Saturday, August 31, 2013

August 31 Link Round-Up

Kitten in a Cup for to Cheer you Up
The myth of the teenaged temptress.  "It doesn't matter if a young girl is saying yes, it's an adult man's job to say no."  (Blog post in response to the judge who gave a teacher a slap on the wrist in a rape case involving a 14-year-old student who subsequently committed suicide.  The judge basically blamed the victim in his statement)

Employers are not accommodating diverse religions, but evangelicals have no problem expressing themselves at work, unlike others.  Wow.  Surprise.

A new film, God Loves Uganda, documents the rise of evangelical Christianity.

A new book, The Story of the Jews, is really many stories of many Jews, killed during the Middle Ages in Europe for various trumped-up reasons. 

A study of almost 190,000 people shows that religious people are happier when they are poor.  Is it wrong to then have Schadenfreude over the misery that Joel Osteen must be suffering?

Dolphins are dying from a measles-like virus.  Other related viruses have affected dogs and cattle, and vaccines are effective in preventing those diseases.  Vaccinating dolphins could be rather difficult, though!

A shark that walks along the ocean floor has been discovered in Indonesia.  

Another superheavy man-made element makes it onto the Periodic Table.  More for high school students to memorize!

People who watch / listen to conservative media are more likely to distrust science and to deny global warming.  Someone got paid to figure that out!

Book of the week:  Breaking their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment.   A friend recently read this and said it's chilling.  I'm not sure I have the stomach for it but I'll pass along the info here.

Science video of the week:  Sign the petition to name hurricanes after climate-denying lawmakers:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

August 24 Link Round-up

Rationalist assassinated in India. Wow. Just. Wow.

Anti-vaxxer Texas megachurch surprises nobody with measles outbreak.  Another example of child abuse in the name of religion!

Westboro Baptist Church gets another smack-down from another legal venue.  It seems protests at funerals offend just about everybody everywhere.

God tries to smite the creation museum with lightning, misses, only injures one person.

Fundamentalist muslim in Australia says "Kill all Buddhists and Hindus."  Religion of peace.  yeah.

Religion rakes in $82 billion per year.  Well, if tax subsidies count.  I chose the wrong profession!

Video of the Week: Minute Physics on Science, Religion, and the "Big Bang":

Video of the Week 2: 25 Strangest Geological Formations on Earth:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jerry Coyne on Beluga Whales in Confinement

My previous post included a link to a recent decision by the NOAA not to grant permission for importation of captured beluga whales.  Although I follow Jerry Coyne's blog, I had forgotten that he had written a touching and passionate blog post about this petition last year:

Apparently, this is one instance when the good guys won.  Perhaps the outcry by Coyne and his readers and other humans with compassion for other sentient beings has turned the tide for these animals. I hope sentient sea mammals can continue to do what they do without our interference or capture!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On the Ethics of Keeping Animals

Note: there will be no link round-up today because a couple of blog posts and news items inspired the following post:

A recent study found that humans have more empathy for beaten puppies than for human crime victims:
Jack Levin  and Arnold Arluke, sociology professors at Northeastern University, used the opinions of 240 men and women, most of whom were white and between the ages of 18-25 (college students), at a large northeastern university (guess which one) who randomly received one of four fictional news articles about; the beating of a one-year-old child, an adult in his thirties, a puppy, or a 6-year-old dog. The stories were identical except for the victim's identify. After reading their story, respondents were asked to rate their feelings of empathy towards the victim.

Survey results showed that abused adult people have it bad in our culture while dogs have it quite good.  Even the difference in empathy for human children versus puppies was statistically non-significant.
Granted, this study was done within just one part of the American public,  but it raises an important question:  Why do humans hold sentient, social animals in captivity despite our sympathy for them?

This month on the Secular Web, there's an article by Richard Schoenig on whether there can be objective ethics without a deity, and he proposes a system of "ethical rationalism."  He deliberately left aside the issue of ethical treatment of animals other than human beings.  I'm going to try to fill in that gap a little.

