Your White Ancestors May Have Immigrated Illegally, Too

It is undeniable that the United States has a long history of extreme racism regarding citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790, passed just three years after a Constitution that spoke of “Justice” and “Liberty,” bluntly declared that only a “free white person” could become an American citizen. This remained unchanged for nearly a century, until the 14th Amendment in 1868, passed after the Civil War, determined anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen. This was immediately contradicted by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which declared the only non-whites this change applied to were blacks; the 1898 Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark v. the United States finally brought citizenship to all people born here.

As for those already born who desired citizenship, the struggle continued. Women became truer citizens when they won the right to vote in 1920, unless they married an Asian non-citizen; then their citizenship could be revoked! Native Americans — whose ancestors had been here before anyone — had to wait until 1924 to be eligible for citizenship, Filipinos and people from India until 1946. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, social movements then battled to make what had been promised by law a reality for men and women of color, whether native-born or immigrants.

Given white supremacy’s zealous protection of citizenship, it may seem surprising that there were no laws against immigration itself until 1875, when prostitutes and convicts were barred from entry. (But then, perhaps not so surprising, as most immigrants were from Europe — this despite hostilities towards the Irish, Catholics, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans. All immigrants represented cheap labor, too.) Before that, immigration was reported but not regulated. Anyone could simply show up and try to scratch out a life for him- or herself. You can come, but don’t expect citizenship, don’t expect any power or participation in this democracy.

Millions came by the time the first racist immigration restriction was created: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning almost all immigration from China. Many American whites were openly bigoted, but also spoke of economics — Chinese workers hurting their wages and taking their jobs. Other Asians were banned as well, as were people deemed idiots and lunatics. So it was the late 19th century before illegal immigration was possible, because beforehand there really were no laws against immigration.

Racist laws continued, of course. In 1921, temporary caps were placed on the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from other countries; these were made permanent in the Immigration Act of 1924. This was particularly an effort to stem the post-Great War flood of southern and eastern European immigrants, especially Italians, who were coming by the hundreds of thousands. Complaints against them, says historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University, “sounded much like the ones that you hear today: ‘They don’t speak English. They don’t assimilate. They’re darker. They’re criminals. They have diseases.’”

Immigrants from northern and western European nations were favored, including the recent enemy, Germany, which was allowed the most immigrants. (Later, Nazi Germany would justify some of its own racist legislation using American law, which was widely considered the harshest immigration policy in the world; see Hitler’s American Model, Whitman.) In 1929, only 11.2% of yearly immigrants could come from Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, Russia, and surrounding nations. Only 2.3% could come from outside of Europe, and outside the Americas (the Americas were exempt and had no quotas).

Quotas

via George Mason University

This quota system persisted until the civilizing effects of the civil rights era reformed immigration law in 1965 and opened up the U.S. to more non-European immigrants (though quotas were then put on American countries).

Today, U.S. permanent immigration from other nations is capped at 675,000 people per year, except for people with close family in the U.S. — the number of permanent visas for that category is unlimited. In 2016, 618,000 permanent resident visas were issued. 5 million more applicants wait. No country can receive more than 7% of our visas. Add to this the temporary visas that are successfully converted into permanent ones and around one million people, most from Mexico, China, and other American and Asian nations, achieve permanent residency status here each year. Europeans make up a small minority of immigrants to the U.S.

In today’s debate over illegal immigration and citizenship (solved here), the white conservative trope that Central and South Americans should “do it right, do it legally like my ancestors did” is played on repeat. One has to question, however, whether such confidence is justified. During this period of tight restrictions on European immigrants there were indeed many illegal immigrants from Europe. How certain are you, exactly, that you are not a descendant?

To dodge the quota system, European immigrants would journey to Canada, Mexico, or Cuba and cross the border into the United States. Or they would simply pull ashore. The American Immigration Council documents:

In 1925, the Immigration Service reported 1.4 million immigrants living in the country illegally. A June 17, 1923, New York Times article reported that W. H. Husband, Commissioner General of Immigration, had been trying for two years “to stem the flow of immigrants from central and southern Europe, Africa and Asia that has been leaking across the borders of Mexico and Canada and through the ports of the east and west coasts.” A September 16, 1927, New York Times article describes government plans for stepped-up Coast Guard patrols because thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Russians, and Italians were landing in Cuba and then hiring smugglers to take them to the United States.

The 1925 report regretted that the undocumented person’s “first act upon reaching our shores was to break our laws by entering in a clandestine manner.” The problem was so bad that Congress was forced to act:

The 1929 Registry Act allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the country since 1921 and were of “good moral character.”

Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940—80% were European or Canadian. Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 unauthorized Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through “pre-examination”—a process that allowed them to leave the United States voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a “touch-back” program), or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in “meritorious” cases. In the 1940s and 1950s, several thousand deportations a year were suspended; approximately 73% of those who benefited were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians).

The 1929 Registry Act, Steve Boisson writes for American History Magazine, was “a version of amnesty…utilized mostly by European or Canadian immigrants.” Much kinder treatment than mass deportations and separating children from parents, to be sure.

One woman who took advantage of the program, according to The Los Angeles Times, was Rosaria Baldizzi, who snuck in after leaving Italy.

Baldizzi would not become “legal” until a special immigration provision was enacted to offer amnesty to mainly European immigrants who arrived without proper documentation after 1921, who had established families, and who had already lived in the U.S. for seven years. She applied for legal status under the new policy and earned her citizenship three years later, in 1948. Only then, for the first time in more than two decades, could she stop worrying about her immigration status.

If you trace your family history you may be surprised by what you find. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stanford professor Richard White, after researching his family tree,

discovered that his maternal grandfather, an Irishman, had entered the U.S. illegally from Canada in 1924 because he could not get a visa that year under the new quota laws. His grandfather failed in his first attempt, when he walked across a bridge into Detroit, got caught by U.S. customs officers, and was deported.

From Canada, the grandfather called his brother-in-law, a Chicago policeman, who came to Canada and met him there… The pair then walked to Detroit, but this time the brother-in-law, who was dressed in his police uniform, flashed his badge at the customs officers, who waved the duo through.

Even today, there are white undocumented immigrants in the United States. There are 440,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants from Europe. This includes an estimated 50,000 Irish.

The next time someone declares his or her ancestors came here legally, demand proof at once.

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Commentary on the 2018 Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore

Whether we have a Republican or Democratic president, diplomacy and open dialogue are key to peace with other countries. Given that, Trump is doing the right thing by talking and meeting with North Korea. It’s not a groundbreaking idea, as Obama also expressed willingness to meet with Kim and engaged in diplomacy with Iran that culminated in an important anti-nuclear accord (two things that conservatives who are now just in awe of Trump absolutely lost their shit over at the time; for some reason totalitarian enemies can now be trusted to keep their word, inspections now work, and so forth).

I wish with every atom of my being that it wasn’t Trump in negotiations with Kim, of course. Like, driving someone who’s dying to the hospital is the right thing to do, but do you really want the cat behind the wheel? I guess if Petals is all you’ve got… I’d prefer it be a president with actual political/international diplomatic experience, deep knowledge of North Korea and its regime, better attention capabilities and comprehension skills, fewer authoritarian mannerisms and ideas, and better moral character. I’d also like a president who talked more about negotiating to make North Korea’s horrific, Holocaust-like labor camps, where even family members of people who complain about the regime are starved and worked until death, a thing of the past. Kim doesn’t exactly “love his people,” as Trump says. This issue is just as urgent as ending a nuclear program. Reports suggest Trump didn’t bring up human rights abuses.

I will say, however, that I am pleasantly surprised with what Vox described as a “shockingly weak” concession from the supposed tough guy: Trump said U.S.-South Korean military exercises would cease. Such exercises have always been stupid, near-suicidal acts of aggression on our part. People just don’t realize how close the U.S. has come to nuclear catastrophe, accidental or intentional, over shit like that since the beginning of the nuclear Cold War; it really–and obviously–escalates things…when you want to de-escalate things. So that, if it actually occurs, would be good. We could use less “toughness” in that and other regards. It’s also a good thing North Korea has publicly recommitted itself to doing away with its nukes (the U.S. should of course do the same), as unlikely as that is (being the only deterrent to U.S. invasion), and that Trump spoke of U.S. troops one day leaving South Korea. We just have to hope for the best with these talks; we want these awful, volatile men friendly. The main point is I’d rather have Trump and Kim frolicking arm-in-arm down the streets Pyongyang than threatening each other with nuclear destruction. The world is a safer place under those circumstances.

