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Category Archives: Ideas

Welcome to my high school class speech, as if it would be useful for anyone but me

Once I worked in a classroom where there was trust, and not very many rules imposed. When I say imposed, I mean the kind of rules posted or announced by the authority figure, as in, “Here are the rules, and here are the consequences.” Where I was, the rules were more like the Golden Rule, which, if we are sensible enough, we obey because it’s a good one for all of us, and open to interpretation and personalization in different circumstances.

For example, if you understand that a test is something used to determine how much you can recall, comprehend and apply without assistance, so that you can work on your weaknesses and build on that knowledge, then you will not cheat on that test. If you know that getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of instruction will cause you to miss something important, you’ll wait until a better time, not needing to ask. And so on.

It’s about knowing yourself also, as in what you can and can’t handle, what your vision and goals are, and what you need to do to achieve them according to your code of ethics.

I give you rules, because some of you are not yet at the stage of life where you realize the necessity of making your own.

A small minority of you have set for yourself rules, or live according to impulses, which directly conflict with the goals of this community of learning, including its general and reasonable rules for you–that you become more prepared for success in  society and the economy, and do society good and not harm. Disciplinary consequences, similarly, exist because some of you don’t have self discipline.

You’ll all get a chance here. No matter how you feel right now, about school, about yourself, about the people around you, about life and your future, here you’ll get a chance to be a part of a community of learning. My goal for myself is to meet your where you are and help you grow–in the special area of knowledge I teach, as well as in general skills, positive values and attitudes.

We each get a charge out of different things in life, are energized by different kinds of work and environments. You know, the kind of energy that, when you go home after a full day of doing that thing, you feel enlivened, encouraged, and useful. You anticipate more than than dread another day of challenging work. Days off are welcome as a refreshment, but not the highlight of the week or year.

I’m not under the delusion that everyone in this class is fired up about this subject. But I hope that even if you aren’t, and don’t go into a field that relies on this kind of knowledge, you’ll value it some and be a better informed person in general. I would argue that a general knowledge at least of any of the subjects provided in an average high school  will make you better equipped to make informed decisions in your own life and influence our leaders to do the same, rather than being manipulated by popular media and majority opinion.

You’ll often hear me mention the value of understanding and downplay the importance of grades. We all know that in this big world, in the marketplace of masses of young people applying for jobs, colleges, and internships, and generally hoping to stand out, grades can be crude sorting mechanism. I also hope you know that your grades do not necessarily reflect your intelligence or level of readiness for what you want to do in life, or even your level of self discipline.

In any case, I believe you will never regret in the long run putting your main value on understanding. That means putting aside an attitude that generates such questions as “Does this count?”, “Do I have to do this?”, or “Will this be on the test?” I ask you to trust me, and keep me accountable, to provide assessments of your knowledge that truly reflect your level of understanding, so that the grades you earn in this class are meaningful. I also commit, and invite you to keep me accountable, to providing opportunities for to gain that understanding, using best educational practices I can, and providing or helping you find the support you need to do your part. I am growing in this as well.

In addition, I encourage you to challenge some of the assignments I give, by asking, “If I demonstrate my understanding in a different way, can I skip this?” Or, “Can I do a different project instead, something more along my lines of interest?” It’s not one size fits all here–some of you will need to do all the questions or problems to “get” a concept. Some of you have the background experience or knowledge that makes certain types of assignments redundant. The goal is to work at the cutting edge of your learning, spiraling back to review as needed, but not spinning your wheels. This may mean, at times, that different students in one course are working in different ways, so we’ll have to work at staying organized. The management challenges added to my plate are worth it, for the gains in individual learning.

I used the term “community of learning.” This does not simply mean a bunch of individuals learning. One of the things I will help you along with to the best of my ability is to help one another learn. There will be mutual benefit as partners and small groups mentor and guide each other using what you know, and contribute to the academic discourse and problems solving processes we’ll engage in as we go through the course. This is not to be a situation where the more able students do more, and the less able less, of the work. No one gets to ride on anyone’s coat tails. Nor is  it an occasion, I dearly hope, for anyone to feel superior or inferior to their peers, except on a way that challenges you to grow. The smartest person, you will hear me say, is the one who quickly acknowledges their deficit and works to address it.

