Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Our cats are going high-tech

As you know, a couple of months ago we got a new cat – Esmerelda. She’s a little kitten who is friendly and affectionate… and always hungry. She says “I’M SO HUNGRY!” all the time.

This wouldn’t be a big problem except that we have another cat Ruby. Ruby is a couple of years older and used to have the same hunger problem Esmerelda has, but not anyone. Nowadays, Ruby budgets her food to last throughout the day while Esmerelda (aka Zelda) wolfs it all down whenever we feed her.

image


This is a problem.

The two cats get different food; Zelda gets kitten food while Ruby gets a combination of 3 different types of adult cat food. If we were to feed them side-by-side, Zelda would gulp down all of her food, while Ruby would eat a little bit, saving the rest for later. However, once Ruby leaves, Zelda would then head over to Ruby’s dish and start eating that too. This leaves too little for Ruby but worse, results in Zelda eating too much.

To remedy that temporarily, we put Ruby’s food dish up on a table that Zelda can’t (?) get to, but Ruby can. At least, we think Zelda can’t get there, I’m sure she could if she tried. We started feeding Ruby there but it is at best a temporary solution.

The fix for this was to get Ruby a high-tech cat feeder. This is a feeding dish that opens and closes automatically. It pairs with the cat’s microchip and when the cat is close enough to the detector, the dish opens automatically after a 3-second delay. When the cat walks away, the dish closes.

image

It took Ruby a long time to figure out how to use it. First of all, I had to pair it to her microchip and to do that, you put it in detection mode and put the cat near it. Ruby STRUGGLED FIERCELY while I did it, fighting against me as I held her head in there while it put her microchip in memory. Then, for the next two weeks, we had to leave it on the table open all the time so she would learn to use it. Because at first she couldn’t figure it out.

That cat…

But now she has figured it out. When she wants her food, she goes up to it and it opens, and she munches on it. She walks away and it closes. After a week, I finally put it on the floor where it will stay.

The only “problem” is that Zelda knows there is food in there too, so she tries to get into it when it is closed. She tries super hard. She doesn’t succeed, but she knows that is food.

Problem 1 solved.

 

Problem 2 is how to feed Zelda. Right now, we feed her about 1/4 cup (or slightly less) of kibbles 4 times per day. That’s a lot; it means that if we ever go away for a weekend, we have to get a pet sitter to come in and feed her. We can fill up Ruby’s dish just fine, but we can’t trust Zelda because she might overeat.

Ruby, of course, had the same problem as a kitten.

We don’t want to get a pet sitter every time we go away for a couple of days. So the solution to this was to get a high tech automatic pet feeder. And that’s what we did, we just got a Petnet pet feeder:

image

This device is also high tech, maybe even more than Ruby’s feeder. This one releases food at a timed interval. However, you program it with your smartphone.

To do that, we ordered it and it arrived in three days (the other one took a month). I set it up, and then first you install the Petnet app on your phone, and then enter in your wifi network and password, and then you connect the pet feeder to your smartphone app.

Next, you program in when you want to have your pet fed, so I did it 4x per day for Zelda.

But the advantage of this device is that people on the Internet complain that pet feeders jam. If we’re away, that’s bad. What this one does is it tells you if the latest pet feed was successful, and more importantly, if it jams. This is important to keep tabs on whether or not Zelda is getting fed. I can check the app to see the latest feeding schedule, and I can also make adjustments to it. I can also do manual feedings – both by pressing the button on the front and I think through the app, too.

Furthermore, the app is smarter than that. You can fill out the size of the pet food bag, how much you feed our cat, and what type of cat food you are using. There is then an option for the pet feeder to automatically re-order cat food when you are getting low.

To me, this is an incredible option. I’ve wanted to automate the acquisition of supplies for a long time. I haven’t used this technology yet, but if this Internet-of-Things actually works, then I can see how it would be expanded to other things, too (e.g., reordering food).


So that’s how we use technology to solve a couple of problems we were having.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Rounding up the origin of my family’s history is my mother’s mother’s side (my maternal grandmother, the last of my grandparents to pass away in 2012).

This is the side for which I have the most documentation (or second most) but is also one of the most confusing to research due to there being multiple places by the same name in the country of origin.

It maybe starts in Germany, but also definitely Poland

My maternal grandmother was born in Poland in 1920 in a town called Wladyslawow (pronounced Vlad-ih-slav-ov). If you do a search on the web for that town, there are over 25 places on Wikipedia that it could refer to and they are all over the map.

