Evolution of Weird–the Kiwi

Native to the island of New Zealand, the country that is technically more “down under” than Australia, the kiwi is the nation’s national bird and the namesake of the kiwifruit (also known as the Chinese gooseberry).  They are the smallest of all known ratites (ostriches, emus, cassowaries and rheas) and are, curiously, more closely related to the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar than to the extinct moa of its native New Zealand.

What makes the kiwi a strange animal isn’t the fact that it’s a flightless bird, New Zealand has been nicknamed the Kingdom of the Birds because of how birds there evolved to fill the evolutionary niches left over from the absentee mammals (NZ’s only native mammal being a small breed of bat) but because it is, itself, an honorary mammal.

The feathers of the kiwi aren’t structured like the feathers of other birds; lacking barbules or aftershafts, they are more similar to a dog’s fur than a bird’s feather.  The feathers around the beak have even evolved to look and act like whiskers.

The kiwi is also the only bird with nostrils at the end of its beak.  This helps the kiwi to find its preferred prey of insects and snails along the forest floor, by jabbing its bill into the leaf litter and sniffing around where its prey may be hiding.

Another odd fact about the kiwi–this being its main claim to fame–is the enormous size of its eggs.  Despite being about the size of the average domestic chicken, these poor creatures lay eggs that weigh around 16oz.



As you may notice from this photo, the kiwi appears to lack wings.  This is a visual illusion; in fact, the kiwi’s wings are so small that they are invisible beneath their feather/fur.  Scientifically vestigial, the wings are useless, and it’s probably only a matter of time before they evolutionarily atrophy completely.  Not needing to be light enough for flight, kiwi’s don’t have hollow bones like most birds, but instead have solid bones like those of mammals or reptiles.

I like the kiwi because of its oddness, it’s an animal that just doesn’t seem right.  It is also an excellent lesson in the power of evolution.  A bird arrived in New Zealand and found itself free of predators.  It changed and adapted, evolving so far as to blur the line between bird and mammal.  On that note, if the kiwi’s feathers were to develope into what we might call ‘true fur,’ if the pliable bill were to become more like a muzzle than it already is, would be obliged to call them mammals?

Find the Fatal Flaw

As many of you may know, there was a big kerfuffle on Bill Maher’s show last week. A fight broke out between Maher, Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele and Nick Kristof over Islam, the ISIS group, Sam’s rampant Islamaphobia, Maher’s Islamaphobia, Afleck’s failure to criticize Islam in the same way he might criticize other religions and I don’t remember much of what Kristof or Steele said except that I think they were on Affleck’s side. The conversation turned into a shouting match in which you couldn’t understand any of it. So Harris presented his ideas on his blog again and also got invited on the Lawrence O’Donnell show on CNBC where he could talk without being shouted down. So here is Sam’s take yet again on Islam and what problems it poses. Since I tend to side with most, but not all of what Sam says on the subject, I usually get lumped into the Islamaphobia bag as well. I guess I need someone to point out the fatal flaw in Sam’s argument. The idea or ideas that are totally off the wall or even partially off the wall and render everything he says as misguided and hateful. Once I’ve been enlightened I can proudly (well, not actually proudly), put on the sack cloth and ashes my Islamaphobia so clearly calls for.

If I had the resources, I could declare this a contest to see who can find and explain the flaw or flaws first and then award the grand prize. I shall be waiting patiently…sort of.

What Were Dinosaurs Really Like?

We are all familiar (I trust) with the classic controversies surrounding the so-called “terrible Lizards” of the Mesozoic Era of Earth’s history.  What color were they?  What did they sound like?  How did they behave?  Did they breathe fire?

That last one was courtesy of Dr. Richard Kent, a former medical doctor (his poor, poor patients) and current man-whose-head-is-filled-with-bullshit creationist.

For generations of paleontologists, these questions seemed unanswerable.  But innovations in science has given us the ability to delve deeper into the mysteries of the long-extinct animals.   I’ve mentioned sinornithosaurus and microraptor in a previous post on the evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds, but something I didn’t mention is that their fossilized feathers are so-well preserved that scientists have been able to study the chromatic structure of their feathers.  Put simply; we know what color sinornithosaurus and microraptor were.