If you’ve “always been an A student,” and have the attitude that you should continue to be so with a minimum of effort, please drop that idea. This is more challenging work that you’ve had before–expect top work at it. And although fair grading is important to me, my idea of fair is probably different from yours. The sooner you stop labeling yourself as an A-student, a C-student, a smart person, a dumb person, whatever, the more likely you are to be focused on learning, and actually doing so. You will set goals, work toward them, recognize milestones achieved and be proud of yourself, and sometimes you will fall short and redouble your efforts, as well as reach out for help. At times you will need to adjust your goals to suit where you are in life as a whole. So much can impact the amount of time and energy you have for school, and this course in particular, and I get that. I only ask that you think it through, set goals, be active, and stay in dialogue about this. Don’t let yourself get dragged along by life and get discouraged and overwhelmed for long. We, your teachers and support people, can work with you about this.

If all of this philosophical stuff confuses and frustrates you, just file it in the back of your mind, and refer to the syllabus. I have listed what you should bring to class, the concepts we will cover, my grading scheme, and the routines and rules you are expected to follow. All very straightforward. The seating chart is posted. Everything I’ve just said in 1270 words in one big speech, I’ll say to your again as the need arises, in context as needed. Welcome to my class.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2019 in Education, Ideas

 

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Labor that may or may not deliver

Meanwhile in attempts to lift poor children from having little or no opportunity to go to that kind of place, or any college, to grow up educated and provide a decent living for their families, Bill Gates and other business entrepreneurs (a.k.a. social entrepreneurs), in partnership with the federal government, have launched their attempt to education everyone with “twentieth century skills,” ready for the work force.

Good, but why does that have to mean, among other things, less reading of fiction in favor of more extraction of meaning from informational text? Why limit the finer opportunities still available to those whose brain functions have not been culled by stress and poverty, who possess the desire and ability to long for deeper connection, more  far-reaching vision, a deeper understanding and expression through the arts and literature. Let’s not dumb down the culture in making it a more egalitarian one, elevate jobs and “productivity” over education in the best sense of the word.

And what about the obvious conflict of interest in having the owners of the tech corporations provide the software and classroom supplies and pedagogical philosophy for these children’s education experiences? We need workers, they say—this is the twentieth century as we envisioned it, so let us help you fit into the future we are creating, and all of us will be better off. If something has to go, let it be anything that makes workers question how we already know we should be doing things. You know, growing the economy, competing with other market powers, preserving the American way of life. Which is democracy in the sense that those with the power to sway the majority (those with  twenty-first century skills–not cumulative up to the twenty-first, but the latest set and open to re-training) can do so efficiently by means of a database so comprehensive and powerful that it allows media and “educational” products to be created that cater to each and every individual learning style.  And the part of democracy that allows us all to choose from fifty kinds of breakfast cereal in the aisles of the local supermarket and either traditional or “Simply” ripple chips, all produced by a few central manufacturing facilities staffed by twenty-first century workers. We can help students learn so effectively the practical skills they need to be “productinve members of a global democratic society” that the neural pathways needed to understand 1984, Brave New World, the MaddAdam trilogy, Animal Farm, The Hunger Games, and That Hideous Strength will be unnecessary and therefore atrophy.

An apology for the convoluted nature of my sentences, and how they go on and on, and have too many clauses. I’ve been told the “Ten Ways You Can …”, say, “Fight the Machine” format is so much more effective, but I haven’t mastered that twenty-first century communication style yet.

This existence of seems so contrived—since when in these thousands of years does one wake and not have to go about making a living? Making in the sense of obtaining food, shelter, and cultural context and materials from teh ecosystem. All aI have to do is create—to write, sew, paint, create and maintain human bonds, and that mainly based on the compulsion of angst about this modern life: what is it? What does it mean? Why are things not fair and I have this free time while others are laboring to the point of exhaustion for bread for their children and something to hide from the drunken consort? Why is it considered more valuable to go into database architecture, or game design, which pay a lot of trade tokens, than being a parent, home maker, friend of neighbors in the community, or teacher? In the division of labor, some make money doing work that is of dubious historic or spiritual value, so that others can do the important, though unpaid, work.

