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Dead Dog Blues?

Suicide Bridge

The Overtoun Bridge

The Overtoun Bridge, located in Scotland, is a spot of intrigue and mystery to many.  It was built in 1892, and though it is a beautiful piece of architecture the reason it is primarily so well known now is due to the high number of suicides that jump off the bridge each year.  Many bridges can boast a high suicide rate, though… what makes this one different is that it isn’t humans taking the leap – it’s dogs.

Some papers have reported a little over 50 dogs having taken the leap in a single year, most report more.  The only consensus is that all of the breeds are long-nosed breeds.  If the lack of intent is questioned, there are accounts of dogs leaping off of this bridge to the rocks below and surviving – only to run back up to the bridge and make the leap again.  To make matters stranger, the jumps are all made from almost the identical spot.  Why would these dogs do this?  Different reasons have been given.

To get the strangest one out of the way first, it has been proposed as a psychic hot spot.. some evil force is compelling the dogs to jump.  Psychics have been brought in and reported no ill-findings, though.  Given, they did keep their dogs leashed and the dogs that leapt were under no such safety measure.   Even leashed dogs, though, have tugged at this spot.. that indicates something different going on, and something with a far more natural explanation.

The best explanation that I have heard is that there is an abundance of mink in the area.  The breeds being long-nosed would indicate a specialty in olfaction, so they would have a higher probability to pick up the strong scent.  Dogs lack the same sophisticated depth perception that we have, so perhaps they are making the leap thinking that they are just jumping across a small expanse to something more level?  When viewed from a lower center the bridge does look just like a normal garden path.

Although the explanation is not perfect it is the most logical I have read.  Anyone have any other ideas of how to explain this strange phenomenon?


What is a Primate?

-Assistance in writing this entry was given by a friend in WA.  E-mail or PM for further details.

A primate is a member of the mammal class that is characterized by certain biological features such as decreased olfaction, unique forms of teeth, stereoscopic vision, and the unique evolution of their grasping appendages.  Mammals are a unique class, as they include both homo sapiens and their closest relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas, and even tapiers and lemurs.  Physical anthropologists, in particular, take a great interest in studying primates and that field is known as primatology.

The first feature that differs between primates and other mammals is the advent of a shortened snout.  The increased size of primate’s brains tends to increase the ocular lobe with a decrease for the area meant for olfaction.  The reason behind this is the increased focus upon vision that is found within the primate class.  While other mammals more highly developed their sense of smell – primarily in order to help in pheromone detection (the scent molecules that are used as mating signals, trails, etc.) – the primates developed beyond a tri-color visual field and thus lost the need for the elongated snout and the brain space needed to process this raw data.

The decreased area for olfaction was caused mainly by the increased importance placed upon vision within the primates.  One of the key ways to recognizing a primate is by their forward-facing eyes, an advantageous change which further allowed for stereoscopic vision.  Stereoscopic vision is the ability of the brain to compensate for the lack of crossover within vision by inventing the images itself.  This is a trait that is especially unique to primates, and one that allows for better manipulation of the world around the creature itself.

To further help manipulate the world around them, primates were given elongated grasping appendages.  Elongated fingers and toes, mixed with stereoscopic vision, created a world in which the primates could interact with the environment in an effective manner.  Elongated arms in the apes further allowed for tree-top exploration and better hiding spots from predators which increased the ability to reproduce successfully and grow to maturity.

The final advent that allowed for primates to be great innovators was the changes within their teeth.  Incisors for biting and canines for shearing allowed the primates to subsist on a carnivorous diet.  The premolars and molars helped aid in herbivorous food consumption, while also helping to break food into digestible packages which increased the nutritional efficiency.  This allows for an omnivorous, nearly opportunistic diet that would create adaptability within the species.

The study of primates is more important than people often realize, as it helps us understand where it was that human beings evolved from.  Understanding the past is important for taking full advantage of what the future can offer us.  Becoming aware of how it is that other creatures perceive the world can help us learn better ways to process information.  Unlocking clues about how various elements evolved would also help us understand how to better fight modern problems with lack of development, or abnormal development and perhaps even help us overcome them.

Mythology Vs. Science

Mythology is often cited as being the precursor to science, in much the same way that alchemy is viewed as a precursor to chemistry.  The reason for both practices being viewed in such a way is that both sought to make sense of a world that was often random and confusing.  Mythology sought to understand through stories – alchemy sought to understand the properties of things so as to control and change them.  Scientific?  In a sense.  Were these precursors to science, however?  I would beg to say no,  for a variety of reasons.