Furthermore, if you go to Bing Maps and type in “Wladyslawow”, the first hit that comes up is Wladyslawowo which is not necessarily the same place. So to figure it out, I looked up where my grandmother’s first husband was born, and that’s in Adamow, Poland. I then looked up where they were married and that is in Chylin, Poland. Adamow is 5 miles from Chylin, and Chylin is 2 miles from the closest Wladysawow. The marriage certificate for the two of them lists their occupation as “bauer” and if that were a last name, it would mean “peasant.” I take this to mean that they were both probably working class people who wouldn’t have been able to move around that much, which would have been normal at the time.

image

I’ve included Kalisz on the map which is where another side of my family comes from, it is 35 miles away from the likely location of my grandparents.

Let’s zoom in a bit and see the distance involved. Notice that there’s a place (district?) called Kamionka which is the same name as where my maternal grandfather was born. Is this the actual Kamionka and not the one from my other blog post? Who knows.

image

 

Now, I’ve said all of this is Poland, but remember that the borders of Poland shifted after World War I. Because Kalisz is a border region that was definitely part of Russia before the first World War (but Prussia before 1795), and because these towns above are so close to Kalisz, here’s a pre-World War I map where I estimate where these places were in regards to Prussian territory. You can see I’ve put it near the border but that’s a guess. Its proximity to border likely accounts for the family’s German heritage.

In either case, after World War I it was definitely Poland and that’s where my grandmother was born.

image

My maternal grandmother, and her parents, each spoke German (and Polish) so that would explain a lot if they were indeed living in Prussia before World War I (as in, her family was living in Prussia, and her first husband was born there; and after the war the family didn’t move but the borders did, but the culture and language similarly remained).

My grandmother’s birth surname is of German origin according to Ancestry.com and so was her first husband’s. However, my grandmother’s mother (my great grandmother) had the last name “Simon”. From Ancestry.com:

English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish (Simón), Czech and Slovak (Šimon), Slovenian, Hungarian, and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from the personal name, Hebrew Shim‘on, which is probably derived from the verb sham‘a ‘to hearken’…. In the Greek New Testament, however, the name occurs as Simon, as a result of assimilation to the pre-existing Greek byname Simon (from simos ‘snub-nosed’). Both Simon and Simeon were in use as personal names in western Europe from the Middle Ages onward. 

This is the fifth last name in my family history where I have one that is of German + Jewish origin.

And if you go back to my maternal great-grandmother Simon’s mother (my great-great grandmother), her last name was Kotke. Kotke is a variant of Kot, here’s what it means:

Polish, Slovak, Czech, Belorussian, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), and German (of Slavic origin): from a personal name or nickname based on Slavic kot ‘tom cat’. As a Jewish name it is generally an ornamental name.

That’s the sixth last name in my family history that is of German + Jewish origin.

Anyhow, coming back to geography, the above is the most likely origin of my family, that they were living in Prussia which of course was part of Germany at the time. It then became part of Poland after World War I, and then became part of Germany again right before and during World War II, and then became part of an independent Poland again after World War II. While the borders today make it look like it is close to the middle of the country, it wasn’t always that way.

Coming to Canada

This side of my family’s history of coming to Canada is crazy, so I better tell it so it can live on in cyberspace.

My family’s ancestors were living in Germany (the Prussian part, which then became Poland) in the 1920’s when my great grandfather Hinz (who married the Simon) came to Canada. He went ahead of time to get things ready to prepare to bring the rest of the family over.

Then the Great Depression hit.

This forced him to have to wait until the economy could recover so he could afford to bring the rest of the family over – his wife and children. My grandmother would have been 9 at the time, and my great-grandmother would have been 39. Since they were peasants (or farmers) they would have needed to save up for a long time in order to afford to bring over the rest of my family.

The Great Depression lasted a few years but eventually it began to lift. Then another massive disaster struck – World War II. At that poit my great grandfather definitely couldn’t bring anyone over.

My grandmother got married in 1940 and as I said before, they were living in Germany. Her first husband was called up to the military (he had no choice) but he died during the war. Doing the math I think it was nearer to the end of the war. My grandmother became a war widow with two small children under the age of five – my aunt and her younger brother whom I never met.

I never met him because when it became clear that Germany was losing the war, the population had to get up and move further west to escape the wrath of the Russians for were coming from the east. My great grandmother managed to make it back further west to Germany but my grandmother did not. She was deported to fricking Siberia for three years as part of their “Guest Worker Program.” Of course, the workers were anything but guests. But unfortunately, along the way, my grandmother’s young son died.

image

My grandmother and aunt spent 3 years in a work camp in Siberia before they finally returned to Germany. My great grandmother emigrated to Canada in 1948, and my grandmother plus aunt emigrated in 1949, finally arriving in Canada in July of that same year. She became a Canadian citizen but I am not sure when because the date is not on the naturalization certificate, but also acquired a German passport in 1967. So I guess she was a dual citizen? I know that when she came to Canada she was given a temporary travel document in lieu of a passport for a stateless person.

