What is a species?

What is a species? In a field ornithology class, I was taught that a species is a unit of biological classification (a taxon), a set of organisms whose members can interbreed with each other; but if one species interbreeds with another species, they will produce either no offspring, or infertile offspring. A species, then, is defined (so my professor said) by the possibility of successful breeding.

There are other ways to define what a species is. In his book The Social Amoebae: The Biology of Cellular Slime Molds (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ., 2009), John Tyler Bonner outlines two other ways of defining a species:

“The tradition for cellular slime molds’ classification is entirely based on their morphology. I can remember way back discussing this point with Kenneth Raper, who himself discovered many of the new species, and he was quite adamant that the classification of the group was for the purpose of making them easy to identify; it said nothing about their phylogenetic relations. This is in the spirit of Linnaeus, who thought each species was created by an act of God, and who has been the basis of taxonomic keys beloved by some (not me!) through the centuries.” (p. 19)

In other words, a species is a conceptual tool for making classification easier for the scientists who study organisms. Or, a species gives us insight into the act of God which created that species; it is a kind of category of theological ontology.

And there is yet another way of looking of species: a species is defined by common ancestors:

“For taxonomists, the ultimate goal is to classify every plant according to clean monophyletic clades, in which each group contains all the descendants from a common ancestor and none from parallel lines.” Thomas J. Elpel, Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification 6th ed. (Pony, Mont.: HOPS Press, 2013, p. 22).

In other words, organisms within a given species will share a common evolutionary ancestor; and the further classification of that species into genus, family, order, etc., gives us insight into how that species evolved. This helps us understand that a species is not a static category. A species is not, as Linneaus thought, a static insight into the way things were created in the past and always will be in the future. For example, the Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides) complex, comprising subspecies L. glaucoides glaucoides, L. g. kumlieni, and L. g. thayeri may represent speciation in action: subspecies that are evolving perhaps into becoming full species. More broadly, the genus Larus consists of closely related species some of which have only recently evolved into separate species. Thus, sometimes species give us a look at evolution in action.

14th birthday

14 years ago yesterday, on February 22, 2005, I published my first blog post. I didn’t tell anyone about my blog, but within a couple of days it had been found by the other Unitarian Universalist bloggers. There were maybe 40 explicitly Unitarian Universalist bloggers in 2005. Not many of those people are still writing UU blogs: Scott Wells and Vicky Weinstein are the only ones who come to mind.

This has been the most difficult year I’ve had since I started this blog. I developed a pulmonary embolism in mid-February, 2018, which didn’t get diagnosed until mid-April. That illness left me with little energy, and for much of the past twelve months about all I’ve been doing is sleeping and going to work (trust me, a pulmonary embolism is not something you ever want to have). As a result, I haven’t been putting much energy into this blog.

Another thing that made it hard for me to write blog posts: the reality of my father’s death finally sank in sometime in the last year. Since 2005, I’ve been writing blog posts primarily with my dad in mind. Mind you, he became incapable of reading in November, 2014 (he died in April, 2016), so the reality is that he hasn’t been reading this blog for nearly three years. Yeah, I know I’m a little slow on the uptake here. But I only recently figured out that I’m no longer sure who it is I’m writing for.

An interesting moment in my blogging year came in early August after my post Boomers, step away from the power structure. I heard from a number of UU Millennials that they were so pleased that a Baby Boomer named something that they’ve been seeing for quite some time: that we Baby Boomers are clinging to power within Unitarian Universalism. I also got some very thoughtful replies from Gen-Xers generally agreeing with me, but also offering nuanced critiques. And I also received a number of very vituperative replies from my fellow Boomers telling me what a jerk I was for saying that (and a couple that accused me of being — gasp! — a Millennial); a few Boomers got so out of hand that I had to remove the post and ban a couple of people from ever commenting on this blog again.