 

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Social evolution can proceed if it causes the genes (and memes) that carry its seeds to replicate better than the competition

Did you know that the biological definition of the “female” of a species is the one which produces relatively few nutrient-rich, low-mobility gametes (sex cells), and the “male” is the one which produces abundant, highly mobile but fragile ones? In human meiosis, the process by which a stem cell divides into gametes, each with only a half set of chromosomes, only one of the ova daughter cells survives of the four, and contains a disproportionate quantity of resources. All four male gametes normally survive in the production of sperm. The way eggs and sperm carry the genetic material of the parent is pretty much identical, except that the egg always carries an X chromosome, and the sperm may carry either X or Y, and which determines the chromosomal sex of the offspring.

In some species, sex switches depending on need. I don’t mean gender roles or behaviors, I mean the ability to produce a different kind of sex cell. Since we are used to thinking of male and female as genetically determined because we know about X and Y-chromosomes in humans, that seems strange, but in those species, sex changes occur if there aren’t enough of one or the other kind of gamete for fertilization to occur (the male gamete finds and fuses with the nutrient-rich female gamete). The fact that this dimorphism is so common across species means it has been successful in many environments too.

Another strategy that is common and therefore must work well in certain conditions is hermaphrodism, where one organism can produce both eggs and sperm, but cross-fertilization is still preferable for the variety of offspring characteristics that result. Variety being a kind of insurance that sets of genes will confer fitness in a variety of conditions. Many plants are hermaphroditic, as are earthworms, ensuring their ability to produce offspring even without contact with the gametes of a different organism, and to combine gametes of any other individual, without any “opposite sex.”

I started thinking about these things when reading a blog I came across which featured a seemingly endless series of posts, back and forth about gender roles, the usual interesting, controversial, socially and culturally constructed viewpoints debated, variously labelled “left,” “conservative,” “moronic,” and so on. There was an utter absence of consideration of biology and biological evolution. All the participants were extremely sharp, sarcastic, opinionated, strong-willed, and funny (except, apparently, for one, who kept being accused of being a troll because he kept posting polite, neutral questions). But all they did was rip apart social norms from previous eras or other societies on the grounds that–this was not spoken but seemed to be implied–they were inherently inferior because we are now enlightened and have a voice and can rise up and right the wrongs… no, that’s not quite it. I think the word that fits perfectly to describe what they objected to was the fact that these norms were primitive. Yes, this is the right word; it means, merely, “closer to the earlier form.” So what our blogger and her commenters were engaged in, in trying to shake off the primitive, was trying to generate evolutionary pressure. Evolutionary pressure often does cause change, a lot or a little, but not always — it can also cause extinction.

If one can use the theory of evolution (change) by natural selection, it should be true that attempts to change social norms only work if new points of view result in higher rates of replication and transmission in the populations in which their views are prevalent, and/or causes other populations with competing (more primitive) views to have a lower reproductive or survival rate. This is both a social (memes) and a biological (genetic) process (social being a subcategory of biological).

Examples of other kinds of social constructs that have been adaptive (read: generating more offspring over the long term and/or out competing other constructs in any given environment): Patriarchical societies where the female steps back to allow a man to go through the door first. Or where man hold the door for women and children. The males getting to sit in the front seats of the car. The idea of the sacredness of virginity. Polygamy, monogamy, matriarchy, monarchy, egalitarianism, infanticide, nuclear families, baptism, literature, mythology, neckties, tattoos, suicide, gender fluidity, and so on. Such traditions result from evolutionary processes such as natural selection, but also a complex mixture of chance, luck, and natural disasters — not all behaviors and social constructs that arise would increase fitness on a level playing field–some are pretty random and persist for random reasons. Evolution doesn’t even lead to anything “superior”–there is no superior in the way we like to think of it–a combination of power over nature, power over inferior races and species, or, as many less “primitive” societies prefer, peace and goodwill, advanced intellect, civilization, and ecological sustainability. Superiority is a relative social idea, while evolutionary fitness, possession of better adaptation, and has to do with replicability under a variety of conditions.

