Thursday, September 22, 2016

Against Creationism, Part Two: Science Has Nothing to Do with It

There is no point in presenting scientific evidence against creationism. Scientists have been doing this for nearly a hundred years, since modern creationism began in the 1920s. Every creationist argument that has ever been made has been disproved by science. Creationists have, thousands of times, been personally informed that their arguments are wrong. But they keep right on making the same ones, totally ignoring every criticism they have ever received.

What this means is that creationists are liars. They know that they are wrong. Telling them for the five hundred thousandth time that they are wrong is not going to change anything.

Why are creationists liars? Here are a few reasons.

  • Money. They are preying on the gullibility of religious people who have been raised to not think, and to not even read the Bible, but just to believe and give money to creationist preachers. Many of them get very rich doing this, sometimes by illegal means, as in the case of Kent Hovind. Creationists do not really believe in God; He is just their tool for getting money.
  • Power. Creationists use creationism to prove God—but not just any God: they want to prove the existence of a God who commands total subservience to the Republican Party. More recently, Republicans have been calling for bloodshed in the defense of their party. Creationists do not really believe in God; He is just their tool for getting power for the Republican Party and for its armed domination of America.
  • Ego. Creationist preachers like to fantasize that they are God’s special spokespeople, that God has made them alone on the face of the Earth infallible and inerrant. No matter what they say, you cannot contradict them, because that would be an attack on God. Creationists do not actually believe in God; they are blasphemers who use God as their ego-tool. Creationists just make stuff up about God whenever they want to.

And that pretty much wraps it up.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Against Creationism, Part One: Bare-Bones Argument

For those of you in a hurry, here is a bare-bones argument against creationism.

·         Creationists say that God created a perfect world (Genesis 1).
·         Creationists say that God created a world that could not evolve.
·         If species cannot evolve, then they will become extinct as the world changes.
·         Therefore God created a world that was not built to last.
·         But this contradicts Genesis 1, in which God said his creation was “very good.”

Some creationists will respond that God did not intend the world to last very long. I have had some of them tell me this. But this contradicts the Bible.

·         If the world was not built to last, it was not “very good.”
·         Genesis does not say that God intended the world to be temporary. The creationists just made that up.

Many creationists will say that God cursed the world in Genesis 3, which means that it is NOW no longer very good. But this does not change the fact that Genesis 1 does not say God intended the world to be temporary.

Creationism is incompatible with a belief that a competent Creator made a perfectly-functioning world.

I have now concluded—for this reason and for another I will present in the next essay—that it is a total waste of time to present evidence against creationism. I used to spend a lot of time trying to disprove creationism using evidence from fossils, DNA, etc. I now see it is a waste of time because creationism is incompatible even with the Bible.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Playful Young Animals and a Playful Young Novelist

Animals are playful when they are young. They try everything out to see what happens. Their time is spent in one long binge of hypothesis-testing. This is how they develop a model of the world and how to live in it, a model that can be updated to the changing world at least once a generation, rather than waiting for generations of natural selection to set things right. Unlike most other animals, humans continue being playful when they grow up.

One of the things that playful young humans experiment with is creative writing. And people who, like me, grow up to be writers have put in hundreds or in my case thousands of hours writing (in sheer bliss) by middle age. Daniel Levitin said that a genius is simply someone who has practiced something for ten thousand hours, I am quite certain that this is an incomplete picture. But there is probably no genius who has not practiced for ten thousand hours.

I have a natural talent for writing. It manifested itself more strongly when I was young than did my talent for music. I believe I will yet become a great writer. But I do not believe that I would ever have become a great musician even if I had practiced ten thousand hours. I might have been the modern equivalent of the baroque composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, competent and forgotten. (Wikipedia says he was also a silvologist, which means a forestry expert. Maybe his best work, like mine, was with plants rather than music.)

But to get to the level of skill that I have today, I had to go through my juvenile experimental period. I worked at it very hard when I was in elementary school, using an old Smith Corona open-sided sturdy typewriter. I also spent a lot of time composing.

One of the novels I worked on was about Russian spies building a rocket out in the desert of Arizona. The hero of the story was pretty sure that this is what they were up to; they drove panel trucks with a hammer and sickle on it, after all. Every chapter of plot was separated by a chapter in which the hero described all of the plants in his parents’ garden. Future botanist here. I do not remember what the climax was; maybe that was because I might not have finished it.