Scientists also stumbled upon a way to discover the illusive dinosaur roar while studying the skull of parasaurolophus, one of the so-called duck-billed dinosaurs.  Parry possessed a large sweeping crest coming off the back of its head.  Earlier paleontologists thought these crests were some kind of snorkel, but CT scans showed no sign of nasal openings, but they did show elegant resonating chambers within, just like those of a trombone.  Parasaurolophus had a haunting, echoing song that could likely carry for miles, perfect for animals that lived in vast herds, and some scientists even believe that these calls could become so powerful, amplified as they were by the resonating chambers within the crest, that a group could produce shockwaves capable of knocking other dinosaurs to the ground, similar to how modern dolphins and sperm whales may use sound waves to stun prey.

Another great dinosaur mystery is behavior, and for this our only recourse is to compare dinosaurs to their closest modern-animal analogues.  I’m not talking birds and reptiles here, dinosaurs evolved to fill every ecological niche known during their reign, and it would be simply foolish to try and associate all of their varied behaviors with only two groups of animals.  Take the pachycephalosaurs (also, damn these names!).  Literally “thick-skulled-lizards,” they gained attention due to their powerful, crash-helmet like skulls.  Best known for pachycephalosaurus, but also containing animals such as prenocephale and dracorex hogwartsia (which simultaneously wins the award for both Most-Awesomely-Named-Dinosaur and Most-Geekly-Named-Dinosaur), these dinosaurs are believed to have engaged in head-butting rituals to determine hierarchy.  We believe this, not just because the domed skulls would lessen such impacts, but because of other structural anomalies.  In profile, a pachycephalosaurus’s skull almost perfectly resembles a musk oxen’s (not including the obvious lack of curved horns of the dinosaur’s head).  Their necks and shoulders are powerfully reinforced, and muscle imprints leave scientists speculating at truly massive muscles.  Keep in mind, big horn sheep and musk oxen (both animals we know for a fact engage in head butting) may die in these rituals, despite evolutionary safeguards.

These changes in views regarding dinosaurs are a lovely representation of how science, blessed as it is to not have religion’s inherent arrogance (whatever Jon Stewart might say on this particular issue), adapts and incorporates new information to change or fix erroneous viewpoints.  I believe it is important to have, at least, a functioning knowledge of Mesozoic life for this reason, as well as a wonderful show on how evolution is not bound by imaginative limitations.

Conversations with the CPC – 1

We had our first conversation with members of the Community Presbyterian Church (CPC) on Tuesday, September 30th. Here is a report on what transpired and where we may go from here. But first, a little background.

The impetus to speak with the CPC began with the problematic Secular Café we started last spring in the hopes of gaining a few participants from the religious community in a discussion of issues on which they and we might have differing views. We also expected that we might gain the attention of a few more secular people in the area. The first of those meetings generated interest mostly among secular people not already involved with GRAF and a few new members of GRAF resulted. However, we didn’t get any meaningful participation from those in the religious community. So we decided to hold another Secular Café and see what would happen on a second round.

At the second meeting, two men describing themselves as Christians willing to talk showed up, but they were clearly not interested in a civil conversation. The meeting turned into a shouting match as the two Christians went into a hate filled rant and the GRAF members, unprepared for this assault, found it difficult to keep their cool as well. We ended the conversation early and decided this approach to a dialog with believers wasn’t likely to work. While discussing this sad turn of events at the VFW, Nathan Bergstedt joined in and suggested we go directly to one of the liberal and more progressive churches and volunteered to act as a go between with the CPC and their pastor Kimbrel Johnson. He did this and I had an initial meeting with Kim and her assistant, Robert Drake a couple of weeks later.

At the first meeting with CPC, we discussed the broad humanitarian values we have in common with each other and decided to start with a small group meeting to which we would each invite about 4 members of our individual groups. The invitees would subscribe to what Kim and Robert called a covenant or “promise” to maintain an open and civil perspective. The longer term goal might be to form an alliance or partnership with which we might create a larger community conversation. Our partnership would be presented as secure and completed based on an established level of trust between us. We would “defend” each other against any criticisms from the community directed at the notion that believers and atheists could actually get along. Our existing relationship would sidestep the whole question of tolerating different perspectives by demonstrating that it was possible. Below the fold I will give a detailed discussion of what transpired at our meeting with the caveat that this is my perspective only.

