and McCain supporters on Wednesday.

Brush With Literary Greatness

Frequent commenter and Friend of the Blog Kevin Clark has had his first detective novel published! Numbers Up is an engaging story that mixes intrigue, romance, murder, and just the right amount of nerdy science. You can order a copy at this link: Numbers Up. Congratulations, Kevin!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Arkansas Early Voting Report

Mrs. Archaeoperyx and I just returned from the county courthouse where we cast our ballots on one of those infernal touchscreen machines. We both voted against the gay-hate initiative (to make it illegal for unmarried (code for "gay") couples to act as foster parents). We cancelled each other out on a state lottery (she's for it, and I'm agin' it). We registered our Green-Party-protest votes against our Democratic Senator (a DINO and professed creationist who loves him some Joe Lieberman) and our Democratic Representative (he wants to drill ANWR). Not another single candidate on our ballots with an opponent, so screw 'em. As my mom used to say, they only need one vote, and they won't get it from me.

Oh, yeah, there was that other race. As we walked up to the courthouse a family of black people came out--a mom and three kids. The oldest daughter was wearing a cheerleader outfit, but she might have been old enough to cast her first ballot. If so, she had never voted in a presidential election where a black man wasn't favored to win. Inside, there were two voting machines. At one of the machines was a black man in his late fifties or early sixties. At the other was one of my colleagues. I knew how both men were voting--same way as me. I joked with the poll workers, "How much does it cost to vote again?"

As we finished, a white couple came in to cast their ballots. Maybe late thirties or early forties. Were they cancelling out our votes? As we walked out the door of the courthouse, we passed a black woman who might have been seventy. She smiled at me.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It's All Over But the Crying. And the Burial.

Obama is up in the national polls an average of 6 percent or so.  The number of people who represent themselves as undecided is about 5 percent.  I think even the stupidest of us can do the math.

"Oh," you might say, "McCain and Palin may be able to get people to change their minds."  Maybe.

Not likely.

McCain may be able to shift the polls back in his direction a bit.  As the standard-bearer for the Republican Party, it's his duty to try to do so--for him to completely give up now would be a disaster for the down-ticket Republicans.  Races that seemed uncompetitive just a month a go--Liddy Dole and Mitch McConnell for example--are suddenly toss-ups.  Even such Republican strongholds as Texas and Mississippi are tightening up.  Those GOP incumbents desperately need their base to turn out.  But McCain has shown himself to be contemptuous and detached from the rank-and-file of the Republican Party, and he is a lackluster campaigner at best.  As it continues to sink in that he has no chance to win, he may completely fold up his tent.  Suddenly, the idea of a filibuster-proof Senate seems less like a pipe dream. 

Several pundits (including some of Slate's writers) have predicted the death of the Republican Party.  When these articles first started appearing last spring, I dismissed them.  I thought what we were seeing was the normal ebb-and-flow of political fortunes.  But the performance of the McCain campaign has been abysmal.  Perhaps the Republican machine has been hampered to a large degree by the erratic behavior of their nominee, but surely McCain is more intelligent, more competent, more presidential than the former governor of Texas?  Is there nobody left in the campaign who would explain why it's important to vet your vice-presidential pick?  Nobody who might object to shutting down your convention?  Nobody who might suggest that antagonizing a press corps that is inherently partial toward you is a bad idea?  These are the heirs of Karl Rove and Lee Atwater?

McCain's defeat, especially if accompanied by a thrashing in the Senate and House races, will leave the Republican Party is a state of disarray unimaginable only a few years ago.  Who do they have left who will lead them?  Mike Huckabee?  Fred Thompson? Sarah Palin?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why Obama Won the Debate

Immediately after the debate was over, I thought that Obama had probably forced a tie, and that since he was leading in the polls, and McCain's recent behavior could charitably be described as erratic, that a tie translated to a win for Obama.

Imagine my surprise Saturday morning when I read the news sites, to find that all the focus groups, and many of the pundits, had declared Obama the winner. And not even a close winner, but winner by a large margin. While I'm thrilled to hear it, it took me a while to figure out why.

And then it hit me. People are desperately hungry for change. Recent polls have shown that the current administration has an approval rating of 29%. But voters barely know Obama. The Right Wing Noise Machine has been extremely busy painting Obama as a risky, inexperienced neophyte, and, you know, a black guy, absolutely unready to serve as president. Friday night, Obama showed up in a business suit instead of a track suit, he didn't speak in rhyme, and he demonstrated a wide knowledge of every subject that he was asked about. In other words, he's a perfectly acceptable candidate for president. And he's not a Republican. He hasn't spent the last eight years voting for every important Bush program, and indeed, campaigning for Bush.

In other words, Obama won the debate because the American people desperately needed and wanted him to win the debate.