One of the interesting things about blogging these days is that I no longer expect many comments; my best posts these days are longer, more thoughtful pieces where I try to present well-researched information that will be of interest over the long term. Here are some examples of such longer posts from the past year:

Deities of non-binary gender, posted in January, is probably going to turn into an ongoing series; I’m curious about the many deities around the world with what we Westerners would call non-binary gender (although other cultures have different terminology), and I want to do some more research on the topic. In Decline, or… I proposed that demographics and finances are the two biggest challenges facing UUism today: money is tight, we’re too damn white; this is a theme I probably be returning to. In October, I posted a retelling of a classic Buddhist story, The Tale of the Dhak Tree, which is better known in the West in the form of the blind men who argue about what an elephant is; this is part of a multi-year series of stories for kids from various religious traditions. September saw a post on Global vs. local atheisms in which I point out that a concept in Indian philosophy has relevance to us today. In July, I outlined the Principles behind Sunday school Ecojustice Class, for anyone thinking of adding ecojustice (which is different from upper middle class environmentalism) to their religious education programs.

So happy 14th birthday to this blog. I’m looking forward to another year of long thoughtful posts, along with the usual mix of polemics and fluff and fun. I hope you’ll keep on reading what I write!

More coloring pages

In response to my recent post about creating coloring pages, Carol sent me a link to “Color Our Collections,” an initiative hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). For the past three years, libraries, archives, and museums in North America and Europe have created coloring pages based on items in their collections, and NYAM shares them at library.nyam.org/colorourcollections . Most of these collections of coloring pages are really aimed at adults, but there are dozens of collections to look through. I’m going to be able to use at least some coloring pages from the collections created by the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design; the Biodiversity Heritage Library; the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park; Berkeley Library at the University of California; and maybe one or two others.

And Matt pointed me to the 2019 coloring and activity book created by Black Lives Matter at School. This is a big book, with 32 pages, and mostly aimed at kids older than my target audience. We won’t be able to use the activity pages that require knowing how to read and write, but I know we’ll be using the coloring pages titled “Diversity,” “Black Families,” “Black Women,” “Queer Affirming,” and “Transgender Affirming.” Both the art and the messages are fabulous.

If any of you have any more tips for great free coloring pages, let me know — I’m especially looking for coloring pages that feature East Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic culture. And some time in March, I’ll set up a coloring pages Web page on my curriculum web site, with links to the best coloring pages.

Mouthbow

After reading a biography of Buffy Saint-Marie, I got curious about one of the instruments she played: a mouthbow. After listening to listening to several Youtube clips of mouthbows, I decided to make my own. I went out and found a fairly straight twig about as thick as my little finger; and took the bark off and shaved the butt end down with pocketknife and block plane so it would bend evenly across its length. I used a 010 loop-end steel banjo string I happened to have, attached the loop end to a copper tack in one end of the stick, and tied the straight end of the string through a 1/64″ hole I drilled in the other end of the stick. It looks like this:

When you play the mouthbow, the fundamental note of the string sounds as a drone throughout, while changing the mouth cavity brings out overtones to produce the melody — that combination of melody and drone sounds to me a little like a mountain dulcimer. While I make no claims to mouthbow virtuosity, here’s an audio recording of the instrument I made today:

Since your mouth cavity acts as the resonator, you can hear the mouthbow louder yourself than anyone around you can hear it. So I’m thinking this might be a good instrument to make with children: fairly easy to make, fun to play, quiet enough that it won’t drive everyone else crazy. However, if I do make it with kids, I won’t use a steel string: it’s too easy to hurt yourself if a steel string breaks; and something like nylon monofilament or linen thread would make for a quieter instrument.

Mouthbows were used by Indigenous peoples in North America, including California Indians: “Southern Yokuts men sometimes played the musical bow after settling themselves in bed; the Chukchansi in mourning the dead. These may be but two expreissions of one employment. Modern forms of the instrument have a peg key for adjusting the tension…. In old days a true shooting bow, or a separate instrument made on the model of a bow, was used. Mawu or mawuwi, was its name. One end was held in the mouth, while the lone string was tapped, not plucked, with the nail of the index finger; the melody, audible to himself only, was produced by changes in the size of the resonance chamber formed by the player’s oral cavity.” Alfred Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, p. 542. Elsewhere, Kroeber says, “The musical bow is a device definitely reported from the Maidu and Yokuts, but probably shared by these groups with a number of others…. [It] was tapped or plucked….” p. 419. Kroeber also reports the musical bow being used by the Pomo and other tribes.

