Episode 7: Talking Tolkien & Hope

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode seven, the Hooligans discuss whether or not fantasy as a literary genre is still relevant to the 21st century: can we learn anything about our own world by dwelling in imaginary ones?

Episode 7: Talking Tolkien & Hope

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Notes & Clarifications
1). Eucatastrophe in fantasy is a literary term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien referring to a sudden turn of events at the end of a story ensuring the protagonist does not meet some untimely end.

2). We just wanted to point out Jessica’s pronunciation of the word “damned” as “damn-ed” was awesome.

3). Thank you to WingNut Films and New Line Cinema for graciously allowing us to use two audio clips from Peter’s Jackson’s film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Episode 6: Canada & the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode six, the cast talks about Canada’s actions to help alleviate the Syrian refugee crisis, problems with the West’s perception of Muslims, and Canadian xenophobia.

Episode 6: Canada & the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Notes & Clarifications
1). Rick observed Canada has a dubious history when it comes to the treatment of refugees/immigrants. To avoid the appearance of histrionics please visit the following site for a brief but comprehensive presentation of Canada’s less than exemplary treatment of new arrivals: http://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/static-files/canadarefugeeshistory.htm.

2). Support for ISIS is fairly negligible outside of areas where this organization has direct control. The following is a link to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Council on attitudes towards IS in the Middle East: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/17/in-nations-with-significant-muslim-populations-much-disdain-for-isis/.


Of Leprechauns, Warlocks & Sceptics

A number of months ago, in March to be precise, I visited my son Andrew’s preschool. The afternoon was filled with crafts, games, snacks and direct instruction time with the teacher. As a student of human nature, I enjoyed my time with the class because it gave me an opportunity to learn something about how young children learn; it would appear children tend to believe everything they’re told no matter how credulous.

For instance, my son Alec can be quite gullible, e.g. As a rule I try to avoid exploiting this tendency of his just for the sake of generating giggles; however, on one occasion I thought I could make an innocent use of his gullibility. Seven years ago (when he was six) I took Alec and his two brothers to Walking with the Dinosaurs. I knew they were interested in these now extinct reptiles. In fact, I read cosmology, science fiction and dinosaur related material to my children. Andrew absolutely loves black holes, Aaron adores superheroes, and Alec digs The Hobbit.

For weeks before the dinosaur show I told Alec the creatures we’d be seeing at the show were in fact real. He was astonished. He asked, “Weren’t they killed by an asteroid striking the earth 65 million years ago?” I told him this was in fact the case; however, he’d seen the movie Jurassic Park and I told him scientists had grown dinosaurs in a lab. I thought it an innocent little prank. I remembered what it was like to be a kid when everything was so BIG. I personally miss having that mindset where everything seems to be possible… I wanted to do something like that for my son.

At the start of the dinosaur show, a stage light pierced the black illuminating a lone velociraptor on the middle of the stage floor at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon. The creature looked new_rap.jpgsurprisingly real. My fascination ended once I saw the creature’s legs: raptor legs are structured in the reverse direction of human legs; the legs of the person in the costume combined with the raptor legs formed a diamond of appendages. Alec noticed the same geometric problem and looked at me quizzically. I shrugged and smiled. The gig was not yet up. Then the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex emerged. The creature was huge, absolutely terrifying in aspect. Instead of being frightened, Alec calmly leaned over to me and asked: dad what’s that board thing with the wheels on it at the feet of the T-Rex? In a futile attempt to continue the gag I responded quickly, “Dinosaurs used skateboards. Everyone knows that, Alec.”

He didn’t buy it and I was proud of him for it.

Preschools to me are not really places of learning. They have more in common with daycare, in that, it’s a place where parents can dump their children off for a guilt-free afternoon’s reprieve. Based on my experience I can honestly say there’s no formal curriculum guiding the teacher’s actions. This actually is a good thing in my opinion. Depending on the teacher a curriculum can act less as a guide and more of a means to quash inquiry and critical thinking. In the end, the main benefit of sending your child to preschool is obviously socialization: children learn how to play, share and communicate with other children.