For all practical purposes, this election is over.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Barack Obama for President--of Arkansas

A week ago Saturday, Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I drove up to Pine Bluff to buy a few gewgaws at Lowe's, and to have lunch at Chili's. I wore an Obama 08 t-shirt. Several people stopped me to ask where I'd gotten my shirt. Some were black, some were white. That night at dinner back in Monticello, a man came over to our table and said "I'd like to compliment that shirt." This past Saturday, the missus and I made our monthly trek up to Little Rock to hit Sam's, and Barnes and Noble, and to run a few other errands. Again I wore the t-shirt, and again, people walked up to me and commented on my shirt--it made me a celebrity. I stood in line at Sam's ahead of two old white ladies who were discussing their clearly fundamentalist Bible studies. One of them saw my shirt and said, "Where'd you get that? I've been looking for yard signs and can't find them." A middle-aged white guy walked up to me in Garden Ridge, and made me put down a double-armload of tailgating supplies (Go Weevils!) so that he could shake my hand. "We can't take another four years of the same stuff," he said.

My point--no need to write off Arkansas. Where is the state party on this? How come Governor Beebe isn't publicly supporting the nominee of the party? Maybe it's hopeless to think that Obama could win Arkansas, but it's important that he make a good showing. I understand that the national campaign has to concentrate its resources in the states where it will most likely produce results, but I give money to the state party, and I expect them to at least try to mobilize the electorate here. And, frankly, I think that a lot of people are overestimating the effects of racism in this race. Sure, there are a lot of old fuddy-duddies who wouldn't vote for a black man if he were running against Satan. There are also a lot of old white people who have enough sense to vote their interests, even if it means a brother in the White House. There is a huge amount of pent-up anger against the Republican regime, right here in Arkansas. Somebody should tap it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Train Wreck

Husband belonged to successionist party, she attended conventions.
Troopergate, abuse of power, lying
Lousy record as mayor--nearly faced recall, left city in debt
Fired city workers who did not offer political support
For abstinence-based sex ed, teen daughter pregnant, first child born eight months after wedding
Belongs to faux-feminist anti-feminist group
Spent most of life in a church that preached voting for Kerry would send you to hell
Global-warming denier
Foreign policy experience apparently limted to knowledge of Russia's proximity to Alaska
Fund-raiser, political partner of Ted Stevens
Lied about support of "Bridge to Nowhere"
Hired one of Jack Abramoff's lobbyists
Flew from Dallas to Seattle to Anchorage, then drove for an hour to allegedly give birth to a premature Down's baby.
Mother-in-law refuses to endorse
May have lied about being Miss Congeniality in Miss Wasilla Pageant
For drilling in ANWR
Against gay rights, even though "has some gay friends"
Opposed endangered-species status for polar bears, offered bounties on wolves to increase moose populations, shows a complete lack of understanding of wildlife ecology
Wanted to ban books from city library

NOTE: This post originally said that Palin herself was member of a successionist group, which party officials and voter registration records seem to deny.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain to Women: You're All the Same

John W. McCain has the whole world talking about his amazing, "history-making" choice of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate. This is a woman who was elected governor of Alaska in 2006. She has roughly 18 months of experience. She's an anti-choice conservative. In other words, as far as policy goes, there's no reason whatsoever for any woman who considers hersef a feminist to vote for her--well, except for one. She is currently in possession of a vagina.

What is "history-making" about McCain's choice? Palin is not the first woman on a major-party ticket. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Geraldine Ferraro, who was excoriated by the Republicans as an unqualified gimmick, placed on the ticket, according to them, only because she was a woman. So, can there be any doubt that placing Palin on the ticket is a cynical attempt to attract disaffected Hillary supporters to the Republican ticket? I can already see the ads: "Hey Pumas! Vote for Palin! She's got ovaries, just like you!"

Here's what McCain is telling feminists: "I've picked a woman. Now, I know Hillary has spent her entire life in public service, and led all kinds of intiatives as First Lady of the Nation, and First Lady of Arkansas, and as a United States Senator. And she went through grueling campaign after campaign as a candidate and as a candidate's wife. Well, look! Sarah Palin was runner up as Miss Alaska! And that's exactly the same thing."

See, ladies, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what you've accomplished in your life. It doesn't matter about your education, or experience, or your views on abortion, or civil rights, or really your views on anything. All that matters is that you have two X chromosomes. That's all that matters to us, and that's all that should matter to you.

Oh, yeah--Sarah Palin's really cute, isn't she?

UPDATE: Palin's a creationist.