Science is based off of empirical evidence.  Science seeks to explain and control in a logical, reasonable manner.  It is a process, and an admirable one at that which has developed into a way of life in modern times.  Conversely, mythology consists of stories that seek to explain.  The reality of situations rarely effected the presumed reality of the myth – it did not matter how the women were turned to stone, what mattered was that it did happen and that the stones are there to show for it.

If mythology does not truly explain situations – only seeks to and serves as a way to remember – then how is it that it stays so strongly with us?  The strength of myth is exactly within its medium.  Myth allows us to recall stories rather than hard facts, it allows us to remember the characters for we empathize with them.  Science is difficult as it relies on a dryness that myths immediately surpass by the very nature of their drama.

Furthermore, scientific society demands specialization.  People become compartmentalized as what I know may be different than what someone else does.  This isolation is extremely apparent in everyday life now.  In a myth based society it is uniquely possible for everyone to know everything at a single time.  Societies that depend upon oral traditional are communal for this very purpose – everybody knows everything and thus there is no reason why someone should be unable to converse.  Creativity is celebrated and abilities are recognized, but they are understood.

A return to myth based society is impossible, but the lessons behind it are easy to incorporate in education today.  A well spoken story to explain a concept is infinitely more effective than a simple recitation of facts.  The specialties that exist can at least be minutely understood if explained correctly.  It would be interesting to see what could be done if these concepts were correctly executed.

Cultural Relativism

A quick update since we were lacking one yesterday – expect something longer tonight, Reader.

One of the most fundamental values of Anthropology is learning cultural relativism.  What cultural relativism offers is a chance to view and evaluate a culture from its own perspective, rather than that of your own.  For instance, the Northern Cheyenne eat dogs.. an idea that is horrific to most United States citizens.  However, if viewed from the Northern Cheyenne perspective it becomes less horrific and more understanding.

In Northern Cheyenne tradition there once was an extremely hard winter.  The food was scarce, and many of the tribe was dying from starvation.  The dog, the most faithful companion and loyal member of the tribe, came to the Chief and offered up his own body in order to ensure their continued survival.  Once a year, then, this honor and respect is paid to the dog through the eating of it.  It honors the memory of this, and it exemplifies the dogs true importance to the tribe.  No longer is this barbaric, instead it is strangely touching.  This is cultural relativism.

Michael C. Meril, in this essay “The Sunglasses Analogy” published by Youth For Understanding offers another way to understand Cultural Relativism.  In his story cultural values, attitudes, ideas, beliefs and assumptions are represented by a pair of sunglasses that every person wears.  In North America, let’s say that the sunglasses are yellow.

Should a person travel to, in this case Japan, where the sunglasses are blue they will begin to try to understand their values.  They may return to America, say they know what the Japanese are like and that their sunglasses are green!  The problem is that the Japanese customs were still viewed through the yellow lenses.

According to Mercil the only true way to adapt another viewpoint is to, for a moment, remove our own sunglasses.  We are not traveling or learning to judge another culture, but to learn about it.  It is hard, but developing “double vision” is the only way to see more than one side of an idea and to truly begin to appreciate it.

To learn double vision is to learn cultural relativism.  It is to understand and describe values, attitudes, beliefs, ideas and assumptions of American culture and to be able to verbalize and really understand what it is that makes an American an American.

So ask yourself – what assumptions do you tend to make on a daily basis?  What are your hard set beliefs?  Do not try to change your own mind, but rather try to understand why other peoples minds are differents.

A Response to Elizabeth Spelke

Elizabeth Spelke, in her contribution to John Brockman’s book What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty draws several conclusions about the future of humanity based off of her current observations in the neurological fields.  The conclusion that she draws from her observations is threefold: Firstly, that all people fundamentally hold the same practical values; Secondly, the concept that we all differ fundamentally in the values we hold is wrong; thirdly, that we all possess the ability to change our perspective if it is proven to be unreasonable.  These three concepts build on top of one another and lend her to her fourth idea that all misconceptions will be overcome in the face of reasonable discussion.  Although I would greatly love to see this come to light, I would like to respectfully disagree on the grounds that history has shown that human nature is more likely to lend itself towards the easy solution instead of the morally correct one.