Another novel was about three kids getting lost in the woods: two boys and a girl. I was right on the cusp of puberty, and I wanted to have one of the boys get together with the girl inside a blanket to stay warm during the cold forest night. The other boy wouldn’t have minded; all he did was recite Shakespeare. But I did not have the courage or foolhardiness to pursue that path. The climax was when the kids, who had dug trenches and buried themselves to stay warm, were sniffed out by a bear, which inexplicably left them alone. I don’t remember much about it other than that I described the mountain as if it had loving parental arms that embraced the hikers; I had read a story in which O. Henry used the word philoprogenitiveness, and I wanted to use it too. My idea of good writing back then was to use as many big words as I could.

When I was in college and old enough to know better, I started writing a romance novel set in medieval England, about which I knew nothing. (About either romance or medieval England, as it turned out. I was too meek to have a romantic life at that time.) It had so many plot bloopers in it that when I wrote a (good) novel decades later I used my earlier novel as an example of one that was hilariously inept.

I spent hours and hours on this stuff. I did not realize it was bad. But had I known how bad it was, I might have stopped writing it and never developed my talent. I remain thankful to my teachers, such as Mr. Jim Kliegl, who put up with some of this stuff and even encouraged me. I think he knew I would become a good writer, based not on what I wrote but on the fact that I was writing it.

Okay, so I finally learned how to write. But I still had a few things to learn, things that I still have to carefully avoid. Here’s an example. As I have written previously, we have patriotic Confederates down here in Oklahoma, whose only purpose in life is to sell confederate flags and drive around with confederate flags waving from poles in their truck beds. Based on my conversations with them, I consider them to be among the most hateful people I have met. They are really scary. When I recently started a new novel, I had a female Cherokee heroine and a male Confederate villain. I won’t give away the plot other than to say I based it on the apocryphal book of Judith.

As I wrote, I made the villain as hateful as possible. Every little detail was disgusting. I was ranting. But then I started running an experiment in my mind. If he was really that disgusting, the heroine would have stayed away from him and there would be no plot. This was when I realized that I did not have a character, but a foil. In order to make him a real character, I had to get inside his mind. I had to empathize with him.

I discovered that, to write a good novel, or even a good story, I had to love even the characters that I hated.

I believe that, with this discovery, I have finally reached the plateau of professional competence. I have begun a new round of queries to fiction agents in an attempt to market another novel, one which I have thoroughly rewritten twice. How many times, hundreds perhaps, I have been turned down by fiction agents. But maybe it has been for the best. (This can’t go on forever, of course, or I’ll be dead.) One agent told me that an earlier version of this novel was episodic rather than having a strong plot. It only took me a year to realize she was right. I will send the new one back to her. I am now glad the earlier version was not published. I have published science books, but am ready now for fiction.

I feel like a plant with dozens of unopened flower buds (the novels). The plant keeps developing those buds to be better and better so that when they open, perhaps one after another in quick succession, the result will be spectacular and pollinators will come buzzing and whirring from miles around. In the event that this happens, that the playfulness of my youth and continued playfulness of my middle years pays off in my maturity, I will let you know.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Evolution of Isolating Mechanisms, as Observed in France (or, The Cheese)

This is another in my series of essays about what I learned in France. Be prepared for some surprises.

In an earlier essay, I explained that geographical isolation has led to speciation: for example, both France and America have maple trees, but not the same species. The Atlantic Ocean keeps the European and American species from intermixing.

But another major force in evolution is isolation caused by actual biological or social processes. These are isolating mechanisms. These mechanisms permit members of one group—which may later become its own species—to recognize other members of that group, and to distinguish them from outsiders. Isolating mechanisms have led to a great amount of evolutionary diversity. For example, most mating behavior functions in this way. When a male and female blue-footed booby get together, how does the female booby know that the male is really the right species? You’d think the big blue feet would be a dead giveaway, but no—she expects him to go through a silly and humiliating booby-dance.

Humans are the prime example of isolating mechanisms. Human social groups have many, complex, and difficult behaviors that take a lifetime to learn and therefore label an outsider as an outsider for life. I discovered this in France. I will never ever ever be French.