My Disillusionment With Social Justice Organizing in Kansas City

While originated with a rather different context, Elvis’ line “A little less conversation, a little more action, please” dances through my head when I reflect on the state of social justice organizing in Kansas City. The following thoughts come from observing, co-founding, and being employed by social justice groups here over the past few years. They represent my biggest concerns. As I will emphasize at the end, these problems don’t apply to all organizations nor are they always seen to the same degree.

First, many social justice groups focus heavily on events and gatherings where people simply sit around and talk. For some groups, this is literally all they do — either someone talking at the attendees, participants speaking with each other, or some combination of both. The primary purpose is education, raising awareness, whether concerning ideology, a social issue, an organization’s affairs, and so forth.

Now, this has value. Education, discussion, and perspective-taking are important and have value. But how much I somewhat question (especially speaking comparatively; see next section). The people who come to monthly meetings, community forums, panels, and so on are mostly going to be people who already care about whatever issue or ideology is being discussed, and thus already know something about it. It’s true, no one is ever done learning or listening; and it is further true that there will always be a few newcomers who don’t know anything about racism or socialism or what it means to have no healthcare. But most people who attend probably know a great deal about these things, through personal experience or study or earlier thought and discussion. One gets that impression by observation, at any rate. That’s why I suspect there are real limits to the value of these kinds of events due to the prior interest, knowledge, and worldview of most of the audience. That is not to say they should never be held! It’s simply to question why they should be the majority or totality of a group’s efforts.

Things worsen when these events grow repetitive. There are some organizations’ events I pop into every once in a while, and unfortunately confirm they’re basically the same thing every time. And having been on the planning side of things, I understand why, or at least one of the reasons why: you’re always thinking of the few newcomers. If you dive too deep into an education newcomers will get utterly lost, or at least you fear they will. So you end up sticking with the basics, and boring anyone who knows a bit about the issue.

Therefore, it’s easy to simply stop going to the gatherings of groups whose ideals you earnestly support. You may enjoy conversing with your friends and fellows, and hearing the perspectives of others, but in the end you may not feel you’re learning all that much, things may get repetitive and boring, and it dawns on you that while all this isn’t without value it’s not bringing about social change as speedily as other possibilities. Is sitting and talking really the best use of our time, energy, and money? All this is my experience, anyway. (I recently quit my job over this very issue; it gnawed at me for months, and finally one day I stood up at a conference of social justice groups in D.C., told everyone this was a waste of money and time that could have been better used, and walked out.)

There has to be something beyond sitting and talking. You have to give people who care about these issues something to do. But too often that isn’t coming; organizers and attendees pat themselves on the back as if they’ve accomplished something (I sense that white people at conversations on race especially feel like they’ve done something useful, alleviating their white guilt but not really bettering society much), then everyone starts preparing for the next monthly meeting.

Most importantly, the majority of what many organizations do does not confront power. Resources, time, and human energy poured into sitting and talking aren’t being poured into activities and tactics that put pressure on decision-makers, which does more good for society. Educating yourself and others is just Step One; it is just the first tool in the toolbox of social change. Then you actually get to work. Get out the vote for policies and candidates (if your organization legally can). Put your own initiatives on ballots. Harass the powerful in business and politics with petitions, messages, and calls. Boycott businesses. Protest and march outside workplaces and representatives’ offices. Go on strike, refusing to return to work until your demands are met. Engage in acts of civil disobedience: sit in and occupy your workplace or a political chamber, block streets as the powerful try to head to work, chain yourself to trees, and other illegal acts, facing down the risk of arrest or violence by police or bystanders. And you keep doing these things until you win. That’s how social movements succeed.

We need to shift from education to agitation. Imagine if instead of regular meetings, groups organized regular phonebanking, signature gathering, protesting, civil disobedience, and so forth. Imagine constant disruption on a host of issues. Imagine the impact. We should set specific, measurable goals (local control of the police for instance) and do those things until we win. As long as it takes.

We could combine agitation with service. We could raise money to help pay off people’s medical debts, help create strike funds for workers, organize volunteer efforts to clean up long-neglected neighborhoods, and other tangible ways of helping others. Such things don’t put pressure on power (though they can grow organizations, and solidarity among the people), and they address symptoms rather than the diseases agitation seeks to eradicate, but they’re better than sitting around.

I simply feel that some social justice organizations need to ask themselves: How much of what we do puts the pressure on? Is our money, energy, and time confronting corporate power, political power, police power? Why settle for just 5% or 10% of your activities actually pressuring someone? Why not make it 75% or 80%, and drive social change forward faster, doing more to better people’s lives?

True, some groups face obstacles. You may have very limited resources, making cheap meetings tempting. If you’re a 501(c)(3), you can’t support candidates. If you’re a grant-funded nonprofit, your energy may have to go into what is dictated by (oftentimes corporate) funders. See, what one may wish to do may not have a grant that will fund it; one then must do things according to grants that exist; the requirements to fulfill such grants may not do much good for anyone. It’s a systemic problem. But I nevertheless imagine most slow-moving groups could find some room to shift from education to agitation, despite the challenges. If the limit is 55, why go 25?

Finally, the Left is fractured, which helps no one. Often Kansas City’s communists, socialists, and anarchists are all at each other’s throats. Differences between anti-capitalist ideologies have led some groups to simply declare they’re never working with these other groups ever again. And of course the radical Left as a whole often refuses to work with liberal or center-left groups that aren’t anti-capitalist, even when they’re fighting for a number of identical or near-identical policies. The liberal and center-left groups naturally don’t want to be associated with radicals who carry red flags, wear black masks, and talk about revolution. Yes, there are limits to cooperation here (you’re not going to get some revolutionaries to get out the vote for anything or anyone), and that’s fine, but there are many areas where cooperation is possible but is not being pursued for fairly stupid reasons. It is vital to the future of social justice work, and the future of countless people, for groups to find common ground and stand there in solidarity with each other, despite stark or maddening differences that lie outside such ground.

These divisions are so great that some groups won’t attend any protest or other event unless it’s their own. Unless they’re brought on board as a sponsor, some organizations wouldn’t dream of promoting important actions and activities being conducted by others. It’s not ours, why would we? That’s the attitude, one I’ve wrestled with professionally. Perhaps we feel it makes our own organization seem less legitimate: less of a leader or less independent or less active. Perhaps it’s the fear of lack of reciprocity. We’re spreading the word about their stuff, why aren’t they doing the same for us? There should really be some sort of formal agreement of mutual support for actions and activities that relate to shared values. You don’t have to help organize and plan everything everyone else is doing; just advertise it to your networks to help drive turnout and involvement in confronting power. You don’t have to promote things or participate in things you disagree with, just those you do. That’s solidarity, right?

This article certainly isn’t meant to indict all organizations in Kansas City. There are some that focus their efforts on pressuring the powerful and work with anyone who agrees on the solutions to specific problems. It’s urgent others move in that direction. That’s how we can be most effective at changing society in positive ways and do work we can take pride in.

On Monday, June 11, 2018, I will again be arrested for an act of civil disobedience with Stand Up KC and the Poor People’s Campaign. The time for sitting and talking is over.

If you feel as I do, join us.

Yes, Evolution Has Been Proven

Evolution is a simple idea: that over time, lifeforms change. In a small timespan, changes are subtle yet noticeable; in a massive one, changes are shockingly dramatic — descendants look nothing like their ancestors, becoming what we call new species.

Changes occur when genes mutate during the imperfect reproduction process, and are passed on if the mutation helps an individual creature escape predators, find food or shelter, or attract a mate, allowing it to more successfully reproduce than individuals without its new trait (natural selection). Some mutations, of course, hurt chances of survival or have no impact at all.

Naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin provided evidence for this idea in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species and other works, and over the century and a half since, research in multiple fields has consistently confirmed Darwin’s idea, irreparably damaging religious tales of the divine creation of life just as it exists today.

  

The Myths of Man

While many people of faith have adopted scientific discoveries such as the age of the earth and evolution into their belief systems, many have not. Hardline Christian creationists still believe humans and all other life originated 6,000 years ago, with a “Great Flood” essentially restarting creation 4,000 years ago, with thousands of “kinds” of land animals (tens of thousands of species) rescued on Noah’s ark. 

The logical conclusion of the story is utterly lost on believers. There are an estimated 6.5 million species that live on land today, perhaps 8-16 million total species on Earth (that’s a conservative estimate; it could be 100 million, as most of our oceans remain unexplored). People have catalogued 2 million species, discovering tens of thousands more each year. Put bluntly, believing that in four millennia tens of thousands of species could become millions of species requires belief in evolution at a pace that would make Darwin laugh in your face.

To evolve the diversity of life we see today, much time was needed. More than 4,000 years, a planet older than 6,000 years. We know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old because radioactive isotopes in terrestrial rocks (and crashed meteors) decay at consistent rates, allowing us to count backward. Fossil distribution, modern flora and fauna distribution, and the shape of the continents first indicated the continents were once one, and satellites proved the continents are indeed moving apart from each other at two to four inches per year, again allowing us to count backward (Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne). When we do so, we do not stop counting in the thousands.

