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Tag Archives: evolution

Dig it, if you know how

There’s no shame in asking how to use a shovel, or, especially, its less known but much more useful cousin, the spading fork. But the young person didn’t know what she didn’t know, so I showed her. Still, she tended to stick to scraping away at the top inch (not knowing much about roots or worms either, apparently), and needed another tutorial. I hope I get the chance. Not likely, though, as she’s part of a youth team volunteering to help out in the community, including at our school, and although I went in today to help get them started on cleaning a space for a garden (a garden!), a have boundaries, and probably won’t commute the hour round trip on my vacation again.

We were allowed a small plot, not quite, but almost, the worst soil around. That’s okay, I thought, we can experiment–it can be the “before” condition–hard packed, dry, leached of nutrients. We’ll see how many wild plants can grow there anyway–which ones, and how adapted they are (and how they exemplify “grit”). Then we’ll lay down the compost, add some fish meal, and see what happens.

The plot is about 16′ by 20′, if I stretch the boundaries as much as I can without having my knuckles rapped (again). We have to border it so the mowers will steer around it, but no permanent structures, please. They were expecting a garden fanatic like me would want to build foot-high raised beds, I guess, not knowing anything (but who does nowadays?) about what raised beds are for.

The principal had his knuckled rapped too, by me, for suggesting I’d probably want to cut down the elderberry bush at the side of the site. I said I didn’t think so, since it was the only tree for a mile (I was exaggerating), and had miraculously escaped mowing by these blade-happy Dutch Reform descendants. He was humble, and accepted the jibe with good grace, although he’s of the same lineage. Even unused fields aren’t allowed to turn to meadows in their fallow years, and evolution strongly favored short, fast-reproducing plants, animals, and fungi here. Just a theory, of course.

 
 

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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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In which the teacher wonders whether she will be able to fit in at her new school

More on the job search; new development: I got a full time position. Nice to know a month before starting–lots of time to plan, but maybe too much time to brood. Now there’s just a week, and I’m still feeling unsure.

I had hoped to be called by my district–the one I live in and which gave me the job I finished in June–about a middle school science or high school biology job. I thought I had a pretty good shot at it, with experience, good references, a few connections. But the weeks went by after my application was in, and no calls, no emails, and then “position filled” on the jobs website, same as last year. Also hoped to be able to bike to work, was poised to buy the bike, set up the storage rack inside the garage, now to be vacated by college age child. But no response to the applications I put in.

Six nearby districts had no relevant postings at all. The seventh had a maybe–a posting for high school math and science at an alternative school I’d never heard of, serving homeschooled students. I read the requirements, and I was a one hundred percent match, and more. So I applied, and got a call the next week, had my interview set up for that Friday. I should have been pumped– full time, alternative, fully qualified. The forty minute commute was regrettable, but we had been looking around for properties, and could easily settle closer if things worked out in that district.

But it was in that very religiously conservative town that I’ve written of before, the one I’ve never been interested in living in, never felt I fit in culturally. Even when I was more religious I was never conservative enough in the right ways, felt too edgy, likely to offend or be judged. On paper I looked like a good fit, but deep down I wondered if I would fit in. The school served homeschool families exclusively in a parent partnership model, which meant I needed to bridge those worlds and be super flexible about the different ways families approached education, which working within the public education professional paradigm.

I didn’t prepare much–just refreshed my mind with notes I’d taken for previous interviews, and wrote down my questions for them. My goal was to find out if this job would keep me on track for working with some of the “tougher” kids in the system, preferably back in the city, and maybe even in the school I worked in last year, after it had its new, larger building and needed more science teachers. I interviewed with the principal, who also teaches part time, and a teacher leader who was serving as a kind of assistant principal.

The school uses part of a building shared by a church and several other Christian ministries, including health services (free pregnancy tests) and a clothing distribution center. The principal and teacher were sharing a joke when I walked in the outer door, warmly asked me to wait a few minutes, then I was invited into the office. They asked me to tell about myself, nodded with appreciation at the places in my narrative that indicated a fit to the position. Asked me what was the worst lesson I ever taught. I said I couldn’t think of a specific one, but in general I mostly regretted times when I talked too much and listened too little, or where I was not relaxed enough to be myself and teach in my natural way. The teacher asked me whether I had used a particular curriculum as a homeschooler. I was prepared for this, having resolved not to let on that I had raised my children in Christianity, feeling that this information had no legitimate place in a public school teacher interview. I said I had used various things, and a literature rich approach. She pressed, which approach was that? I confessed that I had used Sonlight Curriculum. Ah, they both sighed in satisfaction–that was a good one. So the cat was partially out of the bag.