The first point that Elizabeth Spelke raises is the belief that, like the biological similarities we all share, so we share a similar value system.  On this point I would have to agree with her in the very broadest sense of a ‘shared system.’  Marc Hauser, in his book Moral Minds, proposed that we all have an innate sense of morality – essentially the Golden Rule – and that unless we are severely demented (i.e. sociopathic) we adhered to this rule.  I would agree that this is the case in the most basic of terms.  However, to say that we all want the same things and go about them in a reasonable manner would be a naïve assumption to make.  Although primary needs can said to be requires (i.e. food, water, sleep) secondary needs and values are greatly diverse (i.e. freedom, human rights, whether religion is meant to be preached or exclusivist.)  In addition to this, it can be argued that even the primary needs are subverted by some (anorexics believe they do not need food, insomniacs and some PTSD victims subvert sleep, etc.)  On these we differ, and the view of Classical Liberalism that Spelke beleives is self-evident to all then is in question.

Spelke’s second point, that the notion that all groups differ profoundly, is in a form a reiteration of her previous point.  Classical liberalism essentially states that we live in the best of possible worlds.  Instead of each country and person looking to benefit themselves the most (classical realism) liberalism states that we seek to benefit everyone.  This philosophy only works if everyone else is practicing it.  If one person is looking to get the most power and someone else is trying to benefit everyone the person practicing peace is going to be an easy target for the person seeking power.  Moral high ground means very little when a person is being subjugated for the sake of another’s benefit.  Essentially, it would be dangerous to adapt this stance if everyone else is not adapting it.

Spelke’s third point, that of the most wonderful ability of our cognition being the ability to adapt our ideas and stances is something that I do agree with.  My caveat to this is merely that debate seems to be overtaking dialogue.  By this, I mean to say that people are often just arguing for the sake of show rather than the sake of gaining a deeper knowledge of themself and/or others.  In diaologues, one is seeking to discover the truth and possibly have their minds changed, while in debate they are simply seeking to share their mind.  The internet, although it allows for wonderful conversations, it also allows for a way to get a wide audience to hear your ideas and for you to reasser them through debate disguised as dialogue.  This is a true danger and one often unexamined.

Spelke speaks of a “race between science and intergroup conflicts” that will determine the future sustainability of our planet.  I would like to switch her phrasing a bit here and say that it is rather a race between intelligence and ignorance.  Science is incredible, but I feel that it fails to encompass the concept of reasonability in the way that it is tossed about in common parlance. (Come on, Intelligent Design is referred to as a science in common usage..)  I would not go so far as to call religious people ignorant, but I would go so far as to say that a relativism is called for.  The ability to be relative is the ability to respect other people’s beliefs without jumping to the conclusions that have proven so dangerous for our continued peace.

Meditation *Part 1*

Meditation is a practice that has been gaining popularity in the United States since the 70s. The purpose of meditation is manifold, and it is hard to argue against the benefits that it can offer to the general practicioner. Even if casually dabbled in, meditation can help cure insomnia, reduce stress, and energize and revitalize you in mind, body, and spirit. For those interested in any sort of magickal practice, meditation is also the first step to take.

The first step to meditation, and often one of the most complex, is figuring out what to visualize when sitting there with your eyes shut. It is recommended to visualize a place that is calming to you, a place where you feel at peace. The place must be pictured in every detail, every sensation – do not hold back, you are trying to recreate this location within your mind.

There are two locations that I can think of where I felt truly secure and at peace. The first was Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. One year I went there in January, and it was virtually deserted.

If I close my eyes I can picture the way the beach looked at night. I can imagine the way the sand felt against my bare feet, chilly yet still yielding, devoid of the graininess present during the summer due to moisture that lingers in the air. I can imagine how cold I felt, shivering in my sweatshirt with the hood drawn, but how good I felt still.

I can imagine the scent of the ocean, salty but sweet with the tinge of some underwater plant rotting in the breakers. I can imagine the crispness of the winter air and the very feint scent of food from the restaurants out beyond the boardwalk.

I can imagine the way the wind bites at my bare cheeks, even with my hood up. I can imagine the taste of salt left on my lips, I can imagine how good all of this feels. For me, this was peaceful. For me, this was security.

The second place that I visualize is the field behind the elementary school I attended. During recess I used to lay on top of a metal car skeleton, looking up at the sky and watching the red tailed hawks circle. I would shut my eyes and feel the warm sun beating down upon me. I would smell the scent of pine and hay, the earthy scents of the farms near the school. I could feel the cool metal and lose myself to the calmness of the decidedly rural scene.

Do you, readers, have any similar memories that calm them? Would you all consider meditation as a form of stress relief?

Evolution VS. Intelligent Design *Round One*

In 1802, the English theologian William Paley set forth the case for Intelligent Design. If a man were to be walking through a field in the countryside and happened upon a pocket watch, the man would be inclined to view the watch as something unnatural, that is, man-made. He would observe the fact that the watch is intricately designed, put together in such a way that if a single part was taken away the watch would no longer function. Anything so intricately made, so perfect a creation that every part works together in harmony, must have been designed and not have simply evolved; such is the belief of Intelligent Design.