Naturally, criticisms of myths can be waved away with more magic, which is why it’s mostly futile to tear them apart, something I learned after wasting time doing so during my early writing days. Perhaps God decided to make new species after the flood. Perhaps he in fact made millions of species magically fit on a boat roughly the size of a football field, like a bag from Harry Potter. It’s the same way he got pairs of creatures on whole other continents to, and later from, the Middle East; how one family, through incest, rapidly evolved into multiple human races immediately after the flood (or did he make new human beings, too?); how a worldwide flood and the total destruction of every human civilization left behind no evidence. The power of a deity — and our imagination — can take care of such challenges to dogma. But it cannot eviscerate the evidence for evolution. Science is the true arrow in mythology’s heel.

Still, notions of intelligent design bring up many curious questions, such as why a deity would so poorly design, in identical ways, the insides of so many species (see below), why said deity would set up a world in which 99% of his creative designs would go extinct, and so on.

It seems high time we set aside ancient texts written by primitive Middle Eastern tribes and listened to what modern science tells us. And that’s coming from a former creationist.

 

It Wasn’t Just Darwin

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Charles Darwin, 1809-1882. via Britannica

Creationists attempt to discredit evolution by attacking the reliability and character of Darwin, but forget he was just one man. Darwin spent decades gathering the best evidence for evolution of his day, showed for the first time its explanatory powers across disciplines (from geography to embryology), and brought his findings to the masses with his accessible books. But there were many who came before him that deepened our and his understanding of where diverse life came from and how the biblical Earth wasn’t quite so young. For example:

  • In the sixth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Anaximander studied fossils and suggested life began with fishlike creatures in the oceans.
  • James Hutton argued in the 1700s that the age of the earth could be calculated based on an understanding of geologic processes like erosion and the laying down of sediment layers.
  • In 1809, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physical changes to an individual acquired during its life could be passed to offspring (a blacksmith builds strength in his arms…could that lead to stronger descendants?).
  • By the 1830s, Charles Lyell was putting Hutton’s ideas to work, measuring the rate at which sediments were laid, and counting backward to estimate Earth’s age.
  • Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather, suggested “all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament,” with “the power of acquiring new parts…delivering down those improvements by generation.”
  • Alfred Wallace theorized natural selection independently of and at the same time as Charles Darwin!

In other words, if it wasn’t Darwin it would have been Wallace. If not Wallace then someone else. Like gravity or the heliocentric solar system, the scientific truth of evolution could not remain hidden forever.

Creationists also seize upon Darwin’s unanswered questions and use them to argue he “disproved” or “doubted” the validity of his findings. For example, Darwin, in his chapter on “Difficulties of the Theory” in The Origin of Species, said the idea that a complex eye “could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.”

Emphasis on seems. He went on to say:

When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false… Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from an imperfect and simple eye to one perfect and complex, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever slightly varies, and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should ever be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, cannot be considered real.

In other words, the evolution of eye is possible and there is no real difficulty in supposing this given other evidence he had found. Darwin knew he was not the end of the line. He made predictions concerning future discoveries, and supposed that other scientists would one day show how eyes could develop from non-existence to simple lenses to complex eyes, as they indeed have. It began with cells that are more sensitive to light than others. Biologists believe, in the words of Michael Shermer (God Is Not Great, Hitchens), that there was

Initially a simple eyespot with a handful of light-sensitive cells that provided information to the organism about an important source of the light; it developed into a recessed eyespot, where a small surface indentation filled with light-sensitive cells provided additional data on the direction of light; then into a deep recession eyespot, where additional cells at greater depth provide more accurate information about the environment; then into a pinhole camera eye that is able to focus an image on the back of a deeply-recessed layer of light sensitive cells; then into a pinhole lens eye that is able to focus the image; then into a complex eye found in such modern mammals as humans.

Earth has creatures with no eyes, creatures with “a handful of light-sensitive cells,” and all the other stages of eye development, right up to our complex camera eye. Given this, there is no reason to believe the evolution of the eye is impossible. As creatures evolved from lower lifeforms, there were slight variations in their ability to detect light, which proved useful for many, which helped creatures survive, which passed on the variations to offspring. This is how life can go from simple to complex over the generations. See The Evidence for Evolution, Alan Rogers, pp. 37-49, for a detailed study.

While the natural process has yet to be observed by humans — it takes eons, after all — we are able to create computer models that mimic beneficial mutations. Dan-Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger at Lund University in Sweden, for instance, made a simulation wherein a group of light-sensitive cells on top of a retina experienced random mutations in the tissues around them. The computer was programmed to keep mutations that improved vision in any way, no matter how small. So when the tissue pulled backward, for example, forming a “cup” for the primitive eye, this was preserved because it was an improvement. After 1,829 mutations (400,000 years), the simulation had a complex camera eye (Coyne). Computer models are a great tool for showing how evolution works. Simulations aren’t programed to build something complex, only to follow the simple laws of natural selection. Check out Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins for more.

 

Strange Coincidences

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Homologous limbs. via University of California Museum of Paleontology

While the study of homologous structures is fascinating, most won’t impress creationists. Humans, bats, birds, whales, and other creatures all have a humerus, radius, ulna, carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges in their forelimbs, with simple variations in size and sometimes number, suggesting they are related via a common ancestor yet have changed, evolved. But the creationist can simply say a sensible deity created them with similar structures. 

Yet there are some coincidences and oddities that no serious person would call intelligent design, and in fact scream common ancestry.

Modern whales have tiny leg bones inside their bodies that are detached from the rest of the skeleton. We humans have three muscles under our scalps that allow some of use to wiggle our ears, which do nothing for our hearing but are the precise same muscles that allow other animals to turn their ears toward sounds. Goosebumps, now worthless, are vestiges of an era when our ancestors had fur. Our sinus cavities, behind our cheeks, have a drainage hole on top — our ancestors walked on all fours, and thus the location made sense, allowing better drainage. Cave salamanders have eyes but are totally blind. Koalas, which spend most of their time in trees, have pouches for their young that open up-side-down — their ancestors were diggers on the ground, so this was useful to protect young from dirt and rock thrown about, but now threatens to allow koala cubs to plunge from trees (The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins).

Even more astonishing, within the neck of Earth’s mammals, the vagus/recurrent laryngeal nerve, instead of simply going the short distance from your brain to your voicebox, extends from the brain, goes down into your chest, twists around your aortic arch by the heart, and then travels back up to the voicebox! It’s three times longer than necessary.

Incredibly, this same lengthy, senseless detour is found in other mammals, even the towering giraffe, in which it is fifteen to twenty feet longer than needed (see evolutionist Richard Dawkins cut one open and look here). In fish, which evolved earlier than us, the nerve connects the brain to the gills in a simple, straightforward manner (Coyne). This indicates our common ancestors with fish did not have this issue, but our common ancestors with other, later species did. As our mammalian ancestors evolved, the nerve was forced to grow around other developing, growing, evolving structures.

Human males have another interesting detour. As explained by Dawkins, the vans deferens, the tube that carries sperm from testes to penis, is also longer than necessary — and indeed caught on something. The vans deferens leaves the testes, travels up above the bladder and loops around the ureter like a hangar on a department store rack. It then finally finds its target, the seminal vesicle, which mixes secretions with the sperm. Then the prostate adds more secretions, finalizing the product (semen), which ejaculates via the urethra. The vans deferens could go straight to the seminal vesicle (under instead of around the bladder and ureter), but it doesn’t.

This same trait is found in other male mammals, like pigs. Creatures like fish again do not have this mess. Our ancestors had testes within the body, like many modern species, and as they descended toward the scrotum, toward the skin for cooler temperatures, the wiring got caught on the ureter. Perhaps one could see an intelligent (?) designer having to jam some things together to make them work — a detour for the van deferens here, another for the recurrent laryngeal nerve there — in one species. But in mammals across the board? How does that make more sense than all this being the imperfect byproduct of mindless evolution over time?    

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via Laryngopedia

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via Anatomy-Medicine

And it doesn’t end there. Vertebrates (species that have a backbone) like us happen to have eyes with retinas installed backward. Rogers writes:

The light-sensitive portion of the retina faces away from the light… The nerves, arteries, and blood vessels that serve each photocell are attached at the front rather than the back. They run across the surface of the retina, obscuring the view. To provide a route for this wiring, nature has poked a hole in the retina, which causes a substantial blind spot in each eye. You don’t notice these because your brain patches the image up, but that fix is only cosmetic. You still can’t see any object in the blind spot, even if it is an incoming rock.

