Dr. English's Blog
There were a bunch of 'break out' groups, not just mine.
The organizer of the meeting crafted these smaller groups rather intentionally. The overall meeting must have had several hundred attendees and the break-out groups were smaller - something like 10-20 in each. The organizer chose my group pretty craftily: he put together a slew of Natural Scientists with a collection of Old Testiment Divinity/Theology folks together in one group. I was asked to facilitate discussion on a list of topics we were given and I would report back our interactions to the organizer at a later date.
I should also mention that we all work at Christian colleges/universities.
Among the things we talked about was how we "treated" evolution in our classrooms. I suppose this question wouldn't have a lot of legs in some other break-out groups - I suspect the group consisting of folks from the Business Department and Foriegn Languages don't deal a whole lot with this topic (though I could be wrong) as those of us in the Biology & Physics and Divinity & Theology probably do. It was a healthy discussion with the variability I expected to see represented - on both sides of campus (science & religion). This is a bigger issue (with both students and faculty) at some of the member's institutes than at others, and there were a range of professors in our group who represented differences in the classroom from teaching only science to giving equal weight to non-scientific understandings. At some universities this topic has been treated carefully and at others, it's not been an issue.
Later, we discussed a different question: something like "what topics in your field would be fruitful to serve as a theme for future conferences?" Among the topics our small group brought up was "Sustainability" and our discussion on this topic was energetic and touched on climate change and environmental issues and the term "Creation Care". While in the discussion on 'evolution' above, I expected some opinions to range broadly (given the specifics of the group memebers), I didn't really expect to have much divergence in opinions on this issue (at least from the scientists). Yet I was surprised that more than a couple folks expressed thoughts such as "...climate change is just a theory, right?" and "...there is still a lot of doubt about this, right?" and "... this whole environmental thing is just a fad, it will go away."
Though I didn't hear it in this meeting, I have heard statements like this before: "God gave us dominion over the Earth; it's ours to do what we want with it" and "I don't believe in extinction - God wouldn't let one of His creations go extinct" and even "... Global warming doesn't matter - Jesus is returning soon, I'm just trying to speed up His return."
As a population biologist, conservation ecologist, Christian and faculty member in a sustainability program, I reckon there's a lot I could say about both of these topics, but this isn't the time or place for that. The thing I noticed, the interesting thing to me was the overlap.
Imagine a Venn diagram - circles including sets of people and their opinions. One circle contains those folks who don't understand or accept the modern scientific explanation of how populations / species continue to exist in a changing world (fairly or unfairly I'll use the term: Biological Evolution Denyers), and another circle containing folks who don't know about, understand or accept that climates and ecologies are changing on the planet due to human activities (I'll use the term: Climate Change Denyers). When these circles are overlapped to show the folks in each circle that are common to both groups, I wonder how much overlap there is. According to the opinions expressed in our small group, there was considerable overlap. I recognize there are issues of sample size, the non-randomness of the population at the meeting and deliberate assignment of members to group, just as there are issues with the complexity of defining the circle - these issues are not bimodal for most folks - they don't lend themselves to easy "inside the cicle" or "outside the circle" characterization necessary for a Venn diagram.
But, based on the comments that were expressed, if I were to classify these group members' responses, the observed overlapping on these issues was interesting. It's just an observation, and I brought it up to the group to see what they made of it. I guess I've noticed this general tendency when talking to people over the years, but it was so obvious in our small group setting as we talked about these topics. Perhaps what made it more interesting is that these circles (the Denyers) in our small group included people from both sets of professions (science and religion).
Strangely, bringing this to the attention of the group - or verbalizing it - lead to an uncomfortable silence.
The Old Testiment folks came to my rescue.
"Genesis," someone said. "It stems from how your read Genesis 1 & 2. It's the intersection of how you understand the Bible and your world-view." Other Old Testiment folks chimed in, as this is their area of expertise. They all were very familiar with the idea that your world-view affects how you approach and understand the Old Testiment, and that, in turn, affects how you view the world. I know this sounds like a circular arguement to some extent, but it certainly has some truth in it. This is certainly a topic they were familiar with, even if the implications are something I am famililiar with (Climate Change Denyers). It's certainly a cross-campus, integrated and complex set of interacting issues. ...and sticky.
For now, that's all I want to say about this. I really just want to share that observation and not attach any jugement to it. This is some fertile ground, to be sure. I'll probably return to pieces of this topic later on, in a more focused way.