They also learn how to listen.

I personally did not attend preschool and I regret it. On some non-descript September day in 1977 my mom dropped me off at Kindergarten. The room was full of strange faces that over the course of eight years eventually became friendly ones; nonetheless, on the first day these faces were alien to me; it was made worse by virtue of the fact basically everyone except me had attended preschool. Therefore, everyone knew everyone else and I was the odd one out. I remember mom trying to quietly leave the classroom without my noticing. I was having none of that I’ll tell you. I chased her down in the hall, clamped my arms tightly about her legs, and stood as heavy as I could on her feet. I didn’t know anybody. How could she leave me? As I was only six at the time the Kindergarten teacher (whose name I have blocked out for good reason) was able to distract me just long enough for my mom to make good her escape. I don’t think I was intellectually at a deficit as a result of not attending preschool; but, socially, I began my academic career at a disadvantage.

As of 2009, all three of my sons have “graduated” from preschool. For the most part I’m happy with the work they were given, the field trips they’ve taken, and crafts they’ve completed. Seriously how can you get nap time, wrong? Preschool isn’t exactly rocket science. I fondly recall Andrew (my youngest) putting together ingredients in a jar for nut brownies. He gave the chocolate concoction to me. I would of course die if I ate these lovingly prepared brownies (but it’s the thought that counts, nes pas?). The second oldest (the inquisitive Alec) scrawled a barely legible picture in crayon of the family sledding during Christmas; and Aaron, the eldest, put together a nice Valentine’s Day presentation together declaring his undying love for mom (neglecting me altogether).

But during the most recent visit in March of this year I was pretty disappointed in the preschool product. I’m not one of those parents who think their child needs to do well in preschool so they can eventually enter an Ivy League university like Yale or something; nevertheless, I do have an idea of what does or does not constitute genuine education. Moreover, I spent several thousand dollars on a piece of paper from Sask Learning saying I’m a teacher. Therefore, I felt entitled to vet and analyse the preschool teacher’s performance.

My visit took place just a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. I sat down behind children sitting in a tidy row—shoulder to shoulder—in front of the teacher. The teacher began the class pointing at the calendar acknowledging a special holiday was fast approaching. Instead of explaining the actual significance of the holiday to the children (which they were perfectly capable of understanding if the right approach were used) she read to the students a note from a surly leprechaun. I forget the actual name she used for the elf. I’ll give him a name based on one of the many generalizations used to describe Irish people—let’s call him Punchy.

As the teacher read Punchy’s letter aloud I got the impression this wasn’t the first time he’d written the children; it was all quite credulous. The teacher (who the children trusted) said something about how Punchy kept sneaking into the preschool classroom to leave notes. He sounded more like a stalker or a burglar than a charming imp. I think Punchy made references to pots of gold and rainbows and a host of other equally fatuous notions. The children were absolutely spellbound. One of the little boys wanted the teacher to pass on a special message to Punchy while another announced how much she liked Punchy and wanted to meet him.

I watched my son Andrew from a distance to see his reaction to the letter. What was going on his mind? Did he actually believe a partially bearded miniature gold hoarding burglar was in fact breaking and entering their learning space once a week leaving them notes? Andrew had no reason not to think this was happening. The teacher assured the class the leprechaun was quite real. And here’s my point: as a teacher you cannot abuse trust; you have an obligation to provide young people with the most accurate information available so that, given the balance of probabilities, the student can make use of this information to make up their own mind up about life, etc. This sounds like something only appropriate for older students. I disagree: you can do this for young children, as well. Obviously, you have to bring it down to the appropriate level but it can be done. I do it for my own kids. To not do it, in my mind, constitutes the worst type of intellectual dishonesty.