In many ways, I am pre-adapted to be French. I already drive a small car, and am satisfied with modest luxuries and being quiet. I already treat food as an experience rather than as just a way to stuff my face. An American driving a big fuming pickup truck and yelling loudly would never fit in to French society. But I am not that kind of American.

But I will never be able to communicate fluently in French. Many languages communicate primarily by consonants. Hebrew even omitted the vowels and just wrote the consonants. But in French, most of the consonants are ignored, even the ones that, according to the rules, should be spoken. Many of the syllables are dropped. For example, commençaient (they began) is pronounced “ko-mans” (you can barely hear the s), just like commence (I begin) and commencent (they begin). In commençaient the final five letters are silent and usually the final six. I can read most things in French but understand hardly anything that I hear.

But French has about thirty different vowel sounds. Some of them are easy to distinguish. Everyone knows that eau and eaux and os and and ou and eu and eux all sound different. That’s the easy stuff. But there are other examples, even more subtle, about which I would tell you except that I don’t know what they are. If you use a slightly incorrect vowel sound, they will not understand you. Maybe in Paris they will rudely pretend to not understand you, but in Strasbourg, they really sincerely politely do not understand you.

And if you cannot handle those vowels, you are no more a Frenchman or woman than a catbird is a mockingbird—close relatives, but unable to speak to one another.

Another cultural feature that weeds out the outsiders is cheese. There are certain kinds of cheese in France that are so ripe that, as I understand, it is illegal to export them to America. An example from the Vosges Mountains, near Orbey, just southwest of Strasbourg, is Muenster cheese. It was invented in the Muenster Valley, of which I posted photos in an earlier entry. Oh, you can buy mild stuff that is called Muenster here in America. But the stuff in France has a fragrance that fills a room even if it is wrapped.

Real Muenster cheese, some French are proud to say, smells like shit. And it is something that is overwhelming even to many French. A family that hosted us to dinner on our final night in Strasbourg (a wonderful family, who got out the special 1971 wine and treated us royally, a family of intelligent, creative, polite people) told us the story of how one of them took a well-wrapped piece of Muenster cheese onto a train compartment. Nobody would share the compartment with them except a young family with a baby. The young family immediately checked the baby’s diaper and, finding it clean, glanced over at my hosts and quickly left. I repeat, they told us this story proudly. (I swear it’s true. You can’t make stuff like this up.) They also found that you can smuggle anything you want (even though they did not actually do so) if you put it under some Muenster cheese. Then they unwrapped some for us. I just politely watched the others eat it. It was expensive and they were saving it for a very special occasion, which was us.

You can study French in college, but you may never be able to learn the subtleties of French speech, and you will probably never learn to love, really love, the kinds of French cheese that are illegal in America. You will never be French unless you already are. So don’t try. Instead, you should try being exotic. If you are part Native American, you will be revered as a curiosity. I got pretty good use of the only two words of Cherokee I know (osiyo and wado) and from the story about my grandfather having a Cherokee name (Tsisqua). If I ever move to France, I will put a dream-catcher in my window.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Race as Shorthand, Not as Reality

It has always been impossible to define race. Most humans who have ever lived have had characteristics that were recognizable for their race, although nobody could ever figure out how many races there were. For example, are subsaharan Africans all one race? Bantu people (e.g. Nigeria) look very different from Ethiopians and San (e.g. from Namibia).

But in many societies the dominant people found it extremely important to define race with an exactitude that the concept will not allow. This was particularly true for people of mixed ancestry, as many of us are. This resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule in pre-Civil-War America, in which “one drop of black blood” made you black, and if your mother was a slave, you were a slave, even if you were only (like the children of Sally Hemings) one-eighth black. The former Apartheid leaders of South Africa struggled with this concept so much that, in their pitiful final days of rulership, they had to define people from India as honorary whites. No more needs to be added to this, other than that if you have not read Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (a slave and a master, who were both one-eighth black, were switched in the nursery), you should.

Still, look around you, and you will find that race is a useful shorthand for identifying people. Even the bluest of liberals cannot avoid it. And, for me, seeing all the different races helps me to rejoice in human diversity, more so than I would if I (perhaps more accurately) saw each person as unique. On the trams of Strasbourg, I enjoyed seeing Muslims and Jews, each in distinctive garb, mixing with saffron-robed Buddhist priests.

