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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 01:10 PM
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My undergrad seminar earlier today.

The lectures for my large-enrollment class are still online, but my seminar for first-year students (on dinosaur art and monsters of folklore - lotsa fun) is face to face, and today was our first meeting.

For the most part, this is an excellent group. They asked a lot of good questions. It's an honors group, so these are all among our best students.

One thing, though. We're not allowed to tell students to wear masks in public universities in my state. I thus couldn't require masks in the classroom. I did, however, indicate that I was recovering from a nasty chest cold (I'm still coughing from it), and that I'm a chronic asthmatic who had a severe attack on Tuesday. It's been extremely humid, and something is pollenating that I desperately want to see wiped out to extinction - so although the issue isn't acute now, I'm still wheezing. I also have a 5-year-old daughter who can't be vaccinated yet. For those reasons, I asked that the students strongly consider being masked in the room.

Masks are available at every door to the building. They were also available in my classroom, though I don't know if that's true of every classroom - but every student who wants a mask can very easily obtain one.

Out of a group of 21, 18 were masked.

What bothers me is that the three unmasked students gave me a look that basically said, "I don't give a fuck about your problems."

While we're not allowed to require masks, we're allowed to explain why we ourselves wear them. (The same is true for vaccines.) I really want to use "because I don't want to be ashamed of myself" and "because I'm not a moron" as reasons, but I suspect I'd get called out for it.

I never thought I'd see the day when asking for basic decency and consideration of the welfare of your fellow person would become a political litmus test.

Runaway selection is killing people.

Some of you might have seen one of my earlier essays comparing trends in Republican politics with runaway selection in evolution. If longer tail feathers attract peahens, tail feathers on peacocks will lengthen over generations to the point that the feathers might actually limit the bird's ability to move or hide. Likewise, during the late 1980's and 1990's, we saw talk radio and right-wing media pushing for increasingly conservative Republicans, to the point where being able to shout "USA, USA, USA!" louder than another candidate is more important than a demonstrated ability to read and write. Hence the madness we're dealing with.

I keep hoping that the next election cycle will break this trend - that the selection has now created political peacocks that can no longer walk or fly because of their outsized tail feathers, and a large enough number of Republicans will say "enough." They're stuck between two rocks - they can't win the primaries without the redhatter base, but are starting to find it more difficult to win the general election with it. The 2020 election burst any remaining bubbles of hope I had that we'd already gotten there - but clearly, we're not.

And now, it's starting to cost lives and throwing those of us still alive into a tailspin of confusion.

My home state does not allow school districts to issue mask mandates. Its legislature and governor don't seem too interested in promoting vaccinations, either.

State policy, technically speaking, applies to K-12 education. It doesn't actually include universities. But the state Board of Regents has decided to see things otherwise, and so we're now the only Big 10 institution without a mask mandate.

The city council has issued a mask mandate. It's supposed to cover all public buildings in town. But the local school district is saying it won't comply - and frankly, I understand that decision, even if i dislike it. The district went to court over an in-person teaching mandate last fall and lost. It cost them a lot of money. And the higher-ups at my university have announced we're taking our marching orders from the BoR. Indeed, for a short time, we were issued "guidelines" that all but forbade us from talking about vaccines or masks with only the narrowest of exceptions. (I have no idea how the Department of Epidemiology would have dealt with it.). It was reversed almost as soon as the rest of the country noticed it, but the fact that the people supervising the whole institution felt obliged to bow before bullshit, being given to them by people who know it's bullshit but feel either entitled or constrained to pretend it's not, is alarming.

I happen to know some of these administrators. Not one of them is anti-mask or anti-vaccine. I'm pretty sure they've all been vaccinated, and I always see them wearing a mask on campus. But they have to walk a fine line between what they know is right and what they think they can actually do. Meanwhile, the BoR is walking a tightrope between the state capitol and physical reality.

Some of the right-wingers in the legislature may believe the it's-not-that-bad-and-vaccines-are-unsafe-and-masks-don't-help-and-don't-impose-tyranny-on-me bologna, but most don't. The same is as true of Washington as it is Des Moines.