A person could argue what’s the harm with innocently teaching children that leprechauns exist? I take issue with it because you are abusing trust. The reason it is considered quaint to teach about Easter Bunnies, leprechauns or Santa Claus, by most people is they think teaching these things this is perfectly harmless. On the contrary, when you teach this to children you’re teaching them not to think. You’re teaching them to equate imagination with fact and to blindly accept what they’ve been taught by others; and as these children grow in to adults the tendency to believe whatever they are told by authority becomes ingrained. If anything, we should be instilling a questioning attitude in children.

For instance, in 1996 fourteen year old Sandy Charles of Laronge, Saskatchewan, killed a seven year old boy. The older boy was inspired by a movie called Warlock (a video he watched at least ten times). In the film, a warlock apparently boils the fat of a victim. The warlock then quaffs the potion and it gives him the ability to fly. This inspired Sandy to do the same thing to his young victim. You can read about this at the following URL: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-61157029.html. If someone could’ve taught Sandy the difference between fact and fiction, or better yet how to think about reality maybe, just maybe, this tragedy could have been averted. There’s a distinct possibility Sandy was in fact a disturbed individual; yet, irrespective of his alleged mental illness, he should not have been watching this movie (especially unattended without someone there to vet the content of the film explaining to him that drinking liquefied human fat will not enable you to fly any more than wearing an Acme Batman suit would).

Then there’s the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. He was the leader of a relatively tiny but radical Christian fundamentalist sect based in Texas in the 1990s. He taught his membership that he was the second coming of Jesus. Moreover, he claimed that the singer Madonna was put on earth for him exclusively. Apparently no one communicated this vital fact to Madonna as I would not use the word “exclusive” to describe her sex life. I digress. Further to that, he claimed sole sexual rights to all the females in the cult. Okay. At what point does a person ask the question: is this guy really Jesus? Seriously. I don’t know about you but Koresh’s actions do not seem to be in agreement with the character of Jesus I encountered in the New Testament. Besides Koresh had to wear glasses….? I mean, come on, if you can raise someone from the dead can’t you at least heal your own eyesight? People that do not think about what they think about are a danger to others and themselves. You can read about this bozo here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh

These aren’t the only examples of the terrible cost of mindlessness. There are men in Africa today infected with AIDs who think if they have sex with a virgin or a newborn infant their disease will go away. So they rape virgins and babies in an attempt to get rid of the disease. How messed up is that? I wish I was making this up. Have a read: http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2002/april/virgin.htm

So what do leprechauns have to do with a young boy from Laronge, a near sighted messianic figure in Waco, Texas, and scientifically illiterate men from South Africa? They are connected by a general inability or unwillingness to ask questions like: “How do I know what I know?” “Why do I think this is true?” “Is there any actual proof for my belief?”

Why can’t a preschool teacher teach the true significance of St. Patrick’s Day? Truth is often more interesting than fiction and Patrick had some pretty interesting run-ins with druids. Moreover, why can’t you ditch the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and teach the actual meaning of these holidays? Bunnies and red suited fat men that travel the entire expanse of the earth in the course of a single night on a flying sleigh at the speed of light just doesn’t cut it for me anymore; and it doesn’t for my kids. I have a responsibility as a father to empower my kids to be thoughtful in a thoughtless and at times dangerous world. I refuse to fail in this regard.

On the way home from preschool on that fateful March day when Punchy’s letter was read, I asked my son Andrew if he believed leprechauns existed. He didn’t respond. To be honest I’m not sure if he understood the significance of the question—children think a lot differently than adults (or at least most adults). Now I could have just told him leprechauns don’t exist and left it at that. However, I’d be doing exactly what his teacher had done; that is, I’d be arguing from authority, e.g. He trusts dad. Dad knows more than me. Dad says Punchy doesn’t exist. Therefore, Punchy doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in the wisdom of reverse indoctrination. If you’re going to teach, do it properly. Give the person (no matter their age) an opportunity to answer or ask the right questions; and if they learn how to answer certain questions properly then they’ll learn how to frame their own questions when they get older.

So I asked Andrew a second question: have you ever seen Punchy? He responded in the negative. I asked him a third question: do you think it’s possible your teacher wrote those letters just for fun? He responded in the positive. I left it at that. I did not tell him leprechauns do not exist. Instead, I modelled the methods used by any reasonable and/or sceptical person to get at the truth.