Buffy Sainte-Marie is probably the best-known contemporary player of the mouthbow, mostly because she played mouthbow on several television shows, including “To Tell the Truth,” “Sesame Street,” and the folk-music showcase “Rainbow Quest.” Sainte-Marie makes her own mouthbows; while they may look primitive at first glance, they are tuneable, and she writes: “I like to tune my bow precisely and work with other instruments, so I favor a geared peg, like the Grover peg in the picture.” Sainte-Marie’s blog post on making and playing mouthbows is excellent. Here’s Sainte-Marie playing the instrument on Sesame Street:

Notice that she holds the mouthbow at the end farthest from her mouth; that way, she can control the tension of the string, and thus adjust the pitch as she’s playing. By contrast, traditional Appalachian mouthbow player Carlox Stutsberry does not flex the tension of the bow to alter the tone:

Both Stutsberry and Sainte-Marie pluck the mouthbow with a pick; however, the mouthbow can also be tapped (like the strings of a hammered dulcimer), or bowed. South African jazz musician Pops Mohamed plays mouthbow using a bow:

If you search Youtube for “mouth bow,” you can find quite a few modern practitioners of the instrument. But only a few of them are worth listening to, including Pops Mohamed, Carlox Stutsberry, and Buffy Sainte-Marie; clicking on the photos above will take you to videos by those three.

Coloring pages

Coloring pages are an essential part of how we make space for children in our Palo Alto congregation. When they enter of Main Hall, children and their parents can pick up packets of coloring pages and crayons, to give the children something to keep them engaged while they’re in the worship service.

Now, for years I’ve made special activity books for two of our intergenerational worship services, Easter and Flower Communion; the Easter activity books in particular are designed to have some educational value. But I haven’t put much thought into our regular weekly coloring pages; the Religious Education Assistant just found free coloring pages on the Web, and that’s what we used. The coloring pages may have nothing to do with our faith community, but at least the kids are happy.

But it occurred to me that we were missing an educational opportunity: why not come up with coloring pages that are both fun, and have some educational value? I did a Web search to see if other Unitarian Universalist congregations had produced coloring pages, and found the Alice the Chalice coloring pages by talented religious educator Rev. Amy Friedman — great stuff! But Amy has only provided a half a dozen different coloring pages. We give out packets with 8 or so coloring pages, and ideally I wanted to have a different packet for every month. It looked like I was going to have to make my own.

I began to collect images that I thought would be fun to color in. More importantly, I began to think about what I wanted to teach. Our religious education program does a lot with nature and ecojustice. So it made sense to produce coloring pages of living things; this would show young children and our families that we value non-human organisms, and if the images were of organisms native to California this would show our awareness of the immediate web of life surrounding us. (OK, maybe this is a little above the head of a four year old, but parents and older siblings will be looking at these, too.)

A search for public domain line drawings turned up a good selection of Pacific Coast wildflowers, as well as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and I was quickly able to assemble 8 coloring pages with California native plants, and 8 coloring pages with butterflies and moths. California mammals would be another obvious category, but I couldn’t find line drawings that would make good coloring pages; I was going to have to draw my own. I’ve started working on mammal coloring pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Townsend’s Chipmunk, a sample page from the California Mammals coloring pages.

What about coloring pages with more explicitly religious content? We Unitarian Universalists are known for being feminists, so why not Goddesses Coloring Pages? I was able to find some public domain line drawings of goddesses, including goddesses from South Asia and the Mediterranean, and East Asia. I’m still looking for public domain images of goddesses from Indigenous America, Africa, and Oceania — and the images of the East Asian goddesses needed to be completely redrawn. Eventually, I’m planning on two packets of Goddesses Coloring Pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Guanyin, a sample page from the Goddesses coloring pages.

You’ll notice that I’ve put copyright notices on the coloring pages; I did so because it’s a big, bad Internet out there, and I don’t want other people to steal my work. But I hereby grant permission for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and other educational nonprofits, to print hard copies of these coloring pages for free distribution in their educational programs.

Eventually, I may put all my coloring pages on my curriculum web site, and if I do so I’ll mention it here on my blog. In the mean time, now you have 4 more coloring pages to add to the Alice the Chalice coloring pages.