My grandmother came straight to Winnipeg where she met my grandfather (also from Poland) where they got married the next year.


Summary

And with that, it wraps up my family history. You can see I have a lot of roots in Germany going back several generations, but the most recent ones are in countries other than Germany – notably Poland and Russia. I also was surprised to discover just how many last names in my history are of Jewish descent.

In a future blog post, I’ll get into why my ancestors may have left Germany. In the case of my grandmother, it’s obvious: the family was tired of all the war. For my other relatives it’s less clear. I’ve investigated some major population trends that tries to explain why the Germans left to go to Russia, and how they retained their culture.

Read Full Post »

The next step on my family history is my mother’s father’s side. This is the side in which I have the least information going back more than one generation.

It starts in Poland… sort of

My grandfather had a Polish passport and for all intents and purposes, he was a Polish citizen.

I don’t know that much about him – my other relatives can fill in the gaps although I think that they don’t know much about him either, for whatever reason – but I know that his mother (my maternal great-grandmother) had the last name Schulz, which is a variant of Schultz (I won’t give his actual last name because your mother’s maiden name is often used as a security question but I will say it’s not Jewish).

From Ancestry.com:

German: status name for a village headman, from a contracted form of Middle High German schultheize. The term originally denoted a man responsible for collecting dues and paying them to the lord of the manor; it is a compound of sculd(a) ‘debt’, ‘due’ + a derivative of heiz(z)an ‘to command’. The surname is also established in Scandinavia.

Jewish (Ashkenazic): from German Schulze (see 1 above). The reason for adoption are uncertain, but may perhaps have referred to a rabbi, seen as the head of a Jewish community, or to a trustee of a synagogue.

In case you’re not keeping track, this is the fourth last name in my family lineage that has a last name of Jewish (and German) origin. My grandfather’s actual last name is also of German descent. He also spoke German, and apparently he also spoke Polish.


But where in Poland?

Poland is a difficult country to research. It was invaded and sliced up by its neighbors Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1795. It was given limited autonomy when Napoleon’s armies bulldozed across Europe in the early 1800’s, and then was divided up again between Prussia, Austria, and mostly Russia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It stayed that way until after World War I (with Russia’s rulers getting more power during that time in the Russian side).

After World War I, Poland was repatriated back to itself when Russia collapsed and the Germans lost the war. Poland, however, fought a brief war with Ukraine for some disputed regions, and borders again shifted. They would shift yet again after World War II, north and west.

I say all this because my maternal grandfather was born in Kamionka according to his Polish passport. This is not all that helpful because there are lots of possible places this could be, there are many towns, districts, and counties called Kamionka in both Poland, the Ukraine, and even Austria.

The one thing I am sure of is this – my grandfather was born in a region that shifted borders that eventually became Poland, but the country he was born in would have been either Russia or Austria.

He was baptized in the district of Rovno in the province of Volynia in what is now the modern day Ukraine, in the town of Tuczyn. There aren’t any towns called Kamionka around there.

However, I did find a town called Kamionka near modern-day Lviv (formerly Lwow) which at the time he was born would have been in the Austrian empire.

The problem with this is that he was baptized about a week after he was born, and those two places are 140 miles apart. I have a hard time believing my great-grandparents travelled that distance in 8 days just to get him baptized.

Below is a map of modern-day Europe showing the distance, you can see that the towns are both in Ukraine.

image

However, here is what the region looked like in 1920. You can see that both are (were) in Poland.

image


And before 1920, the town of Kamionka was located in Galicia, a region of the Austrian empire shaded in purple. I’m not sure what the blue region is as Wikipedia didn’t translate but I think it is Volynia, the border region that kept changing hands and in all likelihood was part of Russia.

image

Of course, all of this hinges on the guess that Kamionka above refers to this town I found and not to some other one. As I said, it is a large gap between those two towns and it seems unlikely that in 1908, my great-grandparents would have gone all that way.

But maybe they did.

Anyhow, all that to say that my grandfather has a Polish passport, was born in a region where the borders changed, and in 1929 he left the city of Danzig (now known as Gdansk) and came to Canada where he landed in St. John’s, Newfoundland. We don’t have a lot of data on where he went after that, there’s a big gap in knowledge. The first definitive location I have for him is in Winnipeg in 1944. He later married my grandmother in 1950, and my mother was born the next year.

My grandfather was 21 when he came to Canada. We don’t know why he left, but that region of the world was afflicted by war in World War I, and right after that when Poland fought a war with the Ukraine, and then a war with the Soviets in 1920-1921, and a couple of other uprisings in the 1920’s. My guess is that he probably just wanted a better life overseas, away from an unstable region.

image

image


So once again, this side of my family starts in Germany by the origins of the their last name, but if my research above is accurate then at some point they moved to Poland. I don’t know when this occurred but I have some guesses which I will get to in a future post.