UPDATE II: And a global warming crank.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Read The Paper

Dubya's trying to give a last big thank you to the oil companies that put him in office by destroying what is left of the Endangered Species Act. Why not? He's already destroyed the constitution, the military, the economy, and the reputation of the country for his cronies in the energy biz. Why let a few fish and birds (or clean air or water, or a functioning climate system) stand in the way of extracting every possible dime for Big Oil?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

My Favorite Photo From Costa Rica

The photo below shows a mother and baby two-toed sloth (Choloepus didactylus). It was taken at Manuel Antonio National Park in Costa Rica. Both seemed really cool about having their picture taken. Perhaps living in a national park makes them used to the biological paparazzi.

Friday, June 27, 2008

So Much For Reform

Bobby Jindal, a biology major during his college days, was elected Governor of Louisiana with much fanfare as a candidate who claimed he would reform the state's corrupt, backward government. Now, even though as a biologist he presumably knows better, he has signed into law a bill that would allow creationist bullshit to be introduced into science classes in the state. How is pandering to creationist nutcases in Louisiana "reform?" Instead, he just shows himself to be another politician, willing to do or say anything to polish his credentials as a potential vice-presidential candidate. In this case, however, it only makes him more attractive to the kind of wing-nuts who wouldn't possibly vote Democratic anyway.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Catholic's View on Evolution

Frequent commenter and Friend of the Blog Kevin Clark has published an article on evolution and faith in Catholic Men's Quarterly. In the article, he gives his perspective on how Catholics can reconcile the facts of evolution and their deeply held beliefs. Summary: Evolution demonstrates the power of God. The article is thoughtful and interesting. Go read it here.

A couple of notes about the article--I went to the Catholic Men's Quarterly webpage and looked at a sample issue. I was surprised to note that, unlike Gentlemen's Quarterly, there are no glossy ads or eight-page fashion layouts. Also, the blurb at the end of Kevin's article has this most interesting tidbit: "Kevin Clark lives in Front Royal, Virginia, with his wife, Laura, and their eight children." Apparently, Kevin is a practicing Catholic, if you get my meaning.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why It's Great to Be a Biologist

I'll be in Costa Rica with a group of students for the next ten days. We'll be looking for birds, mammals, reptiles, and the best Costa Rican beer. I hope to have some spectacular pictures to put up here when I get back.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Wrong in Every Conceivable Way

The city of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas, has closed its animal control shelter and released the dogs held there into the St. Francis National Forest. This is apparently seen as a good thing by the director of the Humane Society of the Delta, Gloria Higginbotham, who said the animals were "better off" fending for themselves. Apparently, some of the released animals were sick, and some were dangerous, having already bitten city animal control officers.

How in the world can the Mayor of Helena-West Helena think that releasing dangerous animals into the woods is a good idea? How is this a good solution for the public, the wild animals living in the forest, or for the animals themselves? Has the mayor considered what would the legal ramifications would be if one of these animals attacks or kills a child? What about the pets and livestock of persons who live in or near the National Forest? What is going to keep the released dogs from starving to death, from contracting rabies, or from being hit by cars? How ignorant must a director of the Humane Society be to think that abandoning animals in the forest is somehow beneficial to the animals?

Feral dogs are a huge problem over the United States and the world. They attack livestock and pets, spread disease, destroy native wildlife, and attack and even kill people. Starving free-ranging dogs are known to resort to cannibalism. Feral dogs breed with wild coyotes and wolves, disrupting the genetics of wild populations.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm a firm believer in kindness to animals, but the city cannot release dogs that it knows to be dangerous into the woods. If the city is unwilling or unable to find shelter for the animals, there is only one possible solution, euthanasia, and the city has failed in its duties by avoiding it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gifts Once Given

The Bell, a frequent commenter at Slate Magazine's Best of the Fray has a commentary on the recent California gay marriage decision. Here's an excerpt:
Much like John Adams on the subject of self-government two hundred plus years ago, I now have strong reasons to believe that no gay persons who have enjoyed the entitlement to refer to the reflections of their own souls as “my husband” or “my wife” will (easily) give it up and return to such euphemisms as “my life partner,” “my significant other,” or “my special friend” – and neither will their families and friends.

If one month of such entitlements launched the lawsuits that led to this ruling, imagine what five months’ worth will catalyze. There is no question that Californians stand about an equal chance of taking away what their state constitution currently allows. But even if the worse happens there, this only means final victory will be a little later rather than a little sooner. Perceptions are changing, attitudes are changing; those who resist will ultimately find themselves unable to mandate a cessation toward what is right anymore than they can shout back the tides.

That is just the way it is with some gifts, once given. The gift has now been given. It was long overdue.

In some ways, it's astounding that more Americans haven't been upset that a significant minority of our citizens has been denied a basic civil right. Apparently we haven't learned much from our past.

The Bell's entire commentary is available here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It's Time to Stop Demonizing Hillary

Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary in the primary, and then changed my mind after hearing Obama’s speech on race.