Schoenig's "system" includes principles that most people would not dispute regarding human-to-human interactions:
  1. The principle of respect for the life of others ...  to respect the integrity of others' lives... also that we must not cause any unwarranted pain or suffering.
  2. The principle of fairness requires that we give others their due...
  3. The principle of truth-telling says that we must not lie, mislead, or withhold the truth when the situation calls for telling the truth.
  4. The principle of respect for legitimate property ...
  5. The principle of self-support ...
  6. The principle of autonomy (for competent people)
  7. The principle of assistance (PA) states that capable people have a moral obligation under certain circumstances to help those in need who cannot help themselves...
He expands on the last point quite a bit, and to me, this one and the first one are the core values that would apply to relationships between humans and other animals.  Schoenig seems uncomfortable with the idea of rendering assistance, and he goes into detail working out his rather libertarian views on helping others.  He quotes the classic "trolley problem," which I think does apply to our treatment of animals.  In the trolley problem, the subject has to choose between diverting a trolley, thus saving five people but sacrificing one, or letting the trolley run its course, guaranteeing the death of the others further away.   Schoenig's response is rather libertarian, in my opinion, and his calculations lack the one factor that I think causes us to worry about these things in the first place:  compassion.

The trolley problem writ large is a perfect metaphor for our struggle with issues of animal ethics.  For example:

  • Should we prohibit the killing of lions in the savannah because they are endangered, even if it means the lions will eat the villagers' goats and cause them to starve?  Or to Americanize it, should we prohibit the killing of the grey wolf even by farmers who are protecting their livestock?
  • Do we protect the snail darter, a tiny fish from Tennessee Valley Authority's planned dam, which would disrupt its life cycle and destroy its habitat? (The Supreme Court decided in favor of the dam, but the fish were relocated to a different river and it is still a threatened species)
  • Should billions of acres be devoted to corn for animal feed when deforestation is one of the causes of global warming?  If we didn't eat pigs and cows many of those acres could be returned to their native state.
  • Is the human-animal bond sufficient to justify keeping parrots as pets?
  • Should food animals be raised with modern methods to maximize their potential to feed more people?
  • Should we allow the human population to continue to grow, considering how many species we are endangering?
  • Should exurbia continue to sprawl into native habitats when inner cities have vacant housing that could be restored?

Religion isn't very helpful here.  Buddhists revere all life, are strict vegetarians, and literally will not hurt a fly.  On the other extreme are cultures that have no regard for animal life whatever, and engage in what many Americans would consider atrocities.  And then American animal treatment has a long way to go.  In each of the above examples, animals are on the losing end because we consider our needs and comfort to be more important than theirs.

At the risk of sounding post-modern, the less we relate to another, the easier it is to disregard the "other."  The United States no longer has any states where African-Americans are considered 3/5 human, or where women are prohibited from owning property, but current political debate continues to involve the resistance of the "sames" to the "others:"   gays, immigrants, Muslims, etc.  (No debate about whether it's okay to hate atheists, yet, though)

More and more, though, we are accepting that we are not quite as unique as we would like to feel.  We are not the only species to adopt orphans.  We are not the only species to show grief at the death of a family member.  Other species have been found to use tools and to have language-like abilities.  Here are some recent news items about other animals:
As biologists continue to find commonalities with other animals, our biggest uniqueness seems to be the ability to make or break the existence of other species.   Protection of species and the environment have succeeded in part because of enlightened self-interest:  If we continue to  decimate the Brazilian rain forest we might cause the extinction of a plant that could cure cancer!  If we kill too many deer this year, there won't be enough next year for us to hunt!   We love to visit redwood forests, so lets keep some of them for our amusement!
So back to Schoenig.  His Number One rational value is: The principle of respect for the life of others ...  to respect the integrity of others' lives... also that we must not cause any unwarranted pain or suffering.  This stands alone, without respect to our own amusement or comfort.  I can't kill someone to harvest their kidney for myself, nor can I torture him for sport.

Now let's widen the circle a little - to some of the more closely-related "others."  In the 1970s and 1980s, young baboons were sacrificed for their hearts, which were transplanted into infants that died soon after.  The most famous was "Baby Fae."  How did the baboon's mother feel about this?   Nobody thought of that in the 1980s.  Studies of baboon social life indicate that females bond very closely to their female relatives.  ... and they love their offspring.  Yes, love. Parental love is due at least in part to the hormone, oxytocin, which is present in almost all placental mammals.  Let's decide to stop killing primates to harvest their organs, okay?

But what if you could save ten babies named Fae with one baboon heart?  That's the trolley problem.  Fortunately, as in the case of the snail darter, the trolley problem may have been a false dilemma.  (The ethics of keeping doomed babies "alive" is another topic for another day)

"Unwarranted" pain or suffering is the razor's edge, though.  If we hold a human baby's life in higher regard than a baboon's, then the baboon's suffering is justified.  But what if the human benefit is not life-or-death?  And what if the human's chance of survival are not greatly improved by the baboon's sacrifice?  Animal activists have been arguing against unwarranted animal destruction and have been successful in a number of areas:
What got me thinking about ethics and animals was a recent news item in which the U.S. government denied a petition to import beluga whales for public display.  Belugas, like other whales, live in pods.  Separating the individuals from their pods is cruel, and if the recent dolphin study is indicative of cetaceans (marine mammals) in general, they would recognize their pod if reunited.

