On Top of California


With a camera here I stand, on top of a piece of tormented land.

Pushed and pulled, torn and bent. We went to the top and down we went,

On motorcycles from high to low, taking pictures as we go.

Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California is the lowest point in California at -282 feet  (-86 m) below sea level. Less than 100 miles away is the highest point in California, Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet (4421 m) above sea level. In between those two points is a lot of up and down of tumulted land, created by the tension and compression of the Earth’s crust as the North American and Pacific plates slide past each other on the boundary known affectionately as the San Andreas fault. The landscape is dramatic to say the least, and above all makes you realize how small you really are.

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top

Inside the Cal Academy of Science

I took my 6th grade scientists to the California Academy of Science last year. So much to see inside that magical building. So many layers inside other insides. Who would suspect that one could learn so much about the world outside by traveling inside.

For the DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

My Religion is Dirt

A DP Weekly Writing Challenge – Threes

I have never been religious, but I am definitely not an atheist. I am a very spiritual person when it comes to the connection I feel to the natural world around me. When I look at stars twinkling like glitter in the sky I don’t feel small and insignificant, but powerful and connected. There is something greater than me that I am a part of. All things are related by the breath of life that transects each of us and connects us in ways we have yet to discover. Even the soil beneath our feet is alive and vital to our very existence. From dirt we have come, and to dirt we will return.

I have a hard time envisioning a vengeful God in Heaven watching over every action, interaction, and happenstance. Even a caring God feels a bit far fetched. The atoms and chemical reactions that create our physical forms are connected. They date back to the common ancestor of all living things, and even further back in time to the big bang, when all matter in the universe was contained in a singularity. It was all touching and all started at the same instance, and that vibration still exists in each us. We are all forged from the unlikely coordination of stardust and ectropy, and a synergy that is not of a material nature. I don’t expect to understand it, but that does not mean I can’t appreciate it.

The Buddhas and other figures scattered through my garden help remind me of this. They remind me to appreciate my  temporary vantage point of the universe, to give thanks for my luck and ability to walk and breathe and create a meaningful existence. Us sentient beings are like the nerve endings of the universe, here to take note and experience the wonderment that surrounds us. We should all take a moment to breathe deeply and appreciate our unique position in this wondrous, emotional, and temporary roller coaster that is life. Our consciousness may pass but the physical pieces will continue on.

The philosophy that I most associate with (and I have studied many searching for profundity) is Taoism. Here is a small part of verse 15  of the Tao Te Ching (as translated by Jonathon Star).

Through the course of Nature muddy water becomes clear
Through the unfolding of life man reaches perfection
Through sustained activity that supreme rest is naturally found

Those who have Tao want nothing else
Though seemingly empty they are ever full
Though seemingly old they are beyond the reach of birth and death

If you want to see God, look at the stars above. Look at the dirt beneath your feet. Look at the vibrant natural world around you. God is in the details, so make sure you pay attention.

Weekly writing challenge: Threes

Social Evolution

the fighting banana slugs

A Scientific Argument for Being Nice to Each Other

I went to college at U.C. Santa Cruz back when they still refused to give grades for their classes, something that has changed now that the school has grown up and quadrupled its enrollment. I’m proud to say that I graduated with a grade point average of “very good”. Sometimes I was able to earn an excellent in one of my classes, and more often than I would like to admit a satisfactory, and sometimes even the dreaded very satisfactory. Nothing worse than having your professor call your academic performance very satisfactory.

Another unusual aspect was some of the strange interdisciplinary majors the school offered. They were hybrids of academia with alluring and exotic sounding names, like cosmozoology, bioinformatics, and art history. And then of course there was the major that I chose, a combination of Psychology and Biology affectionately called Psychological Biology, or as most called it, psychobio. Many assumed that this was a special branch of life science amounting to biology for psychos, and thinking back to some of the folks in my classes that may have been an accurate description. But pscyhobiology actually consisted of three separate focuses at the time–neuroscience, animal behavior, and social evolution. I specialized in animal behavior myself, which coincidentally perfectly prepared me for a career teaching middle school, but that is another topic altogether. 

cooperation gets results

Social evolution is the study of how social behavior has evolved over time. In many ways social behavior would seem to go against the Darwinian ideal of survival of the fittest, or Richard Dawkins’ idea of the Selfish Gene. Evolution saw animals in nature as inherently selfish and self-serving as they struggled for survival in the grim face of nature. This idea later fueled the egocentric and capitalistic ideals of 20th century materialism and trickle down economic theory. What sort of advantage do creatures gain from pooling their resources and working together? Large populations living in close proximity to each other experience increases in competition for limited resources such as food, shelter, access to mates, and in the case of humans, a paradoxical meme known as money. There are some obvious advantages to social behaviors, such as anonymity of the herd actually decreasing the chances of being eaten by a hungry lion, or the increase of sexual opportunities involved in being a part of large congregation of the same species, or the advantages of hunting in packs to corral and capture prey of all speeds and sizes. But in Darwinian terms the increase in competition would seem to outweigh other benefits, but we know examples of animal species exhibiting social tendencies in nature are plentiful.

