Questioning evolution

June 11, 2008 at 6:31 pm (Fróðleikr) (, , , , , , )

This is not a topic I would usually dignify with a post. I’d usually sum up the debate by posting a witty video from my beloved YouTube nova intelligentsia, like this one by cdk007:

However, I stumbled across a recent debate between Dr. PZ Myers and Dr. Geoffrey Simmons that I thought nicely illustrates the gap in scientific understanding between a real biologist and a doubter of evolution.

There isn’t only a gap in scientific understanding but also a gap in self-knowledge exhibited by these two camps. It takes a particular sort of arrogance to assume that because one does not understand a theory, that makes the theory false. Biology students would not get away speaking to Dr. Myers the way Dr. Simmons challenges him. It is insulting that anyone would step into the scientific arena, stake out a private little area, and declare it free from mainstream science. I might as well deny Pythagoras’ theorem and by political influence force a mathematician to debate its validity.

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Irreproachable parenting

June 9, 2008 at 6:50 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I am frequently struck by unease when I hear from the news that a teenager has gone off the rails. That it appears in the news means that the victim’s behaviour has the perfect scapegoat prepackaged with the story.

During my not so distant childhood, in a very distant age, the first two questions that were asked after a child went loopy were as follows:

1. Is it the child’s fault?

2. Is it the parents’ fault?

These questions are now taboo. A “victim” role has been chosen. What is left, the “villain”, must not be filled by the “victim”, for that would render the world in upsetting shades of grey.

I play a morbid game when I read about these stories: if I find the bad parenting, I win.

After telling her mother, Christina “Tina” Meier, about the increasing number of hurtful messages, the two got into an argument over the vulgar language Megan used in response to the messages and the fact that she did not log off when her mother told her to. After the argument, Meier ran upstairs to her room. She was found twenty minutes later, hanging by the neck in a closet. (quotation from Wikipedia)

It was too easy to find, but no-one seems to be able to see it. There are those who seem to question the parents, but notice that they place a point on the map where the victim lies, pick a villain and place another point, and then draw a line between the two. A parent is responsible for severing that dangerous connection.

Am I unreasonable? By grouping the following facts together, am I asking the wrong questions?

1. “Megan’s mother, who monitored her daughter’s online communications, returned home and said she was shocked at the vulgar language her own daughter was sending. She told her daughter how upset she was about it.

Megan ran upstairs, and her father, Ron, tried to tell her everything would be fine. About 20 minutes later, she was found in her bedroom. She died the next day.” (MSNBC)

2. “According to Ronald “Ron” Meier (Meier’s father) and a neighbor who had discussed the hoax with Lori Drew, the last message sent by Evans read: “The world would be a better place without you.” Investigators did not find a record of this message.” (Wikipedia)

3. “Megan’s parents are now separated and plan to divorce.” (MSNBC)

Is it so unreasonable to wonder whether perhaps the Meier girl killed herself because she felt betrayed by her mother? Adults do not seem to remember what it was like to be a teenager desperately wanting both parental approval and autonomy; I’m not sure how, as I can’t seem to forget. It is absurd that Tina Meier chose not to stand behind her child, but to scold her for something so trivial as “vulgar language”.

It’s not important that a parent supports her children, because children need a firm hand, is that right? To a teenager, overwhelmed by attacks from a stranger, hostility from her mother about something so small would be the last straw. If Megan was pushed emotionally to curse at the attacker, she felt cornered and didn’t know what else to do, especially if cursing was verboten in her house. Her mother only saw a house rule broken, and did not pause to consider why. Megan, unable to have support from the person who should support her come what may, could not take it anymore. How dare Tina Meier attack her child?

Maybe running upstairs would have been the end, if her father had not told her that everything would be okay. Everything would not be okay. How could it be okay? Not even her father understood how desperate she was. Cornered, panicky, unable to gain perspective, possibly even to teach her parents a lesson, Megan Meier hung herself.

The paranoid theory continues: why were neither the police nor the FBI able to find the message that apparently drove Megan over the edge? Did it exist? The Meiers divorced. Whether or not Megan’s death was Tina’s fault must have been an issue, for Tina certaintly feels guilty.