I asked them what they felt were the strengths of their school, and the challenges. Strengths were the tight knit team and close community of the student body, challenges included dealing with strong willed parents. Tied to that, I asked them if in the course of teaching some aspects of biology to children of conservative Christians, there sometimes arose conflicts over certain scientific ideas such as evolution. Because although I was brought up a believer, I only became familiar with creationism later, I said. I was interested in others’ viewpoints, indeed had sought out creationist books at a homeschool book fair to see what the most educated creationists had to say. Yes, sometimes, the principal said, there were sometimes parents who objected, but he would be there to help deal with that, and besides, he said, you don’t have to teach everything. This got my attention, as it implied that it might be best to sidestep such conflicts by cutting out science content. For example, he continued, once he worked at a school where the librarian wanted to have Harry Potter books in the library, and he had said to her that he had nothing against having books like that, but why did she have to have them?

By this I understood that, at the very least, this was a principal of the Golden Retriever personality type, a peacemaker who doesn’t stand up for principles where that brings interpersonal conflict. That’s a red flag for me, as I enjoy bringing up and discussing controversial issues in order to learn and teach, and do try to adhere to principles of truth even when that brings on some heat. Not that peace making isn’t an important principle also, and it could be a great thing to work with an administrator who prioritizes mutual good feeling. It all makes me wonder about the balance between teaching from who I am, which includes teaching about evolution, sex ed, whatever, because these are important science, and the need to respect local community values and parental authority over children’s education. That last was big for me as a homeschooling parent–I didn’t appreciate a paternalistic attitude in school personnel, as I viewed them as having only delegated authority and only over a certain aspects of children’s lives. But I do have values to inculcate as a teacher, too, and that includes a respect for reason, logic, and empirical evidence.

I got a call from the principal as I was pulling into the fabric store on the way home. He offered me the job, said he had already spoken to my references, and would be please to hear my answer that Monday, if that worked for me. I thanked him and said I would give it careful thought. I accepted the job on Monday, not having been able to give the final word to my red flags, glad to have a full time opportunity, and knowing I would benefit from the need to learn the curricula for all six courses I would be teaching. Six is a lot, but only Mondays and Wednesdays and heavily supported by home assignments supervised by parents.

My other source of discontent is that I don’t really feel that homeschool kids need the kind of support I want to give. The have supportive families, are economically stable enough to be homeschooled, and are mostly independent, self- motivated learners. I really wanted to get back into serving the tough kids, the kids who didn’t fit, the kids who had something that needed to be discovered and busted out in a special supportive setting, who were the ones mostly driving the best efforts of education leaders and making schools a more authentic place of learning and growth. I missed my school from last year.

There is one way in which I could see these homeschool students, the ones from the religiously conservative families, needing, at least in my mind, what I had to give. I could maybe get some of them them hooked on biology/ecology, more knowledgeable about the natural/created world, help them understand the value of rational scientific thinking about it and see it as a powerful aid to growth and developing purpose rather than a tool of the enemy. I grew up on the hymn “This is My Father’s World,” my earthly father reinforced the Bible’s teaching on stewardship, and I enjoyed and still enjoy reading the Psalms for the way they celebrate the beauty and power of the creation. Later my conservative Christian teachers emphasized, in reaction to New Age religion, that we are to worship the Creator rather than creation, which I had though was a no-brainer, but whatever. The only people with whom I shared the values of living lightly, recycling, cutting down on energy use and preserving biodiversity, besides my father, one Regent College professor, and several friends who I was able to influence, were decidedly non-religious. Inter-Varsity Press, NavPress and Multnomah Press books on how to live the Christian life, think critically and biblically about the issues, were light on stewardship. I was aware that liberal Christians were more into environmental conservation, but they were not very helpful in the struggle with personal morality and purity of thought life.