This is all because of the runaway selection that was left to run at liberty for the past 40 years. I suspect the governor of our state knows full well that vaccines and masks save lives, but she won't allow herself to see past the next election. Get past one rock, and hope the next one isn't that bad.

Everyone on campus knows masks and vaccines are necessary if we want this thing to end, but there's always someone higher up the food chain who thinks they have to pretend otherwise. And it eventually loops back on itself to the knobs don't seem to actually care that what they see with their own eyes, and hear with their own ears, is inconsistent with what they're told to believe.

This all has to stop, and I believe it will - but when? In my lifetime? I used to think so, but I'm not so sure. When politicians can't be made to put the real world ahead of the warped view of a handful of outspoken but ill-informed voters who think they're the majority, we're hosed.

Refuse the vaccine, but go to the hospital when sick? This is how Americans treat science.

They treat science like they treat religion.

Note how I phrased that. I didn't say they treat science as a religion. Rather, they treat science the way they treat their religious denomination - like a buffet.

If you were to poll American Catholics, you'd find a wide range of opinions regarding divorce, birth control, priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church, Papal infallibility, and even core doctrines like transubstantiation. In some cases, it might even be a majority who disagree with the official church position. And these are people who attend Mass and take part in the sacraments.

It's like a buffet meal - I'll take some of the roast beef and green bean casserole, but not the beets.

(I chose Catholicism not because it's the best example, but because it's the example I know best. I was raised Catholic. My wife doesn't eat bacon, but not because she's Jewish. It's because she's a vegetarian. The rest of her family is perfectly happy to eat it.)

I understood this after listening to a friend of mine in grad school discuss a conversation he'd had with a young-earth creationist. The creationist claimed that radiometric dating can't be trusted because we don't know if rates of radioactive decay are constant over time. "OK," my friend said, "then why do nuclear power plants work?" Because it turns out every nuclear plant, whether generating power for neighborhoods or a submarine, relies on the constant output of energy from a supply of nuclear material - and that output is constant because the nuclear material is decaying at a constant rate. It's the same physics. If one doesn't work, neither should the other.

This left the creationist baffled.

People don't realize that scientific concepts don't exist in a vacuum. I've heard people say that the fossil record can't be used to support the theory of evolution, even though the petroleum companies that fueled their cars spent millions on its use to find oil and gas reserves. And they used it for the same reason evolutionary biologists do - it's a predictive tool.

It's one thing to draw a line with religious belief to accommodate other values, experiences, or modernity. It's another to do that with physical reality.

Hence, we have people who will go to the hospital if they need medical care, but who will also follow crackpot politicians into thinking COVID is a hoax or that the vaccine is deadly.

We've seen this before. Denial of climate science? Evolutionary biology? Modern geology? I'm not talking about flat-earth or ancient alien believers, either - I'm talking about ordinary people who might claim to be scientifically literate, but who pick and choose those parts of science that conform to their political or religious ideologies. It's been typical of the average American's approach to science since before the modern era.

It's getting worse, and given my efforts in the classroom, I don't know if it's ever going to get better. But the idiocy we're seeing is not new.

thoughts on today's Google doodle and the line between human and nonhuman

The Google Doodle up for today (Aug. 1) refers to Turkana Boy, the remains of an adolescent male Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster*) found east of Lake Turkana. The specimen is about 1.6 million years in age.

I had the privilege of seeing this specimen about 6 years ago, and I'd like to describe my reaction to the opportunity, which went way beyond what I expected.

My work these days is mostly on the crocodiles that have lived in East Africa over the past 25 million years. This includes both the living forms and the extinct.

Today, if you see a crocodile in East Africa, it's nearly always one of two species of Crocodylus - C. niloticus or C. suchus. Both were considered the same species (the Nile crocodile) until about 10 years ago, when molecular evidence clearly showed that they're different. Crocodylus suchus is mostly in western and central Africa, though its range does pass through Sudan and (we think) into Ethiopia. One of the dwarf crocodile species (either Osteolaemus tetraspis or O. osborni) formerly occurred in western Uganda, and the central African sharp-nosed crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) reaches Lake Tanganyika, but otherwise, anywhere you go in East Africa now, you'll just see the one species.