Read Full Post »

In my last post, I went through my father’s lineage on his father’s side. This post is my father’s lineage on his mother’s side.

This one is easier because whereas for the Zink side I had to rely upon the Internet, for my paternal’s maternal line someone in our family has already done the research.


It starts in Prussia or Poland

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Kohn. From Ancestry.com:

Jewish (Ashkenazic): variant of Cohen. North German (also Köhn): from the personal name Kohn or Köhn, former Low German short forms of Konrad.

This last name is of Jewish origin, no questions there. That’s the second Jewish last name I can find in my family history.

We can trace the name of my great-great-grandfather back to Kalisz, Poland, to the mid-1800’s, I don’t have the exact date-of-birth. He was a peddler or merchant, and he was Jewish. He was ambushed and killed (exact circumstances unknown) in 1864. The town of Kalisz appears to be the origin of the Kohn name, and it is one of the older cities in modern-day Poland.

However, at the time, Poland had been invaded and spliced up by its neighbors Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1795 – and so Kalisz was part of Prussia. Napoleon invaded a few years later and it lived (sort of) as a quasi-independent state until 1815 when the Congress of Vienna gave back much of Poland to Russia – including Kalisz. Kalisz stayed as part of the Russian empire until after World War 1 (during this time Poland was known as Congress Poland).

Kalisz was always close to the Prussian border and had a lot of German influence which accounts for the family’s German – as opposed to Polish – heritage.

image

 

It moves south to Ukraine, Russia, or Austria

My great-grandfather – the son of the one who was ambushed and killed – moved to the province of Volhynia in Ukraine in 1874. I’ve looked up the border history around this time and it’s hard to distinguish; the borders of the region were fluid until after World War 1. Thus, I am not sure if this area was part of Austria or Russia, or if Ukraine was independent at that time, or merely a Russian province.

Below is a map showing where Volhynia is in modern-day Ukraine.

image

In any case, Volhynia is a region in modern-day northwestern Ukraine. My great-grandfather married in 1886, and served in the Russian military for five years. He eventually left to emigrate to Canada in 1893 to avoid having to serve in the Russia armed forces, which was required every two years.

My great-grandmother – the one my great-grandfather Kuhn/Kohn married in 1886 – had the last name Buss and the family was Protestant, and she was from the Austrian empire. However, her mother’s last name was Schmidt (whether maiden name or married last name, I don’t know).

From Ancestry.com:

German and Jewish (Ashkenazic): occupational name from Middle High German smit, German Schmied ‘blacksmith’.

This is the third surname in my family lineage that has Jewish origins.


It moves to Canada

Anyhow, the family left for Canada in 1893. My great-grandfather was 35 and my great-grandmother was 24.

They arrived in Quebec City in May 1893, and travelled to Winnipeg, MB, Canada where they lived for four years until 1897. A few months later, they moved to Whitemouth, MB, Canada which is not far from River Hills where my paternal grandmother would have met my paternal grandfather.

So to summarize:

  1. The Kohn family started off in Kalisz in modern-day Poland but at the time was a border city near Russia, but 50 years earlier was part of Prussia. 

  2. The Kohn’s moved to Volynia in modern day northwestern Ukraine in the 1870’s.

  3. The Buss’s (born of the Schmidt’s) similarly moved from Austria to Volynia.

  4. The family moved to Canada in 1893, stayed in Winnipeg until 1897, then moved to Whitemouth in 1897.

image

image

The above map doesn’t show Whitemouth, MB, but it’s about 1 1/2 drive from Winnipeg.

So that’s the origin of my family on my father’s side. It’s not completely accurate but it does fill in quite a few gaps that I never had before.

Once again, I can’t trace back any further than the mid-1800’s. Prussia technically wasn’t part of Germany back then, but the place where the family lived does account for why we have German roots.

In my next post, I’ll look into my mother’s side.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been doing a lot of family history investigation over the past couple of months and what I’ve found has fascinated me.

I used to hear rumours that my lineage had some Jewish ancestry. I was always skeptical of this because we have no Jewish customers in my family, nobody speaks Yiddish, and instead everyone speaks German. Europe is a place that today is reasonably tolerant but in the past has historically been anti-Semitic all too often. And, I had always assumed that my ancestors came from Germany.

But it turns out that the story is more complicated than that.

I’ve been doing research using the following tools:

  • Looking up the origin of my last name online
  • Paperwork that some of my relatives have
  • Documentation that other people have published
  • Basic research about major historical trends that would have shaped my ancestors’ decisions

Even now, I don’t have the full story, but I do have a pretty good piece of it.

Origins of the last name Zink

To begin with, the Zink name has its origins in Germany.