Hillary Clinton is a liar. She’s a racist. She’s advocating for the assassination of Obama. She’s put her own personal ambition ahead of the good of the Democratic Party and the country. We all know these things are true, because we hear about them in the media, and read about them on blogs.

Except that these things are not true. This is the same type of politics that turned Max Cleland into a traitor, John Kerry into a war criminal, and Bill Clinton into a raping murderer. Sure, Hillary’s ambitious. She wants to be President of the United States. So she’s exactly as ambitious as Barack Obama and John McCain. The other claims are reminiscent of those spread in the so-called liberal media during the Clinton Administration. When Hillary complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” the press scoffed at her, but now we know the conspiracy was real.

Now these claims are being spread by Obama’s supporters. This is incredibly self-destructive. We in the Democratic Party have the opportunity to retake the White House and to build a filibuster-proof majority in both houses of Congress. For this to occur, we must have the votes of a large majority of Hillary’s supporters. Many of Hillary’s followers are fervent admirers who see her as a ground-breaking standard-bearer for women everywhere. These energized, politically active people are essential to Democratic chances in the fall, and this means that it is important to have the support of Hillary herself.

More importantly, the charges are just untrue. Hillary has made mistakes—she was wrong on the war—but she’s not evil, and characterizing her as such is just using what her husband called the “politics of personal destruction.”

So, Obama supporters, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to relax. We’re going to congratulate her on her win in the Puerto Rico Primary next week. Soon after, the superdelegates will put Obama over the top. Then we’ll salute Hillary’s service to the country, and a race well-run, and welcome her and her supporters into the most important campaign the Democratic Party has ever conducted. In the meantime, we’re going to quit claiming that Hillary is a racist, or that she’s just waiting on someone to kill Obama, or that she’d rather see McCain elected than Obama. We’re going to quit lying about the woman.

After all, we’re not Republicans.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's About Time

John W. McCain has repudiated Hagee's endorsement. It took Hagee claiming that Hitler was just doing the Lord's work to make McCain see the light. Now if McCain would just repudiate Dubya's endorsement.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A New Coat of Paint

An old friend of mine from grad school has transmogrified into an artist--go figure. His paintings are really cool--they're informed by paleontology and biology. Go check them out at A New Coat of Paint.

Back From Florida

I'm finally recovering from a week spent in the Florida Panhandle with the Marine Biology class from my university. I've been going along each year for the last four years to drive one of the vans and to point out the odd bird to interested students. The best bird this year (or at least the best-looking bird) was a male black-bellied plover in full breeding plumage. Late May seems a bit late for him to be in Florida--he should be in the High Arctic chasing girls. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that he made the same choice as me--enjoying the sun in Florida is more inviting than returning north and going to work.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Let's Talk About Whores

Media scrutiny on Barack Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright has been intense and ongoing. Meanwhile, John W. McCain's acceptance of the endorsement of John Hagee has been nearly ignored by most of the media. What has Wright said that is worse than the things Hagee has claimed? Hagee refers to the Catholic Church as "the Great Whore," and repeats his assertion that Hurricane Katrina was God's revenge on New Orleans for its sinful lifestyle. How is that less crazy or less offensive than Wright's claim that the government is responsible for HIV? McCain refuses to repudiate this man. Are we talking about the same John McCain who once called fundamentalists "agents of intolerance?" Or is this someone who is willing to hop in bed with anyone to get what he wants--I believe the term for someone who would do such a thing is "whore."

Here's video, courtesy of Talking Points Memo.

Frank Rich gets it right (h/t Arkansas Blog).

Sunday, April 27, 2008

No Intelligence Allowed

Here's a video (it's about 10 minutes long) that shows just what a smart guy Ben Stein really is. Maybe this isn't the guy you should listen to in matters scientific.

Via Pharyngula.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Question Deserves an Answer

As I’m watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, there are seemingly endless commercials for Ben Stein’s creationist movie, Expelled. In the commercial, Stein is a student in a classroom where his instructor tells the students that evolution is unguided and undesigned. “How did life begin in the first place, dude?” Stein whines in his trademark monotone. This question is supposed to be terrifying to his professor--so terrifying that Stein is, you know, expelled.

It’s not like we have no idea. There are many competing hypotheses that attempt to explain the origin of life. Although scientists don’t necessarily agree on what it means to be alive, there is agreement that living organisms arose from non-living material in a long, slow process—there was no single moment when the first cell “sprang to life.” Hypotheses about the origin of life, collectively called abiogenesis, differ on which component of living cells arose first. Some postulate that some sort of cellular membrane had to arise first. Others suggest that self-replicating genetic molecules must have formed as the initial step toward life. One of the most widely cited hypotheses is the RNA-world idea, which says that short segments of RNA similar to modern ribozymes were the first components of cells to arise. Ribozymes are bits of RNA that are just large enough to self-replicate and to catalyze simple metabolic reactions. Another category of abiogenesis hypothesis proposes that simple metabolic pathways were the first step toward life. One particularly attractive hypothesis suggests that the reverse citric acid cycle was the original metabolic pathway and would have used ambient energy, perhaps from volcanic vents, to assemble the organic chemicals needed for life to begin.