The debate whether zoos are important has good points on both sides, but as much as I enjoy zoos, I'm starting to view them as being on the wrong side of history.  In the past, we had traveling circuses where people viewed animal tricks, and in general gawked at alien animals.  Then we had Sea World and Siegfried und Roy in stable locations coaching animals to do tricks.

Zoos and Sea World are becoming more humane, though, and nobody wants to follow in Siegried and Roy's dubious footsteps.  Habitat areas in zoos are more similar to the natural habitat, and keepers give the animals stimulating activities.  Sadly, though, too many social animals are still alone in their enclosures, or one of only a few when in the wild they would live in an extended family.  Even if they embrace their keepers in a human-animal bond, it's not the same.  An example is Lucy, an Asian elephant living in the cold climate of Canada, without any other elephants to socialize with.  The zoo claims she's happy.

The educational value of captive enclosures is perhaps the best argument for keeping zoos and aquaria, though I think they could still expand environments.  And we have to admit -- if we're being honest -- cute, beautiful, human-like, or scary animals are still the real attractions.  Would Sea World want those Beluga whales if they didn't look a bit like Homer Simpson?

Land animals can be "preserved" in sanctuaries or wildlife reserves, but preservation of sea animals is more of a challenge.  Their natural range is much further than land mammals, so even turning the Grand Canyon into a sea would not be enough space.

The best argument for zoos and aquaria in my opinion is the advancement of veterinary science for those animals.  We can help injured animals now, and we often do.  If the same could be accomplished by sanctuaries that would be even better.

There are sanctuaries for African animals in the United States, which is rather disturbing.  Many of the animals came from the exotic pet trade, as owners realize their cute little lion cub is not quite as cute as an adult.  A "sanctuary" implies there would be no other option for the animal, and they will be in safe keeping.  But it's still keeping.

Why do we keep animals, either in zoos or as pets?  The animals sometimes suffer terribly.  Parrots pull out their feathers.  Large mammals in small enclosures pace in circles.  Big cats attack zoo employees at their first opportunity.  I think it's because we like them and feel some empathy for them.  Only recently have we become sensitized to their suffering in captivity.

So how do we define our ethical responsibility toward other animals?  Studies of animal behavior can help us define what constitutes suffering for them, not in comparison to our suffering.  I think it comes down to the brain development of the species, and their instinctual needs.  We can assume that all animals with brains can experience pain.  I admit to a need to eat meat, so I can't go the distance to encourage vegetarianism, but farming methods and slaughter methods can be made less painful.

Social animals with brains capable of social bonding should not be separated from their family groups.  This would include other primates, elephants, giraffes, and other zoo staples. If zoos are to continue, they should create social groups and provide sufficient space to support the entire group.  With the advent of webcams, visitors can be shown video images of the animals wherever they happen to be within their space rather than forcing them into small pens.

Aquaria and Sea World shouldn't keep dolphins or whales unless they can give them large spaces to swim.  Animal tricks would not be possible without some kind of human-animal bonding, and I don't dismiss this possibility.  There are many instances in nature when an animal fosters the young of a different species.  But when you consider the large ranges of dolphins and whales, is the distraction of tricks for treats sufficient to make up for what they've lost?

India has banned the keeping of captive dolphins and Costa Rica closed its zoos.  Will Sea World and your local zoo go the way of the circus?

Animals that need to learn their survival behaviors from a family group, are kind of stuck, and they are our responsibility if we have reared them.  This brings us to the libertarian #7 of Schoenig's system: fostering an unhealthy dependence.  When it comes to humans, I don't think this is really that much of a risk.  When it comes to intelligent and social animals, it is definitely a risk. There are many of these.  We habitually rescue animals that need to learn life skills that we can't possibly teach them.  An example is a walrus that is now at the Indianapolis zoo.   Humans and other sentient animals can bond, but should they, erm, we?

Unfortunately, due to our ability to destroy the planet through deforestation, pollution, overpopulation, overfishing, and global warming, all species on the planet are now our responsibility.  They have an unnatural dependence on us whether we have contact with them or not.  In the case of domesticated animals, we created their species so we are 100% responsible for everything related to their suffering and survival.  In the case of endangered species, we have most likely caused their endangered status, so nurturing individuals in rescue/rehabilitation programs is essential.  Preserving the gene pool through zookeeping, maybe not so much.  We should definitely be banking sperm from endangered animals to the extent we can.  We should be saving ecosystems by converting golf courses (yes, golf courses!) and other unnatural spaces back to their original states.