The next week my wife took Andrew to preschool. According to her, as soon as Andrew entered the building he walked straight up to his teacher and said, “Leprechauns don’t exist” and then he walked off to the toy box. I wish I could’ve seen the teacher’s reaction.


Me No Hunt, Me Push Cart, Do What Wife Say

We men, ugh, used to be hunters. No longer. Anthropologists have a new label to describe married men: we are homo freakinus cart-pusherus.

My woman companion and I coast along a busy city street on our way to seasonal hunting grounds. Whispering heat from the sun oscillates strangely just above the road in the distance—a prairie mirage never quite reachable. The woman with me is a gatherer and I am the cart pusher.

Centuries ago my forefathers hunted in the ancient green and rolling hills of Southern Ireland. They hunted potatoes. Today I hunt groceries. Like my ancestors I have learned to recognize the varied smells of my surroundings: in my case I occupy an urbanscape—a sterile world of asphalt, natural gas, Kentucky Fried Chicken, bright lights, and the enigmatic smell of Chinese food. I have also learned to recognize patterns in nature: the sun rises and it sets; seasons change according to the will of spirits; I am wrong; she is right.

ht_gag_museum_060918_sshWisely my woman breaks at the first sign of a red-light. A rattling and muscular four-wheeled blue beast pulls up beside us bellowing em-psst-em-psst-em-psst in full bass. We are on the move again. Grasping my black rectangular spear possessed by the goddess Siri I ritually slide my right fore-finger across the screen. Double-tapping the application I half-believe I may force Nature to divulge some of her secrets. The map application isn’t working; therefore, I am forced to rely upon my wit and skill alone for the day’s hunt. No poison tipped coupons for me.

I tell my woman to take the next right. She protests. Though possessing a woman’s instinct she lacks the male’s natural sense of direction which made maps moot long ago. After wandering aimlessly for five minutes she manages to get us back on the right path. Her brow is furled for some reason. I recall seeing the full moon in the sky the previous night: perhaps she is receiving a visit from her grumpy aunty? Her brow indeed furls with great frequency around this time of the month. I utter an incantation familiar to all cart pushers since the dawn of history: I am wrong. Miraculously the incantation’s power works as her brow unfurls.

Arriving at the seasonal hunting grounds, she pulls the vehicle into a subterranean cave below Superstore. The cave ceiling is suspended by natural columns of concrete and rock. The ashen coloured floor bears yellow parallel lines. These lines are obviously spiritual markings, an attempt to appease President-Choice, the patron god of caves. Finally our vehicle comes to a full stop. Without saying a word my companion gives me a circular flat and shiny stone and looks at me expectantly. She wants me to do something.

I crack open the passenger door stepping outside cautiously and with great purpose. Crouching down I kneel to the ground finding it warm to the touch. Raising my head slightly I close my eyes, sniffing, searching the wind for any trace of potential predator or prey. Meanwhile my mate has taken a shiny stone of her own, inserting it into a metal basket on wheels, and she has made her way through mysterious automatic doors. She waits for me tapping her foot as is the custom of wordless and perturbed women everywhere. I rise running to my position of honor—behind a wheeled cart exactly four paces behind my wife at all times. Though fate has determined I be a cart pusher I am hunter still.

Passing through parted automatic doors we ascend a concrete ramp. Cave paintings adorn the halls. The hunting grounds are occupied by other roaming hunter-gatherer pairs. We enter the store itself. I am compelled by some strange unknown force towards the technology aisle where movies, video games, computers, digital cameras and flat screen televisions abound. The female leading our expedition has other plans: pursing my lips I peer over her shoulder in cautious curiosity. She has spotted the ripest possible fruit: children’s clothing on sale.