But cephalopods (squid, octopi, and other advanced invertebrates) have a more sensible set-up, with wiring in the back (Rogers). Guess what kind of creature appeared on this planet first? Yes, the invertebrates. These coincidences and bad engineering suggest that as life evolved to be more complex there were greater opportunities for messy tangles of innards.

The best creationists can do is declare there are good reasons for these developments, that evolutionists “fail to demonstrate how this detour…disadvantages the male reproductive system” for example, which is completely beside the point. There were indeed biological reasons behind the development of these systems, which served as an advantage, not a hindrance (breaking the vans deferens or recurrent laryngeal nerve to let other organs grow and evolve would not be good for survival). The point is that if some species share this trait, it hints at a common ancestor.

So does embryology, the study of development in the womb. The field of genetics, which we explore further in the next section, helped us discover dead genes or pseudo genes in lifeforms. These are genes that are usually inactive but carry traits that, if developed, would be viewed as abnormal. In light of evolution it makes sense that we still have them. And sometimes dead genes wake up.

Humans have just under 30,000 genes, with over 2,000 of them pseudo genes. We have dead genes for growing tails, for instance. We all have a coccyx, four fused vertebrae that make up the end of our spine — four vertebrae that are larger and unfused in primates, thus being the base of their tails (Coyne). Not only are some humans born with an extensor coccygis, the muscle that moves the tail in primates but is worthless in us due to our vertebrae being fused, some people are born with a tail anywhere from one inch long to one foot! It has to be surgically removed.

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Arshid Ali Kahn, born in India in 2001, was worshiped as a reincarnation of the Hindu monkey god Hunaman. He had his tail removed in 2015. via Mirror

In fact, all human embryos begin with a fishlike tail, which is reabsorbed into the body around week seven. We develop a worthless yolk sac that is discarded by month two, a vestige of reptilian ancestors that laid eggs containing a fetus nourished with yolk. We develop three kidneys, the first resembling that of fish, the second resembling that of reptiles; these are also discarded, leaving us with our third, mammalian version. From month six to eight, we are totally covered in a coat of hair (lanugo) — primates develop their hair at the same stage, only they keep it. These marvels exist in other life, too. Horse embryos begin with three-toed hooves, then drop to one; they descended from creatures with more than just one toe. Occasionally, a horse is born with more than one hoof, or toe, on each foot (polydactyl horse), similar to its ancestors. Birds carry the genes necessary to grow teeth, minus a single vital protein; they descended from reptiles with teeth. Dolphin and whale embryos have hindlimb buds that vanish later; baleen whale embryos begin to develop teeth, then discard them (Coyne).

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Premature infants still have some of their lanugo coat. They will soon lose it. via Mipediatra

Quite interesting that God would give us genes to grow tails and fur.

Our fetal development, you likely noticed, actually mimics the evolutionary sequence of humanity. This is most noticeably true with our circulatory system, which first resembles that of fish, then that of amphibians, then that of reptiles, then finally develops into our familiar mammalian circulatory system (Coyne). Strange coincidences indeed.

But there are more. As one would expect if evolution occurred, fossils of creatures found in shallower rock more closely resemble species living today; fossils found in deeper, older sedimentary layers are more different than modern life. This pattern has never been broken by any fossil discovery, and supports Darwin’s idea (Coyne).

Similarly, consider islands. The species found on islands consistently resemble those on the nearest continent. This at first does not sound surprising, as one would predict that life (usually birds, insects, and plant seeds) that colonized islands would do so from the closest landmass. But the key word is “resemble.” What we typically see are a few species native to a continent (the ancestors) and an explosion of similar species on the nearby islands (the descendants). Hawaii has dozens of types of honeycreepers (finches) and half the world’s 2,000 types of Drosophila fruit flies; Juan Fernandez and St. Helena are rich in different species of sunflower; the Galapagos islands have 14 types of finches; 75 types of lemurs, living or extinct, have been documented on Madagascar, and they are found nowhere else; New Zealand has a remarkable array of flightless birds; and Australia has all the world’s marsupials, because the first one evolved there. To the evolutionist, a tight concentration of similar species on islands (and individual islands having their own special species) is the result of an ancestral explorer from a nearby landmass whose descendants thrived in a new environment unprepared for them (a habitat imbalance), reproducing and evolving like crazy. Thus a finch on a continent has a great number of finch cousins on nearby islands — like her but not the same species (Coyne). Darwin himself, still a creationist at the time, was shocked by the fact that each island in the Galapagos, most in sight of each other, had a slightly different type of mockingbird (Rogers).

To the creationist, God simply has an odd affinity for overkill on islands.

 

Shared DNA

In the 20th century, geneticists like Theodosius Dobzhansky synthesized Darwin’s theory with modern genetics, showing how the random, natural mutation of genes during the copying of DNA changes the physiology of lifeforms (should that altered state help a creature survive, it will be passed on to offspring). The study of DNA proved once and for all that Darwin was right. By mapping the genetic code of Earth’s lifeforms, scientists determined — and continue to show — that all life on Earth shares DNA.

DNA is passed on through reproduction. You get yours from your parents. You share more DNA with your parents and siblings than you do with your more distant relatives. In the same way, humans share more DNA with some living things than with others. We share 98% with chimps, 85% with zebra fish, 36% with fruit flies, and 15% with mustard grass. By share, we mean that 98% of DNA base pairs (adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) are in the precise same spot in human DNA compared to chimp DNA. (These four nucleobases can be traded between species. There is no difference between them — we’re all made of the same biochemical stuff.) 

It is not surprising that creatures similar to us (warm-blooded, covered in hair, birth live young, etc.) are closer relatives than less similar ones. Evolutionary biologists used to use appearance and behaviors (such as gills or reproductive method) to suppose creatures were related, like the trout and the shark or the gorilla and the human being. But DNA now confirms the observations, as trout DNA is more similar to shark DNA than, say, buffalo DNA, and gorilla DNA is more similar to human DNA than, say, fruit fly DNA. 

But all life shares DNA, no matter how different (for a deeper analysis, see Rogers pp. 25-31, 86-92). That simple truth proves a common forefather. A god would not have to make creations with chimp and human DNA nearly the same, all the nucleobases laid out in nearly the same order; why do so, unless to suggest that evolution is true? When mapped out by genetic similarity, we see exactly what Darwin envisioned: a family tree with many different branches, all leading back to a common ancestor.  

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Our tree of life. Click link in text above to zoom. via Evogeneao

 

Transitional Forms

Darwin predicted we would find fossils of creatures with transitional characteristics between species, for example showing how lifeforms moved from water to land and back again. Unfortunately, the discovery of such fossils has done nothing to end the debate over evolution. 

For instance, as transitional fossils began to accumulate, it became even more necessary to attack scientific findings on Earth’s age. If you can keep the Earth young, evolution has no time to work and can’t be true. So, as mentioned, creationists insist radiometric dating is flawed. Rocks cannot be millions of years old, thus the fossils encased within them cannot either. This amounts to nothing more than a denial of basic chemistry. Rocks contain elements, whose atoms contain isotopes that decay into something else over time at constant rates. So we can look at an isotope and plainly see how close it is to transformation. We know the rate, and thus can count backward. If researchers only had a single isotope they used, perhaps creationist would have a prayer at calling this science into question. But rubidium becomes stronium. Uranium changes to lead, potassium to argon, samarium to neodymium, rhenium to osmium, and more (see Rogers pp. 73-80 to explore further). This is something anyone devote study to, grab some rocks, and measure themselves. All creationists can do is say we aren’t positive that “the decay rate has remained constant”! Can you imagine someone saying that during Isaac Newton’s time gravity’s acceleration wasn’t 9.8 meters per second squared? Anyone can make stuff up!

(You’ll find most denials of evolution rest on denials or misunderstandings of the most basic scientific principles. Some creationists insist evolution is false because it betrays the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the energy available for work in a closed system will decrease over time — that things fall apart. So how could simple mechanisms become more complex? How could life? What they forget is that the Earth’s environment is not a closed system. The sun provides a continuous stream of new energy. Similarly, some believe in “irreducible complexity,” the idea that complex systems with interconnected parts couldn’t evolve because one part would have no function until another evolved, therefore the first part would never arise, and thus neither could the complex system. But the “argument from complexity” fails per usual. [Other arguments, such as the “watchmaker” and “747” analogies, are even worse. Analogy is one of the weakest forms of argument because it inappropriately pretends things must be the same. No, a watch cannot assemble itself. That does not mean life does not evolve. Analogies fighting evidence are always doomed.] Biologists have discovered that parts can first be used for other tasks, as was determined for the bacterial flagellum, the unwise centerpiece of creationist Michael Behe’s skepticism. Independent parts can evolve to work together on new projects later on. Rogers writes:

Many hormones fit together in pairs like a lock and key. What good is the lock without the key? How can one evolve before the other? Jamie Bridgham and his colleagues studied one such pair and found that the key evolved first — if formerly interacted with a different molecule. They even worked out the precise mutations that gave rise to the current lock-and-key interaction.