Jebediah was a bad dog.
Jeb was one of the best dogs, in some ways, but he was bad.
At 200 pounds, he was too big to be bad.
Jeb was a free-willed guy. It was hard to be mad at him. Maybe that was the problem.
He ate the leather couch when he was about a year old. Ate it. Gone. Pooped it out in the yard.
And the red leather chairs... both of them. The whole couch but just the arms of the chairs.
And the green corduroy recliner chair.
And the arms of the re-covered red chairs.
And the re-covered corduroy recliner chair.
He didn't learn.
We didn't learn.
Jeb loved the cats. They're his cats. They loved Jeb, too...
When Jeb was outside, the cats wouldn't go outside.
Something about being outside made Jeb want to play with the cats.
He would play-bow to them so they'd know he was just playing, but they didn't get it.
Jeb would play-bow, the cat would get tense, Jeb would launch at them and the cat would scram back into the house.
The back yard is 2-tiered. An upper yard that extends into the woods, a cinder-block wall cut into the steep slope, and a lower small yard that goes right up to the small patio and back door of the house. In the cinder-blocks and the shrubs that line the wall, and the tunnels all around the yard, live a sizable scurry of chipmunks. Tamias striatus, eastern chipmunks, are roughly midway between the size of a meadow vole and a common gray squirrel. There's only one species of chipmunk in the eastern U.S.. (though there is a Western chipmunk and a somewhat similar-looking 13-lined ground squirrel out in the prairie states); they are kind of gold or amber in color with a light stripe in between two dark brown stripes running down each of their sides. You'll know one when you see it. They're pretty common in the forrest-field interfaces of middle Tennessee where we live. They come out in the day, pick up little seeds, dig for grubs and bugs, roots and fruits.
Our chipmunks race between the block wall and the woods, jumping onto tree trunks when they get nervous. They hibernate in the winter (well, more or less they hibernate... they go into torpor, technically), but a couple weeks before Earthday they start waking us up in the morning with their chirping, or "chipping", the sound for which they get their common name. It's not a musical, complex or even very interesting sound. You'd probably think it was a very persistent bird if you didn't know better. Just a "chip... chip... chip... chip... ". They seem to be proud of how long they can keep up their monosyllabic message. And they are self-assured little rodents, too, because they master that one word and scream it far louder than you might think possible. One syllable, very, very loud, at a rate of one "chip!!!" every two seconds (or there about). All morning, for hours.
...at least as long as Jeb is out there.
So, we had to get rid of Jeb because of the furniture. He was eating us out of house and home, literally. As long as we were in the house, he was fine. But if we left for more than two hours or so, it was a coin toss if we had any furniture when we got back. Let's just say Jeb wasn't sustainable. So, we found him a new home. Some nice folks in North Carolina with four kids, a big yard and a stay-at-home-mom.
Within a couple days of Jeb's move to his new place, I noticed the "chipping" stopped in the mornings. The "chipping" song was so noticeable, so reliable that it actually woke me up when it wasn't there in the mornings.
It was the cats.
With Jeb not around, the cats moved to the yard. Now they stalk the chipmunks. They love them. They're the perfect prey for our clawless cats: slow enough to catch, big enough to fight back, they've got tunnels to dive into so it's not too easy, and the chipping gives them away. The cats have gone to work. Especially Ruby. He's a great hunter. We put a bell on his collar so the little guys would know he's coming, but Ruby is slinky and sneaky and he works overtime. Once in a while we can catch him before he kills the chipmunk, but he's got a collection of 'em now. I estimate he gets one every other day, on average. With Jeb gone, the cats have decimated the scurry of chipmunks that were living on our little slope of edge habitat. When we saw what was going on, we knew exactly what to call this phenomenon. It's the same thing that happened to the whole Eastern Seaboard over a 200-year period. Well, most of the Eastern Seaboard, anyway -- from the Mid-Atlantic area North through New England. Meso-Predator Release.
