Archive for May, 2007

The evolution of damage control

Senator Sam Brownback raised his hand at the Republican presidential debate when the candidates were asked whether they reject evolution. He states that he believes in “small changes over time within a species,” but not “an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence” in his disappointingly empty op-ed “What I Think About Evolution” in The New York Times. Despite the title, Brownback’s thoughts about evolution are still unclear to me. His willingness to spout uninformative balderdash is not.

The obfuscation is by design. He is trying to satisfy several crowds at once. Stating that he believes in “microevolution” is coded language targeted to certain people who reject natural history. To them, there are distinct “microevolution,” which they accept, and “macroevolution,” which they reject. They use the terms in their own ways, though, that are different from their use among scientists. Publishing the essay at all is an attempt to appease people acquainted with natural history who guffawed at his debate goof.

But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

Limiting his essay to stating that his position is somewhere between the most extreme version creationism and the the most extreme version of evolution is a disservice to us voters. The essay is about his ideas on faith and reason in vague terms without telling us much about what he does believe. I wrote Brownback to ask whether humans and non-human animals share common ancestry and whether he would support research into human origins. He addresses the second question somewhat in his essay. A direct answer to the first would surprise me.

Brownback’s fluffy essay does not deserve its title, and The New York Times should be embarrassed to have allowed Brownback to pretend to inform the public through their presses. I know what Brownback believes. He believes that he ought to be president. What does Brownback think about evolution? He thinks it is a topic that he must treat carefully to become president following his stupid blunder in the debate.

What do I believe? First, the fact that Brownback is even trying shows how clueless he is. He is done. He should have realized it and quit as gracefully as possible instead of insulting us with this foolishness. At the least, he should have kept quiet if he could not muster a real response. Second, I believe that we deserve a better president than Sam Brownback could ever be, one whose reason is much sharper and whose faith is far more humbling. Third, I believe that step one in getting out of a hole is to stop digging.

When I took gross anatomy, one of my dissection partners was a physical anthropologist working on primate evolution. Telling us about her work and probably feeling cautious, she asked about our views. I told her that I believed in evolution for “monkeys and stuff,” but not for people. I had her going for a little while. Then I cracked and started laughing. I had the idea to combine the op-ed and “I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period” from the Onion. Kottke beat me to it.


Michael M. on May 31st 2007 in General

Science and popularity

In The New York Times, Steven Pinker takes a Desert Eagle to the fish in the barrel by pointing out how stupid we are and how bad it is to be stupid for his review of The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. I truly enjoyed A Short History of Nearly Everything, another book along the same lines, a couple of years ago. Pinker’s review makes The Canon seem good, but somewhat annoying to read. I read the first chapter linked from his review, and it was mildly annoying. NPR‘s All Things Considered had this interview and review. I found the reading comparing chemical bonds to marriage pretty bad. Her interviewer, probably Debbie Elliott, dutifully chimes in at the end of the reading as the supposedly educated person with gaping fundamental ignorance about the world.

Why is there this massive ignorance? High school mathematics, biology and chemistry are clearly of limited effectiveness. I believe that brain maturity is a big reason. Some people are ready for algebra at 12 or 13 and even younger. Others are ready at 14 or 15. Some who struggle in high school develop later and then become perfectly capable of understanding the material. By the time they do, however, the educational opportunities are much more difficult to find, and life often presents more pressing demands.

I agree that we all ought to know more and that nobody ignorant of the basics should be considered a learned person. I doubt that these popular science books do much to rectify the problem, however. From what I can tell, The Canon is more about flowery writing than about the facts. The facts alone, though, make for a dry diet. I feel concered that these books are so heavy on filler and so light on facts that they, too, turn people away from science while providing little education.


Michael M. on May 28th 2007 in General

WordPress 2.2

Following the upgrade cycle, Peripatetic Circumambulant now runs on WordPress 2.2. The release is codenamed Getz after the famous saxophonist. Being a bossa nova fan, I am pleased. So far, the release itself seems good, too. Please report any problems.


Michael M. on May 17th 2007 in General

Folk School benefit concert

The Folk School will present An Evening of American String Band Music at the Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30 PM. The doors will open at 7 PM. $15 is the price. Visit the calendar entry for information on tickets or buy at the door before the show.

I have had wonderful experiences through the school. Recently, the contra dance I played was terrific. I invited friends from outside the school. It was to no avail, and I was forced to have a wonderful night without them. Because the number of students who want to play at the dance has grown too large for us all to play at once, I danced the first set. I never had tried contra dancing before. Although some moves, mainly the half hey, eluded me, I had a great time. The experienced dancers at Childgrove are friendly, patient and helpful. The dancing was intoxicating. Then I headed to the stage and sawed my best through the second set. Having finally done both, I still feel that playing beats dancing, but I understand much more how people become so absorbed in the experiences and culture of dance. The night owls among us capped a great night with a trip to C. J. Muggs.

It looks like I will play the benefit show, too. Between the main acts, a group of Folk School students will play in the lobby during intermission. I feel thrilled to have been invited to fiddle as part of it. We have rehearsed once, and I hope to make enough of the coming practices to rosin up and go on the 29th.

The big show will feature leading local groups the Buckhannon Brothers, the Gordons, the Grass Pack, Swing DeVille and the Yellow Dog String Band. Michael Ward and Rob White of the Grass Pack will move away from Saint Louis soon. This show will be their last with the band. Rob also plays in Yellow Dog. Many members of the other bands are Folk School instructors. I have learned fiddle from both Colleen Heine, Folk School director and Grass Pack fiddler, and Justin Branum of Swing DeVille. Dave Landreth, who has led me through my foray into clawhammer banjo as resident Folk School frailer, plays in Yellow Dog. I can testify personally to the great talent that will be on exhibit at the concert.

I spent a long time thinking about participatory culture. I still do, but now I also participate. The Folk School has been a big cog in the machinations of making it happen in my own life. However little music does to ease the great ills of the world, it is a great balm for soothing the small wounds of ones own life. This institution dedicated to bringing music to the people and people into the music continues growing. Come out to help it along while enjoying some fine sounds.

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Michael M. on May 16th 2007 in General, Live, Music

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.