But many people want to make each race a category of blame. The most obvious modern example of this is that millions of conservatives consider all Muslims to deserve blame for the terrorist actions of a small number of them. The solution to terrorism, they believe, is to keep all Muslims out of America. By which they mean, all people Arabic ethnicity. (I’m not sure what they would do with red-headed white Muslims from Turkey or the former Yugoslavia.)

But I’m here to tell you, from personal experience, how evil this is. I am of partial Cherokee ancestry. My sixth great grandmother was Nancy Ward, the famous peace activist of the Cherokee Nation prior to the Trail of Tears. Her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini, was the last holdout of Cherokee warriors, whose Chickamauga warriors did not surrender until 1794 on Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. Tsiyu Gansini and his warriors committed numerous atrocities, and Nancy Ward could not stop them. Nancy Ward said “My cry is all for peace,” while Tsiyu Gansini said, “We are not yet conquered.” Today we would call the Chickamauga warriors terrorists.

And yet the United States considered all Cherokees to be guilty of the Chickamauga terrorism. In 1830, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and all Cherokees, not just terrorists (of whom none remained by that time) were forced out of their homeland by the United States Army in 1838. Even though the Cherokees by that time had their own written language, newspaper, constitution, Supreme Court, and they lived in white-man houses and had white-man agriculture,
the United States still considered them savages and took their land. It was the category of “Cherokee” that allowed the government to hold all members of the category responsible for the terrorist acts of a few.

When I think about the really nice Muslims I have known, including the couple who struck up a really friendly conversation with us on the tram in Strasbourg, I know none of them approved of Islamist terrorism, any more than my ancestor Nancy Ward approved of the terrorist acts of her cousin, Tsiyu Gansini.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Homage to Abélard

France, part 6.

At the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on July 23, the lines were very long just to get through security inspections and enter inside. This was only to be expected, since it was a Saturday during tourist season, and was also a response to the nearly daily terrorist attacks, such as a few days earlier (July 14) in Nice, and more recent ones in Germany. But I had already seen enough ornate cathedral decorations (see an earlier essay about the Strasbourg cathedral, also called Notre Dame). What I wanted to see and experience inside was something that was probably either off limits at the best of times, or maybe locations now lost to the historical record.

I wanted to see the chamber in which Peter Abélard lived in the twelfth century, and the classroom in which he taught.

Abélard was most famous for being the 35-year-old monk who had a torrid love affair with the 19-year-old nun Heloïse, in revenge for which her Uncle Fulbert arranged to have Abélard castrated. But Abélard was also one of the planet’s major scholars of his time, and Heloïse was an accomplished scholar herself.

And the thing that made Abélard different from all the other scholars was that his primary rule, first, last, and always, was to question what we think we know and what the authorities have told us. His famous quote, preserved in various forms, was this:  “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.” This was the closest that any scholar had yet come to the scientific method.

Abélard’s world was extremely limited compared to ours today. He could not have imagined the vastness of the universe, or even that Earth was just a planet like the others that revolved around the sun. He could not have imagined Copernicus, much less Darwin. To him, the universe was as orderly as an astrolabe, the little device that calculated the time and the phases of the moon and the positions of the planets based upon a geocentric model. He and Heloïse even named their love child Astrolabius! But he stretched his mind as far as anyone could at the time.

So I satisfied myself with seeing Notre Dame de Paris from the outside. It was splendid, as the photos show, but not as significant as the contribution that Abélard made to the history of scientific thought.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

What I Learned in the Forests of France: About Humans and Nature

France Part 5.

Our entire July 14 hike (see previous essay) was inside of a national park, the Parc naturel régional des Vosges du Nord (Northern Vosges Regional Natural Park). With a name like that, you would expect such a park, if it were in America, to consist only of natural areas and trails, with limited development, by contractors, to accommodate visitors. In America, a National Park (Department of the Interior) excludes human economic activity as much as possible. National Forests (Department of Agriculture) allow logging and recreation (such as ORVs) other than hiking. In America, you find nature and only nature (for the most part) inside of National Parks.

Meanwhile, outside the National Parks in America, the private land is often being destroyed in an unsustainable fashion. Not only that, but if you trespass on private land, you risk getting shot. This is as true of wolves as of humans. The federal government has re-introduced wolves into federal land, but the moment a wolf strays onto private land it can be, and probably will be, shot dead.

In America, there are usually absolute and hostile lines between the human world and the natural world.