Michael J. Behe, in the article “The Challenge of Irreducible Complexity,” sets forth an argument that evolves directly from the Paley hypothesis. Darwin, Behe postulates, would not have set forth the concept of evolution in the manner he did if he could have known the inner-workings of cells. During Darwin’s time, the inner-mechanizations of cells were a “Black Box” that is, something that’s workings could not be divined. Could Darwin have seen the manner in which the cells operate, Behe believes that his entire hypothesis would have fallen to pieces. The standard for this belief was set by Darwin himself in a direct quote from The Origin of Species:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

Successive modifications then, are what Darwinism is founded upon. In the case of the pocket watch, if any single piece of the inner workings is removed, the watch would no longer function. Behe’s argument rests upon a similar object – in this case a mousetrap. The mousetrap is a perfect invention, something which is very simple, yet designed with only one purpose in mind. If any piece of the mousetrap is removed, the mousetrap no longer works. The analogy turns biological when viewed with the cell. How could a cell evolve, if every piece of it is working in perfect harmony? If the cell ceases to work if any one piece is removed, then how could it evolve via successive modifications? With this argument in place, Behe has a sound case for Intelligent Design; or does he? Are cells actually irreducibly complex? (That is, not subject to successive modifications in order to evolve to its final form.)

Kenneth R. Miller responded to Behe’s article in the cleverly titled, “The Flaw of the Mousetrap.” Scores of people working on deciphering exactly how cells evolve need not fear for their jobs after all. The flaw in Behe’s argument is one that is often trotted out when evolutionism gets questioned. Successive modification does not just mean building one thing upon another; it also involves taking bits and pieces of other systems and turning them to a different purpose.

Nature, it seems, does not enjoy waste. Just like the human brain is in fact made of three separate “brains” (reptilian, mammalian, and the frontal lobe), so the cells inner workings are made up of various strands of protein originally utilized for very different functions. Evolution then, is not simply successive modifications on a visible level, but also on a molecular one, sea changes occurring via the copying, modifying, and combining.

In the case of the mousetrap, a similar argument can be postulated. The base of the mousetrap could be used as a paperweight; the spring could be used in countless other objects. The ‘trap’ portion could make a tie clip, or could function as a buckle. If you take it apart in that manner, rather than expect it to still function as a mousetrap, the evolution of it begins to make sense. Innovation, then, is the nature of evolution.

Intelligent Design, thus far, has eluded a firm definition. We are aware of it requiring an outside hand to create things that fall under the heading of irreducible complexity – but how do we necessarily detect design? That question was what was postulated by William A. Dembski, who described the process of detecting design as involving recognizing “specified complexity.” Complexity then would come out of something that had changed but not out of “chance or necessity.” Chance, then, would be defined as the adaptations to the environment that generally create physical changes within creatures, while necessity would be the result of similar situations. (i.e. the change of proportion of white moths to dark brown moths of the same species in a polluted area, or the change in beak size of Darwin’s birds.) Needless to say, there are many problems with this.

Robert T. Pennock responds to this hypothesis with a well-reasoned argument. A negative definition, in this case: anything that did not evolve out of “chance or necessity” is intelligently designed, is a poor definition. Negative definitions fail in their lack of specificity and, scientifically, the inability to test for them.

Some Intelligent Designers tend to raise the question: But where is the evidence that selection produces new features in new species? They argue that changes are only slight and not permanent, an argument that fails to take into account how long it takes creatures to evolve. New species are not just born that way – changes are gradual, and primarily genetic in nature. While Darwin’s theory cannot account for all features of living things, it doesn’t have to. Biological processes are known about today that could not have even been imagined in Darwin’s time. With knowledge of gene transfer, symbiosis, chromosomal rearrangement and regulator genes we now have an arsenal of information that can be applied to amplify and build upon Darwin’s theories. Evolutionary theory is not inadequate, if one takes account of what we know now that we did not know then.

Ten years ago the argument for Intelligent Design was set forth in earnest. Arguments have been had since then that argue about whether or not it should be taught in schools alongside Darwin’s theory of Evolution, essentially setting forth whether or not religion is a proper topic for a science class. In these ten years, Intelligent Design proponents have not set forth an empirical research program and have published no data in peer-reviewed journals to support their claims. If Intelligent Design is a true scientific possibility, then it should be treated as such and be held to the same standards as other scientific theories have been – as such, all it seems to be is a political and religious tactic.