A part of this process is sometimes scaffolding, where parts that helped form a complex system disappear, leaving the appearance that the system is too magical to have arisen. The scaffolding required to build our bridges and other structures is the obvious parallel.)

Let’s consider the fossils humanity has found. Tiktaalik was a fish with transitional structures between fins and legs. “When technicians dissected its pectoral fins, they found the beginnings of a tetrapod hand, complete with a primitive version of a wrist and five fingerlike bones… [It] falls anatomically between the lobe-finned fish Panderichthys [a fish with amphibian-like traits], found in Latvia in the 1920s, and primitive tetrapods like Acanthostega [an amphibian with fish-like traits], whose full fossil was recovered in Greenland not quite two decades ago.” Tiktaalik had both lungs protected by a rib cage and gills, allowing it to breath in air and water, like the West African lungfish and other species today. Its fossil location was actually predicted, as researchers knew the age and freshwater environment such a missing link would have to appear in (Coyne).

Ambulocetus had whale-esque flippers with toes (Rodhocetus is similar). Pezosiren was just like a modern manatee but had developed rear legs. Odontochelys semitestacea was an aquatic turtle with teeth. Darwinius masillae had a mix of lemur traits and monkey traits. Sphecomyrma freyi had features of both wasps and ants. Archeopteryx was more bird-like than other feathered dinosaurs (that’s feathered reptiles), yet not quite like modern birds. Its asymmetrical feathers suggest it could fly. The Microraptor gui, a dinosaur with feathered arms and legs, could likely glide. Other featured dinosaurs were found fossilized sleeping with their head tucked under their forearm or sleeping on a nest of eggs, just like modern birds (Coyne; see also Dawkins pp. 145-180).

Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and many more species had increasingly modern human characteristics. Less and less like a primate, closer and closer to modern Homo sapiens. Fossils indicate increasing bipedality (walking upright on two legs), smaller jaws and teeth, increasingly arching feet, larger brains, etc.

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A: chimp skull. B-N: transitional species from pre-human to modern human. via Anthropology

It doesn’t stop there, of course. Evolution can been seen in both the obvious and minuscule differences between species.

See for example “From Jaw to Ear” (2007) and “Evolution of the Mammalian Inner Ear and Jaw” (2013). It was theorized that three important bones of a mammal’s ear — the hammer, anvil, and stirrup — were originally part of the jaw of reptilian ancestors (before mammals existed). In modern mammals there is no connecting bone between the jaw and the three inner-ear bones, but if there was an evolution from reptilian jaw bone to mammalian inner-ear bone, fossils should show transitional forms. And they do: paleontologists have found fossils of early mammals where the same bones are used for hearing and chewing, as well as fossils where the jaw bones and inner-ear bones are still connected by another bone.

Creationists have a difficult time imagining how species could evolve from those without wings to those with, from those that live on land to water-dwellers, from aquatic lifeforms back to land lovers, and so on, because they believe intermediary, transitional traits would be no good at all, could not help a creature survive. “What good is half a wing?”

Yet today species exist that show how transitional traits serve creatures well. Various mammals, marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects glide. It is easy to envision how reptiles could have evolved gliding traits followed by powered flight over millions of years. Or consider creatures like hippos, which are closely related to and look like terrestrial mammals but spend almost all their days underwater, only coming ashore occasionally to graze. They mate and give birth underwater, and are even sensitive to sunburn. Give it eons, and couldn’t such species change bit by bit to eventually give up the land completely? The closest living genetic relative to whales are in fact hippos (Coyne). And finally, what of the reverse? What of ocean creatures that head to land?Crocodiles can gallop like mammals (up-down spine flexibility) as well as walk like lizards (right-left spine flexibility; see Dawkins). The mangrove rivulus, the walking catfish, American eels, West African lungfish, four-eyed fish, snakeheads, grunions, killifish, the anabas, and other species leave the waters and come onto land for a while, breathing oxygen in the air through their skin or even lungs, flopping or slithering or squirming or walking to a new location to find mates, food, or safety. Why is it so difficult to imagine a species spending a bit more time on land with each generation until it never returns to the water?

“Half a wing” is not a thing. There are only traits that serve a survival purpose in the moment, like membranes between limbs for gliding. Traits may develop further, they may remain the same, they may eventually be lost, all depending on changes in the environment over time. Environment (food sources, mating options, predators, habitability) drive evolutionary changes differently for all species. That’s natural selection. When some members of a species break away from the rest (due to anything from mudslides to migration to mountain range formation), they find themselves in new environments and evolve differently than their friends they left behind. Coyne writes, “Each side of the Isthmus of Panama, for example, harbors seven species of snapping shrimp in shallow waters. The closest relative of each species is another species on the other side.” Species can change a little or change radically, unrecognizably, but either way they can be called a new species — in fact, unable to reproduce with their long-lost relatives, because their genes have changed too greatly. That’s speciation.

There is no question that the fossil record starts with the simplest organisms and, as it moves forward in time, ends with the most complex and intelligent — all beginning in the waters but not staying there. Single-cell organisms before multicellular life. Bacteria before fungi, protostomes before fish, amphibians before reptiles, birds before human beings.

If they wish, creationists can believe the fossil record reflects the chosen sequence of a logical God, even if it does not support the Judeo-Christian creation story (in which birds appear on the same “day” as creatures that live in water, before land animals; the fossil record shows amphibians, reptiles, and mammals appearing before birds — and modern whales, being descendants of land mammals, don’t appear until later still, until after birds, just 33 million years ago). Yet they must face the evidence and contemplate what it indicates: that a deity created fish, then later fish with progressively amphibious features, then later amphibians; that he created reptiles, then later reptiles with progressively bird-like features, then birds; and so forth. No discovery has ever contradicted the pattern of change slowly documented since Darwin. God is quite the joker, laying things out, from fossils to DNA, in a neat little way to trick humans into thinking we evolved from simpler forms (note: some creationists actually believe this).

Yes, the believer can simply claim these were all their own species individually crafted by God, with no ancestors or descendants who looked or acted any different. The strange fact that we have birds that cannot fly and mammals in the oceans that need to come up to the surface for air doesn’t engage the kind of critical thinking one might hope for. It’s all just a creative deity messing with animals!

 

Watching Evolution Occur

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Renee, an albino kangaroo at Namadgi National Park, Australia. via Telegraph

Most creationists are in fact quite close to accepting evolution as true.

First, they accept that genes mutate and can change an individual creature’s appearance. They know, for instance, about color mutations. We’re talking albinism, melanism, piebaldism, chimeras, erythristics, and so on.

Second, most creationists accept what they call “microevolution”: mutations help individuals survive and successfully reproduce, passing on the mutation, changing an entire species generation by generation in small ways, but of course not creating new species. They accept that scientists have observed countless microevolutionary changes: species like tawny owls growing browner as their environments see less snowfall, Trinidad guppies growing larger, maturing slower, and reproducing later when predators are removed from their environments, green anole lizards in Florida developing larger toepads with more scales to escape invaders, and more, all within years or decades. They understand evolution is how some insects adapt to pesticides and some viruses, like HIV and TB, adapt to our vaccines over time, and how we human beings can create new viruses in the lab. They acknowledge that humanity is responsible, through artificial selection, or selective breeding, for creating so many breeds of dogs with varying appearances, sizes, abilities, and personalities (notice the greyhound, bred for speed by humans, closely resembles the cheetah, bred for speed by natural selection). In the same way, we’ve radically changed crops like corn and farm animals like turkeys (who are now too large to have sex), and derived cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts from a single ancestral plant, to better sate our appetites, simply by selecting individuals with traits we favor and letting them reproduce.

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Wild banana (below) vs. artificially selected banana. via NBC News

The evidence presented thus far should push open-minded thinkers toward the truth, but for those still struggling to make the jump from microevolution to evolution itself, we are not done yet. The resistance is understandable given that small changes can easily be observed in the lab or nature, but large changes require large amounts of time — thousands, millions of years — and thus we mostly (but not entirely) have to rely on the evidence from DNA, fossils, embryology, and so on. Here are some points of perspective that can bridge the gap between small changes and big ones.