But until comparatively recently, there could be as many as five crocodile species living in the same area. Some were gigantic - one species of Crocodylus could have exceeded 27 feet in length. And for the most part, they are unrelated to C. niloticus or C. suchus. (Many are closely related to Osteolaemus, but were normal-sized for a crocodile, making them giant dwarf crocodiles.)

But I digress.

My work has taken me to museums throughout East Africa. My animals were the largest predators faced by our ancestors, and one of them is known to have consumed such primates, as shown by the presence of crocodile bite marks on the remains of at least one early human at Olduvai Gorge. (We named that crocodile Crocodylus anthropophagus. But I again digress.).

I thus wanted to look at some of these early humans to get good impression of their size. Pictures and reported dimensions are OK, but I wanted to visualize it. And frankly, some of these fossils are famous, and I kinda wanted to see them for that reason as well - but mostly, it was to get a visual sense of them.

These countries treat early human remains as national treasures. They're kept under very tight security. The US Constitution is given less security than some of these fossils.

So one day, a couple of us were taken to see the early humans in Nairobi. A couple of boxes were taken out with the skulls of "australopithecines." These are (depending on what one counts as a close human relative) the closest relatives of humans that aren't referred to our genus, Homo. I picked them up and looked them over. Very impressive.

Next, they took out the drawer holding the skull of Turkana Boy. And right away, I felt what can only be described as an emotional experience. I felt something I couldn't put into words. Was it because this was such a famous fossil? Maybe, but so were the others. Was it because it was such well-preserved fossil that had been restored by some of the best preparators in the profession? Maybe. But there was something more than that.

It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I eventually did.

Assemble a room full of philosophers and anthropologists, lock the door and tell them they can't leave until they agree on the demarcation between human and non-human, and you'll get a room full of dead philosophers and anthropologists. There's no one set of standards. Is it our large brain? Our ability to make tools? Self-recognition? The ability to consciously plan for the future? Knowledge of our own mortality and burial or our dead? Art? Language? Alteration of the landscape for our own purposes? A soul? Some of these came about gradually and can be found in other animals. Other primates make tools, and some can be taught to communicate with sign language, for example.

I have know idea where the dividing line is, but the australopithecines I'd seen were on one side of it, and Turkana Boy was on the other side. And I was on the same side as Turkana Boy.

The australopithecines were cool to look at, but however many similarities I could see between them and me, they weren't me. Their skulls, to me anyway, still kinda look like the skulls of gorillas and chimpanzees. Not identical, mind you - they're not as prognathous, and the teeth aren't quite the same - but even though I knew they walked on two legs, the overall gestalt of the skull was that of an ape.

But Turkana Boy? I wasn't just holding the skull of an immature male primate. I was holding the skull of someone's kid. This individual was never merely a juvenile - he was a child. He would have grown not to be a mature individual or adult, but a man.

This was someone who probably saw some of the crocodiles I'm working on, but alive. How did he react? Was he fearful? Did he and his friends play in the water, like most children would? Did they somehow know which parts of a river were safe? Did he or his parents perform some sort of ritual to ward the crocodiles away? No idea - but I can visualize them.

(Some of these crocodiles were large enough to have slurped him down as easily as we might slurp down an oyster or Jell-O shooter. That's probably why we don't see crocodile bite marks on hominins from that site - the crocs were bigger, the hominins were smaller, and there probably wasn't much biting involved. Another of the crocs looked like it crawled right out of Dr Seuss or Hieronymus Bosch. Imagine a gharial crossed with a sawfish. Or a crocodile with a musical instrument instead of a snout. Another digression. I apologize.)

Some part of my forebrain registered the australopithecines as "ape" and Turkana Boy as "human." I can't point to a single morphological feature that did this for me. Turkana Boy's brow ridges aren't as prominent, his teeth look more like mine, his brain cavity is somewhat larger. Maybe that played a role? I don't know. But the overall bearing of this specimen crossed a line I still haven't located, and my subconscious reacted to it.

Anyway - I've worked with modern and fossil bones throughout my career. I've had all kinds of reactions. Some are just gorgeously preserved. Others were handled Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, Mary Anning, and other founders of my field. Or I came to realize they represented a new species. There's a thrill with these. But Turkana Boy was different, and the Google Doodle reminded me of that.

*In my opinion, early humans have been way oversplit.
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