From Ancestry.com:

From Middle High German zinke ‘peak’, acquired either as a topographic name by someone who lived on or near a crag or on a pointed piece of land or as a nickname for a man with a singularly pointed nose. Compare modern German slang Zinken ‘hooter’. 

It was not until the 16th century that the metal zinc was discovered and named (apparently from its jagged appearance in the furnace), so this is unlikely to be the origin of the surname.

And from SurnameDB:

This most interesting and unusual surname with variant spellings Synke, Syncke, Zincke, Zink etc., has two distinct possible origins, both Germanic. Firstly, the derivation may be from the male given name Sink, itself a Frisian form of Signand meaning "Victory-Ventury".

Alternatively, Sink may have originated as a topographical name from residence on a pointed piece of land, or as a nickname for a man with a singularly pointed nose. The derivation in this case is from the Middle High German "Zinke", (Old High German, "Zinko"), meaning tip, point or prong.

And from HouseOfNames.com:

First found in Bavaria, where the name was closely identified in early medieval times with the feudal society which would become prominent throughout European history.

So there you go, it’s either someone who lived by a pointy or craggy piece of land (such as a cliff, or a land jutting into a lake), or someone with a pointy nose. It also originated in Bavaria, an area in current-day southwestern Germany.

image

Here’s what Germany looked like when it was just a bunch of small, independent German states, loosely collected under the Holy Roman Empire (which was dissolved in the early 1800’s when Napoleon invaded and tried to conquer the rest of Europe). Bavaria is the region outlined in red.

image

So that probably explains why my father’s side spoke German. And it explains why I always thought we were of German origin. However, when doing ancestry research on my father’s side, I can’t find any relatives who came from there, as I’ll explain below.

Great migrations

My father was born in Canada in the 1940’s, but his father was born in 1898 in Costanza, Romania, in 1898.

Huh? Romania?

Furthermore, my great-grandfather was born in Odessa, Russia (now part of the Ukraine) in 1873, and my great-grandmother was born in Constantza, Romania, in 1873. This means that my great-grandmother and grandfather were each born in the same town. My great-grandparents on my father’s side were married in Odessa in 1897, so they married in Russia but had their first child in Romania. Less than two years later, they emigrated to Canada.

So, to summarize:

  1. The Zink name originated in Bavaria (modern-day southwest Germany).
  2. Assuming they stayed there, at some point between 1763 and 1873 they moved to Odessa, Russia. I’ll explain why it was after 1763 in a future post. My great-grandfather was born in Odessa, Russia.
  3. Also in 1873, my great-grandmotherwas born in Constantza. At the time, Romania was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Her last name was Krieg, whose name means “nickname for an argumentative person.” The word ‘krieg’ in German means ‘war’, which is probably the origin of the nickname.

    The name ‘Krieg’ is of Swiss, German, and Jewish (Ashkezanic) origin. That’s the first surname I found in my family history that is of Jewish origins.

  4. In 1897, my great-grandparents got married in Odessa, Russia.
  5. In 1898, they moved to Constantza, Russia (my great-grandmother’s home time) where my grandfather was born.
  6. Around 1900, but before 1902, the left to go to Canada. We don’t have any landing records for my great-grandparents in Canada so we think he may have landed in the United States and then entered Canada from there.
  7. Sometime after 1900, after arriving in North America, they made their ways to River Hills, Manitoba, Canada and set up a farm where the family stayed, even to this day. River Hills, even today, is a small town. It would have been even smaller back then.

The below diagram shows the order of movement of the Zinks superimposed on a map of Europe around 1870.

image

So, you can see that the Zink name originates in Germany, but I can’t anything further back than my great-grandfather being born in Russia, and his wife being born in Romania (technically the Ottoman Empire, although even then I am not sure of the borders). I know the names of my great-great-grandparents on the Krieg side, but not where or when they were born.

That means that there is a big, undocumented gap from when the Zinks first appear (in my research) to when the name first appears in Bavaria. In other words, I only find Zink relatives starting in Russia.

In a future post, I’ll look at my maternal paternal side, that is, my father’s mother’s side.

Read Full Post »

I’ve commented on this blog in the past about evolution (that is, that humans evolved from earlier life forms) and how there isn’t as much support for it in the United States as the rest of the developed world. Much of the opposition to evolution is because of the strong influence of evangelical Christianity which staunchly opposes it because it contradicts its interpretation of its holy text. This interpretation is not universal among all Christians; for example, many Catholics believe in evolution, as do many mainline Protestants. However, evangelical Christians are committed to opposing it.

This is to evangelical Christianity’s detriment for two reasons:

  1. It creates a major credibility gap.

    The scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It’s not as if there is a debate in the scientific community about whether or not it happened; it did. Instead, the debate is about how it happened and the factors that influenced it.

