Friday, May 15, 2009

Where is the Subject in Natural Selection?

Here’s an interesting link that Jana recommended I watch: it’s an episode of Nova, recounting a town’s (Dover, Pennsylvania) fight over the inclusion of Intelligent Design/Creationism curriculum into the public schools’ education system.

In brief, the Dover school board mandates curriculum that the teachers and other members of the community disagree with. A trial ensues, which debates whether or not Intelligent Design/Creationism is a scientific theory and which secondarily addresses the constitutionality of mandating curriculum in the public school system. Watching the program, I was surprised that primary issue in court was the science of Intelligent Design.

Personally, I think Intelligent Design is a pretty simplistic and boring idea, but I find it funny that we had to go to court to find this out. (What ever happened to reading?) I was much more interested in whether and what kind of rights a community holds, as to what is taught in their schools.

This program focused more on Evolutionary Theory and its differences with Intelligent Design. I spend a fair amount of my spare time reading about animals, so I enjoyed this. …until, as is usually the case, I became frustrated by the program’s language.

It’s not just a problem with Nova. The problem is that almost all curriculum on Evolutionary Theory uses imprecise language.

I frequently have a beer over a chapter in one of my favorite books, called Animal Behavior, by John Alcock. Alcock uses the generally accepted definition of evolution: “Evolution is the process of change in traits of a population of organisms over time.” It is important to note that the “theoretic” portion of this definition is the PROCESS of change and not the fact that traits change over time. To emphasis this, others (Wikipedia for example) often add to end of that definition “…due to a number of mechanisms and processes.” Evolutionary Theory is not change itself; it is a process which (we may assume) contains a Cause, Reason, or Mechanism by which change occurs.

Natural Selection is this mechanism. What is Natural Selection? Merely survival. As Kenneth R. Miller says, evolutionary theory implies that “there's a struggle for existence, whether we like to admit it or not.” (link) The struggle he speaks of is both active and passive, and it is between more than 1, 2, or 3 variables. Strong species actively compete with weaker species for food and habitat, but that is only part of the struggle; weak species passively fill previously undiscovered niches, or—due to seemingly random changes like climate change, habitat change, or individual mutation—find themselves in a natural environment that is not well-suited to their traits. It may be easier to understand that, depending on the species, a species’ struggle for existence may be with many different elements of existence, including seemingly passive elements, like Time or Chance.

I get frustrated while listening to and reading about Evolutionary Theory because we speak of Natural Selection as a causal solidarity, in the same way we’d speak of a god. This is a huge language problem. It comes from two places, I think. First, as a species of story tellers, humans invented god-orientated causations for most unexplained phenomena, and this general acceptance of underlying Cause probably trickles into our language as much as it effects our understanding of our environment. Second (and more importantly) we are a reactionary species with the ability to understand abstract chains of causation. We benefit ourselves by finding the source of a stimulus, rather than immediately reacting to it. For example, compared to many animals, humans react much slower to most sights, sounds, and smells. We get around our slowness by addressing problems proactively. We might not be fast enough to outrun a flash flood, but we may have remembered a life preserver. Or perhaps we built a levy. Our propensity to compile our observations into patterns allows us to predict the future. When we find constants in our patterns, our predictions succeed more often. GOD—as a constant, the ultimate source—provides gratification to a species that is constantly thinking about causation.

For the purposes of Evolutionary Theory, our causation is Natural Selection. But Natural Selection by what, or whom? Do you see how this language gives sentience to an unknown subject?

Consider, for example, this narrative passage from Nova’s program: “…the forces of nature, such as the environment of an individual island in the Galapagos, select those organisms best suited to that environment. And [Darwin] believed that, over time, this could give rise to new species.” (link) I notice statements like this—statements that reference ambiguous subjects like “forces of nature”—everywhere, since I've started listening for them.

One might argue that “heritable traits” are usually the responsible subject, and that the term “Natural Selection” is a substitute. In other words, instead of saying “Natural Selection favored large-billed finches over their small-billed cousins,” we might say “Heritable traits favored large-billed finches...” But this is still imprecise. Firstly, it implies that heritable traits are collectively “doing” something. More importantly though, it is incomplete; heritable traits are not solely responsible for the survival of large-billed finches but not small-billed finches. Couldn’t we also say “Exceptionally hard nuts kept food sources scarce for small-billed finches because the nuts favored finches with large-bills?” We could, but we probably wouldn’t, because it isn’t clear that large-billed finches serve the best interest of the nut. Finches serve their own interest actively, and the interests of the nut (if at all) passively. Would we ever say “the Galapagos Islands favored finches by providing them with food and shelter when the birds were blown off course during a migration?” Probably not, because it’s much too imprecise an explanation for how the finches survived. Finally, one might argue that heritable traits, hard nuts, and the Galapagos Islands collectively favored finches; combined, we might refer to these variables as Natural Selection. What an imprecise statement! I might as well have said, “All natural things worked together to favor big-billed finches.” And we haven’t even discussed what variables are considered “natural,” and what aren’t.