In order to better understand social behaviors, social evolutionists broke down all types of social interactions into four basic categories. A social interaction consists of at least two separate individuals coming together, recognizing each other, and sharing some sort of common experience in the face of a cold, dark universe. Taking a page from economists, they used cost benefit analysis to categorize each class of social behavior. All social interactions can be placed into one of the four following categories, and they are described in terms of the cost and benefit for the initiator and recipient of the interaction.

  • Altruistic – this is the most paradoxical category in terms of evolution. This involves a significant cost to the initiator that benefits only the recipient. Folks who risk their lives to save strangers are perfect examples of this. It goes right in the face of everything Darwin proposed in his theories, and is seen as a highly evolved behavior. While it is assumed that only humans engage in this, it has been proven that other cognitively gifted animals such as dolphins and dogs will sometimes display altruistic behavior. It is so rare in nature and human society that individuals displaying this tendency are turned into heroes, canonized or awarded the nobel peace price, and possibly martyred when paradigms shift, or when some selfish asshole buys or murders their way into a position of power.
  • Cooperative – this is the most obvious reason for social interaction. This involves a benefit for both the initiator and the recipient. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. While humans have accomplished many great things employing this strategy, it is also prevalent throughout the biosphere, and can happen between different species and even between kingdoms. In my opinion it is actually a thinly veiled selfish behavior, because even though I’m helping you, I’m really doing it to help myself. But the important thing to mention is that more than one organism is finding a benefit. And I think most can agree that it is the best way to affect positive (or sometimes negative) change in the world around us. United we stand, strength in numbers, yada, yada, yada.
  • Selfish – this is a much lower behavior on the social evolution hierarchy. Selfish behavior involves a benefit to the initiator and a cost (sometimes quite significant) to the recipient. This is all too prevalent in the natural world and the human world, and I truly believe our societies would be much better off without so much rampant selfishness. Your ego is not your amigo, or anyone else’s amigo for that matter. Compassionate, generous, philanthropic, charitable, giving, caring, and benevolent are all considered antonyms for selfish, so it would seem that selfish behavior is considered a very low and despicable type of interaction.
  • Spiteful – in terms of social behavior, this is the lowest of the low, and it is even rarer in nature than altruistic behavior. Except, of course, when it comes to humans, who really know how to hold a grudge and not let go. Ever.  It involves a cost to both the initiator and the recipient. Literally nobody benefits, and a lot of times it ends up affecting way more people than just the two individuals involved in the initial interaction. It’s like going miles out of your way to tell someone how much they suck, and maybe even throw a couple rocks or bullets at them as well. This is spiteful, unless of course putting other people down makes you feel better about yourself, in which case you are not being spiteful. You are just a selfish asshole. But this doesn’t answer the most important question of all– are internet trolls being spiteful or selfish?

Screen shot 2014-02-20 at 2.44.08 PM

Oh Wikipedia, don’t you know that bees dying for the hive is not altruistic because they are all related. They are dying to protect their sisters and mother which populate the hive, and dying for a family member that shares the same genes as you doesn’t count as altruism. It is selfish behavior dictated by the degree of genetic relatedness. Bees and ant colonies are actually one large family unit, and due to the fancily termed phenomenon of haplodiploidy, this is not altruism at all. And my students wonder why wikipedia should not be used a primary source for information.

So where does that leave us? Great question. I’ve included this silly little chart below to help us all understand the best places to hang out on this hierarchy, as well as the best places not to hang out. If humans are inherently good and inherently social creatures, let’s start engaging in some more positive social behaviors. It really will make the world a better place.

Screen shot 2014-02-20 at 4.32.51 PM

So what do you think? Are these helpful distinctions to make? Will being more thoughtful in our social interactions with others create positive change in the world? Do you even care?

storytelling chimps

“The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.”

– Terry Pratchett, The Science of Discworld II: The Globe (via thejunglenook)

Chimpanzee Using Typewriter (by mosatrap)

A Different Kind of Love

Inter-racial? Same sex?
These distinctions are petty.
What about inter-species love?
What about love between kingdoms?
Can a bee love a flower?
Can a flower love a bee?
o they need each other?
Isn’t that Love?

a different kind of love (by flora-file)

Past, Present, Future

Another Object, for the DP Weekly Photo Challenge

thunder lizard skulll

science is a bridge between the past and the future

As a middle school science teacher and recovering biologist, I  love what this photo represents. Science is a bridge between the past and the future. It uncovers the past and shapes the future. The only thing that might have made it better was if I had actually captured a scientist working in the background. Apparently they were not working so hard that day.