Emma’s tragic story

It’s really, really cold out there. Here in Morris, we’re deep in the deep freeze, in a place where exposed flesh only stings for a little while before the skin goes novocaine numb and you begin to worry that ice crystals are killing your dermis; where I live across the street from my office and I look out at the dead grey white world in the morning and wonder whether it’s worth it to hazard the walk. The only thing that gets me moving is that I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure — so I scuttle from a cold house through a brief bit of deadly freezing frigidity to reach a little oasis of warmth. And then I don’t want to come home again.

The house takes a while to warm up, usually not until it’s time for me to go to bed…and then my poor suffering wife has to deal with a body verging on hypothermia.

So anyway, to put it all in perspective, this morning I had to run some errands around town, and no way was I walking in this cold. I drove. Five blocks downtown, another five blocks to the edge of town and the local pharmacy, something I’d normally take care of on foot. While I was out, I happened to see our local free weekly for senior citizens (no, I don’t normally read it!) and I saw a front page story on a little local history that caught my eye: Emma’s tragic story. It’s about the only black person living in the area, over 140 years ago, a 12-year-old girl named Emma.

In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).

More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard” for only room and board.

Very hard, and with little reward, only punishment: there was something called a “blacksnake whip” and stabbings in the palm with needles. Her only friend was another servant at the hotel, Ingeborg, who went home for Christmas in 1871.

Then, after a severe beating, Emma decided to run away and find Ingebord at her family farm, 5 miles away, on December 23, 1871.

Did I tell you how cold it gets around here in December? Like knives in the wind, with the ground sucking all the heat of your body and snow in wicked drifts.

Read the whole thing. But the word “tragic” in the title tells you it’s not going to have a happy ending.

The lesser evil is still evil

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.


Every time I see another atheist praising Pope Francis, I think of that quote from Hamlet. It could be worse, they say; at least he seems to have a conscience, he nods to the outcasts now and then, he may even be a tad more liberal than that last pope, so we should be thankful for the small improvement. I’m not. I’d rather have an unbeguiling bad guy in the papacy than the kind who does a better job of public relations. You’ve heard of the metaphor to describe optimists and pessimists: the optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees it as half empty. But what about the guy who sees the glass as half full…of poison? Because that’s me.

There are a lot of issues in the Catholic Church that we all ought to find repugnant, say, child raping and forced birth and disease spreading policies, and I don’t see Pope Francis changing a thing about church culture on matters that are important. I’m going to focus on a less significant concern, but one that I find personally indicative, and one that I know a little bit about: evolution.

Gallup has been polling the American public on the question of evolution for 30 years, and the results have been remarkably consistent: a bit less than half our citizens have been reporting back as holding young earth creationist views. Here are the results of the 2012 survey:

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process 32%
Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process 15%
God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so 46%

A pessimist would say that 46% are creationists; an optimist would say that 47% believe in some form of evolution; I would say wait a minute — the poll designers don’t understand evolution (“from less advanced forms of life” is a clause that would have caused Darwin to cringe — “never say higher or lower”), and that 32% who claim evolution is divinely guided get it completely wrong, as badly as the young earth creationists. That’s poison in the cup, and we’re perpetuating misinformation if we continue to treat that as an acceptable answer.

People accept this “god-guided” caveat as a reasonable compromise in far too many circumstances. In the last presidential elections, for instance, Mitt Romney, one of the presidential candidates who did not raise his hand to testify in his disbelief in evolution at a Republican debate, later explained exactly what he meant.

I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.

That is not evolution. That is freaking bullshit. Evolution is not the magic wand used by the Space Fairy to conjure people into existence. Evolution is an unguided process. Nobody called him on it, though, because if you’d asked any of the Democrats, they’d probably mumble the same nonsense about believing in a god who created the world and then shaped it to his own ends. It’s the poisonous platitude injected into the culture to reconcile a creation myth to a biological process that directly contradicts their story.

The Catholic Church has a similar rationalization. The church “allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul,” according to catholic.com. Notice the magic words: guidance from a god, and a special creation event for an invisible ghost. And yet, somehow, everybody is under the impression that the Catholic Church has endorsed evolution.

That is not evolution.

If your auto mechanic said they used standard mechanical and electronic tools to fix your car, but oh, by the way, there’s a charge on your bill for the necessary sacrificing of a goat, would you trust their work?

Claiming that the inclusion of a teleological function within our understanding of evolution is a reasonable accommodation is a fundamental distortion of the evidence and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the science of evolution — an awkwardly common misunderstanding, but still definitively wrong. It’s a very common error to mistake a phenomenological description of a march of species as a proxy for the theory of evolution — but it’s not. From the very beginning, in its formulation by Charles Darwin, and in our current ongoing research in the field of evolutionary biology, evolution is a mechanism and a process. Many scientists before Darwin had hypothesized that species transformed into other species, but the Darwinian difference was that he proposed how these changes could take place.