Her pace quickens while my sense of dread increases. All hunters know to avoid the clothing aisle. We also avoid Tupperware, shampoo and feminine hygiene product aisles. I veer right hoping to draw my mate magnetically in that direction to avoid tactile dangers; it is no use for both her maternal and gathering instincts have kicked in. This is a powerful, inescapable combination. I let out a manly sigh, stick my tongue out in fake fatigue, and follow her dutifully.

We arrive at the clothing, pants to be precise, and my companion initiates a ritual clearly designed to torment cart pushers. She holds up a pair of pants, inspects them for the least sign of a flaw, and then places them back in the bin. She grabs another pair, appraises these and then places them back in the bin. She grabs yet another pair repeating the process and so on and so forth. I am filled with a co-mingling of anxious dread and a desire to thrust myself upon the nearest possible spear. Due to the absence of available spears (or conveniently placed cliffs) there is no respite. Finally, she decides on the ripest pair and places them into the cart. Suicidal feelings diminish slightly but not completely, never completely, not here, not in this unholy place.

We move on to the next aisle on the right. At the far end of the aisle I see an attractive woman-gatherer from the next village over. She is approaching my cart. I cease slouching over the handlebar. I stand straight, proud. I suck in my stomach shaving years off my frame in just moments. I flex the bicep on my arm facing her trying to look as burly and virile as possible. Four children suddenly appear from around the corner. I slouch back down on the cart’s handlebar, I stick my stomach back out, and my arm returns to its rest position.

In an act of deference, my mate bonks me on the head to get my attention, “Pick the type of cereal you want.” I stick my chest out proudly grabbing three boxes of family size brown sugar Kellogg’s Miniwheats. I drop the boxes—clang! clang! clang!—into the cart from a great height. Another successful hunt!

The Miniwheats were no match for my superior intellect. I return to my position of honor behind the cart moving forward at a snail’s pace following the gatherer. I have made my kill; it is time to leave…?

“No,” my woman responds. To complete this marital ritual of doom I, like the male Black Widow who is devoured by his mate during love making, resignedly respond, “Oh, okay.”

We turn and then turn again finding ourselves in the chip aisle. I envision tackling a bag of dill pickle chips and tearing it open on the floor. Then I dream of placating the dill pickle spirits by uttering the following sacred words of appeasement as the chips breathe their last breath, “Dill pickle. You ran with strength and speed. You were courageous and powerful. Go now brother to rest in the next world.” Then I devour its heart so that I might make use of its strength. A smack on my shoulder from my woman friend draws me out of imagined ceremony. A recent vaccination shot in that arm has left my shoulder raw. The blow causes me discomfort. I hide the pain because on the savannah weakness means death.

“Go get some nachos,” she says.

“Yes dear,” I say with great braggadocio.

I leave the cart behind scouring the shelves for my unassuming target. I kneel to the ground looking for signs of my cheesy quarry. I stalk it slowly all the while looking for signs of potentially cute gatherers from the next village over. I find nachos but see no woman worthy of my velvet and gold-encrusted marriage sack. I make my way back to my place of honor. My gatherer companion stands there, fists at her sides, she is tapping her left foot impatiently.

“You left my purse in the cart again, didn’t you?” she chastises me while pointing out the obvious, “What if someone came by and took my wallet?”

I calm her down by practicing the ancient art of playing dumb (making plaintive and inaudible noises). Another hunter-gatherer pair—one male and one female—approaches. This hunter, too, is in a place of honor four paces behind his gatherer pushing his cart. We pass one another—we two—sharing an knowing glance, connecting only as cart pushers can.

Do you have a spear? No? Too bad.

We both let out manly sighs while continuing to search for our prey.

Podcast Episode 5: Meet the Cabinet and Don’t Be So “Lugubrious”

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode five, the cast talks words, members of Parliament, and factoids.