If this sounds ridiculous, then look between 1m40 and 2m22 of the following video.

Teenagers, sadly, commit suicide on a daily basis, but only certain deaths are made public knowledge. I shan’t here reflect upon the nature of modern news coverage to support rather than inform public opinion, motivated by profit, suffice to say that the internet is a frightening place for those who do not wish their opinions challenged, or those who wish to protect the pride of a foolish populace.

Wicked internet, what hast thou wrought? Slashdot reports that the United States is considering legislation that will make trolling a punishable offence. The very act of criticism has now been blindfolded and led shaking to the firing squad.

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“Shibboleth”, first part

June 3, 2008 at 3:37 pm (Skrifa) ()

In 1923, I was fortunate enough to be one of five passengers on a private pleasure cruise destined to seek out unexplored tributaries of the Nahr Ad-dindar River in Christian Soudan. We were to depart during the river’s most swollen months, so as not to risk grounding our boat. The organiser of the trip, a man by the name of Alberto Olmedo Maraña,  with whom I had a passing familiarity, owned and maintained a beautiful little dahabeeyah in Khartoum. He habitually wore undyed linen sacque suits, and a Havana hat when it was sunny. He moved slowly, and seemed quite fragile, as is common with very tall men in their old age. He did not smoke, but took a full lowball of dark rum in the early evening, with a glass cocktail stick to swirl the ice and to punctuate his thoughts, which tended to follow his crossed right foot as it made easy circles over the floorboards. Maraña was by origin an Argentine; he had grown up “stuffed into Palermo” as he once told me. Argentines, he said, were Europeans at heart, and who was he to deny the conquering instinct? A man like this, who has no children, no interest in that sort of immortality, seeks to make his mark on the world personally; he is not interested in the praise bestowed on his family name after he is dead.

He might have been a selfish man, but he did not think that denying something to children he did not as yet have selfish. He was in fact, quite gentle, and spared no praise where it was due, but his name was too much his own to share.

I was chosen out of his memory specifically, plucked from the multitudes, to join the expedition, I suppose partly for my vague interest in river biology. I was that rare sort of person who can be vaguely and genuinely interested in such a specific topic without being an expert, and I suppose the definition of exploration is to seek discovery; a company of experts would not suit his purpose at all. The world is discovered afresh through each pair of eyes, as someone once said.

I am typing this in Switzerland in 1995, on a typewriter, because the physicality of the ink ribbon pleases me. It is close to 5 in the evening, and I am drinking a large bottle of Tsing Tao, which tastes like it used to taste when my father drank it. It is the same first bottle of Tsing Tao drunk in 1903. Beer is immortal. It makes us feel young, nostalgic, makes us think that time is a stagnant pool. We can swim here and there, revisiting events as we please. Wine ages, develops, erasing what came before. It is a mortal’s drink, and so I don’t drink wine.

Maraña’s family was sparse. They did not like each other, and did not behave like a Catholic family at all. The only relative he kept in touch with was his niece, a serious woman one year his senior, by the name of Elisabeta Olmedo Martínez. She had received an invitation to the expedition, but declined; her concern was sleeping sickness. “You are used to such climates, Alberto,” she said. “I would succumb to the heavy heat very swiftly.” She did however, accept for her son José María, who was “of a stronger constitution.” Maraña assured her that sleeping sickness would be no problem, as he had plenty of screens and nets on the boat to keep out flies and mosquitoes, but she insisted that Chema would be more suitable for the trip. She was a well-read and modern woman, from what I heard, and so I know of only one reason why she would have used such an excuse, knowing as she must have done the true origin of sleeping sickness.

I am convinced Elisabeta knew what Maraña was planning, and substituted her son purposefully; whether out of love or hatred, I have no idea. Chema was happy to be with us. He was a gentle man, nervous and cheerful, very awkward around women, thus unmarried and using his youthful nickname at the age of thirty. He kept his distance from me; when he saw me approaching a kind of discomfort clouded his brow and he hastily extinguished his cigarette, made an excuse to leave the conversation, and sought his room. Maraña assured me it was nerves; his relative was simply not used to the company of young women.

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