Generational viewpoints

Zoe Samudzi, doctoral candidate in sociology at UCSF, on class and race:

“I think it’s really telling about the kind of limitedness with which we understand wealth redistribution because of the ways we refuse to understand white supremacy as a necessary part of capitalism and race as the kind of anchoring structure through which resources are inequitably redistributed.” (interview in Geez magazine, winter, 2018, p. 42)

Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a Marxist who specializes in race an American politics:

“Anti-racism — along with anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, etc., as well as diversity as the affirmative statement of them all — is a species of a genus of social and economic justice that is utterly compatible with neoliberalism: parity in the distribution of costs and benefits among groups defined by essentialized ascriptive identities.” (interview in Platypus Review #75, April, 2015)

I feel that Samudzi represents a younger generation of thinkers and activists who have abandoned traditional Marxist critiques of capitalism in favor of critiques based on identity politics; Reed represents an older generation of thinkers who continue to extend Marxist critiques of capitalism and who criticize identity politics as neoliberalism, which is to say, another form of capitalism. As someone who had training in the Frankfurt School as an undergrad (under a black Marxist professor, interestingly enough), I’m aligned with Reed’s generational cohort. But the zeitgeist is now blowing in the direction of Samudzi’s generation.

Snow

We had periods of heavy rain and hail on Monday, then when the storm passed it got quite chilly. It still felt downright cold, by Bay Area standards, late Tuesday morning when we went out to the car.

We drove down the hill from the cemetery to where there’s a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. We both exclaimed, “Snow!” The peaks of the mountains on the east side of the Bay were white with snow, from the mountains around Mission Peak (elev. 2,520 ft.) southwards to the mountains around Mt. Hamilton (elev. 4,265 ft.). Since a good portion of Mission Peak range was white, I figured the snow must have come down well below 2,000 feet.

I dropped Carol at work, and drove south to Palo Alto, periodically marveling at the sight of snow when the mountains across the Bay came into view. When I got off the highway and headed west into Palo Alto, I tried to see if Black Mountain (elev. 2,812 ft.) and the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains had snow; but I had to keep my eyes on the road and couldn’t get a clear view. But a page one story in Tuesday’s edition of the San Mateo Daily Journal said that there was indeed snow on the Santa Cruz Mountains:

“The highest elevations in San Mateo county saw snow Monday night…. Snow fell just about everywhere above 1,000 feet Monday, including in parts of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with temperatures as low as 32 degrees around that area.”

And according to Palo Alto Patch, not only was Page Mill Road in Palo Alto closed Tuesday due to snow and ice, but:

” ‘One spotter in Morgan Hill said he saw snow at 700 feet,’ [National Weather Service meteorologist Matt Mahle] said. ‘It started accumulating … at about 1,000 feet.’ “

When I drove to work on Thursday (yesterday), the Hamilton range was still mostly white with snow; I don’t remember the last time snow lasted that long, but it was several years ago. And there is more snow coming Saturday night, according to the National Weather Service:

The latest models bring snow levels down to around 1,500 feet over the North Bay and around 2,000 feet over the Central Coast during the day Sunday.

This is nothing like the polar vortex in the eastern U.S., but it is unusual weather for us.

Keith Carlton Robertson

In early adolescence, some of my favorite book were the Henry Reed series by Keith Robertson. Originally written in the 1950s and 1960s, the books are set in an all-white suburban utopia where women are stay-at-home moms and the only thing kids have to worry about are grumpy neighbors. I recently reread the Henry Reed series, and while I enjoyed them I’d be reluctant to recommend them to today’s early adolescents; nevertheless, if you read these books as period pieces, they remain charming stories.

I’d classify Robertson as a minor but talented mid-twentieth century children’s book author. As is true for so many children’s book authors, he has now fallen into obscurity. He published more than 30 books from 1948 through 1986, including 5 books in the Henry Reed series (one of which was published posthumously) and 4 books in the Carson Street Detective (or Neil and Swede) series. Most of Robertson’s books were aimed at the children and young adult markets, but he also wrote 6 mysteries for adults under the pseudonym Carlton Keith. Eight of his books were good enough to receive starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews.