Episode 5: Meet the Cabinet and Don’t Be So “Lugubrious”

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Episode Corrections & Clarifications 
1. During conversation sometimes cast members speak off the cuff and run the risk of hyperbole, e.g. Rick jokingly observed most of the cabinet members from the Conservatives likely came from business backgrounds (not that this should be a bad thing). At a glance the Conservatives appear to draw from a larger pool of career politicians (people who have belonged to the party as a youth and worked for the party through their 20s). The Liberals, by comparison, appear to draw upon a lot of people from banking and business (kind of ironic considering the context of the situation). Nonetheless, Rick regrets oversimplifying about the diverse group of people who worked for the previous Cabinet. With that said, if one compares the 13 highest profile ministries of the previous Conservative and current Liberal cabinets we see the following backgrounds:

Conservatives: career politician x 4, lawyer x 5, science background x 2, teacher, and a journalist.

Liberals: academic x 2, lawyer x 3, science background x 4, business/banking x 3, military.

2. Bones on average renew themselves every seven to ten years.

The Role of Perception in Science: Part 2 “Science & Religion”

“It is error only and not truth that shrinks from inquiry.”—Thomas Paine

I added visiting the Kentucky Creation Museum—a place depicting humans and dinosaurs co-existing despite being separated by 65 million years—to my bucket list. I’ve got two problems though: the first is I think they’d throw me out for incessant snickering; and secondly, I can’t bear the thought of financially supporting something so patently absurd. A similar museum exists in Big Valley, Alberta. I thought Canadians were immune to this type of thing; then I remember people from Saskatchewan wear watermelons on their heads to football games.

floodOn the Big Valley Creation Science Museum’s website one visitor from Montana remarked “I spent more time in this museum than I did at the Smithsonian.” I was at the Smithsonian in 2009; it’s a complex of 130 or so buildings sprawling across Washington, D. C. I spent an entire day managing only to fit in a whirlwind tour of three or four museums (including most of the memorials along the National Mall). The Big Valley Creation Museum is a shack at best by comparison. I haven’t personally visited the Big Valley museum (yet). But I did the next best thing: I spent some time on the museum’s website.

One photo on the site immediately caught my eye: a display presenting the earth as only a few thousand years old. The implications of a young earth are not insignificant—this would at the very least mean:

  • The Cambrian Explosion did not take place 500 million but 6,000 years ago
  • Humans and dinosaurs existed on earth at the same time (dubious given the absence of either literary or archaeological evidence)
  • Genetic drift, as defined, would not have enough time to shape human beings as we currently find them, e.g. 6,000 years would not be enough time to explain the differences between First Nations peoples currently residing in North America and their Siberian ancestors (see Vito Volterra Symposium on Mathematical Models in Biology, page 40)
  • Tectonic plates move on average at about the rate of a fingernail growing. This short period is insufficient to explain similarities between rocks found on different continents which at one time in the distant past were adjacent, e.g. chemically identical rock types, identical geologic structures, and geologic ages across the equatorial Atlantic, common to both Africa and South America supporting the notion that the continents were at one time together (Introduction to the Geology of Southern California and its Native Plants, page 28)
  • Assuming the Cosmos is 6,000 years old as well; therefore, the Andromeda Galaxy (2.3 million light years away) and 99.9999% of the stars in the night sky should be invisible to us, i.e. it takes 2.3 million years for light to travel from Andromeda to reach telescopes here on earth

    “Crunching” the Numbers with Sue

    Being somewhat familiar with the mythology of ancient peoples, and possessing more than a passing interest in their history, I’d argue that—imagined dragons, leviathans and behemoths notwithstanding—there’s a conspicuous absence of written accounts describing encounters between ancient Sumerians and Velociraptors. I’m just going to throw out a few figures here, call it a thought experiment if you will: let’s assume there was human/dinosaur co-existence. Let’s also assume the Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil lovingly known as “Sue” is typical of her species (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sue_(dinosaur)).
  • Sue was approximately 42 feet long, weighing somewhere around 7 metric tons
  • To meet Sue’s energy requirements she needs to consume in excess of 50,000 kilo-calories a day

I crunched the numbers (pardon the pun) for how many calories a 160 pound human is equivalent to (using a pound of hamburger as my standard); it turns out a 160 pound person is the equivalent of 40,000 calories, give or take.

