FtB has never had internet drama like this

You sometimes hear gloating accusations that the “Left is eating its own” or that liberals are addicted to drama or that right-wingers know how to coordinate their messaging. Next time you hear that, think of the behavior of alt-right wackaloons Ian Miles Cheong, Andy “Warski” Pires, Jean-François Gariépy, and a swarm of other racist goons. It’s got pro wrestling, Nazis, accusations of pedophilia, SWATting, and guys setting their own nipples on fire. They aren’t going after leftists, but each other. It’s all very amusing.

Behe…yeah, he’s over and done with

When Michael Behe published Darwin’s Black Box, there was a loud “Huzzah!” from the creationists — they had new buzzwords, like “irreducible complexity”, for the first time in 50 years, and they had a scientist with a legitimate Ph.D. to cite as an authority claiming evolution couldn’t happen. The “science” was crap, but it was a strong rhetorical play, and we had to respond vigorously to it. It was garbage, but all the back-and-forth enhanced Behe’s reputation. I read it thoroughly and contributed to online discussions about the fallacies in it.

Then he came out with a second book, The Edge of Creation, and the creationists all went “huzzah?”, because there was nothing new in it, no spark of rhetorical flourish they could use in debates, but there was an implication that caused them worries. Behe was claiming you could see the hand of the Designer in ongoing processes, and that It was actively engineering diseases and parasites to kill us right now. Whoops. It was still garbage, but it didn’t trigger a surge of creationist activity that needed refutation. I skimmed it, threw it aside, ignored it.

Now he has a third book, Darwin Devolves, where he returns to the same old stagnant, tainted well and says the same old things, and it’s only going to inspire the die-hard Behe fanchildren, and isn’t going to challenge any scientists at all. I’m not going to pick up a copy. Not going to read it. Not going to critique it. Everything has already been said, he has nothing new that we need to refute, and he’s nothing but yet another crackpot…just one who has a tenured position at a legitimate university, even if he is something of a pariah to his colleagues.

But because he got creationists excited 20 years ago, someone had to suffer through his book for Science magazine, and the sacrificial victims are Nathan Lents, Joshua Swamidass, and Richard Lenski, who write that a biochemist’s crusade to overturn evolution misrepresents theory and ignores evidence.

Behe is skeptical that gene duplication followed by random mutation and selection can contribute to evolutionary innovation. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that this underlies trichromatic vision in primates, olfaction in mammals, and developmental innovations in all metazoans through the diversification of HOX genes. And in 2012, Andersson et al. showed that new functions can rapidly evolve in a suitable environment. Behe acknowledges none of these studies, declaring an absence of evidence for the role of duplications in innovation.

Behe asserts that new functions only arise through “purposeful design” of new genetic information, a claim that cannot be tested. By contrast, modern evolutionary theory provides a coherent set of processes—mutation, recombination, drift, and selection—that can be observed in the laboratory and modeled mathematically and are consistent with the fossil record and comparative genomics.

Deja vu, man. These are exactly the complaints everyone made about Darwin’s Black Box: he didn’t seem to understand modern evolutionary theory, he ignored the multiple mechanisms of evolutionary change, he blithely pretended the evidence against his thesis didn’t exist, and he just sailed on, smug in his ignorance. Nothing has changed. His formula is the same. The same counter-arguments still apply.

Let’s all just ignore this rehash, OK?

“It was an earlier time”

The most recent scandal to emerge out of Virginia is that a number of politicians were hanging around, or were dressed up themselves, with students in blackface or KKK robes.

When asked by CBS 6 to look through old MCV medical school yearbooks, VCU student journalist Caitlin Morris found several racist images from the 1980s showing students in blackface.

“It’s not that surprising that people would be culturally insensitive,” said Morris. “We are still facing racism and systematic racism today.”

On top of those, an image from a 1980 University of Richmond yearbook shows several students in KKK costumes and a black student with a noose around his neck.

Blackface photos and racial slurs were also found in the 1968 VMI yearbook. Senate Majority leader Tommy Norment served as the managing editor of that yearbook.

So now one question is whether they deserve any kind of censure now, 30 or 40 years after the fact. Sure, this was openly racist crap, but hey, 1) it was an earlier time, that was the zeitgeist, you can’t blame the kids for going with the flow, and 2) it was so long ago that they’ve outgrown those attitudes and are now committed to egalitarianism, so don’t hold the person’s past against them, ask what they’re doing now.

I thought I’d address point 1 by looking at my own history of yearbooks. We have our own little collection of ancient yearbooks from the early 1970s at the Kent Junior High Vandals and the Kent-Meridian High School, the Royals. I skimmed through them this morning, reminiscing. Keep in mind that this was the Pacific Northwest, not any place in Dixie.

The results: between 1970 and 1975, there were no yearbook photos of anyone in blackface. No KKK robes. No swastikas. No confederate flags. These were signed yearbooks, and no one scribbled abusive comments anywhere — there were a couple of mentions of Beer Bottle Beach, which was the sandy spot along the Green River where students might hang out of an evening sampling illicit beverages, but that was about it.

I did notice how white the students were — the Pacific Northwest has its own racist problems, which were usually expressed in deeply segregated communities, and this was a suburb of Seattle. I knew very few black students. There were lots of students of Japanese descent, and we had our own unsavory history there. The parents of many of them could tell you about internment camps. None of that was demonstrated in the yearbooks (which is another, subtler problem of the implicit silence of racism).