    By trying to portray the science as arguing about whether or not it really occurred, rather than the specific factors, the against-evolution movement undermines their own credibility. It makes them look like they are willing to sacrifice clear evidence in order to maintain a specific religious belief that is not grounded in reality.

  2. It misses out on some powerful insights.

    By looking at evolution, Christians who reconcile their beliefs with our own species’ developments gain insights that you just can’t get by believing in a “The world was created as-is” model. I’ll explain what I mean below.

I just finished reading the book The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. In it, he looks at the development of our own species and how similarly we are related to chimps and pygmy chimps. The reason we humans are called the third chimpanzee is because our DNA is 98% similar to chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee DNA. We are more closely related to chimps than we are to gorillas; but chimps, too, are more closely related to us than they are to gorillas.

The book looks at the evolution of human sexuality, humanity’s great leap forward, and why we get addicted to drugs. However, the part that recently blew my mind what the section on genocide.

One of the things that irks me about evangelical Christianity is its insistence of pointing at itself as a compass of human morality but then gets certain things about morality completely wrong!

Specifically, it gets genocide completely wrong.

There are parts in the Old Testament where God orders the destruction of foreign people by the Israelites. He orders the mass killing of men, women, children, and infants of the Amalekites in Joshua 15:1-3.

He also orders the destruction of city after city after city in Judges (it was such a common occurrence that each destruction gets a single verse; only Jericho has more to the story because it is unusual that Joshua left some people alive – for some of the inhabitants helping the Israelites). For any group of people that borders Israel, the Israelites are to destroy every single inhabitant including the animals. For distant cities, they are to kill all the men but can keep the women and children for themselves (Deut 20:10-14).

Modern Christians often gloss over these passages, and rightly so. They are hard to read and we usually dismiss them as “Well, that was a different time.” Skeptics challenge Christians to say “How can you believe in a God that orders these types of atrocities?” Christians are frequently forced to demure or say “Only God knows” which is an honest answer, but seems to concede the point to the skeptics in hopes that there is a really good reason for it somewhere out there.

Unfortunately, there are some Christian theologians who defend God’s actions. One of these is Norman Geisler, one of evangelical Christianity’s theological All-Stars. He’s written numerous books and appears in Lee Stroebel’s “A Case for Faith.” In the book, Stroebel flat-out asks Geisler how he could believe in a God that order such cruel atrocities.

Geisler then gives what I think is one of the most cringeworthy defense in modern Christian apologetics.

“God didn’t order any atrocities.” He goes on to say that the Amalekites were evil so God has to destroy them. Furthermore, he even has the audacity to say that it was an act of mercy.

In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children.  This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person’s leg, and God had to amputate the leg […] In a sense, God’s action was an act of mercy

That is, killing all the men, women, children, and infants was an act of mercy.

When I read that, it makes me angry. It makes me madder than a yak in heat.

Steaming mad

It makes me angry because genocide is always wrong. It makes me think “What the hell is wrong with you? How can you call something so evil as something that is actually good?” The targeted killing of an ethnic group is not an act of mercy, it is a whitewashing of history; the Israelites wanted the land so they killed the locals and then later rationalized it by saying that God told them to do it.

Geisler has to do the same thing. Because he believes in Biblical inerrancy – an ideology – he has to rationalize his own beliefs. He believes:

  1. The Bible never makes a mistake.
  2. God is good.
  3. God ordered the genocide of the Amalekites.

Since we usually think of genocide as morally wrong (which it is), Geisler experiences cognitive dissonance. When our brains experience cognitive dissonance, it throws out what is causing it. Since the “genocide is wrong” is causing the dissonance, Geisler tosses it out and rewrites it as “genocide is okay” and then comes up with a bunch of reasons to justify it. This is common in human psychology and is known as “confabulation.”

But notice what happens here – clinging to Biblical inerrancy is more important to Geisler than standing up against genocide. He’d rather maintain his ideology than stand up for morality.

And that’s what sometimes makes me so mad about evangelical Christianity – this clinging to ideology. If you can’t even get it right about genocide (which is pretty much black and white) because ideology is more important to you than anything else, how can we trust you to get it right about any other moral issue? How do I know that you’re not blinded by your ideology on every issue?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But hold on, it doesn’t stop there.

I was reading Jared Diamond’s book and there’s a section on genocide. It turns out that genocide is common in our species’ history. It has occurred time and again before Columbus’ discovery of the New World, afterwards up to World World 2, and even since then (Rwanda in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s, Cambodia in the 1970’s, Bosnia/Croatia/Serbia in the 1990’s, Bangladesh in the 1960’s, and so forth; there are too many to name). Many of these have over 100,000 victims.

It is so common in our species’ history that it can’t be considered an anomalous aberration. It seems to be a regular occurrence (but fortunately is declining according to The Better Angels of our Nature) and is probably encoded in our genes, a byproduct of evolution that we are still living with today.