Evolutionary theory is not about the detailed phenomenology of what species evolved into what, what structure is derived from what, or what gene is present in what frequencies in which organisms, although of course those details inform our understanding of evolutionary history or trajectories. What evolutionary theory is about is how environment and time and chance modified a species, how novelties and changes arose, and what processes changed the frequency of alleles in a population. These questions are all answered by understanding mechanisms, and we’ve got long lists of factors that shape evolution, from random chance to environmental selection to sexual selection to recombination to the constraints and opportunities of sexual and asexual reproduction.

Most importantly, nowhere in the lists of processes that enable evolution is intervention by a god. We’re explicit: there’s no teleology in evolutionary theory at all.

But religious meddling, including but not exclusively that of the Catholic Church, has poisoned the idea in the public mind, and made this nonsense about “guidance” and some special things being “created”, part of the common understanding of evolution. The revolutionary nature of the theory has been blunted by slathering it with this toxic, misleading lie.

And it’s everywhere!

Here’s Francis Collins, in The Language of God:

God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanics, of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him .

That’s the same manure Mitt Romney was spreading. Show me the evidence for any of that; how does Francis Collins know? This intentional intervention by a deity is not supported by anything in the science, it is all entirely derived from religious claims.

Then there’s the National Academies statement on the Compatibility of Science and Religion. This is painful.

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible.

Look at the Catholic statement that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Do you see any conflicts at all? I should think that the little unscientific addenda postulating that evolution is a guided process with a specific purpose and end would be setting off alarm bells in any scientist’s mind — but no, it’s the slick goo that lets the lies get injected smoothly.

Take a look at the results of the Gallup poll above once more. The real lesson of those numbers is that only 15% of the American public actually have the slightest glimmerings of the implications of evolution, 78% are creationists, and about half (at least!) of the creationists are actively spreading disinformation about the meaning of evolution.

I’ll believe people who tell me that Pope Francis is different when I see him demonstrating that he actually understands the import of evolution, that there was no guiding influence, that humans are a product of chance and natural selection, and that we aren’t any more special to the universe than a sea slug. And the only thing that would demonstrate that is an open repudiation of all of Catholic doctrine, which I don’t quite see the Pope doing.

And that’s just a small piece of the problem with the Catholic Church. If he’d actually been different, he wouldn’t have accepted the leadership of the world’s richest pedophilia ring in the first place. That alone is sufficient to mark him as a villain, smile and smile as much as he wants.

So I invented a new law the other day

I’d prodded the libertarians again, so they poked back en masse, and it was hilarious. The arguments were so familiar and so inane and so wrong that I had to say it: in any discussion about libertarians, the comments by libertarians will invariably make the stupidity of libertarianism clear (yes, I stole it with a twist from Lewis’ Law).

There was the usual knee-jerk attempt to associate me with that liberal socialist, Obama — because it doesn’t abide by the laws of PZ’s god Obama. Class warfare, confiscate and redistribute… — followed by sneering comments that I’m a political naif and therefore ought to shut up about it. Look, Obama is not my god: as far as I’m concerned, he’s been a colossal disappointment, occasionally able to say a few good things, but a failure at doing them. He’s a center-right politician, a relatively conservative Democrat, who has expanded the surveillance state and maintained programs like Gitmo and the drone war that can only be described as villainous. He only looks good when compared to the circus full of clowns that the Republicans and Libertarians fielded in the last election.

So don’t call me politically inept when you think Obama is a socialist.

The other thing these libertarians did, so predictably and at least a little more productively, is try to tout the virtues of their political philosophy. Freedom, no initiation of force, no corporate welfare, no censorship, no drug war, peace…no initiation of force, individual liberty, live and let live, no corporate welfare, no drug war, etc. Yes? So? Those are things progressive liberals are all for, too, and we do it without the destructive baggage of unfettered capitalism, which they all neatly leave off their laundry list.

You cannot call yourself pro-liberty, even including the word in your name, if you are unwilling to recognize that the greatest oppressive force opposing freedom in America is unregulated greed. Libertarianism is a philosophy for the well-off, the privileged, and those who dream someday of being a wealthy boss with power over the peons. When capital is the measure of success, those who have it thrive at the expense of those who don’t; when we don’t have redistribution of wealth, we do not have equality of opportunity.

The US is already a libertarian paradise, and look what it gets us: a widening gap between rich and poor, a rotting infrastructure as the exploiters look for short term gains while neglecting services vital to those who can’t afford a limousine service, a corrupt and decadent privileged class, and thriving new political parties that are simply nuts. To use one of Ayn Rand’s favorite words, this country is infested with looters: only they’re not the poor, they’re not the mythical “welfare queens”, they’re bankers and obscenely overpaid executives and corporations that demand the right to buy elections.

And there stand the libertarians, the useful idiots who cheer them on.

Wow, Phil Robertson is getting famous!