You know, it was entirely possible for kids in that era to be innocent and completely unaware of the very idea of using racist ideas to disparage others. I don’t know what has been going on in Virginia or other Southern states, but it seems to me that part of the blame has to rest on an openly racist culture that allowed such behavior to flourish. Kids were echoing what their peers and parents were doing, which doesn’t excuse it, but it does say that it isn’t enough to condemn just the individuals — there ought to be some broader soul-searching.

As for point 2, well, you’d think the first line of defense these guys would have is to point to their records. None of them are doing that! Show me that your career has involved opposing racist policies, that you’ve been trying to change the racist culture that encouraged you to fail so hard in your youth. Instead, we’ve got Northam making pathetic excuses for inexcusable behavior, hiring a PR firm, and talking about leaving the Democratic party, and the nominally liberal party of Virginia in shambles.

In summary, we should kill the myth that blackface and other racist behaviors were ubiquitous 30+ years ago. That is not a valid excuse.

Could such behavior be redeemed by a more recent history of change? I think so. All of us did stupid things in our youth, and the first step is to admit that they were wrong, and the second step is to show a record of behavior that belies the impression given by those old photos. It’s troubling that the governor of Virginia hasn’t even tried either of those things, but seems committed to his rationalization that blackface and the KKK costume were simply innocent mistakes.

If he can’t do that, he should resign.


P.S. I also did find my wife-to-be in the books. Here she is in 1970. She’s going to kill me for posting that hair-do. But come on, she was, and is, cute.

And here she is in 1974.

Busy busy busy

I’ve been neglectful of everything! But then, I’m in the midst of a sudden surge of work.

First, on Saturday, 9 February, I’ll be speaking via an electronic connection (like someone from the future!) to the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie on Charles Darwin and the Web of Interconnectedness, part of their Darwin Day celebration. Here’s the abstract:

Charles Darwin was a conventional naturalist of his day, and yet he had this great insight that led to a revolution in biology. Where did that come from? I will argue that it was from a shift in perspective, from trying to figure out how a species becomes well suited to its environment, to considering the environment wholistically and seeing how many species of plants and animals, as well as geology, interact to generate forces in biology. What made Darwin’s idea great was that it also interacted with a multitude of other ideas to inspire change across whole fields of science. Evolution led to ecology and genetics, and eventually to molecular biology and genomics, none of which would exist without the seed Darwin planted.

I’ll be doing this live at the West Toledo Branch Library, but I’ll probably also turn it into a video later. Right now the talk is a shambles, but I’ve got a couple of days to whip it into shape. Right?

Second, I’ve got a big messy YouTube video in the works, which is also currently a shambles. Yes, my desktop is in a state of chaos, true wreckage with debris scattered all around. This one is kind of complicated and messy — I’m trying to explain how the concept of human genetic immortality, which leads to horrors as diverse as hereditary royalty and racism, is a toxic lie that poisons society. It’s also biological bullshit that annoys me greatly.

Third…I’m planning a summer research project that might — almost certainly — require IRB approval. I’m proposing to survey various sites around Stevens County for their spider populations, including people’s homes (I’m most interested in synanthropic species), and correlating factors in the environment with spider density by taxon. That involves looking at how cluttered garages are, what pesticides are being used, age of residences, etc. I was working out this stuff and realized that I’ll be generating a database that includes people’s addresses (which will be kept private) and the physical state of their homes, and the operative word there is “people”, not just spiders, dang it.

I’ve never had to do this before. But unlike some twits in Portland, or their apologists in Boston or Oxford, this twit in Small Town, Flyover Country thinks maybe he should make sure everything is kosher before he recruits students and charges off to knock on people’s doors.

So I’ve been trying to read the University of Minnesota protocols for a new study. They are somewhat daunting.

It’s sinking in that I’ve got to have a fairly complete and detailed protocol in hand, and then I’ve got to submit a bunch of stuff to the IRB, so I’m trying to put together a comprehensive preliminary survey, listing everything I might want to ask about a site. I don’t think it’ll have any problem sailing through — I won’t be handing out fun experimental drugs, or performing exciting surgeries on anyone — but The Forms Must Be Followed.

That’s my life for the next week or two, I think.

Alex Acosta might have to answer for his kindness to criminals

Jeffrey Epstein with some random people

Trump’s Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, may be in some trouble (but then, the only reason you’d be affiliated with Trump is if you’ve something seedy in your past). The Department of Justice is investigating him for his role in the sweetheart plea deal he gave convicted child molester Jeffrey Epstein in 2008. Epstein, a billionaire, was known for his patronage of scientists and atheists in the early years of the 21st century, although that was later overshadowed by his habit of picking up young adolescent girls and paying them for sex in his mansion, or on flights on his private plane with famous people.

He hobnobbed with all kinds of celebrities.

Jeffrey Epstein with some other random people

He was also known for giving various well-known scientists and atheists free trips around the country, like this flight to a TED talk.

A few random people on board Jeffrey Epstein’s private jet, scene of many scandalous romps

Finally, at least one of his associates, Alex Acosta, may be facing some justice. Although it seems that usually anyone touched by this “person of means” gets away mostly unscathed, so don’t count on it.

Except for the girls, of course. They get scathed and forgotten.

The rifts were widening everywhere

How interesting — Arun reports that the history of atheism in India was pretty much like it was here. A surge of interest sparked by The God Delusion (say what you want about Dawkins, that was an influential book), with an emergent split as one group saw social justice as an essential component of the movement, while another group “expressed abhorrence to the word feminism and propagated the myth that women are inherently irrational”, leading to a current divided movement.

I suspect it’s a reflection of a fault line that was there all along, and not at all unique to atheism. All you have to do is look at the American electorate and see a division that is somewhat independent of religious ideas.