There are so many minor but talented authors who fade into obscurity; yet in Robertson’s case, I couldn’t even find a good bibliography of his published works. He may not be worthy of serious critical study, but here at least is the best bibliography I was able to compile of his published books:

Keith Carlton Robertson bibliography
This bibliography does not include any of his publications in periodicals; it may not include all his published books. Sources for this bibliography include Kirkus Reviews, WorldCat, and other sources.
* books with a asterisk received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews
Ticktock and Jim (1948) *
The Dog Next Door (1950)
The Missing Brother (1950) *
The Lonesome Sorrel (1952) *
Lost Dog Jerry (1952)
The Mystery of Burnt Hill (1952) [Neil & Swede series]
Mascot of the Melroy (1953)
Outlaws of the Sourland (1953)
Three Stuffed Owls (1954) [Neil & Swede series]
The Wreck of the Saginaw (1954)
Ice to India (1955)
The Phantom Rider (1955)
The Pilgrim Goose (1956)
The Pinto Deer (1956)
The Crow and the Castle (1957) * [Neil & Swede series]
Henry Reed, Inc. (1958) * [Henry Reed series]
The Diamond-Studded Typewriter, or A Gem of a Murder (1958) [writing as Carlton Keith]
If Wishes Were Horses (1958) *
The Navy (1958)
Missing, Presumed Dead, or The Missing Book-keeper (1961) [writing as Carlton Keith]
Henry Reed’s Journey (1963) * [Henry Reed series]
Rich Uncle (1963) [writing as Carlton Keith]
The Hiding Place (1965) [writing as Carlton Keith]
Henry Reed’s Baby-Sitting Service (1966) * [Henry Reed series]
The Crayfish Dinner, or The Elusive Epicure (1966) [writing as Carlton Keith]
New Jersey (1968)
The Year of the Jeep (1968)
A Taste of Sangria (1968) [writing as Carlton Keith]
The Money Machine (1969) [Neil & Swede series]
Henry Reed’s Big Show (1970) [Henry Reed series]
In Search of a Sandhill Crane (1972)
Tales of Myrtle the Turtle (1974)
Henry Reed’s Think Tank (1986) [Henry Reed series]


Deities of non-binary gender

As I develop some new middle-elementary curriculum materials, I’ve been looking at myths and religious narratives for deities who do not have a binary, male-or-female, gender.

The most familiar example of a non-binary gender deity — but an example we mostly ignore — is in one of the two stories of the creation of humankind in the book of Genesis. The more familiar Genesis story of the creation of humankind comes from the second chapter of Genesis, where God creates a male human, then puts the male human to sleep, takes a rib, and makes a woman. However, as feminists began pointing out back in the 1970s, there’s another story about how humans were created in the first chapter of Genesis:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)

Commenting on this passage, Susan Niditch, professor of religion at Amherst College, says:

“For feminist readers of scriptures, no more interesting and telegraphic comment exists on the nature of God. The male aspect and the female aspect implicitly are part of the first human and a reflection of the creator.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Westminster/John Know Press, 1992, p. 13)

While agreeing with Niditch, I would add that this passage implies to me that the God of Genesis 1 cannot be reduced to a single binary gender.

The Navajo deity Turquoise Boy is of non-binary gender in a different way. In the Dine Bahane, the Navajo creation myth, when the humans get to the Third World, the men decide to live apart from the women, and cross a river in order to separate themselves. But the men take Turquoise Boy with them, because he is able to do the women’s work of grinding corn, etc., which the men ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do. (See: Aileen O’Bryan, The Dîné: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, Bulletin 163, the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1956.) White Shell Girl is also a non-binary gender deity; the narrative refers to her as being intersex, or in the O”Bryan translation, a hermaphrodite.

Turning to Chinese myths and religious narratives, Lan Caihe (Lan Ts’ai-ho), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism, is ambiguously gendered. According to folklorist E. T. C. Werner:

“Lan Ts’ai-ho is variously stated to have been a woman and an hermaphrodite…. According to the Hsiu hsiang Pa Hsien tung yu chi, … though he was a man, he could not understand how to be a man (which is perhaps the reason why he has been supposed to be a woman).”(Myths and Legends of China, E. T. C. Werner, London: George Harrap & Co., 1922, p. 293)

There are many other deities with ambiguous or non-binary gender, including perhaps most famously the ancient Greek deity Hermaphroditus. What I find particularly interesting is that non-binary gender plays out in many different ways in these various myths and religious narratives. I want to say that there is a spectrum of gender choices, but I think saying that imposes my early twenty-first century Western cultural framework on other cultures. Better to say that gender has been interpreted in many ways in different religious traditions.