I never watched his duck show, and I didn’t know who he was until he started saying these egregiously stupid things, but now the all-seeing eye of the internet is scrutinizing him carefully and all kinds of slime is emerging. You already knew he was a homophobe, and you also probably knew he was some kind of nasty racist, but did you also know he was a misogynist and proud recipient of male privilege? And that he uses Christianity to prop his odious beliefs? And if you didn’t know, are you at all surprised?

He’s speaking to a sportsmen’s ministry in Georgia, waving a Bible and telling the men they have to marry girls who are no more than 15 or 16, and that by 20 they are too old.

By the way, that quote he throws around, that George Washington said you can’t run the world without god and the bible? Totally fake; so fake even David Barton has disavowed it, which tells you it’s got to be ridiculously invented.

Spider-Man gets a new costume! Fans are the same old sexist scum!

Apparently, there’s a new Spider-Man movie in the works, and he’s got a fancy new costume (without nipples, I’m happy to report), and it’s got the hardcore comic fans in a lather. Well, not about the costume. It turns out that a few photos of the actor playing Mary Jane Watson were also leaked, and…she’s not sexy enough for some.

There’s actually 28 pages of people arguing whether Woodley is hot or not, seven times as many as there are talking about the new costume. (Although, like all comment threads, they go off-the-rails after a while. Flicking through, there’s an intense argument over whether the phrase "lipstick on a pig" is sexist, and a fair amount of discussion about porn.)

I hope the people making the movie aren’t as superficial as the ones who want to see it, although I fear there may be some unfortunate feedback between the two groups.

Uganda, Great Britain, same difference

Uganda is notorious for having some of the most repressive anti-gay laws in the world, but that’s not enough for the bluenoses of Africa, oh no: they’ve just passed sweeping anti-pornography laws.

The Bill defines pornography as any cultural practice, form of behaviour or form of communication or speech or information or literature or publication in whole or in part or news story or entertainment or stage play or broadcast or music or dance or art or graphic or picture or photography or video recording or leisure activity or show or exhibition.

It also prohibits any combination of the preceding that depicts unclothed or under clothed parts of the human body such as breasts, thighs, buttocks and genitalia, a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct; erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement and any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals.

That’s a bit…broad, don’t you think? That “underclothed” bit is already being interpreted as a ban on mini-skirts, for instance — just exposing any bit of the thighs has just been criminalized. Give ’em time, they’ll get around to making exposing the knees illegal, and then the ankles, and eventually everyone will be wandering about dressed like Victorians.

But it’s not just Uganda that is run by prudes: David Cameron in the UK is anxious to police the internet with the same prim attitude. He’s been working with ISPs to lock down the internet.

The language of the mythical ‘porn filter’ is so insidious, so pervasive, that even those of us opposed to it have been sucked into its slippery embrace. And so even when it turns out that O2 are blocking the Childline and Refuge websites, or that BT are blocking gay and lesbian content, we tend to regard them as collateral damage – accidental victims of a well-meaning (if misguided) attempt to protect out children from the evils of cock.

But this was never the case. As Wired reported back in July, Cameron’s ambitions extended far beyond porn. Working through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has put in place a set of filters and restrictions as ambitious as anything this side of China, dividing the internet into ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ categories, and cutting people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.

“As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on “violent material”, “extremist related content”, “anorexia and eating disorder websites” and “suicide related websites”, “alcohol” and “smoking”. But the list doesn’t stop there. It even extends to blocking “web forums” and “esoteric material”, whatever that is. “Web blocking circumvention tools” is also included, of course.”

And the restrictions go further still. Over the weekend, people were appalled to discover that BT filters supported homophobia, with a category blocking, “sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.”

Wow. That had me wondering whether freethoughtblogs was blocked yet, but as Martin Robbins explains at that link, they are being secretive about who is getting blocked, as well.

Hey, I wonder if they swapped the Ugandan and UK parliaments, if anyone would be able to tell?

Speaking of libertarians…

Adam Lee has a live one. This guy, fuguewriter, is now claiming that the laws of thermodynamics do not apply to electrical energy, in defense of Ayn Rand’s magic MacGuffin in Atlas Shrugged that produces near-infinite quantities of electrical energy.

Be honest and make an argument. Show how *thermodynamic law* – any one of them, or all – is what infinite *electrical* energy would violate, especially under a new conception of energy, which presumably would get beyond QED (which Rand knew a bit about from interviewing Oppenheimer, knowing about Feynman, etc.).

This is one reason this isn’t a serious discussion: y’all jump to the attitudes without an argument in between. So much easier that way. The fixed, permanent contempt for the other is maintained.Then, when challenged, if an argument’s provided it’s hash.

So, pony up. Show how (allegedly) infinite electrical production (whatever that would mean exactly) is specifically a violation of thermodynamic law, particularly under a new conception of energy – which presumably gave access to an unsuspected type of energy. This will be a pretty trick.

Gosh, Ayn Rand met Oppenheimer and knew about Feynman, which makes her physics fantasies plausible. I’ve met Krauss and read some of Hawkings’ books, therefore I guess I’m a physicist now.

That was easy. It doesn’t even require any math!