All I’m saying is that we’re using a creationist language to talk about Natural Selection in broad terms. I’m definitely not criticizing the science, our methods, or Evolutionary Theory at all. On the contrary, I enjoy these concepts and hope to hear more and more about our new discoveries. But for the purposes of disambiguation, I feel compelled to criticize the language used by this Nova special and programs like it. The overly dramatic production compromises the legitimacy of several issues:

(1) Creationism and Evolutionary Theory are dissimilar areas of study, the goals of each also dissimilar.

(2) Public education, despite being a publicly funded institution, contains an elaborate hierarchy of representatives (teachers and administrators alike). The democracy within our school systems is convoluted, to say the least. The citizens of our country should dictate the public curriculum.

(3) Wealthy interest groups frequently insert themselves into the public arena, posing as a larger body than they are, with an agenda that ill-represents the constituents they claim to represent, and proceed to fuck over those with contrary opinions.

That said, I enjoyed watching the program and recommend it.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bride Wars

My clothes got soaked during the monsoon yesterday, as the rain funneled off my car's trunk into the circuitry of every piece of gear the band owned. Completely drenched, I dropped at the top of the stairs my wet clothes and my Sambas, on which Jana shortly thereafter slipped and did a Samba all the way down the stairs. I'm not sure if God or I am now responsible for her misaligned spine, but I’m pretty sure that my punishment is to watch the worst movie ever filmed. Sharing eases the burden. So here you go:

"I'm just going to check my ice-sculpture rolodex."
"Canary... Burnt Canary... isn't there something in between?"
"Miss [Vera] Wang is a stern mistress."
"The International Butter Club? You've actually been sitting around eating sticks of butter from different lands?"
"Officer Not-Your-Husband is here to arrest you!"
"Oh my God, I'm upset because you have feelings. You nailed it."
"I'm gonna do a complete head count of the hot drunk single guys and then choose."
"It's like a whole new me... I cry all the time."

Can someone please explain to me why you have rehearsals for a ceremony that requires no skill and lasts 20 minutes? Additionally, can someone please explain to me why wedding planners are unequivocally the most annoying and stressful creatures on the planet? Never mind, I know why. It’s because their job is to coordinate the most annoying and stressful events on the planet.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Wiener In Review: Hot Diggity

The Wiener In Review: Hot Dog Establishments Of Portland
------------------------------ Hot Diggity ----------------------------------

Entry 3: Certain foods lend themselves perfectly to what we’d normally consider non-food oriented activities, and, in this respect, the hot dog is one of the most malleable. The largest reason for this is the hot dog’s portability, like a sandwich, a snow cone, or a grape. (Formal request: Will someone invent more awesome, portable foods, please? Thank you.) The second largest reason that hot dogs are associated with non food-oriented activities is because hot dogs are awesome. They are the world’s greatest food, and if you don’t agree with me, you might as well get the hell off my blog spot. What other food inserts herself perfectly into backyard gardening, home repair, street juggling, county fairs, presidential rallies in the park, fire dancing, dog shows, car camping, blatantly inappropriate humor, Trace Atkins concerts, baby showers, all sports events, and late night trips to 7-11? Only the wiener.

This is why Hot Diggity scored crucial business points by setting up their portable construction-cart-esque hot dog house outside the Tigard Home Depot. Imagine your sweaty, strapping dad in his overalls. Now imagine him working on your leaky gutters. He realizes he doesn’t have a plumber’s snake—a definite necessity because you live under a grove of cedar trees, populated with over 300 different species of warring squirrels, the casualties of which pinball down through a thicket of branches before slumping dead in slew of needles and nuts, flowing toward the drain as it rains and eventually clogging your gutters which haven’t been cleaned since 1975—and so your dad yells he’s running over to Home Depot to “get some supplies.”