  • One T. Rex needs 50,000 calories it would have to eat about two people a day

Okay, so what’s my point? Given the relative voraciousness of the dinosaurs I’m thinking human beings would not have survived, let alone thrived, living among these giant creatures; and there wasn’t just one or two of these creatures puttering about. Accepting the fact only a small percentage of T. Rex actually end up fossilizing, and of these we discover and unearth only a few, we can assume (globally) that at one time tens of thousands of just this one variety of dinosaur would have lived alongside humans for centuries. Then there’s the problem of explaining why all of the dinosaurs—including the 85 foot long, 25 ton Brachiosaur—do not appear in the literary record (yet they appear in the fossil record). These creatures are clearly absent in our stories: and if ever a story-teller was looking for a hook to keep children engaged during story time, it’d be the T. Rexs that visited the village and ate dozens of people last Tuesday.

I thought one possible reason explaining the curious lack of evidence supporting human/dinosaur co-existence: the T. RexVelociraptor, AllosaurAfrovenator, Dryptosaurus and the hundred other some odd carnivorous dinosaurs were so common that Herodotus, Homer, Cicero, and many an anonymous Sumerian writer, thought these giant creatures un-noteworthy.

Not convinced?

You could argue that the Leviathan mentioned in the Book of Job (Chapter 41) is evidence for human/dinosaur co-existence. To this end I asked a rabbi—admittedly a liberal-minded one—whether the Leviathan was in fact a dinosaur as defined. He thought the question odd explaining to me he understood this enigmatic creature to actually be a metaphor, or figurative reference, to the power of sin. (In Yiddish the word “leviathan” literally means “whale” (whales are mammals).) After answering my question, the rabbi looked me straight in the eye and invoked Wittgenstein: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Debunking a Modern Myth: The Young Earth Hypothesis
In the 1600s, a cleric named Bishop Ussher posited the earth was created in the year 4004 BCE. This wasn’t some sort of approximation. He actually claimed the exact date of creation was Sunday, October 23rd, 4004. From what I can tell Ussher’s work was influential both at the time it was first published until well in to the 19th century.

3_21_James_UssherSir_Peter_Lely_600Stating the obvious, Ussher was neither a scientist nor did he understand the scientific method; he lived at a time when it was believed un-necessary to empirically test theories; theories simply had to match belief and agree with established wisdom as it existed. Thus, when Ussher arrived at his date of creation he didn’t base it on any tests. He, like many scholastics before him, was simply defending dogma. He dated no rocks. He assessed no fossil record. He was a thinker typical of the time: he didn’t realize fossils were actually imprints left by long extinct creatures; the funny thing is it wasn’t until the late 1700s when even the idea a creature could go extinct was realistically entertained (see The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert). Instead, he believed fossils were a naturally occurring feature of geology not unlike the accretion of minerals.

Ussher’s Method
How exactly did Ussher arrive at the year 4004 BCE for the creation of the earth? He used some basic addition:

  • Add up the ages of the Hebrew patriarchs found in Genesis, e.g. if Adam lived to be 900 years old Ussher could establish the earth was at least 900 years old
  • He used known and re-current celestial events mentioned in scripture, e.g. comets, equinoxes, etc. to add to his total time
  • He calculated roughly when and how long certain important events took place, e.g. the Flood, etc.

Ussher bypassed hypothesis and jumped right to conclusions. I appreciate Jews and Christians believe the Hebrew scriptures important. But I wonder whether people of faith do themselves and scripture a dis-service when they regard holy writ as “scientific.” When a person’s assumptions about God are successfully challenged by science, for example, that person risks having a knee-jerk reaction in one of two ways: the first way is the person concludes that since science places their assumptions about God in to question then God, and not the falsified assumption, must be false; and the second way is where a person ignores science altogether convinced that their assumptions about God must be true because their beliefs are backed by dogma (which is itself constructed upon writings believed inerrant).