The short answer to Stein’s question is that we don’t know how life began. However, this doesn’t mean that a supernatural explanation is necessary. The question of the origin of life is not scary to real scientists. The “intelligent design” idea that Stein endorses answers every question with “God did it.” From a scientific point of view, this is no answer at all.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Nature of Faith

We spend a lot of time these days arguing about the relationship between science and religion, without a lot of thinking about what those words mean. Many of us in the science biz think of "faith" as belief in something for which we have no evidence, but there are other ways to think of it. Claude Scales has a thoughtful contemplation on the nature of faith on his always excellent blog.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Worst. President. Ever.

A poll of historians has concluded that Dubya is the worst president in American history. Extrapolating from the graphs included with the article, two of the respondents thought that Bush's presidency had been a success, and did not deserve to be categorized among the ten worst. Although this poll was not scientific, it does prove one thing--two percent of historians are smoking crack.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

9-11 Changed Everything

We're in the fifth year of an unwinnable war, the economy is in a death spiral, gas is four bucks a gallon, the ice caps are melting, and your government is...uh....making sure that you don't get killed by exploding boobs. I feel much safer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Horror....The Horror....Remember?

Not that long ago, it was assumed (by me, among others) that John McCain had no chance of winning the 2008 presidential election because of his stand on the war in Iraq--in case you don't remember, he likes it. Now the war is all but forgotten. As P.Z. Myers says, it has become merely the "background noise of our country."

As we get closer to the election, we should remember that the war is the most important issue facing this country. Perhaps you feel that other things are more important--the economy, maybe, or the environment. But know this--each day that passes with the United States throwing millions of dollars every hour into a giant metaphorical paper shredder (a machine that also shreds lives and families) is another step closer to a time when we'll have no ability to affect the events around us. We'll be that much less able to offset global warming, or to influence the activities of other countries.

Dubya, obstinate as ever, claims that the 4,000 Americans that have died in the war so far are not "lost in vain." He's wrong. But not only have those lives, and the shattered lives of their families, and tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, and the destruction of Iraq been all for naught. The very future of the United States as a world power is on shaky ground because of this vainglorious boondoggle. Don't forget it.

UPDATE: Here. This guy says it better.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Science Just Gets Weirder

I'm just not sure how to interpret this.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Which the Blogger Admits He's Made an Error in Judgment

I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Arkansas primary, and I've changed my mind. I explain in an article in Quiblit Magazine.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Pick Mary Ann!

Here's yet another reason to pick Mary Ann over Ginger. Okay, she's 69 years old now, but what a cool granny she turns out to be.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

No Low Is Low Enough For Bush

The (supposed) end justifies the means. As if we didn't already know, the worst president in American history today affirmed that the United States is a nation of torturers by vetoing a law that would outlaw waterboarding. Bush likes to say about terrorists that "they hate us for our freedoms," but this act makes it clear--they hate us because we're the bad guys.

Please note that this is a bill that John W. McCain voted against. Count the former POW who endured North Vietnamese torture as pro-torture.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Our Long National Nightmare Is Over.

Huckabee has finally accepted the inevitable and dropped out of the presidential race. Who would have thought that a failed southern governor with a questionable ethics history and a propensity for basing his policy decisions on a quaint religious tradition would ever come this close to becoming President? Perhaps now he'll disappear from the public eye, and take Chuck Norris with him.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

This is CNN

I get a huge chunk of my news from the Internet, and for many years, my first stop in the morning has been But over the last couple of years, the website has begun straining the definition of the word "news." It's still possible to find out the latest headlines there, but the content of the site has been steadily declining. Here's a selection of their front page stories as I write this:

18-wheeler falls off ramp onto car.
Waiting? Left in the dark? Fire the doc?
Teen suspended for selling fancy sammies.
Bees attack pair as TV station tapes it.
Sleazy outcome from TV show confessions.
House full of feces, filth may be leveled.
Hapless robbers target biker meeting.

Ted Turner is spinning in his grave. Or would be. If he was dead.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

See, Not Everyone in Florida is Nuts!