1. Little changes add up. If you accept microevolution, you accept that species can evolve to be smaller or bigger, depending on what helps them survive and reproduce. Scott Carroll studied soapberry bugs in the U.S. and observed some colonizing bigger soapberry bushes than normal; he predicted they would also grow larger, as larger individuals would be more successful at reaching fruit seeds. Over the course of a few decades, the bugs’ “beak” length grew 25%. That’s significant. Now imagine what could theoretically be done with more time. As Coyne writes, “If this rate of beak evolution was sustained over only ten thousand generations (five thousand years), the beaks would increase in size by a factor of roughly five billion…able to skewer a fruit the size of the moon.” This is unlikely to happen, but shows how little changes later yield dramatic results. Imagine traits other than size — all possible traits you can think of — changing at the same time and evolution doesn’t sound so impossible.

2. Genes are genes. This relates closely to the point above. If some genes can mutate, why can’t others? Genes determine everything about every creature. People who believe in microevolution accept that genes for size or color can change, but not genes for where your eyes are, whether you’re warm- or cold-blooded, whether you have naked skin or a thick coat of fur, whether you have a hoof or a hand, and so on. But there is no scientific basis whatsoever for this dichotomy of the possible. It’s simply someone claiming “These genes can mutate but not these, end of story” to protect the idea of intelligent design. Genes are genes. They are all simply sequences of nucleotides. As far as we know, no gene is safe from mutation.

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Octogoat, a goat with eight legs, born in Kutjeva, Croatia. via ABC News

3. Mutations can be huge. We’ve seen how humans can have tails, but we also see “lobster claw hands,” rapid aging, extra limbs, conjoined twins, and other oddities. Consider other mutations: snakes with two heads, octopi with only six tentacles, ducks with four legs, cats with too many toes. For the common fruit fly, the antennapedia mutation will mean you get legs where your antenna are supposed to be! Dramatic mutations are possible. Survival is possible. Passing on new, weird traits is possible. With evolution, sometimes groups with new traits totally displace and eliminate the ancestral groups; sometimes they live side-by-side going forward. If you came across a forest and discovered one area was occupied by two-headed snakes and another by single-headed snakes, all other traits being the same, wouldn’t you be tempted to call them different species? Declare something new had arisen on Earth?

4. We are currently watching evolution occur. Scientists have observed speciation. They’ve taken insects, worms, and plants, put small groups of them in abnormal environments for many generations, and then seen they can no longer reproduce with cousins in the normal environments because they have evolved. It’s easy to create new species of fruit flies in particular because their generations are so short. Evolution for other species is typically much slower, but significant changes are being observed.

Say you were instead on the African Savanna and came upon two groups of elephants. They are the same but for one startling difference: one group has no tusks. Like two-headed snakes, what a bold difference in appearance! Should we classify them as different species or the same? (Technically, they aren’t different species if they can still reproduce offspring together, but in the moment you aren’t sure.) Well, African elephants are increasingly being born without tusks. After all, those without are less likely to be killed by poachers for ivory. This is natural selection at work. Could not a changing environment and millions of years change more? Size, color, skin texture, hair, skeletal layout, teeth, and all other possible traits determined by all other genes?

Next, take a remarkable experiment involving foxes launched by Dmitry Belyaev and Lyudmila Trut in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, which Trut is still running to this day. No, we can’t watch a species for 500,000 years to see dramatic evolution in action. But 60 years gives us something.

At the time, biologists were puzzled as to how dogs evolved to have different coats than wolves, since they couldn’t figure out how the dogs could have inherited those genes from their ancestors. Belyaev saw silver foxes as a perfect opportunity to find out how this happened. Belyaev believed that the key factor that was selected for was not morphological (physical attributes), but was behavioral. More specifically, he believed that tameness was the critical factor.

In other words, Belyaev wanted to see if foxes would undergo changes in appearance if they evolved different behaviors. So Belyaev and Trut set about taming wild silver foxes.

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Wild silver fox. via Science News

They took their first generation of foxes (which were only given a short time near people) and simply allowed the least aggressive to breed. They repeated this with every generation. They had a control group that was not subjected to selective breeding.

The artificial selection of course succeeded for fox behavior. They became much more open to humans, whining for attention, licking them, wagging their tails when happy. But there was more:

A much higher proportion of experimental foxes had floppy ears, short or curly tails, extended reproductive seasons, changes in fur coloration, and changes in the shape of their skulls, jaws, and teeth. They also lost their “musky fox smell.”

Spotted coats began to appear. Trut wrote that skeletal changes included shortened legs and snouts as well. Belyaev said they started to sound more like dogs (Dawkins). Geneticists are now seeking to isolate the genes related to appearance that changed when selectively breeding for temperament.

Belyaev was right. And his foxes, through evolution, came to look more and more like dogs. This is the same kind of path that some wolves took when they evolved into dogs (less aggressive wolves would be able to get closer to humans, who probably started feeding them, aiding survival; tameness increased and physical changes went with it).

If such changes can occur in just 60 years, imagine what evolution could do with a hundred million years.

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Dr. Lyudmila Trut with domesticated silver fox. via WXXI

 

In the Beginning

It’s true, scientists are still unsure how life first arose on Earth. And because it is an enduring mystery without hard evidence, scientists with hypotheses and speculations openly acknowledge this. Note that’s a big difference compared to evolution, which scientists speak confidently about due to the wealth of evidence.

But one professor at MIT believes that far from being unlikely, nonliving chemicals becoming living chemicals was inevitable.

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat… When a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

Researchers have discovered lipids, proteins, and amino acids beneath the seafloor, suggesting the chemical interaction between the mantle and seawater could produce the building blocks of life. From there, time and proper conditions could give rise to the first self-replicating molecule. Evolution would then continue on, spending billions of years developing the diverse flora and fauna we see today (a single cell leading to complex life under the right conditions should not be so shocking; as J.B.S. Haldane said, “You did it yourself. And it only took you nine months”).

Determining precisely how the first cell arose is the next frontier of evolutionary biology, and it is exciting to be here to witness the journey of discovery. New findings and experiments will wipe away “watchmaker” arguments used against the first cell. They will once again crush the “God gap,” the bad habit of the faithful to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge with divine explanations. I imagine in our lifetime someone will successfully complete Stanley Miller’s famous 1950s experiment, in which he tried to recreate the Earth’s early conditions and create life itself.

Yet lack of knowledge concerning the beginning of life in no way hurts the case for evolution. Evolution is proven, as definitively as whether the earth orbits the sun.

The Scope of False Sexual Assault Allegations

When conservatives are confronted by the rise of a “liberal” cause, many find and point to a small problem in order to discredit or divert attention from the immense problem liberals are attacking.

It’s an unhealthy mix of the whataboutism fallacy (citing wrongs of the opposing side instead of addressing the point) and the false equivalence fallacy (describing situations as equivalent [I’ll add “in scope”] when they are not). We observe this during talk on racial violence, when many conservatives pretend hate crimes against whites are just as common as hate crimes against people of color; see “On Reverse Racism.”

Lately, the fallacy was on full display as high-profile men across the country were accused of sexual assault and harassment, many fired or urged to resign. In this frenzy of allegations, some Americans see and cheer a surge in bravery and collective solidarity among victims inspired by each other and seeking justice, while others see and decry a male “witch hunt,” with evil women growing more bold about their lies, perhaps on the George Soros payroll. Where you land is a fairly decent predictor of your political views. Who was accused also determined for many which women to believe, with some conservatives supporting Republican Roy Moore through his rape of underage girls scandal but attacking Democrat Al Franken’s groping of women. Sadly, some liberals did the reverse. I know I witnessed a left-leaning acquaintance or two trying to discredit accusations against Franken, that he publicly apologized for, by slandering the victims. Still, it is typically conservatives (often sexually frustrated men) who, when they encounter liberals talking about rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and so forth, bring up false rape accusations.

One comment on a mediocre article Men’s Health shared on how to make sure you have consent from a woman typified this. There were of course countless like it, many poorly written: “And remember if she regrets it the next day you’re still fucked”; “I bring my attorney and a notary on all dates and hook ups”; “There’s no such thing as consent anymore, it’s a witch hunt. Just say no gentleman”; “Don’t forget guys… If you have drank 12 drinks and she has 1 sip of beer…… You raped her.” And still more angry with the article’s existence: “Men’s health turning into click bate leftist agenda”; “Did a feminist write this?”; “Did a woman write this?” It’s sad consent is a liberal, feminist scheme. But this comment got much attention and support, likely because people found it thoughtful and measured for some odd reason:

This is a touchy subject. Yes, respect women—We all know that. Have a woman’s consent—Yes, we all know that. Do not rape or sexually assault a woman—Yes we all know that. We respect the rules. However, there are some women that exploit and take advantage of the rules. It’s sad to say, there are some out there that falsely accuse a man of rape or sexual assault—ruining their lives. Being a man in today’s era, I’m afraid to ask a woman on a date. I feel sometimes a man needs a contract just to protect himself. Yes, this might sound objectionable and supercilious—but you can’t be too careful nowadays. We live in a different time now. Men: We need to change our attitudes and treatment of women. However, it’s okay that we protect ourselves—and we shouldn’t be demonized or vilified for doing so. I don’t want to be viewed or portrayed as the enemy, nor be apologetic for being a man.