In reality, the beliefs people have say more about the people themselves and virtually nothing about God, i.e. when a person thinks the world must be 6,000 years old for God to exist, science1this necessary belief becomes an obstacle to understanding as opposed to a vehicle. A successful challenge means not only a weakening but a potential complete loss of faith. God, if such a being exists, could well operate in ways making little intuitive sense to us. So when we are proven wrong it is wise to simply say to ourselves, ‘I was wrong in this respect but God could still exist.’ Thus, I tend to give some credence to the idea put forward by biologist Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion belong to “non-overlapping magisteria” and each represents a different area of inquiry. Mix them together and you get either bad science or bad religion; keep them separate and you avoid mythologizing (although one may still risk persisting in a state of cognitive dissonance).

Again, it is problematic to treat scripture as a scientific treatise. For example, there are references to very few stars or planets in scripture. The worldview presented in scripture reflects the Babylonian worldview which was accepted as authoritative by virtually every ancient society (including ancient Israel), e.g. there are not thousands of stars but hundreds of millions in our galaxy alone; the earth is not covered by a glass dome but by an atmosphere; the earth is not the center of creation (no such center point exists in the entire Cosmos); the earth is not immovable instead there’s no fixed point, everything is in motion in the universe; the earth is not flat but a sphere like the eight planets in our solar system (and the 1000 some odd exo-planets) we have discovered thanks to improvements to the telescope; and the Cosmos is not confined to our solar system rather there are 400 billion additional galaxies (and billions and billions, to invoke Sagan, of additional stars in these) within the observable universe…and the Cosmos is not 6,000 years old it is 13.82 billion.

Growing up an idealist and seeker of truth, and then developing into a discerning man of letters, I look at scripture’s importance as largely ethical. This does not diminish it (at least in my opinion): scripture can inspire people to goodness and too love justice. Unfortunately, historically-speaking, scripture can also inspire people to hate, to prejudice or justified bigotry—something I abhor and have never understood given the whole “love your neighbor” and “pray for those who persecute you” philosophy taught by Jesus.

In his book Finding Darwin’s God, Kenneth R. Miller attempted to find common ground between science and religion. He explained scientific theories could not be used to disprove the existence of God. (Any scientist worthy of the name would accept this limit on science, i.e. the existence of God is not falsfiable.)  Instead, science provides an objective description of what’s physically happening “out there” and in so doing challenges out-dated, pre-scientific dogmas like Ussher’s. I tend to agree with Miller, in that, if Western religious traditions are to remain relevant ways must be found to reconcile faith with science (as per Gould’s dictum). If this is not done, if we rely on quaint (though factually dubious) museums in Big Valley or Kentucky to tell the story of the faithful, I’m not convinced that the faith that gave me such hope as a young man will survive into the next century except on the margins. To put it simply: the earth is not young; it isn’t even ancient…it is incomprehensibly old.

Podcast Episode 4: Talking Meat and Remembrance Day

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode four, join the cast as they present a different take on Remembrance Day while also addressing some important issues related to the eating of meat.

Episode 4: Talking Meat and Remembrance Day

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Episode Corrections & Clarifications 
1. In 1932 Europe was caught in the throes of the Great Depression; it became evident Germany could not meet its reparations payments. The major countries of Europe met in 1932 at the Lausanne Conference and agreed to suspend payments indefinitely. In 1952 the London Debt Agreement was reached whereby it was determined if/when Germany was ever reunited it would repay its war debts as set out in the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Germany began reparation payments in 1996 and made their final payment in 2010.

2. J. R. R. Tolkien fought at the Battle of the Somme which took place between July 1 and November 1, 1916, between the armies of France, England and Germany. The British suffered approximately 420,000 casualties, the French around 200,000 while the Germans suffered about 465,000. Tolkien lost two good friends at the battle (Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith). According to the Lord of the Rings Wiki (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Battle_of_the_Somme), Tolkien’s involvement at the Somme lasted from July to October 1916. He served as a battalion signalling officer to the 11th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The was in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge helping to capture the Regina Trench from the Germans. The wretched conditions of the trenches and areas of battle along with stress caused Tolkien to come down with trench fever and trench foot which put him out of the war permanently.