Florida decided today to use the word "evolution" in their state school standards. No word yet on what they're going to do about "physics" or "trigonometry." As a sop to creationists, the words "scientific theory" will be placed in front of the word "evolution" wherever it appears in the standards. This will only placate those creationists who don't understand what the word "theory" means. Which, apparently, is all of them.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Says "F@#k Due Process"

Since I've moved to Monticello, I've had the joy of dealing with a newspaper delivery man who brings a wad of wet newsprint any time there's a heavy rain. This is not always a bad thing. In today's Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the editorial writer seems to be railing against the idea of trial by jury. Persons accused of terrorism, according to this screed, do not merit due process, or a trial, or protection from cruel and unusual punishment. They should be assumed guilty, then reduced to a smudge on the pavement by a car bomb. This is better than the alternative--if captured, the editorial writer sarcastically states, they might be waterboarded.

Why couldn't it have rained today?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

I'd wanted to come up with a lengthy, brilliant post celebrating the 199th anniversary of the birth of the founding father of evolutionary biology, but time just doesn't permit me to do so. So with a hat tip to PZ Myers at Pharyngula, here's a Darwin Day greeting card for you.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

John McCain is Jean Le Bon!

Michael Kenney at introduces us to the man who would lead us into the Hundred Years War.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Enough With the Talking Points

I haven’t decided for whom I’ll cast my vote in the February 5th Arkansas Primary. My decision got harder today when John Edwards dropped out of the race. I thought he was right on the war, right on health care, and his “two Americas” idea resonated with me. I’m sorry he’s out. Now I have to choose between Hillary and Obama. Whichever is the party nominee in November will get my vote, but, for the first time in my life, it seems that I have some small say as to who that nominee will be. How will I decide? Let me tell you some ideas that won’t be entering into my decision.

Barack Obama is the new John F. Kennedy. What does this even mean? Am I supposed to think that Obama is going to bring the country together to some new era of bipartisanship? I guess all the neocons and right-wingers are going to lay down their arms on the first day of an Obama Administration. Or by “bipartisanship” does he mean the “roll-over-and-play-dead” bipartisanship of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid? Kennedy had spent six years in the House and eight in the Senate before being elected President. Obama has been a Senator for three years, and has spent most of that time running for President.

The Clintons have had their time. Who started this little meme? Do you suppose it’s the same folks who elected Bush I and Dubya, and salivate at the thought of Jeb Bush running for the White House? Yeah, I can think of all kind of folks I’d rather be voting for than Hillary Clinton. I just don’t know if Barack Obama is one of them.

The Clintons are racists, cold-heartedly playing blacks against whites to get what they want. Claiming that the Clintons are racists is on a par with claiming that Max Cleland was screwing over the veterans or that John Kerry was a traitor.

It’s time to elect a black man president. I wouldn’t vote againt Obama because he’s black—that would be racist. It’s also racist to vote for him because he’s black. If I vote for Barack Obama, it’ll be because I think he’ll make a better president than Hillary.

Hillary Clinton is a cold-hearted, calculating bitch. Hillary Clinton is a politician and a United States Senator. It seems to me that it might be a good idea for a person in such a position to be able to see a move or two ahead in whatever situation she finds herself. If a man—say John McCain—acts in this manner, we call him hard-nosed and pragmatic. Conversely, if Hillary gets a bit emotional, than we’re either told it shows she’s not tough enough to be president, or that she couldn’t possibly have felt real emotion, and her faking it was a calculated move to garner support of women, who of course were all instantly taken in by such a ruse.

The Clintons have done things that are politically expedient, and this proves they are pathological liars. Most assuredly, no Republican and no other Democrat has ever done anything that was politically expedient. Politicians never do this.

Hillary has too many negatives to ever win a national election. George W. Bush is an alcoholic coke-head who, among other disasters, led the country into an unpopular, unsuccessful war, ran the economy into the ground by giving tax cuts to his cronies, ripped the Constitution to shreds, has tried to turn the United States into a theocracy, and made the nation the most hated in the world, and he won an election (sort-of) against a war hero. Don’t ever tell me anybody has too many negatives to be elected president.

Getting Hillary elected president is just a way to get Bill back into the White House. I’m not sure this would be a bad thing. However, Hillary has been a senator for eight years—Bill hasn’t been anywhere around the Senate. Dubya has been president for eight years without obvious interference from his father.

I don’t know who I’ll vote for in the primary, but I’ll decide based on the candidates’ positions on the issues. The war. Health care. Energy. Environment. Not Republican talking points.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Huckabee Suggests an End to the United States of America

Republican Nutcase Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee has declared his intention to end the secular nation that originated with the ratification of the United States Constitution. According to an article on
"I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution," Huckabee told a Michigan audience on Monday. "But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living god. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."
All that separation of church and state stuff was overrated anyway.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Return to the Age of Reason

The entire staff (ha!) here at Notes From A Transitional Fossil is pleased to note the rebirth of the Age of Reason. Blog author Thomas Paine lives in the Pacific Northwest and comments on science and politics with a progressive outlook and a twinkle in his eye. Welcome back, Thomas!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Thanks, George

A couple of Fridays ago, my phone rang at nearly 9 o’clock in the evening. It was my friend Amy from Auburn, and she could barely speak. “I’ve got bad news,” she said, and then, after a sob, “George is dead.” She could say no more, and hung up. In a few minutes her husband Matt called to tell me what had happened. George and Debbie had been readying their home for their annual Christmas Trivia Party. George walked into the room where Debbie was, stopped talking in mid-sentence, and collapsed. He never regained consciousness.

