Monday, September 26, 2016

Do Police Killings Show a Racial Bias?

It seems like at least once a week, if not more often, we get news of an unarmed black man being killed by white police officers. When it happened in the city where I live, I started thinking more about what is happening.

I have not seen evidence that any of the white officers were motivated by overt racial hatred. But it appears that there is an underlying racial bias, of which most police officers may not even be aware: a bias that makes them pull the trigger on black men more than on white men. The number of police shootings of black men is way out of proportion to the percentage of black people in the population. It looks as if the idea—conscious or not—of “shoot first and ask questions later” motivates police more against blacks than whites.

White pride groups usually respond to this by saying that blacks commit more crimes, per capita, than whites. This, however, is no justification for having a quicker trigger finger for blacks than for whites. It may explain the higher conviction and incarceration rates for blacks than whites, but not the disparity in police shootings.

And we all understand that mistakes will happen. When a police officer has to make a quick decision, and when he or she thinks his or her life is in danger, there is no time for logical thought. But these are exactly the circumstances under which unconscious bias can have the greatest impact.

It becomes even clearer when you consider how many white men have been shot by black police officers. An online search suggests that this happens about once or twice a year. Here are the examples I found, in reverse chronological order:

  • November 2015: A black cop killed Jeremy Mardis, a white boy with autism in Louisiana.
  • November 2014: A black officer shot Gilbert Collar, a white student at the University of Southern Alabama, after he banged on the police station window.
  • October 2014: A black cop killed Dillon Taylor, a white man, in Salt Lake City.

This takes us back almost two years. In two other cases I could not determine the race of the police officer who shot the white victim: Castaic, California, and Fresno, California, both in 2016. The killing of Dylan Noble in Fresno made it all over the internet. It looks like a lot of cases until you see how many of them are about the same man, Dylan Noble. There has also been a lot of rage over the police killing of a white youth, Zachary Hammond, in South Carolina in 2015, even though the police officer was also white.

White officers kill black men: dozens of times a year. Black officers kill white men: about twice a year.

As indicated in the above graphic, Native Americans are even more likely than blacks to be shot by police. As a member of the Cherokee tribe, I took notice of this, although no police officer in a hurry would think I was Native American. If the police killings have an underlying racial motivation, it is not surprising that Native Americans should also be the victims of lots of police shootings.

Racism has deep evolutionary roots and influences the minds and moods and actions even of people who tell themselves that they are not racist. We will make progress only if we admit the problem. 

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.