Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I feel alone at times
Without the ego scaffolding
That used to keep me
Working on the walls

It’s left me quite exposed
Now that it’s gone
But there is much to do inside
And I’ve no further need to hide

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Another Darwinian Fairytale

Here's a new Just So story that Kipling would be proud of: Many years ago in the distant land of Africa a small troop of human-like primates emerged from the forest and noticed a herd of antelope nearby. "What a delicious dinner," grunted one of the apes. "Let's go get one." Whereupon the hirsute hominid picked up a stick and began running towards the herd.

Fortunately for the primate, the creatures weren't hard to catch. After all, this was a long time ago when animals weren't nearly as fast. And these antelope had never seen a two-legged monkey before and didn't think they were dangerous. At first the antelope just looked at the man with curiosity. Then when they could see that this novel being was coming right for them, they decided to run away. Sadly for them they didn't run fast enough and the man caught up with the oldest (and slowest) animal and beat it with a stick. That night the primates had meat for dinner.

Many years passed and the man-like beings kept chasing after the antelope. After a few generations they started raising children that were faster than normal. This was a promising development. They would be able to catch more antelope. But the antelope started getting faster too and so they had to be content with an escalating status quo.

As generations turned into millennia and millennia turned into a vague infinitude, the apes became humans and the man/antelope relationship became something truly unexpected. It involved vast amounts of time and evolutionary pressure. But the antelope came to run as fast as 50-60 miles an hour over short distances and the men, while not being able to run nearly as fast, could keep running for hours and could eventually run an antelope to the ground out of sheer persistence.

This, of course, is not a true story. Even so, amazing as it might seem, there are many people - including scientists, athletes, and the generally gullible public - that think it is. The whole scenario (with a lot more detail) has come to have a sophisticated name. It's called "persistence hunting". It is the newest evolutionary explanation of why humans are capable of running so fast and for so long.

The latest issue of Outside magazine (May 2011) has a story of a few marathon runners chasing American antelope just to see if it might be possible. Sadly, they failed, but not without coming close enough to make the whole thing seem plausible. Plausible, that is, to people who don't know any better. For in fact, the possibility of this sort of thing really happening is less likely than any of Kipling's famous stories.

For starters, antelope were not slow creatures all those many years ago. Lions, cheetahs, hyenas and their earlier ilk were happily pawing the African plain and were eager to chase any antelope too slow to get away. Even if our physical ancestors did emerge from the African forests, they would never have been fast enough to catch an antelope or have a chance of running one down. Besides, marathon runners are not the human norm. Even after millennia of this so-called evolutionary leg race, an average human being (not to mention somebody in good shape) would have no chance.

But you might argue that marathon runners prove otherwise. This is hardly true. Marathon runners are impressive, no doubt, but they are an example of highly trained individuals, not the average direction of our species. They have merely taken our existing human capabilities and pushed them to a limit. In a natural population this doesn’t happen because being well adapted to a certain place involves an entire suite of characteristics. You can’t over-emphasize one without affecting the others.

An antelope is not just adapted to run fast. It is also well adapted to eat the local plants, to blend into the landscape, to fight disease. If you emphasize just one trait, you sacrifice some of the others. This is one of the clearest lessons we have learned through hundreds of years of breeding plants and animals. This is why our domestic breeds almost never survive (or remain true breeds) when left on their own in the wild.

And besides antelope are not domestic breeds. Neither are the animals that hunt them. Surely we could capture lions and breed them for speed if we really wanted to. Such animals would be faster than the ones chasing wildebeest in the wild. But the truth remains that the changes caused by domestic breeders don't happen in nature - no matter how many of our evolutionary apologists try to convince us otherwise. Our many creative breeding programs (spanning millennia) have never been able to make an organism better able to survive in the natural world.

I don't mean to suggest that natural selection doesn't happen - of course it does. Over time, if there were enough environmental pressures acting upon us, we might become faster runners. But this hardly gets us past the huge gap between an arboreal monkey and the antelope-chasing human. Adaptable we may be. Inevitable products of primate evolution is another thing altogether.

Another point I would like to make is that these Just So stories are human-directed stories, just like all domestic breeding projects are human-directed stories of one kind or another. If there is any evolutionary significance in any of them it is that humans can manipulate nature - that we are capable of altering the Creation. Even a highly trained marathon runner is using his or her God-given agency to literally run against nature - of over-developing one capacity at the expense of others. No other species will do this. It’s easy enough to extrapolate from breeding projects to major evolutionary change but our only real point of departure in this sea of speculation is our given genetic endowment – with its remarkable (and limited) adaptability.

What the real prehistory of mortal man involves is a mystery to us all. And so I suppose that I should be more patient with these evolutionary stories. But when the narrative motivation becomes misanthropy and the meaning of human life becomes a mere reproductive calculation, I object. There are, I believe, reasons for our reason, and obvious clues to our conscience - Darwinian fancies notwithstanding.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Juvenile Delinquency and the Miracle of Marriage

Last summer my nephew – I’ll call him Jay – came to live with us. He was in a great deal of trouble in another state and was being held by authorities because of his delinquent behavior. You see, Jay had missed the previous school year – all of it – because he decided he didn’t want to go to class. And then things went from bad to worse when he started taking illegal drugs.

Jay’s father died from a brain tumor over six years ago. When his mother took a job requiring her to leave home early each morning, Jay took advantage of the situation and stopped going to school. He always had a good excuse and his mother found it difficult to constantly argue with him.