George Folkerts was one of the last of a breed of biologists that we in the business call natural historians or naturalists. Field biology and ecology have become experiment oriented; George (and a few others like him) placed a much higher value on simple observation of what occurs in nature. George railed against what he called the “overmathematization” of biology, and the overemphasis on statistics and modeling that permeates the field. He believed that the best way to understand the natural world was to be outside, in nature.

George spent most of his career teaching field biology and evolution at Auburn University in Alabama. He was trained in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians. Herpetologists in general tend to be the wildest of the field biologists, always eager to snatch up a poisonous snake in their bare hands or to wiggle on their bellies through cramped caves to find some rare salamander. George combined this fearless exuberance with gentleness born of a love for all living things. He was unable to limit his interests only to herps, and became an expert on insects, plants, and all manner of organisms. He and his wife became leading authorities on the ecology of pitcher plant bogs. His students sometimes called him an “omniologist,” and the legend was that he could walk (or wade, or climb) into any habitat in the southeastern corner of the country and call every organism he encountered by its scientific name. If this was an exaggeration, I never found out—I never dragged up an animal or plant that he didn’t recognize. He didn’t just know the names of the organisms, he knew how they made their living, what they ate, and what ate them.

In 1996, I was accepted to graduate school at Auburn, to study birds and mammals. When I told my undergraduate professors where I was going, they all said, “Great! You’ll get to take classes from George Folkerts!” Even those who didn’t know him personally knew him by reputation. One of my professors had been to graduate school with George. “He’s the smartest guy I ever knew,” he told me.

When I got to Auburn, I was required to take George’s class on Evolution and Systematics. George was a brilliant lecturer. He was organized, and knowledgeable, and funny. He had a deep, gravelly voice that broadcast his enthusiasm for his subject. His lectures were brimming with interesting and humorous examples of each of the concepts he was putting across, bounding from stories of a crab with markings on its carapace that resembled a human face, to sex-hungry frogs that literally mated with anything that moved, to a spider that guaranteed his mate’s faithfulness by plugging her genitalia with his own dead body. George’s classes were a joy, and nobody ever skipped a day. I made it a point to sign up for every one of his courses that I could.

One of George’s classes was called Iconoclastic Biology. This was an amazing class in which George would lecture for a while on some aspect of the intersection between evolutionary biology and human society, and then would throw the floor open for discussion. It was clear from the subjects that he chose that George was deeply interested in the human condition. He believed that people were biological entities, and as such, we could use our biology to make ourselves happy and productive, or mismanage our nature to make us unhappy and useless. The class was scheduled for evenings, and was taught in one of the largest classrooms in Funchess Hall, the old biology building. The reason for this became clear on the night of the first class—it was packed. Nearly every graduate student in the department took the class, along with dozens of undergraduates. There were also scads of pastors, teachers, and private citizens who sat in. George’s lectures would keep us on the edge of our seats, and at some point he’d pause, and with a gleam in his eye, make some patently outrageous statement and then let us have at him. “Everything that is wrong with society can be traced to television,” he’d say, or “the entire history of humanity is based on racism,” and then he’d stand back and watch the fireworks. He deftly slipped into any pause in the conversation, arguing just as effectively for one side as for the other. It was the most fun class I ever took; the next time he offered it, I sat in again.

In the first of George’s classes that I took, Evolution, I did very well. In fact, I scored in the high 90’s on the first two tests. “John,” he said, “you’re a grade grubber. You might remember making a hundred on one of my tests for a couple of weeks, but if you go out to Buffalo’s and drink with your friends instead of studying, you’ll have good times you’ll remember for the rest of your life.” Odd advice from a professor, but George believed that good times with good friends were the basis for a happy life. In his Iconoclastic Biology class, George talked about the importance of the extended family. He told us that humans evolved to depend on their relatives, and that modern industrial societies tended to separate people from their extended families. This was especially true for graduate students, so we needed to identify those other students that we liked the best, and treat them as family.

George lived what he preached. Everyone around him was part of his extended family. He organized trivia contests at local bars, and at his home, and would construct some of the most devilishly fiendish and complex questions which no one (except him) could possibly solve, but which were always fun and funny. Every trivia contest included a question about some sort of song, which all attendees were required to sing. George believed that singing makes a person happy, so he’d insist that even those like myself who can barely croak out a tune had to sing. We’d attempt to answer questions for an hour or two, and then slip into the bar to drink and tell lies.