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An Ethical Dilemma?

If you knew someone had cancer and they were following a treatment procedure that was almost certainly wrong, but they were firmly committed to it, should you tell them they were making a big mistake? If they were a friend, but not a super close friend, would that make a difference?  Would you be sticking your nose into something that wasn’t your business?

Recently a family friend was diagnosed with leukemia. I hadn’t seen this friend much since that diagnosis, but encountered him at a get together just this last weekend. I didn’t think he looked well and asked him how he was doing. He replied that the cancer seemed to have slowed and that his doctor had said things were going well. At first I took this to mean that his current appearance might reflect the effects of chemotherapy or radiation therapy and that he was now regaining some of his health. His hair wasn’t completely gone, but was short enough to make it seem he might just be regaining some of what chemotherapy destroyed. I noticed some sores on his scalp.

I had overheard him telling others that he needed to avoid eating sugar, particularly refined sugar and asked him why. Everyone there knew more about his condition than I did and I heard comments that they had gone out of their way to provide alternatives to refined sugar. His response was that he had been told that his cancer “fed” on sugar and avoiding sugar was at least a part of his treatment to control the spread of the disease. A small red flag went up.

Later I heard him refer to his involvement in homeopathy and the initial red flag was joined by a dozen more and all of them burst into flames! I tried to discern whether the homeopathy was his primary or only treatment, whether it was just a supplement to real oncology treatment, etc. and whether this was where the admonition to not eat refined sugar had originated. I never really got the chance to pursue this, so I made a note to ask my wife for more details on exactly what he was doing about his cancer and to check online for any information on his “starve the cancer treatment”.

It now appears that he isn’t getting any regular medical treatment and it may be the case that all that is happening besides the woo is a check on the progress of the disease which may be a slow version of adult leukemia. We don’t know if this assessment is actually coming from a physician with any expertise.

This morning it took about 5 minutes to turn up this article which outlined the “theories” of Dr. Mark Sircus. This seemed to be the heart of the argument for the treatment my friend was pursuing. I noted with some dismay that Dr. Sircus’s qualifications did not include an MD, but did include being an acupuncturist, and a doctor of oriental and pastoral medicine. I quickly asked my wife if pastoral medicine was medicine in the presence of cows or sheep in a pleasant field, but she quickly dismissed the joke. As I read through the article I encountered all the expected science jargon that you always find in pseudo-science articles and some references to things that looked like real sources. All my red flags were done burning, they were hanging there in shreds and the trumpets and canons were blaring instead. So I searched on.

Searching for other articles on the idea that “sugar feeds cancer”, I quickly found many sites that appeared to be reputable sources of information on cancer and its treatment that were responding to this “internet myth” and had lots of information about how it arose, why it has proved so persistent and, ultimately, how dangerous it could be. Yes, sugar can be associated with cancer because if you eat a hell of a lot of it, it will screw up your insulin production, may precipitate diabetes. lead to excessive weight gain and, if you don’t exercise, contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle that it would be good to change. The only contributing factor for developing cancer that I could identify for my friend was a possible family history with the disease. He has never been over weight and has led an active life working outdoors on construction of log cabins. He eats only healthy foods and probably hasn’t eaten a Twinkie in his life. The idea that he could cure his cancer by cutting out refined sugars is absurd. All he has managed so far is to lose a noticeable amount of weight and that might be a result of the cancer that he says is under control.

So, what do I do? In talking with my wife, she too was hesitant to raise concerns, but was thinking of gently raising the issue with our friend’s wife with whom she has a better relationship than I do. It feels like we should be barging through the doors and telling them both that he is not helping himself with this woo and, while his cancer might progress no matter what he does, getting some real oncology treatment and real information about what he can do with diet to help his case, is much more rational.

Then again, it is his life and his choices to make. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve had someone close give in to what appears to be magical thinking and foolishness that could be fatal. I’m reminded of Steve Jobs who seemed to lose all his brilliance when it came to dealing with his cancer and seemed surprised when the woo didn’t work. I’m going to wait and see if my wife can summon up the courage to raise the issue and try to get them to get at least some “real” treatment even if they want to dance around the woo fire and chant to the spirits. A really sad situation.