The problem of genocide is that we bystanders are not good at stopping it. Think about it for yourself – out of all the victims of genocide, how many do you identify with?

There’s probably only one group – the Jews when they were massacred by the Nazis in World War II. You may also sympathize with the only other group that gets attention these days, the Armenians who were targeted by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. All the other groups we have some sympathy for but not a lot.

Why do we sympathize with these two groups?

Diamond has three reasons. The first is that the victims in World War II were white, just like us. The second is that the people doing the atrocities were our enemies in war so we are conditioned to hate them. The third reason is that there are articulate survivors in the United States who go to a great deal of effort to make us remember.

So that’s depressing. I admit that I don’t identify with too many other groups of genocide survivors other than the victims of World War II.

What causes it?

There are a few things that unleash genocide:

  1. The first is that we humans are good dividing the world into groups of “them” and “us.” We take care of members of our own group and view members of “them” with suspicion. However, over time, attacking people because they are “them” but not “us” has fallen out of favor.
  2. The second way that we justify our attacking other people is by blaming the victim. We sometimes use self-defense as a reason for pre-emptive attack. Even Hitler claimed that the Poles were attacking the Germans as a reason to attack Poland.

    Another way we blame the victim is saying they don’t possess the right race or religion or political belief, or that we are civilizing them. Because they are wrong or backwards, they need to be destroyed so we can cleanse that society. This is one of the reasons that the Germans attacked Russia – because the Russians supported communism. But it’s also a reason that the Khmer Rouge emptied their country of intellectuals – they didn’t believe in the same things the regime believed in and therefore had to be purged.

    If you read through some of the American leaders’ views on the native Americans, they justified their extermination by saying that they weren’t civilized. The British settlers in Australia said the same thing about the native Aborigines and Tasmanians. They succeeded in eliminating the native Tasmanians in the 1800’s.

Look at how Geisler’s defense of genocide perfectly aligns with modern times. He both identifies with the aggressors (the Israelites) by dividing them into “them” (the heathen) and “us” (the chosen), and then rationalizes the genocide by saying that the others didn’t have the right set of beliefs, and denigrated their own customs and cultures. They were not civilized.

Geisler’s defense of genocide is not an example of how God’s orders were really an act of mercy, it is instead an example of how people rationalize their own actions even when they are evil, and the patterns Geisler uses are no different than anyone else’s.

In other words, Geisler is just another human.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

But, here’s the thing. My point in all of this is that Norman Geisler is just another human.

Like you.

And like me.

Evangelical Christianity thinks that these passages are in the Bible and need to be defended as morally right.

I have a different interpretation. It’s probably not the right one, but it’s the one I am going to use.

These passages are in the Bible as an example of how bad human nature can be – we people are capable of committing acts of evil and then rationalize that they were good by attributing them to God. These acts of evil are part of our nature, they are hardwired into us.

Thus, these passages are not warnings to the heathen nations that they are on thin ice with God, but rather that we are on thin ice with ourselves because we are all human. We all inherited the same nature because it’s encoded in our genetic profile. It’s something that has stuck with us from evolution. Time and circumstance has shown repeatedly in our history that this is something we do over and over again. Worse yet, we use God and morality to justify it. These passages show us what can happen if we don’t actively curb these impulses.

I think Norman Geisler and evangelical Christianity are wrong to defend these passages as morally good. Instead, we should look at them as a warning to ourselves as that which lurks beneath the surface.

It’s almost as if the writers are saying “How well do you know yourself?”

If you think these passages mean that God punished the wicked, you don’t know yourself well at all. If, however, you think that either one of these groups of people could have been you, then you know yourself a lot better.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lest you think you and me are off the hook, we’re not.

Why don’t we identify with the victims of genocide? The answer seems to lie in the fact that genocide introduces a deep psychological numbing on the victims and the perpetrators. Victims often experience Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, and perpetrators become numb to doing it. While attackers at first have to overcome their inhibitions, over time they don’t need to anymore. They are like robots that go through the motions. Trained psychiatrists have a hard time dealing with and after hearing it over and over again, they experience less distress and more distancing of themselves from the stories. If trained professionals can’t handle it, how can we expect the average layperson to deal with it?

Yet deal with it we do by rewriting history. We romanticize the old country by envisioning cowboys and indians, something I did (I think) as a kid. But more than that, I think of cultural and anthropological genocide as something my ancestors did, and I was not responsible for. I wasn’t around to do it, even though I’ve benefited by the 90% reduction in native population that resulted from my ancestors landing in this country (or, to be more fair, arriving in the 1900’s to find the land mostly empty – wait, did I just do it again?). After all, what were the natives doing? Were they developing the land?

