Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A binder full of hominids

Today, students in my Physical Anthropology class did their hominid phylogeny lab.  They were confronted by this cast of characters (from left: Australopithecus afarensis, A. africanus, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Paranthropus boisei, Homo habilis, and H. erectus):

The students' task was to make a series of observations on these skulls, record them, and then use their results to create hypotheses about the phylogenetic relationships among them: how closely or distantly they're related, and who is most likely ancestral to whom.  The observations involved were:
Presence or absence of sagittal crest
Presence or absence of nuchal crest
Rounded or angular occipital area
Overall length of skull
Overall width of face
Maximum width of premolars
Maximum width of molars
Maximum height of brow ridge
It was nice to see the students going around the lab, moving from skull to skull, making their observations and helping each other out.  The real point of the exercise is not whether they come up with the "right" answers (do even the experts know them?).  It's that for a little while, they are engaged with real-world data, or at least as close as we can to it.

And they discover that the real world can be messy. Some of the measurements are fairly straightforward, such as the length of the skull.  But some, such as molar width, are not always so easy, due to the condition of the fossils.  Some of the observations are about deciding whether a feature is present or not.  Sagittal crests are pretty easy to spot, but nuchal crests seem to give them more trouble and I could hear them arguing about it.  Perhaps most perplexing of all is the occipital region: is it rounded, or is there some angularity to it?

I tried to help them by putting out a male orangutan with very clear sagittal and nuchal crests, but it didn't sound like it helped much.  I also suggested that if they find themselves looking at a skull and wondering whether some feature is there or not, it probably isn't.  That may not have helped much either.

For all the above reasons, this is my favorite lab exercise.  We'll see what happens when they turn in their completed assignments next week.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Matthews: Republicans using the Cold War playbook

In the "Let Me Finish" segment of his MSNBC program Hardball last night, host Chris Matthews put a name to the Beast in a way that I cannot recall seeing on the mainstream media.  Matthews drew a parallel between the way the Republicans constantly block virtually anything President Obama tries to do, sometimes including things they themselves had previously supported, and the way the US brought down governments they didn't like (Guatemala, Chile, the Dominican Republic, etc.) during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, when the people of a country elected a leader that the US was not comfortable with, the CIA and other agencies went to work to bring down that leader.  As Matthews puts it, this is what is happening with Obama.  Many Republicans in high places see him as elected by mistake, like Chile's Allende, and so their job is to make him fail, as we did with Allende.  Just as the Chilean people had the temerity to elect for themselves a socialist leader, the American people have elected (twice!) a relatively progressive leader who also just happens to be African American.  This situation must be corrected.

My additional take: Since Obama can hardly be called a "socialist" in any meaningful sense of the term, we are left with the impression that what bothers Republicans the most is that he is African American. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Wait. What?

This may be the weirdest story I've heard in a long time.  I have not yet seen the new documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, about attempts over the years by high-ups in the Catholic church to hide the church's rampant pedophilia.  But, according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle, the makers of the film claim that:
In 1965, the Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, who had co-founded the Servants of the Paraclete, advanced a plan to have the church buy the Caribbean island of Carriacou and even put a down payment on the island. His plan was to move all the pedophilic priests to the island to keep them from harming other children - like some kind of sexual deviant version of an old-fashioned leper colony. While the idea seems absurd, the fact that it was even considered shows how committed the church was to the cover-up.
 Wow.  Can this be true?  Carriacou is where I spent my Peace Corps service (1971-74) and also where I have, over the years, carried out linguistic research on the English and French Creole languages spoken there. Due to its French colonial past, Catholicism has been a fixture of Carriacou culture for centuries.  But this, really?

If it is true, what was supposed to happen if the "sale" went through, I wonder?  Would the local people be allowed to continue living there, and if so, what sort of safeguards would have been put in place to protect the island's children from these repugnant "priests?"  And if the idea was to move them, where would the 3,000 or so people have been moved to?  Or were the descendants of African slaves on a little Caribbean island sufficiently unimportant that nobody really cared? 
And what role might the Grenadian leader of the time, Eric Gairy, have played in this?  Given that Carriacou was typically the center of political opposition to Gairy, and remembering what sort of leader he was, it's not hard to imagine him selling off the people of Carriacou, especially if enough money were involved.
I'm no fan of religion, especially Big Religion, but it's hard even for me to believe that a religion could foster such obscene callousness.