An amusing writing. “We all know” not to rape, assault, or harass women? If the collective male “we” legitimately “knew,” such things would be a thing of the past and a primer on consent unnecessary. “We live in a different time” where men are “afraid to ask a woman on a date”! If you’re going to “protect” yourself in some way, you wouldn’t be “demonized” for actually getting consent in some formal sense; only if you used illegal and unethical methods to “protect” yourself, like the secret filming of sex. And where are these women asking men to apologize for being a men, rather than for specific behaviors or attitudes that make them uncomfortable, scared, unsafe, or physically violated?

This is a perfect example of the fallacy above. “Men sexually assault women and shouldn’t, but what about the women who make false accusations?” The latter part is clearly his main concern — he didn’t stop by to condemn rapists, he came with another purpose. They may not intend to or even realize it (some do), but when men (or women) do this they position false reports as a problem of the same significance or nearing the same significance as actual sex crimes. As if the scope, the prevalence, is comparable. That’s what taking a conversation on consent and redirecting it to one of false accusations does. It says, “This is what’s important. It’s what we should be talking about.” It’s like bringing up asthma when everyone’s discussing lung cancer. It deflects attention away from a problem that is much more severe. It’s a subtle undermining of the credibility of rape victims. It’s not wrong to discuss small problems, of course, but they should always be kept in perspective. It’s my view that comments about hate crimes against whites or false accusations against men that don’t include the enormous asterisks that these are minuscule percentages of overall hate and sex crimes should never have been uttered at all. In that way, we can think about others first. We can protect the credibility of real victims. We can remain rooted in the facts — not imply a small problem is large, or vice versa. Naturally, including those caveats undermines the usual function of bringing up these issues, but no matter.

Yes, lying about sex crimes in an issue that exists. Yes, there should be some legal punishment for such an immoral act (not anywhere near the punishment for sexual assault and harassment, obviously, because these are not in any way morally equivalent crimes). Yes, people are innocent until proven guilty, which is why men are safe from prison until they see their day in court, even if they face social consequences like losing a job due to presumed guilt — which you can oppose on ethical grounds, but not so stable ground as you would hope, especially when a man is accused by a coworker, family member, or someone else in close proximity. Is it most ethical to oppose a firing until a trial and risk keeping a rapist around the workplace? Putting others in danger? Forcing a victim to clock in next to him each day? Or is it most ethical to fire him and risk tearing down the life of an innocent man? It’s an unpleasant dilemma for any employer, university administrator, or whomever, but ethically there’s not much question. One risk is far graver, thus the answer is simple. This only grows more axiomatic when we acknowledge the likelihood of events.

The prevalence of proven false accusations of sexual assault is somewhere between 2% and 8% of cases. The National Sexual Violence Research Center documents a 2006 study of 812 cases that found 2.1% were false reports, while a 2009 study of 2,059 cases and a 2010 study of 136 cases estimated 7.1% and 5.9%, respectively. Research from 2017 revealed a 5% false claim rate for rape. The Making a Difference Project, using data from 2008, estimates 6.8%. These numbers are mirrored in prior American decades and in similar countries. While we can acknowledge that some innocent people in prison never see justice, are never set free, since 1989 there have only been 52 men released from prison after it was determined their sexual assault charges were based on lies. This compared to 790 murder exonerations; the number of people in state prisons for murder vs. sexual assault/rape is about the same (though the former crime is far less common than the latter), making the low exoneration rate for sex crime convictions all the more significant.

Myriad definitions of both “false report” and “sexual assault” make the precise percentage difficult to nail down, and these statistics only address proven false reports (there are many cases in limbo, as conservative writers are quick to point out), but this research gives us a general idea. Reports of high percentages of false claims are typically not academic studies or have rather straightforward explanations, for example when Baltimore’s “false claim” rate plunged from 31% to under 2% when the police actually went through some training and “stopped the practice of dismissing rapes and sexual assaults on the scene”! It’s remarkable how legitimate investigations and peer-reviewed research can bring us closer to the truth.

In other words, when observing any sexual misconduct scandal, there is an extremely high chance the alleged victim is telling the truth. This is why we believe women. This is why they should be given the benefit of the doubt, not accused men. It’s why the moral dilemma for employers and the like is hardly one at all. Were precisely 50% of sexual assault allegations lies, it would still be most ethical to take the risk of firing a good man rather than the risk of keeping a predator around. But since women are most always telling the truth? Well, the decision is that much easier and ethical.

In the U.S., there are some 321,500 rapes and sexual assaults per year, and 90% of adult victims are women (you’ve probably noticed how “men are raped too” is used in a similar manner to all this). One in six women are rape or attempted rape survivors. For every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators (99%) will never go to prison.

Just How Bad is American Poverty?

“I was already It, whatever It was,” Jack London wrote in 1905, “and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist.” He continued, in his essay entitled “How I Became a Socialist,” by declaring:

Since that day I have opened many books, but no economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom.[1]

Huge numbers of people fall into the pit of poverty, which can be very difficult to escape. It is certainly not a mere 15% of Americans or thereabouts, as the government’s outdated “poverty line” would have it (the threshold for a single person is $11,500 a year, as if someone making $12,000 isn’t poor). In reality, 48% of Americans live in poverty or near-poverty.[2] This is expected, as 40% of U.S. workers made under $15 an hour in 2015 and 50% of all jobs in the U.S. paid $34,000 annually or less in 2013.[3] Though it varies slightly by state, $34,000 is about $24,000 after taxes, or about $2,000 in take-home pay a month. If you make minimum wage, you earn just over $1,100 a month if working full-time. Meanwhile, the median cost of rent is about $1,000 and climbing.

56% of citizens have less than $1,000 in the bank, and one in three families have no savings at all.[4] Individuals making low wages must spend everything or nearly everything they make on groceries, electricity, water, rent, and gas or bus fare right away. If anything can be saved, it is often wiped out by the typical hurdles of life that better-off people consider mere annoyances, such as broken down cars or doctor’s visits. 77% of Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck.[5] Millions have negative wealth due to loans, negative equity on homes after the 2008 housing crash, and so on.[6] Even when the economy is doing well, millions remain unemployed.

The work of the poor is often unfulfilling, unpleasant, even humiliating or dangerous. Many work long hours — 65, 70, 75 or more a week — or multiple jobs to make ends meet, seeing their loved ones infrequently. While they work, their children attend inferior schools (school funding is based on property taxes), often experiencing low-quality teachers, crumbling facilities, overcrowded classes, and a lack of books, supplies, and physical and mental healthcare. “I want to be able to go to school and not have to worry about being bitten by mice, being knocked out by the gases, being cold in the rooms,” a Detroit student, Wisdom Morales, said in 2016. Poverty actually damages mental abilities and mental health in children and adults alike.

The life expectancy of the poor is over a decade shorter than the rich, due to worse health.[7] Factors include unhealthy food being most affordable, unhealthy air and environments, stress and depression, smoking, lack of healthcare, and so on. Many low-income people have to live in dilapidated apartments or houses infested with roaches, mice and feces, rot, and mold, sometimes without heating or air conditioning.[8] If you have a month where you can’t pay a utility bill, your water or electricity is immediately cut off. If you can’t pay rent, you are evicted.

Almost 50 million Americans rely on food stamps.[9] Even U.S. soldiers spend tens of millions worth of food stamps each year.[10] 65% of us will use welfare, help we must qualify for, at some point in our lives to get by.[11] There exists a population of 1.5 million households that live on $2 a day—Third World levels—due to unemployment, reduced hours, lack of knowledge concerning welfare programs, etc.[12] Some in these households sell themselves for sex, sell plasma, or sell scrap metal to survive.

Persons with disabilities have no minimum wage protection, and can make under $1 per hour.

Each year, 3.5 million people will experience homelessness at some point (while 18.5 million homes stand empty, waiting for citizens who can afford them). 23% are children; about 10% are veterans; over 40% are disabled; 20-25% suffer from mental illness; most homeless women are domestic abuse victims.[13] The homeless suffer humiliation, from being denied service at businesses due to appearance to cities criminalizing begging, loitering, and sleeping in public places or even private vehicles.[14] Benches and sidewalks are redesigned, at times with spikes, to drive away the homeless looking for rest.[15] When the temperature drops, homeless people die outside.