My daughter was commenting today on how strange it was that so many young people seem to think that because gender is a social construct, it must be eradicated. I said that going out to coffee for a chat was also a social construct, so maybe we should eradicate that, too. Social constructs are neutral, as are genetic variations, The proof is in the putting, and we are part of the putters, and can’t get outside the construct in order to objectively judge it. Am I making sense?

Disclaimer: This was an experiment.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2018 in Culture & Society, Ideas

 

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Teach me to live in a biosphere, which is real, not a global economy, which is not.

Sat on the chaise lounge and watched the bumblebees work over the raspberry blossoms in a sea of green. After three days of warm, sunny weather I felt confident in my decision to put away all winter coats, turn off the pilot light to the gas fireplace insert and switch off the main furnace. I’d seeded another round of four inch pots in lettuces, peas, onions,herbs, and a few flowers, and sowed beans and chard in the new garden plot off the patio, reclaimed from another corner of lawn. The air was turning cool, with rain expected–perfect for the seeds, though the tomatoes would slow down a bit. Almost time to put a bird net over the cherry trees, and the gangly limbs of the apple trees definitely needed some training and support–they were loaded with baby fruit.

I was thinking about the ways in which some of my students, maybe even a decent body, had been brought to understand something of the laws of nature–the ones that we humans ought to stop trying to ignore–such as there being finite resources on Earth that needed to be continuously recycled, that evolution is a constant and inevitable process, whatever religion says, and that there are fascinating miracles to explore at every turn, as well as inexorable forces we must reckon with, organism among organisms as we are, perched on this spinning rock blasted with radiation more powerful than thousands of nuclear bombs.

I have a mental space full of faces, ever expanding as I go through these years of teaching. Names may fade, but I will never un-know these young people, the 35-odd students I taught last year, the around eighty this year, counting middle, high and third graders. For once I get to teach at the same school–another novelty I look forward to. Ninth graders I’ll see in Physics and Algebra 1 next year, this year’s group will move on to the next math and show up for physics, too. Could be teaching some of the younger ones, though mostly high school. All the same colleagues with the addition of a new teacher–I hope I like her, bet I will.

Dan O’Neill, writer I sublet my summer office space from gave me his book, The Firecracker Boys, to give to my father, and since he’s all the way across the continent, I’m reading it before I send it there along with my son when he goes to college. It tells the story of how the Atomic Energy Commission started a group that was eager to test “peacetime uses” of nuclear power, and their first project was to be blasting a new harbor into the coast of Alaska. Their ignorance about the systems of the Earth and the disastrous effects that would result from their plan is astounding, and even though I know how the story ends, with the killing of the project and all similar ones due to the newly birthed environmental movement that arose there, I feel sick just thinking about how it might have been.

In environmental science we discussed why humans can have, want to have, even, such an outsized effect on the Earth’s systems, and yet do not seem essential to any of them in comparison to other organisms, such as, say, ants or eelgrass. The students were in agreement that if all humans suddenly vaporized, nothing would fall apart. We also explored the question of why humans, of all organisms, deliberately flout ecological principles, and what effect that might have, long term, on our species, on society. And, could there be a way to reconcile our ambitions to discover, build, and create, with the limitations that scientists are discovering that we must live within? Not to overly credit scientists–it took them hundreds of years, two steps forward, one step back (or vice versa) to catch up to some of that instinctive body-knowledge, that innate genetic wisdom, of our pre-historic ancestors.

The Fall–when and how did it happen? Was it the dawn of agriculture, or just agricultural commerce? Did it derive from the spread of the expression of new genes of cognition and self awareness? Was it accelerated by symbolic language and institutionalized ancient religions? Or was all that, really, progress?

Nowadays, just like the real estate bubble, we are talking again, in education circles, economics, science and technology, as if trends, what is happening, are the same as vision. “It’s a global economy–it’s an information age, so let’s get with it.” As I asked a mom I confide in periodically about my doubts about the value of schools systems, “Who’s driving this train and why should I get on–just because it’s going somewhere?”