French Wars of Religion

At a community college, one has to wear many hats.  I have been teaching philosophy for many years, but since I have a Master’s degree in European History, I am now called upon to teach that subject as well.  It should not be that way, but until our higher education system is adequately funded, that is how it will remain.  In any case, in doing my “prep” work, I am reminded of how bloody the wars of religion were in 16th-17th century Europe.  Since I am prepping for a unit on French history, I will just mention at present that it is estimated between 2 and 4 million men, women, and children died in the struggle between French Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots.

More on Christian Parenting

Yesterday I posted about Adrian Peterson’s use of conservative Christian ideology to justify abusing his child.  The issue is still on my mind, so I thought I would follow up with another post, this one not directly related to the Peterson issue, but perhaps more frightening.

I decided it would be appropriate to have a discussion about the moral issues surrounding Peterson’s actions with my students.  One of them (and of course for the sake of anonymity I will not reveal names or even class sections) said that she had been raised in a strict Christian home, and that corporal punishment had been frequently resorted to.  She is young and I’m assuming single, but she said that when she has children of her own, she will be sure to spank them.  The reason for this, she said, is that she thinks it is important for children to fear their parents.

Fear?  Really?  I would rather have my children respect me, which is not the same as fear.

Again, I am not accusing all Christians of supporting child abuse — not by a long, long way.  But as I suggested in my last post, within the fundamentalist section of the Christian community, there survive some really archaic — and reprehensible — attitudes regarding women and children.

Christianity Used to Justify Child Abuse

Certainly everyone has heard that Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings has been indicted for child abuse.  Pictures of the child can be found online if anyone wants to see fisthand the severity of the abuse.  But what is also notable is that Peterson is using his version of Christianity to justify his despicable actions, and has even said that by interfering, the public is “usurping” God’s role.  So God was on Peterson’s side as he beat his four-year-old child with what has been described as a “switch,” causing injuries to the boys back, buttocks, legs, ankles, and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the boys hands.

I am not accusing all Christians of endorsing such nonsense, but many fundamentalists do, and it makes me think that they are removed by a very small degree from Islamic fundamentalists.  If it had not been for cultural and historical forces such as the Enlightenment and the Rights Revolutions of the twentieth century, they would be exactly the same as their Muslim counterparts.

In any case, let’s hope the NFL does the right thing and starts to expel abusers, like Peterson and like Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens receiver who cold-cocked his then fiance, from the league.

Learning Must Move Over for Indoctrination

So the other day my daughter, who is just starting fifth grade, brought home a form for me to sign.  It had to do with religious release time.  I could indicate that yes, I want her to participate, and select a church, or indicate no, I did not want her to be involved.  I chose the latter.  But the more I think about this, the more bothered I become.  We spend how many millions of dollars on public education, and then everything has to come to a screeching halt once a week so some kids can be removed from the classroom, taken to a church (or temple or mosque), and indoctrinated.  Meanwhile, the kids who remain in school are not allowed to actually learn anything, because that would constitute an unfair advantage vis-a-vis their church attending peers.  Is this irrational, or what?  If parents want their children to go to church, why not just take them on Sunday, or Wednesday evening, or whatever?  Why must public schools halt their important work for this nonsense?  Certainly, this is an unreasonable intrusion of religion into secular affairs, and thus a violation of the first amendment.  What does everyone think?

Interfaith Dialog – What’s the risk?

While we are waiting for a chance to start our conversation with the Community Presbyterian Church, I have been contemplating what it might be like, what we might find ourselves discussing other than the things I think we should be discussing and whether there are risks to our group and our perspective in this dialog. I started writing all these thoughts down and commenting on the thoughts of others on the notion of common ground with the religious and, finally, exploring some of the ideas of Chris Stedman as the designated atheist speaking on behalf of an interfaith dialog with the believers. Stedman has a large number of detractors including PZ Myers and it is worth considering their critiques of his position as well.

This turned into a small disaster as I discovered the post was getting enormously long. I realized no one would read the whole thing or watch the extended video in which the topic is discussed at a conference in Australia. So this is a somewhat trimmed down version. It’s still too long I guess, but I can’t see breaking it up into pieces.

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