But in France, the Regional Parks (at least this one) embrace humans as a part of nature. First of all, why not? Humans have been farming and ranching and living in villages in France for thousands of years. There is virtually no place left of “unspoiled nature” in France. When you look at the fir forests ear the tops of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, the trees appear to be lined up: they are not forests, but plantations. The Regional Park area has not only been transformed by human cultivation and habitation, but ravaged by war, as shown by the World War I cemetery in this photo.

Therefore when the French government established this park, they did not drive out the humans. The old farms and pastures for dairy cattle are still there, and they are productive. And I don’t mean just a nominal amount of economic activity. This park is actually the highlands of the Muenster Valley, the place of origin of the famous French cheese, about which I will write more in a later blog essay. And it was beautiful. The small towns, such as Pairis (not Paris!) and Orbey, were as picturesque as any “undisturbed” forest.

This has happened for two reasons. First, it reflects a faith in forest succession. No matter what happens, the forests will grow back. Most of the forests of Europe and North America were destroyed just a few thousand years ago by glaciers. They have all grown back. When Longfellow wrote (in his poem Evangeline) about “the forest primeval,” he was actually referring to a forest that was only about ten thousand years old. If you stop abusing the forest, and instead use it in a sustainable fashion, the forest will grow back into a beautiful, functional entity, even if not entirely natural. As a result, the forests of the Vosges Mountains supports, and has supported for centuries, pastures and villages. Everywhere we went, we found great stacks of firewood that had been harvested from the forests with no apparent damage to it. Timber harvest, but no clear-cutting!

Look, folks, it can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you that the timber companies have to clear-cut. In France, there are plenty of firewood and paper products without clear-cutting. A quick online check will show you that the paper products industry in France is very much alive and profitable. Nor do ranches have to have soil erosion! Look at these pictures—do you see any? But these farms are profitable!

Second, private landowners are required to simply accept the fact that hikers will be walking right past their houses and cutting across their lands. In America, signs may warn that “we shoot first and ask questions later” but in France, private land owners must accept the proximity of hikers on their land. Private driveways are marked as “privée,” and hikers stay away from these places. But if hikers were to trespass (which I never saw them do), there is no danger of them being shot. What I did, by walking right through fields and past houses, crossing private land, is virtually unthinkable in America.

The integration of humans and nature in the regional parks not only works but is a major source of enjoyment and income. There were at least a dozen people in our group, and we encountered lots of other hikers. None of us said, “This place would be beautiful if it weren’t for those ugly pastures.” And one of the major aspects of the local economy is for the farms (les fermes auberges) to host the visitors for sumptuous meals (and/or spartan accommodations). In order to gain the right to call themselves fermes auberges, the farms must raise all of their own milk, meat, and vegetables. (They can import things such as coffee and chocolate that cannot grow in France.) Many people drive to the inns, but we hiked for hours to get to one of these inns, where we spent as much time eating as we had hiking. And then we hiked back down.

Patrick Gennetay led and treated us to a wonderful feast at Le Musmiss, a ferme auberge in Orbey.

Hikers are not supposed to walk into people’s orchards or yards to eat domesticated fruit. But all along the path there were wild (or planted?) fruits for hikers to stop and eat along the trail. Hiking makes those fruits taste so good! We ate lots of wild cherries and raspberries. And right near the top, in the subalpine meadows, the trail was lined with wild blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus, les myrtelles), which are smaller and tastier than the domesticated blueberries (les bleuets). We were a little bit early in the season for the wild hazelnuts, but if they had been ripe we could have munched on them almost the entire time.

Vaccinium myrtillus, a subalpine blueberry in the Vosges Mountains

Humans and nature can live together not only peacefully but enjoyably. I thought about this the entire time I was hiking, and it gave an extra dimension to my joy. It occasionally happens in America, too. Birdwatchers who visit the Arcata (California) bird sanctuary often do not realize that this wetland is the municipal sewage treatment facility for the city of Arcata. But it requires a shift in attitude among private land owners. The land owners have to realize that they are stewards of the beautiful Earth, which they share with nature and with other people. In order to establish such a park in America, private land owners would have to unlearn the little song that Garrison Keillor set to the tune of This Land is Your Land:

This land is my land
It is not your land
I’ve got a shotgun
And you ain’t got one…