My younger daughter shared with me how stressed she was about school–with the drive to maintain good grades, the pace, the hours, the lack of joy, the social pressure. By all appearances, she’s a successful student, but here she was in tears, wondering what the purpose of it all was. Her teachers were part of the problem, just because they had bought in. Their success wrapped up in rigor and performance-based assessment, not impact, enlightenment, and empowerment. I thought about the pressure I put on my Monday/Wednesday high school students, how as the test approached, I accelerated the pace of content exposure, started giving them testing tips and practice (while advising them, as the testing websites claimed, that success did not come from “test practice”  or extra study.

Friday classes were different, with only “delight-directed” activities (such as we could manage), no grades, no homework. That too appears to be about to be corrupted by the managers of the system, with a drive toward more “accountability” and record keeping. Hearing this fact at the staff meeting, I expressed my displeasure, tried to voice how dear are the values, to many homeschool families, of freedom and flexibility, as they are to teachers and students. Yes, it would drive away some families, it was acknowledged, this change, but it was what the state needed for financial accountability. Yes, families should drop out–they should save themselves, I thought. Funny how this whole parent partnership started to rope back in some of those opted out families with our flexible.part time program, and now that they’re hooked on the funding and free curriculum, we change the rules.

I sanctioned some respite for my daughter, called in and excused some skipped classes without giving clear reasons to the voice mail recorder, ignored the alarming-sounding letters citing the Becca Bill and mentioning court. She explained why she was skipping–the others were doing standardized testing she didn’t have to do and there was a sub; she’d already done the work and they weren’t learning anything new; they were playing soccer instead of having a lesson; she wanted to spend a few hours on her ceramics project. The ceramics studio, and its teacher, being the sanctuary so many students needed, a kind, blind eye turned and no questions asked. Refreshing subversion.

School is definitely part of the problem. We only need school because we’re a modern industrial society on a crash course with our destiny of ecological disaster, and it takes a lot of rigor to learn all the techniques that have got us into this mess, let alone the ones that maybe could get us out without sacrificing any modern luxuries–the ones we need at the end of our twelve hour labors. The future is coming. Let’s get there first.

Or, we could learn contextually everything we really need to know, like a cub from momma lion–how to get food and water, defend oneself without unnecessary energy expenditure or excessive harm to anyone else’s system, key social norms and boundaries (with the option of challenging them), how to play a musical instrument, and never to poop  in the water hole.

 

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Planned ignoring could be the answer

As a nineteen-year-old counselor at a camp for children from inner city Halifax, I first learned about the idea of planned ignoring (https://www.mayinstitute.org/news/topic_center.html?id=395). I was shocked that there could be such a technique, that being ignored could be recommended as a way to help children, that it could be therapeutic. But then I wasn’t a kid whose acting out, and only acting out, was reinforced by attention. And I suppose it wasn’t in my character anyway, since I did want more attention sometimes than I got. As a person working with children and youth, I thought that all children’s expressed needs, frustrations, complaints, and antics should be responded to in some way.

I have come to know better over the years to respond to people–my children, students, and others, on a continuum of attention, including sometimes purposefully ignoring behaviors or comments that don’t deserve a response.

Now I see planned ignoring as a possible answer to the problem of a Donald Trump presidency. The more I learn about Trump, the more I believe that the only thing that matters to him is attention, and whatever behaviors get that attention will become his modi operandi. So planned ignoring of certain behaviors of his should have the effect of extinguishing them through lack of reinforcement, as long as his more desirable behaviors are reinforced at the same time (https://www.special-learning.com/article/extinction).

Most of us are only exposed to Trump’s behavior through the media, and we know that the purpose of for-profit media is to win our attention long enough that the advertisers see increases in sales. So no one can expect the corporate media, however horrified they appear to be by Trump’s words and actions, to initiate any sort of campaign to ignore him. We’ve seen that his ability to shock, offend, perplex, and provide comedy to the public tends to increase ratings and readership of outlets that cover it. And when increases to readership and viewership of specific types of stories can be tracked, as they can for online media, there’s another layer of reinforcement added, this time for the media to spend more time spreading stories of Trump’s undesirable behaviors, if they are the most consumed.

So it has to come from us. Media consumers can and should make the choice to withdraw attention from all forms of coverage that reinforce negative, attention-seeking behaviors by public figures. Not that we should ignore important coverage, but we need to distinguish between that and coverage that effectively reinforces what’s worst in human nature.