We do indeed have a moral obligation to prevent suffering and care for those animals that depend on us directly or indirectly.

Dogs in "captivity" are also our responsibility because we created their species from wolves.  They do not have the jaw strength to hunt like wolves, and they are juvenile temperaments have been bred into them, so they can't mimic wolf packs as much as people would like to think.  Dogs can revert to "wild" but even in undeveloped areas of the world, they are rather parasitic and seemingly unable to survive away from human settlements.  Mine are happy when I come home and they sleep with me.  Would they prefer to chase squirrels all day?  Possibly.  But they were bred to be companions of humans.

So I'm keeping them.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

More Child Abuse in the Name of Religion

In the local paper today, a Christian couple that starved their children after leaving Muncie to join some cult in Branson, Missouri, are being held to account:

According to documents at the time of their arrest, Jason and Amy Doty told police they had moved to Branson, Mo., in March 2012 “to follow a church ministry there.” While there, the family ran through its savings; the parents acknowledged they would go without feeding the children for two to four days at a time, and had noticed them losing weight but did not seek assistance or medical attention until they returned to Muncie, just days before their arrest.

...The younger girl, who was taken to Riley Hospital for Children for severe malnutrition in June 2012, had stopped walking by the time she was hospitalized, according to police at the time. She eventually learned to crawl and then walk again, but suffered irreversible brain damage as a result of malnutrition, Whitehead reported.Both girls lost much of their hair, had seriously compromised immune systems and had physical problems as a result of poor hygiene. Both still suffer from nightmares and have trouble eating, being prone to “gag and puke” regularly at the table during meals, the aunt said.
But... seven years is the sentence.  Seven years?  They should stay in jail until the children are 18 at least.   And these idiots want to gain custody of the children.  Fortunately, an aunt has taken them in and cared for them and wants to adopt them.

An Arizona couple went even further, geographically at least.  They left the country in a boat -- with their toddler and newborn -- to escape supposed religious persecution in the U.S.  The Young Turks got it right:  God didn't help them navigate, so the couple got lost, then "miraculously" rescued, and they wound up in Chile, where abortion is illegal.  So perhaps God wanted them to be in Chile.... but no, now they're going back to the U.S., paid for by the State Department.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 10 Link Round-up

Baptist pastor expelled from church for attending Rick Ross ("God Forgives, I Don't") concert.  Oh the irony.

The Slate reports on the sexual harrassment problem in secularism.

Crazy Christian in Washington (state) blows up the family dog because it had demons.

Two British teens visiting Zanzibar are the victims of an acid-throwing attack.... because they sang during Ramadan.  Seriously?  Singing?

Conservatives don't care about the consequences of their "morality."  Someone got paid to study that.  I picked the wrong career!

Teens exploited by churches around the country to demand a ridiculous exhibit comparing abortion to the Holocaust.  Even sadder, they're probably aware of being used and proud of it.

Former  basketball coach converts to Islam, goes off the rails, threatens Mormons & Catholics, and gets arrested for pot possession.  Yes, this is the real reason pot is illegal: to get people you don't like off the streets.

Link round-up at a blog I've recently started following, "No Longer Quivering"  Great links, great blog.

Atheism is considered a suicide risk by the military.

Clashes between Hindus and moslems in Kashmir, the only Islamic-majority part of India.

Salon says it misses Hitch more than ever since a video of Kissinger dancing with Colbert goes viral.  (with video interview of Hitch from 2001)

A humanist chaplain at Harvard explains why a humanist/atheist chaplain would be a good idea in the military.

The Barking Atheist challenges Rep. Michael Burgess on his vote to deny atheist chaplains in the military.  Check out the Barking Athiest's blog, too.  His video of this event is the video of the week, below:

Saturday, August 3, 2013

August 3 Link round-up

The big news this week is that Ball State University's president made an unequivocal statement on the non-place of Intelligent Design in science education.

Blog posts of interest, mainly for the comments!

The local paper's comment section continues to be trolled by creationists and idiots:
For comparison, the Huffpo piece has 944 shares, and the latest local story about Ball State being a good deal for the money has zero Facebook shares so far.  So apparently people are paying attention.  I wonder how many re-shares these stories have gotten.

Video of the Week, Saul Becomes a Christian (Atheist Bible Study):
He had to do a second take, which means he was even drunker than usual while reading the Children's Bible. I literally laughed out loud in the middle of this one! My brain says "hey, he's really not that funny" but then I laughed anyway (especially after about 5:20).