The percentage of workers over 65 doubled since 1985, partly due to the elderly not having enough money to retire and Social Security payments being too dismal to live on.[16] What kind of society allows its elderly to live in poverty? Or its children? One in four U.S. children are food insecure, meaning missing meals or malnourished with cheap, unhealthy food – ketchup sandwiches, for instance.[17] Anastasia Basil remembered:

I’d come home from high school and there’d be nothing in the fridge but a bottle of red wine vinegar and a head of lettuce. On the counter, there’d be a bag of potatoes and a bottle of olive oil from the Dollar Store. That was dinner, potatoes and lettuce.

In the wealthiest nation on earth, children of the poor go to school with extremely painful rotting or impacted teeth.[18] Education activist Jonathon Kozol, in Savage Inequalities, wrote of the slums of East St. Louis:

As in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, dental problems also plague the children here. Although dental problems don’t command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I have interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They go to school with it.

Sometimes their teachers are alarmed and try to get them to a clinic. But it’s all so slow and heavily encumbered with red tape and waiting lists and missing, lost or canceled welfare cards, that dental care is often long delayed. Children live for months with pain that grown-ups would find unendurable. The gradual attrition of accepted pain erodes their energy and aspiration. I have seen children in New York with teeth that look like brownish, broken sticks. I have also seen teen-agers who were missing half their teeth. But, to me, most shocking is to see a child with an abscess that has been inflamed for weeks and that he has simply lived with and accepts as part of the routine of life. Many teachers in the urban schools have seen this. It is almost commonplace.

With low wages and no health insurance, seeing the dentist is a luxury.

Among advanced democracies, the U.S. has the highest rates of poverty, and is among the highest for infant mortality, among the lowest for life expectancy, living standards for the poorest among us, and wages (see A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare).

“As for the unfortunates, the sick, and ailing, and old, and maimed, I must confess I hardly thought of them at all [early on],” London wrote. “My joyous individualism was dominated by the orthodox bourgeois ethics.” But he experienced economic hardship personally, and travelled throughout America and Canada listening to people “all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses.” He continued:

And as I listened my brain began to work. The woman of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat… Just as I had been an individualist without knowing it, I was now a Socialist without knowing it… I had been reborn…

 

 

Notes

[1] “How I Became a Socialist,” Jack London

[2] Half of U.S. Poor or Low-IncomeCBS

[3] http://www.thenation.com/article/almost-half-of-all-american-workers-make-less-than-15-an-hour/; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/why-cant-we-end-poverty-in-america.html?_r=4&pagewanted=all

[4] http://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2016/01/06/63-of-americans-dont-have-enough-savings-to-cover-a-500-emergency/#2715e4857a0b19717426dde1

[5] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[6] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-08-01/new-york-fed-study-finds-15-of-u-s-households-have-no-wealth

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/health/disparity-in-life-spans-of-the-rich-and-the-poor-is-growing.html

[8] http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article76429037.html

[9] http://socialistappeal.org/news-analysis/editorials/1112-qis-capitalism-dyingq.html

[10] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/37259-us-soldiers-are-relying-on-millions-of-dollars-in-food-stamps-to-survive

[11] A People’s History of Poverty in America, Pimpare

[12] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-surging-ranks-of-americas-ultrapoor/

[13] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/u-s-canadian-city-governments-ending-homelessness-by-offering-jobs/

[14] http://www.frontsteps.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/DiscriminationReport20141.pdf; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/ten-facts-about-homelessn_b_5977946.html

[15] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/how-cities-use-design-to-drive-homeless-people-away/373067/

[16] https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/retirement/2017/05/10/punching-past-65-older-worker-rate-highest-since-1962/101447336/

[17] http://abcnews.go.com/US/hunger_at_home/hunger-home-american-children-malnourished/story?id=14367230; https://thinkprogress.org/ketchup-sandwiches-and-other-things-stupid-poor-people-eat-41617483b497/

[18] http://www.cpr.org/news/story/tooth-decay-silent-epidemic-especially-poor-kids-colo; Savage Inequalities, Jonathon Kozol

On Homeschooling

While citizens should have the freedom to homeschool their children, in the same way they should be free to choose private schools over public schools, that does not mean there are no disadvantages to such a choice, to individuals and society at large.

There are some 2 million homeschooled children in the United States today, roughly 3% of students. Parents cite several reasons for homeschooling their children, including the desire to provide “religious and moral instruction,” a “concern about the school environment,” and “dissatisfaction with the academic instruction” at schools. A 2009 Department of Education report revealed 83% of homeschool parents held providing religious and moral instruction as one of their reasons for partaking in this practice. Almost 70% of homeschool families are white, and the National Home Education Research Institute believes about 70% are evangelical Christians. This is still largely the white, conservative Christian movement it was when it launched in the 1980s, though we can happily say it is becoming more diverse: there are more minority families now, more people choosing this route not because of religion but because of factors like racism in schools or the sad state of many poorly-funded city school districts. However, the words of President Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council still explain why conservative evangelicals homeschool:

As a homeschooling parent myself, I understand the desire to give children an environment that affirms traditional values. The government has eliminated God from the classroom and too often replaced Him with an anti-life, anti-family curriculum that misses life’s deepest meaning.

Again, parents have the right to think this way and keep their children at home. Nevertheless, the central disadvantage of homeschooling lies in its very purpose. The true danger isn’t that kids will be isolated or socially inept; a few may, but most homeschool children participate in sports, organizations, and other social outlets (though it’s not as extensive as being among peers 8 hours a day or having instant access to a broad array of free clubs, societies, and teams). Children being homeschooled against their will is dangerous, as it can breed resentment against parents, but that is not universal. The real problem is that children are primarily exposed to a single worldview. And of course that is the whole point.

It’s a disappointing state of affairs. Consider how many teachers one has in a public K-12 education in the suburbs or the cities: perhaps 50-60. Each of these teachers has his or her own worldview and life experience, family background, job history, travels, religion, political beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income level, and, perhaps most importantly, degree in education. No reasonable person would suggest one or two parents, no matter how well-educated, could provide the depth of knowledge that 60 people with specialized degrees and experience could in physics, mathematics, the arts, history, English, and so on.

There is a reason we have multiple teachers from 6th grade up, rather than just one: it is a task no one person should have or could possibly be qualified for. This is not to say homeschool education can’t be successful (homeschool students often excel in college and have higher state test scores, as any child receiving one-on-one, individualized instruction should), but I believe that education will not be as strong or as well-rounded if coming from a single person with a single worldview and life experience. What a shame that homeschooled students have nearly no chance of learning about Islam from a Muslim, evolution from a trained biologist, or communism from a Marxist. To me it’s a shame, to others it’s the point. Instead, students are limited to a narrow perspective, which will at best provide instruction from a parent less qualified than someone with an actual degree in a particular subject, and at worst outright lies about the world (anti-evolution, anti-climate change) and intolerance toward certain people (homosexuals, trans Americans).

One might make the same point about the social value of having more extensive interaction with diverse students. Instead of primary interaction with siblings or other homeschooled children who hold the same religious, conservative ideas, wouldn’t it better prepare students for a diverse world, and help them think critically from multiple viewpoints, if they interacted daily with Hindus, atheists, and African Americans? This is not to say homeschooled students don’t meet and befriend such kids at scouts, ballet, or football, but public school classrooms provide much longer, broader interactions, in an academic environment. There is value in that.

We value the integration and interaction of public schooling over homeschooling for the same reason we value integration and interaction over racially segregated classrooms. As I write in my book:

Integration is our hope because it is only through interaction that we come to know the Other. Separation and isolation is a breeding ground for misunderstanding, misjudgment, fear, and hostility. Interaction is diminishing arrogance and eradicating hatred at every moment. White soldiers of the Civil War forsook prejudice and assisted their black comrades to relocate when the cannons finally quieted because they had served with and befriended those men of color. Religious fundamentalists come to accept homosexuals when they find themselves sitting next to each other and conversing. Young students’ fear of special needs children fades away the longer they share a classroom. Integration serves a moral and social purpose.

The public school classroom provides the most direct interaction of diverse students, encouraging acceptance and understanding. The primary reason to reject homeschooling is the primary reason to support public schooling.

Public schooling is a precious creation. Our tax dollars should provide equally and adequately funded schools that are free and open to the public, contingent only on geographic location. Geographic location is not perfect, as our living arrangements and thus our schools are still very much divided by race and class, but it provides the best opportunity for students to learn with and from others of all political persuasions, religions, sexual orientations, races, income levels, and dietary preferences. Interaction and integration will breed peace and understanding, as it always does. That is what I want my tax dollars to build and what I think students need to experience, not private, corporate-controlled, or home education. There are still many other challenges in the world of education, such as eliminating high-stakes testing or expanding democratic control of standards, but public education is worth preserving if we desire a more tolerant society.