This idea could certainly be applied more broadly, such as to a move to cut down on gluttonous consumption of stories about violent offenders, terrorists, fringe elements, and copy-cat offenders. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/12/04/yes-mass-shootings-tend-to-produce-copycats-so-do-terror-attacks/?utm_term=.2ee9e5a59024)

Is it even realistic to suggest the idea that media consumers can make the kind of concerted effort that could move a person like Trump to behave? Probably not, if it means there is real consensus about what behavior is wanted. Many people love the fact that Trump will say and do anything, and call it a virtue. But from what I can tell, if enough consumers of media did participate in a movement to avoid coverage (and intervening paid advertisements) that’s mostly spin and hype and had no practical application, it could affect ratings and send the heads to media scurrying into the meeting room to adjust their coverage (how ratings are determined: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/solutions/measurement/television.html).

It’s not helpful to watch five minutes, be appalled, and watch ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes more. That kind of thing gives some of the least trusted news sources the highest viewership. (http://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-most-and-least-trusted-news-outlets-in-america-2014-10) So there’s no incentive to be more trustworthy, and certainly none to provide coverage not solely designed to entertain. Personally, if I get sucked in that way as I pass through the living room, I feel defiled and stupider for it afterwords. the phrase amusing myself to death comes to mind. There’s a book that’s as relevant as ever. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amusing_Ourselves_to_Death)

Neither is it effective, apparently, to specialize in coverage critical of Trump, since although he occasionally gets irritated by it, he probably still believes what he was quoted as saying in The Art of the Deal:

“Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.”

 SO here’s an invitation to one and all. Ignore most of the coverage, and try to get the essentials from sources not dependent on corporate advertising and have excellent journalistic principles and a history of covering what’s truly important. Some diseases can only be cured by being starved of nourishment.
 
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Posted by on February 27, 2017 in Culture & Society, Ideas, Media

 

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Would you like to auto-recycle all your old items now?

When you’re interested enough in something, and sense that there’s so much depth to plumb and you know so little, the beginning of the pieces coming together, for you at least, can seem like a revelation. Like, maybe this stuff is actually not only the key to my life, the way out and up and on to my full potential (which might not be much, but at least it’s an honest evaluation), but it might explain a while lot more. It might explain the entire span of evolution, of the rises and falls and ultimate future demise of human civilization, and even why Trump got elected.

For you, the defining paradigm might be electrolyte balance. Or maybe a macrobiotic or paleolithic diet. Maybe it’s mindful living, or a growth mindset. Maybe keeping your home fires burning, or an attitude of trust and obey, for there’s no other way (not likely, if you are reading this). I respect your right to choose your own lens through which to see the world, but the one I’m trying on is the biology, my love.

The genes we carry want to carry on. That’s by definition, not necessarily an indication of divine purpose (though I don’t rule out the possibility). According to Richard Dawkins, the ultimate unit of life and the driver of all survival instinct is the gene. How genes operate is by building bodies around them made of cells, in myriad forms which carry them into all kinds of environments so they can absorb resources–atoms and molecules to be made into genes and cells and body copies to carry them around. Doesn’t even matter which kind of body they build, as long as it efficiently does the work of replicating those genes and spreading them around. That can be by reproduction, but also by being a host for the replication of other cells and bodies such as parasites, bacteria, and viruses, or food–a quick remix of ingredients, of another beast carrying around similar genes. It’s not the species that’s trying to survive, or the population, or family, or individual, but the genes inside them all.

So if a species which has so far been successful at allowing the replication of the genes within it starts to threaten the replication of the exact same genes in other species (such as chimps, dogs, frogs, or bacteria, all of which are carrying around many of the same genes in varying degrees) it would make sense that the other carriers of the genes might take it down in some way. Likewise, if a carrier gets off on a side track of thinking and behaving as if replication isn’t so important after all, that it’s the life of the spirit, or culture, or just the individual me, myself and I, that matters, then again, the genes influencing that carrier either directly (from within) or indirectly (in the ecosystem) should interfere and go to plan B.226.3alpha, which is, let that species self-destruct, releasing its genes into the parasites, symbionts, decomposers and predators better equipped to do the job. Fire and the gnashing of teeth, start again.