When the Colonists came to this country in the 1500's, they didn't have a huge impact on the environment for a hundred years or so, mainly because there was so few of them, they lived in tight little villages and just tried to survive. But by the mid 1600's, the little villages became towns, and in a few areas, cities. Colonists were encouraged to "improve the land", which of course meant cut down all the trees, plant crops, raise livestock, build a home, put up fences, kill off any wolves. At that time, trees were so large they were commercially harvested and returned to Europe on the otherwise empty ships that had brought people over. By the late 1600's, some Colonies were passing laws to regulate deer hunting because white-tail deer had become so scarce. By the early to mid 1700's writers were bemoaning the loss of Nature's bounty in many ways, not just the scarcity of deer. But wolves, bear and the occasional cougar were still hunted... killed, actually. Bounties were paid for these top predators, because they were thought of as threats to livestock and people, and because the ecology behind the importance of apex predators wasn't understood at the time, these apex predators were thought to be part of the cause of the declining deer populations (a supplemental source of food for many folks and a major source for others).
Though they were out there, skunks, mink, raccoon, fishers, otters, foxes, even large snakes - these middle sized predators, or Meso-Predators, were not usually found in high numbers. It's not that there were lots of wolves, bears and cougars, but the fact that these apex predators existed in significant numbers kept the Meso-Predator numbers reduced. Apex predators would eat rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, voles, mice and birds, competing with the Meso-Predators, but they would also eat a few of the Meso-Predators. When the apex predators were removed, the numbers of the Meso-Predators would increase quite a bit (thus the name of this phenomenon: Meso-Predator Release). But, this in turn would often reduce the number of prey available causing wild fluctuations in the populations of prey and middle predators. It's a great example of an ecological phenomenon called Top-down control, a type of Trophic Cascade. In short, the presence of a natural level of Apex predators keeps steady population levels of all the critters below them; when the apex predators are removed, complicated and sometimes unpredictable changes occur. The top predators are actually controlling, to some degree, the numbers in the trophic levels beneath them. Top Down control of an ecosystem and Meso-Predator Release.
Even though he didn't hurt the cats, with Jeb in the yard, the cats didn't hunt the chipmunks. The cats mostly stayed inside. With Jeb gone, the cats went out and hunted the chipmunks. Good thing our Jeb - Ruby - Chipmunk ecological system is artificially supported by cat food.
Certainly this is an artificial system. What's going on in our backyard isn't a natural system and it doesn't perfectly model the ecological systems that have been studied. But still, it anecdotally demonstrates the Meso-Predator Release phenomenon pretty well, even if it is artificial, overly simplified, uncontrolled (in a scientific sense) and unmeasured. It's a cartoon, a model.
Though if he were still with us, I'm sure we'd be down to a couple wooden stools and the breakfast table, I miss Jeb. He was a good guy. The chipmunks miss him, too, I suspect. Though he made chaos inside the house, it seems he kept things stable outside. That's a weird thing to think about.
Being a person of faith, I'm pretty familiar with "guilt". Though Catholics claim to be the professionals in this field, protestant Christians are also pretty expert in the usage of guilt, with some brands or church denominations more into it than others. It's a useful tool, guilt. An inexpensive way to control behaviors. Guilt is a hardy weed that's planted in the heart, and when done right, is pretty difficult to remove. It's got a long half-life. It nags at you, oftentimes even after an action has been changed... there's guilt for not doing something, then, once you decide to 'do right', there's an aftertaste of guilt because it took you so long to change your ways.
I'm defining guilt as a private shame. Guilt is a lot like regret. They are siblings, these two tools of behavior. Maybe they are synonyms, maybe they are similar but distinct from each other. Maybe one experiences guilt over something they haven't done but they feel they should do - a little different from regret; regret, then, is remorse for something that you did do - but wish you hadn't. Or maybe they are the pre- and post- feelings that sandwich an undesired action: you feel guilt before doing something you shouldn't - and if it's strong enough you don't do it, and regret is the bitter aftertaste you feel if you do the bad act. I haven't looked up these words to be exact or lean on an established definition, I'm just trying to figure it out.
But it's been my experience that religion uses guilt to change behavior; those of us in the common congregation agree to a set of norms and guilt is one of the tools we use to get ourselves and others to live up to those standards. If we truly believe, we want to measure up to the behaviors we agree are desirable. When we run our analysis, compare our observed data (our actions) to the control (the desired or expected behavior), guilt is what we experience when we look at that significant P-value telling us there is a significant difference between these two sets. We dislike the bad feeling, the regret we feel, enough to make us act differently next time, maybe.
So that's guilt, as used by religion - specifically Christianity; I wonder if Buddhists or Hindus use guilt. I suspect they do, at least to some degree. Society outside religion certainly does, at least in the Western society where I live. A quick Amazon search shows this is a healthy area of commentary. A lot of books on the topic.