Beer is definitely a “supply,” and so is a new Skilsaw. These are dangerous essentials, especially when used together; plus, if your dad’s wife (A.K.A. your mom) finds out he bought a new saw, or if he can’t finish all the beer on the drive home, he may have a lecture waiting. No need to worry about these inconveniences while purchasing a hot dog, though. That thing will be halfway to the colon by the time Dad pulls into the driveway.

Need more convincing that hot dogs and Home Depot go together like hot dogs and John Kruk? Consider the similarities between a Home Depot and a sports stadium parking lot. It takes endurance to traverse the 5 miles from your car to the gate. Then, once you finally enter, you have to contend with intercoms, overpriced novelties, and swarms of tools. You need energy to stay focused. This is where the wiener comes in. (Formal request: Will someone please invent a Stadium Pal to take care of hot dog digestive inconveniences?)

I’ll try not to let my love of hardware and lumber compromise my objectivity in reviewing Hot Diggity. But, for the record, I fully support their location. I’m not saying I support Tigard. Pave that place, I say. Wait, it’s already COMPLETELY paved. Sod that place, then. Sod it, seed it, and ignore it. Perhaps in 500 years Tigard will look 50% less offensive. In the meantime, if you absolutely MUST acquire some screws to re-affix the florescent lamp to your cubicle, and you can’t take the company credit card all the way in to Portland, or all the way out to Burns, I suggest visiting the Home Depot off SW Sequoia Parkway in Tigard, across from the trillions of office buildings and faux-park goose habitats, and eating a hot dog at Hot Diggity.

......1.The Sausage. Plump and delicious. Roasted outside on their gas BBQ. Kosher, Polish, Smoked, or Spicy (and the spicy is nicey). No veggie option. Pretty damn good. 0.9 points.

......2. The Bun and Accessories. Hot Diggity uses those oversized Kaiser buns with the tiny little seeds. These guys are a crapshoot. They offer more real estate on which to pile accessories, but they go stale faster than their traditional, starchy, jet-puffed and smaller cousins. They have a crust on top, and are side-loading. If you toast them, get ready for serrated gums and a gooey stick-to-your-teeth, doughy center. Sometimes, however, they’re just right. Mine wasn’t, but it was probably because they had been sitting out all day. Hot Diggity provides Mexican Taco Cart-style containers of jalapeƱos, sauerkraut, onions, and relish. They have Dijon mustard and ketchup. The accessories don’t live up to the sausages, but everything’s pretty fresh, and the onions and relish haven’t melded together into maggoty brain stew. 0.4 points

3....3. The Cost. $2.75 plus a quarter for optional cheese. Finally! …a place humble enough to keep all wieners under 3 bucks. It is of paramount importance that you be able to pay for a hot dog with the forgotten, wrinkled dollar bills in your jacket pocket, or with change from your car ash tray. Paying with a debit card at a hot dog stand is grounds for a beating. A hot dog stand which charges enough to warrant debit card payment is grounds for a verblogal lashing… a punishment which is not near as effective as a physical beating, but—as I haven’t been in a fist fight since 8th grade—much more practical and legal. Fortunately, Hot Diggity keeps it reasonable. 0.7 points.

...... 4. The Presentation. On a paper towel. Definitely not fancy. Practical though. And shit knows I appreciate practical. Why, just the other day, I debated writing a blog on how impractical high heels are. Seriously, high heels are the stupidest and most impractical things I can think of. MTV is a close second. Mark McGrath is a close third and all religion is fourth. Hot Diggity gets 0.9 points for presentation, even though there is little to no presentation. I can do this, because it’s my friggin blog.

..... 5. The ‘tude. Meh. The lady was really interested in her Dean Koontz book. She wasn’t much for conversation, and she didn’t treat my hot dog like a royal scepter. I forgive her, but she will not be knighted. 0.5 points.

In conclusion, Hot Diggity scores a big 3.5 out of 5 points! Good job, Mr. or Ms. Diggity! I like the name, I like the location, and I like Open Daily diligence. They serve a couple other things of little consequence: chicken teriyaki, breakfast burritos, blah blah blah. Across the street, I frequently check the status of my web servers, which are stored in a co-location: a geeky, temperature-controlled, hi-tech environment of racks and server cabinets. Periodically, I sneak across the street to the Home Depot for lunch, hoping the mustached construction-workers will overlook the transparency of my server-room skin. Maybe they’ll think I’m one of them.

(Informal request: For perhaps the best-ever blogged description of Home Depot, please visit the blog of Portland band, Menomena.)