A bit more about the curbing of reproduction: If the evolutionary success or fitness of a species is defined as its ability to sustainably reproduce, why would a population ever stop trying to be fruitful and multiply? Why is it that as humans become more “educated,” they are less likely to try for large families or engage in polygamy, and more likely to use contraception, delay childbearing, or choose not to have children at all? Not, as in the bees and other species, to take care of the head couples’ brood because it ensures the survival of the genes we share in common. Why would genes, which by definition are replicators, allow the formation of thoughts and behaviors that lead to the reduction of reproductive behaviors?

History shows that it’s the most educated and technologically advanced that use, waste, and pollute the most resources, so it’s definitely in the interests of genes to curtail the reproduction of such beings. And we thought it was a sign of higher culture to exercise choice over our own bodies, and of progress to embrace a diversity of types of love, even if they aren’t centered around procreation! Instead, it could be an adaptation to the rise of extra-destructive variations in the human genome, a function of genes that are cutting down on a bad model. Maybe a subsistence life with a good deal of natural mortality might be better for the survival of the fittest. A cultural agenda focused on the eradication of poverty, disease, and homelessness may be at odds with the agenda of the genes within our bodies and in the bodies around us, from the tiniest virus to the dearest friend or relative.

I don’t want that to be true. I’ve got attached to those aspects of my culture and beliefs. Dawkins says we can “rebel” against our genes, the main example being contraception. I’m not convinced—I think Dawkins is being inconsistent. I think he just wants to believe that being an intellectual is higher on the evolutionary chain of fitness than being the head of a polygamous cult in the desert or one of the throngs of wiry street urchins of the inner city that grows up to leave broods of unwashed, unloved children staring through laundry hanging in urban alleys crawling with rats, disease, and criminals. Just like he wants to believe that there is a divine and benevolent creator, though this belief is differently expressed, as a reckless, headlong plunge into logical analysis of biological evidence to the apparent contrary. I can relate to that.

 

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Ideas, science

 

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Survival of the fittest, moving cheese, and losing my religion

Let me just say first that this is all coming from a sense of failure as a parent, as a family member in general, and a feeling that I have inherited a way of life from my culture that is dooming us all to failure. Also an undying sense of hope that there might…just…be…a..way, if only… Putting this and that piece of understanding together into a picture, dim but somewhat coherent.

First, I’ve been leading my high school students through Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. My thoughts on this have been turbocharged by reading Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. Upshot being only those types of individuals who successfully pass on their types of genes will inherit the Earth, all others go extinct. By definition, I tell them, the only species alive now are those that proved that ability to pass on genes over the long term and in given environmental conditions. Dawkins goes further to argue that the unit of successful survival isn’t even the species, but the genes within, and these aren’t picky about the bodies they use–whatever works for the replicators gets continued into the new line.

Those are the basics, which we might say (no other species being able to join the debate) have favored the pinnacle of creation, humankind. A stupid thought, really, but perhaps born out of wonder at what we see when we step out into self-consciousness–hey, that’s me? No way!

But what about when environmental conditions change, either by acts of God in the abiotic spheres, or the evolution of entire ecosystems in the biosphere? The forest grows up and getting light is a new challenge, so the shorty plants die out. Owls’ hearing gets even better so only mice with genes that give new survival strategies survive. Humans cause mass destruction of ecosystems, disrupt environmental cycling and equilibrium, so begins the sixth massive extinction, and then what? It’s early yet, for real evolutionary change in humans to show, but what’s the trend? Or, is it all too fast for us more complex, slower evolving species and only the bacteria will survive and the whole march will start over, toward what end? The idea of an end being a Western bias, for sure, because in terms of evolution, I suppose there is no end. Even if our planet becomes uninhabitable and we don’t get off onto another one in time, some passing asteroid will  catch the microbial drift somehow.

There are some interesting trends in the human species, for sure, that seem to go against the survival of the fittest rule. One is the tendency of more technologically advanced, educated, less religious people to breed less. Unless those folks simultaneously suppress the higher reproductive success of fundamentalists and the less “educated,” can we predict that natural selection will favor the latter, all other things being equal? Maybe that’s always been the case, and the real reason for the falls of Indus, Rome, and Atlantis.