So when school started last fall, Jay had to catch up on a full year of classes in a place he was unfamiliar with. Fortunately Fresno has a school targeting troubled students like Jay and we were able to get a curriculum together that met his needs. For us, however, we were understandably concerned about the influence Jay would have in our home. He was (is) sleeping in the same room as our son and next door to our daughter. When, just a couple of weeks after moving in, he was suspended from school for being caught with drugs, our concerns increased.

I sat down with Jay and told him that I wanted to be supportive and that I was willing to help him if I could. But I also let him know that I would not tolerate drugs in our home. If he made mistakes, I would work with him, but I would send him back to his former version of juvenile jail if he was ever caught with drugs again. I let him know that I could not be a responsible father and allow such things in my home.

Jay continued to struggle after this. But he did manage to stay drug free. One day we received a call from one of his teachers. He told us that Jay was in trouble. Kathy hurried over to school, quietly walked into his class and sat in the back. She didn’t have to say anything but Jay learned that we were serious about his behavior at school.

Then there were times when he would just disappear and go visit one of his friends from school. This didn’t seem like a big deal to Jay. We weren’t his real parents, after all, and what’s the harm of having friends? When I explained to him that I had no way of trusting anybody from a school filled with delinquent youth, he began to see my point.

Part of the trouble was that our home is quite boring for youth. We have strict (limited) rules about television and computer use. We also lack most popular electronic games. We rely on good books, outdoor activities and the occasional DVD for entertainment. It took some time for Jay to adapt to this.

In fact we all had to adapt to our new situation. This was particularly difficult at times when Jay tried to cover up his misbehavior. For me, a big challenge was taking an hour after school to help him with his homework. This was time I normally dedicated to my own studies. Kathy had more errands to run, more laundry to do and a much bigger culinary responsibility. Jay is, after all, a big boy.

That said, there were also a number of things that came together that helped Jay give up his bad habits. In fact, Jay has not only changed a few habits, he has changed from a sad and rebellious boy into a caring and trustworthy young man. And it is this change that prompts me to write this essay and become a little philosophical about his situation.

A simple example might illustrate this change. Several months ago, Jay would occasionally do something wrong around the house. He would then try to cover it up. He didn’t think we knew he was guilty. After troubling myself about how to deal with this dishonesty, I finally taught him of the importance of admitting mistakes in a non-threatening context. I told him that I would not be hard on him if he admitted his mistakes before being caught.

Several months passed and then one day on the way to the gym, Jay told me that he had either misplaced a school book or someone had stolen it. Either way he would need to pay for it. I was extremely proud of Jay for this confession and I could tell that he was changing. A couple of days later he was quite pleased to tell me that the book had been found.

As of today, more than seven months since he first arrived, Jay has no more desire to be rebellious. He has overcome his craving for drugs. He participates actively and with pleasure at church (where he refused to be involved before). He even getting out of bed an hour early in order to attend an early morning scripture study class for youth (we call it Seminary). His new friends are upstanding individuals that we are comfortable with. What is really impressing his mother is that he is doing well in all his classes (getting A’s and B’s). He has even been recognized as a star student by his teachers.

One thing that helped Jay get his mind off of his problems was his developing interest in insects. I am an entomologist and keep a collection of my own at home, and Jay and I were able to take several weekends off to go collecting. We still do. For Christmas, Jay got a kit to start his own collection. He now knows all the major orders, many families and even the full scientific names of several local species. He has even been invited to talk to elementary schools on the subject and is being recognized as a bit of an authority by some of his peers. He takes pride in this.

Another very positive effect has been Jay’s Seminary teacher. She is a woman that has refused to judge him negatively. Instead she has been very supportive. Her most noticeable characteristic is an unconditional love for others (along with a talent for making great cookies!). She has had a tremendous influence in helping Jay change his view of organized religion. Where he used to see religious youth as brainwashed hypocrites, he now sees them as friends struggling with their own problems and needing each other’s support.

Jay’s transformation has been truly remarkable and yet I am not sure I can put my finger on what has been the most important part in this change. I have become keenly aware of the studies surrounding fatherless boys and of the great impact that a father figure (even a poor one) has on these youth. I am certainly convinced that this is a social issue requiring our determined attention.

Yet I can’t pinpoint any single thing that anybody has done that is clearly the most important element in this change. I fail to see the direct relationship between my own existence in Jay’s life as a father figure (considered in isolation) and his remarkable change. To be honest, my direct involvement has not been that extensive. It consists of being present at dinner, for our family devotional, and for an occasional family discussion. Occasionally I will sit down with Jay one on one. But Jay no longer needs my help with homework and our routine family life has been resumed, with the exception that he is willing to help with our family chores.

To what then do I owe this great change? My answer – given after much thought - is that it is the home environment surrounding a committed marriage. This is an environment that I often take for granted. It is also an environment that can often be invisible because of the frustrations of making a living, keeping up with family responsibilities, and just living life.

But there is an order that inheres to a traditional marriage whether we see it or not. Certainly the absence of the father can cause far-reaching harm. But it requires the combination of a father and a mother to create an environment of healthy growth and development. For in fact, the true wonderment of Jay’s transformation is that no one has changed Jay. He has rather found a place where his true nature can manifest itself. He is, at heart, a caring and responsible young man. He just needed a place (just like all of us do) where he could learn to be himself.

What I have learned is a simple but profound truth about human nature. We don’t need to force good behavior onto our children or the youth of our communities. They will each grow in to the beautiful individual that is inherently a part of their natures if the environment is right for that growth. They will grow toward the light that resonates with their own light. We just need to make sure the light is visible. More than we might realize, this happens in a traditional home. In fact it is difficult for it to happen anywhere else. It happens through the miracle of marriage.