The professional field I work in has been using guilt as one of its main tools for a few decades... really since it formally began. It's certainly familiar: a video of a polar bear on a snowfield- white on white. The camera backs away to reveal the bear is on a slab of ice, floating on the water, miles from anywhere. The message is that even this noble, wild creature - as far from concrete and car fumes as one can imagine - lives in a fractured state, a melting ice-raft of Nature - and the message is, it's our fault. The obvious connection for the viewer is to internalize What I do is causing this damage; I should act differently. And for most of us, there is certainly some truth in this message.
Assuming we have a shared value of Nature, assuming that we all want the polar bear, and wilderness, and The Environment to exist and be healthy - if we all share this value, then it's the job of the Environmentalist (it seems) to make the connection between our shared values and our actions that are counter to them. Nature, the thing we value, is being harmed by many of our actions or behaviors. We are given lists of behaviors that are bad, and alternatives, which are desired. When we look at our own behaviors and find that they are among the 'bad' behaviors, we feel guilt. That guilt is supposed to motivate us to change our behaviors so we don't have internal discord; we love Nature but our behaviors don't reflect it. We want to remove that tension - we love Nature, after all. So, guilt is one tool we use to change behaviors, to resolve the dissonance between our values and our actions.
I was in a meeting the other day, a tour, really, and they had refreshments at one of the stops: Apples, oranges, bananas, M&M's, bottled water and soft drinks. Because I love Nature and don't like internal discord, I had my personal water carrying device with me and had been filling it up in various bathroom sinks all day, as is my routine. My bottle was empty at this point and I looked around for a restroom to fill it up. It's pretty rare to be too far from a restroom in modern circumstances, but at the moment there wasn't one, and watching everyone crack open cans and water bottles made me really want one of those ginger ales chilling in the ice bucket. The sodas being offered were those mini-can varieties, not a full 12 ounce can, maybe 6 ounces or so. The reasoning going on in my head was that I wasn't really that thirsty and the half-can would be a reasonable amount of fizzy sugar water. If it were a full can, I would resist because I wasn't a full-can thirsty. These half-cans were a good compromise, and besides, I wasn't going to eat any of the snacks because we had been served lunch only an hour before. And anyway, as my line of rationalization went, at lunch I chose the 'garden lasagna' because it sounded like it might have a lower environmental footprint to produce than the 'chicken marsala' option, and I drank water from my trusty water bottle in an admittedly pharisaical display of eco-frienldy behavior, there in a upper-middle-class restaurant in a trendy, newly developed part of town. And so, the mental scales in my head tilted in such a way as to convince me that I deserved the reasonably sized indulgence, so I cracked open the can and drank the refreshing drink and felt less bad - less guilty - than I would have if it were a standard 12 ounce can. I even felt a little bit good about myself, partly due to my recent string of good decisions - the good behaviors that I had been exhibiting in the past few hours, and partly due to the refreshing goodness of the moderate amount of cold ginger ale.
By the time the empty can had lost its coolness I realized both my hands were holding empty metal containers: the empty half-size container of ginger ale, and my ever-present personal canteen. Wanting to get rid of the evidence that I was like everyone else in the room, that I am also a glutinous super-consumer, I looked around for a recycling bin. I was pretty amazed that there wasn't one, just a single land-fill bound trash bag, getting filled up with paper napkins (provided to absorb the condensation that developed because of the ice that was produced and trucked in to cool our CO2-enhanced sugar water); compostable banana peels, half-eaten apples and orange rinds; candy wrappers; plastic water bottles and aluminum cans. So there I stood, truly downtrodden because I would have to send my midget can to a hole in the ground, somewhere in middle Tennessee, rather than a facility where the resources in the can could be processed and re-used in some down-cycling process. I felt stupid, duped, weak, like a thoughtless drone. And guilty. Or maybe I felt regret. Maybe I felt guilt for throwing the can away and regret for drinking the unnecessary product.
I didn't need the 6 ounces of carbonated refreshment, but I wanted it and felt I had earned the small bit of temporary pleasure. I gave in, and now this. Days later, I'm still thinking about it, still feeling the sting of regret and oppression of guilt for not recycling the can. I guess I'll get over it, in time. It was only a half-can.
But I'm left wondering about this tool that's used. I wonder about these two systems I'm involved in - Religion and the applied side of Environmental science - Sustainability, and wonder if Guilt is really the best tool to use in changing behaviors.