But there are density-dependent factors too, such as competition for resources, and the requirement that we llive within our means. So quietly living indigenous people, who carry very old surviving genes from people who lived that way for eons, or slipped back into the jungle when past civilizations came to similar crises, will be the means of humanity outliving this crisis, too. Most of them, I hear, practice reproductive self restraint, even without careers and luxury urban apartments. All the reproductive restraint without the economic growth that destroys the habitat. Not so nasty and brutish after all.

A few weeks ago heard a piece on CBC Ideas about the evolutionary advantage for humans of story telling (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/vestigial-tale-part-1-1.3086744). We can assume that up until now there has been a real advantage in most populations, or we wouldn’t be still telling them. A big part of those stories are the mythologies that help people understand their place in the world and what is to be valued, feared, sought, expected.

Tying that to my own experience of losing a grip on the mythology I inherited, thanks to the Age of Reason and Science, combined with a sense of intellectual dishonesty I have frequently encountered in the religious community. Started out with Our Lord Jesus and His body the Church, prayer and sacraments and Sunday school and Resurrection Day, God made the sun, moon, and stars and the purpose of our lives is to worship God and enjoy him forever. Not without a study of molecules, other galaxies, and evolutionary marvels, and an emphasis on stewardship. What I was trying to pass on was that we are to be a blessing to the world. I had occasional real mystic experiences, and most of the time accepted that my spiritual gifts and God-given personality made me prone to listening to my head more than my heart, to nature more than preacher.

It was so easy to stop going to church, once we stopped home schooling. Our public school system, which does such a fine job here up north separating Church and State, has also, by default, conveyed the idea that religion, with its God talk, morality, and exclusivity, is a primitive, private, and personal pastime awkwardly  appended to one’s 145 hour a week push for college and career readiness. That the essence of living is success in the competitive economy, pluralism, and peer socialization. Going to church felt like an anachronism, with its emphasis on discipleship, sacrifice, and worship of the Unseen One. Formal studies in the faith had its pros and cons. Over the years my spouse and I have always openly critiqued every oversimplification of religious ideas, dogmas, and interpretations, so our kids didn’t get any sense of uncritical loyalty that might have kept them attached to church life. They found they didn’t fit in well with the youth group summer mission trip crowd, and couldn’t sign the statements of faith required to be a blessing through youth leadership or working at summer camp. We went to one of those urban, young professional type churches without a strong sense of community (and with a respect for privacy), so when we drifted off weekly attendance, no one noticed.

In homeschooling I had good friends–we all did, but only a few. We never really fit into the religious subculture there that availed itself of its right to educate its own from cradle to loose ends, all under the umbrella of the church, which provided its own sanitized version of biology and the scientific method.

Now we are at loose ends at home, without a community to come alongside and share the pain of bringing up teens to love God and enjoy him forever, without any ritual and tradition–of seasons, coming of age, or divine sacraments. It feels like we’ve lost our way, but the usual road signs offered are outdated brands. I find myself thinking, what is it we have to pass on? What was that blessing we were supposed to be offering to the world?

Is that lack of grounding in myth, in addition to the cultural angst we have absorbed, signs that our genes are not all that fit? None of my kids expresses any strong desire to be a parent. Although the traditional view is for me to look forward to being a grandparent, I’m starting to think it wouldn’t be responsible to pass these exploiter genes on. Maybe the fading of parental longings in so many moderns is a result of the signals coming back from the ecosystems we have wrecked, the zoos and Sea Worlds we have created, but which can’t give us food, shelter, and clothing enough for the propagation of the genes we house.

I do get excited about the possibility of my kids fostering and adopting, though, which seems a more just expression of parenting that adding more feet to the sun baked ground. Would have done that myself, if I could have won over the camp.

At the high school where I teach, I’ve brought up the idea of a survival skills elective (elective!) class that could be offered, and there has been universal interest among the students. Seems like the proper thing to do. I noticed that the idea is trending–there is a display of titles on the topic at the library. One ought to be able to slip off into the woods, live off the land, leaving only organic fertilizer, and footprints, and re-establishing a culture of harmony. I feel it in my genes.

 

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