On Tuesdays, George would play trivia on the electronic trivia games at Buffalo’s, and he’d encourage all of us to come. I can’t count the number of Tuesdays my artificial extended family (Amy, Matt, Rachel, Mark, Paul, and me) sat at the bar and tried to beat the other drunks. We’d order all-you-can-eat hot wings and giant plastic cups of cheap beer, and by the end of the “big game” we’d be surrounded by baskets of gnawed-up wings and stacks of empty cups. George would move from table to table, bumming cigarettes and telling stories. Like every other group there, we thought George belonged to us. Every so often, the trivia machine would ask a biology question, and then cries of “Where’s George?” reverberated through the bar. Although George had an encyclopedic knowledge of science and history, he almost never won the big game—there was always a question or two about popular culture, and George claimed that he hadn’t watched a movie or a TV show since the early 70’s. So George would finish second or third, and then he’d grab a couple of us and we’d go to the back room and shoot pool and drink beer for a couple of hours.

You might think all this trivia playing and beer drinking would interfere with his home life, but nothing could be further from the truth. George was a part of everyone’s extended family, but his real family was most important to him. He was crazy about his wife and kids, and especially doted on his youngest, Molly. All the graduate students loved George, and we always wanted him to come to the bar with us, but more often than not, there was some recital or dinner he needed to go to with Molly—“maybe afterwards,” he’d say, but “probably not.”

George was so brilliant that students were reluctant to ask him to be on their graduate committees, afraid of what kind of questions he might ask during preliminary exams or during a dissertation defense. My fellow students warned me away, but I asked anyway, and never regretted it. During my overlong stay at Auburn (perhaps I took George’s advice about spending time in bars too seriously), George became one of my closest friends and advisors. Whenever I’d get stuck on a problem, or reach a bad spot in writing, I’d climb the two flights of stairs up to his lab, and he’d close the door and sneak a cigarette. Then we could argue about the finer points of taxonomy or statistics or whatever happened to pop into his amazing mind. Sometimes he’d grumble about some university big-wig or another. There were only two kinds of people George didn’t like—people who were intellectually dishonest, who would make up data or take credit for the work of others, and college administrators who didn’t understand the purpose of a university.

My research included identification of bugs that had been first eaten by quail, then stored in a freezer for twenty years. When I’d find some mashed-up bug part I couldn’t identify, I’d drag it down to George, who could usually name it on sight. If he couldn’t, he’d drag out a microscope and a stack of guidebooks, and quickly figure out whose wing or chunk of exoskeleton I’d brought him. It seemed to me, and to everyone around me, that there was nothing that George didn’t know. If, however, you said such a thing to him, he’d wave his hand and say, “Awwww. Not true.” On top of everything else, George was humble. Maybe the only time I saw him a bit prideful was when he found out that a salamander (Desmognathus folkertsi) had been named after him; for a field biologist, this is the greatest honor one can receive.

After I got off the phone with Matt, I sat on the bed and cried a little. Two days later I drove to Auburn, and arrived in time for the visitation at George’s church, Trinity Lutheran. Amy and I stood in line together for over an hour to speak to Debbie for a moment—there was a crowd as if some president or foreign dignitary had died. While we stood in line, people brought us cookies and beer. A slide show on one wall displayed pictures of George having Christmas with his children, or up to his neck in swamp water, or standing in the university arboretum that he had saved from destruction almost single-handedly.

The next day was the funeral. I sat up in the balcony with Amy, Matt, and Mark. George’s pastor said a word or two—he made us sing, like George would have—and then there was sort of an open mic. People got up and said a word or two about George, and told some of the things he had taught them. One of Debbie’s sisters read a paragraph or two that Debbie had written.

I didn’t get up and talk—I don’t think I would have been able to speak coherently. George taught me so many things, and many of them didn’t have much to do with insects, or birds, or salamanders. He did so many things for me that I haven’t mentioned here—for instance, he was instrumental in helping me get my dream job. I never properly thanked him—when I tried, he just waved his hand and said “Awwww.” So…

George, you showed me the proper way to conduct a classroom—with humor, and grace, and humility. Every day I get up and teach, I copy your style, and half the time I’m stealing your lectures. If I’m half the teacher you were, then I owe you thanks. You taught me that the tiniest things in a biological community were often the most important. You told me that I could never understand an ecosystem unless I got out and lived in it. You told me to just stop and look at the animal I was studying—to think about its place in nature—to take it all in. If I’m one-fifth the scientist you were, thanks. You taught me to think about my place in the community, and to care for the people around me, and to use my brain to try to be happy. If I’m one-tenth the person you were, then thanks for that.

Thanks, George.