I’m planning my biology and environmental science classes now, and intend to do what I can to support critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and the development of an environmental ethic rooted in a value for sustainability. In other words, let’s understand natural systems, lets’ understand how humans depend on and affect them, and let’s not promote the destruction of human society. Valuing all other life forms will have to stem from long term self interest with a primal drive rooted in our selfish genes. There is no conservative without conservation, no religion without human society, no traditional values without sustainable traditions. There is no intelligent design of humans in God’s image if those humans don’t know how to design intelligently.

 

 

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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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Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

What I hear about in the news and see going on, like war and xenophobia and altruism, and love, and all of it, really could be seen as biologically driven phenomena, and I want more of us to admit it. I’m all for a spiritual or humanistic interpretation too, but it’s also the biology, stupid. There are undeniably biological, biochemical, and fundamentally genetic and epigenetic roots of behavior, and I’d like to see that aspect to be addressed along with the socio-political, ethical, and economic. Should we let Syrian refugees in, mitigate the chaos that’s over straining their homeland resources so that it can recover? Or should we slam the door shut on those displaced by cultural influences they cannot overcome, that lead to civil war and murder and environmental abuse? Should we protect for ourselves and our offspring these finite habitat resources, favor the genetic variations most closely akin to us, and maintain social stability? Or should we welcome these fleeing young families who have survived, who had the strength and intelligence to migrate all the way here, and so will seed our stock with strong genes? Both altruism and xenophobia can be argued to have biological, or genetic, root causes, that’s what I think. Same with race relations, gender identity, sexuality, resource politics, and so much more. Acknowledging evolutionary roots does not mean caving in to determinism, but provides balance to the wishful thinking that education and the exertion of individual and collective will can make all our “problems” go away. A simplistic social Darwinist perspective certainly acknowledges the influence of evolutionary biology, but equates evolutionary weakness with lower class, while contradicting itself with the complaint that the “weak” are multiplying too much (which should be considered a characteristic of the strong or fit, by Darwinian thought).

Now that I’m almost done with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, I’m even more convinced, except that I accept his argument that it’s not fundamentally the individual or group that is the root of selective pressures, but the genes themselves. It must be so, or the same genes wouldn’t still be around. The same individuals never occur again, after all. Not sure how that would pan out at the socio-political level, this apparent drive by genes themselves (really just random natural selection of those able to successfully replicate). Maybe just a manifestation of a healthy variety of social views resulting in various social trends and cultures, all derived from a hodgepodge of gene-driven influences at the cellular level.

This point of view is influencing what I tell my high school students, too. When we were on the topic of plants that germinate in the dark and then grow for the life of them, or die trying, I told them that the plants do that because they are descendants of plants that survived because they did that too, and the rest, apparently, didn’t succeed.

Apparently no one response to mass migration or economic policy or social views on self governance has proven to be significantly effective for the propagation of genes, or we would have ended up with mainly one point of view. All the points of view that were disastrous all the time are gone. Or maybe the environment has fluctuated so much, we’re still in that cycle, letting it all play out, and haven’t yet reached an evolutionarily stable strategy–an kind of Age of Aquarius many hope for, and Imagine. A good number of folks have carried forward genes that manifest as a drive to change things, sure, campaigning and writing and preaching and teaching. Others have successfully populated the Earth with conservative human minds, with people who wish to be led, who don’t want change, and so that must be an important part of the genetic survival strategy, too. At least up until now.

Because now, the most educated and affluent have rebelled against their genes, choosing to have few children or none at all. Dawkins believes we are capable of rebelling against our genes because of consciousness. I’m not so sure. I think maybe our genes have responded to the tendency of affluent people to destroy their own resources by cutting down on their reproductive rate. Pro-Choice, indeed. Sure, overpopulation is a problem in India and so on, but just watch what happens when the “standard of living” rises there. It will be like rabbits reabsorbing their fetuses, combined with lemmings running over a cliff. In the West, the Plague wiped out a third of Europeans, then a bit of European pathogen DNA killed most of North American residents early in the Age of Discovery, so it seemed for quite a while that colonization, expansion, economic growth and Industrial Revolution might be a good thing, maybe even the best thing, for the human race. All those suffering from its effects in Europe either died or escaped to America, but not before featuring as at least a minor character type in a good nineteenth century novel, asking for alms for the poor or being told to eat cake. Though they were never required to dress for dinner.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Culture & Society, Ideas

 

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