But these rationalizations are how I distance myself from genocide. I am doing the exact same numbing thing that everyone else does.

I myself am a normal human.

I used to think that since I didn’t agree with people like Norman Geisler that while I may not know everything, at least I didn’t think that genocide could be morally justified.

But it turns out that I do distance myself from historical genocides, both in my own country and from the sufferings of others around the world.

And that gives me pause.

Read Full Post »

A couple of weeks ago, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson got in trouble for comments he made regarding gender and sexual harassment in the military (of men against women):

"It would be a trite answer, but it’s because we’re biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others. It’s not the way it should be," Lawson said.

"Much as we would very much like to be absolutely professional in everything we do, and I think by and large we are, there will be situations and have been situations where, largely, men will see themselves as able to press themselves onto our women members,"he added.

Lawson had to retract his comments a few hours later:

"Sexual misconduct in any form, in any situation is clearly unacceptable," Lawson said, adding that his "reference to biological attraction being a factor in sexual misconduct was by no means intended to excuse anyone from responsibility for their actions."

However, he didn’t escape criticism from other politicians who saw his comments as effectively saying “Since it’s hardwired into them, boys will be boys. That’s no excuse!” Others incorrectly paraphrased Lawson’s comments as saying since it is women’s fault they get harassed since it is hardwired into men.

Former Treasury Secretary and current President of Harvard Larry Summers got in trouble recently for saying that men and women are wired differently and this explains part of the ratio imbalance of gender differences in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Women don’t go into fields because they aren’t wired for it.

He took criticism for that, too.

image

The thing is that in both cases, they were right.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When it comes to relative ability in STEM, I don’t think there’s any difference between men and women.

  • When I was in junior high and high school, girls were just as capable in math, physics, chemistry, as any of the boys. The distribution of smart kids was the same.

  • In university, there were fewer female students but their grades were the same, and the ones with the highest marks was female in electrical engineering.

  • At Microsoft, I see no difference in the abilities between either men or women. The quality of the work is the same.

Studies show the same thing, there’s no difference in ability.

But modern policy makers (elected and self-appointed) have taken this to mean that there is no biological difference in preference. The only reason for female overrepresentation in STEM is because of societal reinforcement.

The argument goes like this:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Humans are very sensitive to environmental cues. They can be taught things and learn to respond in certain ways because of reward and punishment. This reflects the B. F. Skinner school of psychology when he coined the terms Classical and Operant Conditioning. If a human receives a reward when he or she does something and a punishment when he or she does another thing, they will do something and not the other thing.

Society, at some point in the past, all got together and decided that men would be best suited for certain things and women for others. They then decided to uniformly enforce these gender roles. When men decided to go into STEM, they were rewarded and encouraged, whereas women were discouraged and instead directed towards the “softer” fields like interior design or teaching. These reinforcements towards gender roles are both conscious and unconscious.

And that’s the reason why men choose certain fields and women choose other ones. It’s not because of biological determinism, but because of societal reinforcement. And we can change society’s reinforcement of gender roles if we punish people who support anything that looks like they saying that biology plays a role in sorting men and women into different occupations (which reinforces gender roles). If we can just punish these types of people enough, they will instead say “Anyone can do anything” and the balance will eventually even out because humans will respond to these environmental cues.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This argument builds upon two fallacies – one is The Blank Slate which says that humans are born with virtually no predispositions and nearly all preferences are learned. The second fallacy is The Noble Savage which says that humans in their natural state are basically fair and equitable and it’s modern society that has corrupted them. It is modern society that is reinforcing these gender stereotypes.

Both of these two beliefs are myths. Humans can learn certain things but there are biological limitations. Genetics plays a major role in personality and preference; we don’t fully understand it but we do know it’s true.

image

There have been studies of:

  1. Identical twins raised together
  2. Identical twins raised apart
  3. Fraternal twins raised together
  4. Fraternal twins raised apart
  5. Siblings raised together
  6. Siblings raised apart

These have also been studied with biological and adopted parents. The conclusion is that the genetics plays a much stronger role than the environment. Children with musical ability have musical biological parents. Children with good sporting ability have parents that are good at sports. For example, if a father was a sprinter and his child was in a home where the adopted parents were not sprinters, the child may still be a very good sprinter.

And so forth.

Genetics accounts for at least 50% of the variance in personality.

Even modern social interpreters agree on this when it comes to sexuality. The predominate view today is that homosexuality (and heterosexuality) is not a choice, it is genetically determined. This was not the view 30 years ago but it is today. Even opponents of homosexuality begrudgingly admit it, they just say that gay people can’t act on it.

So, there’s some acceptance of genetics being responsible for behavior.

And, it’s also responsible for gender differences – not in men and women’s capabilities in STEM but in preference for the field people choose.

Gender differences didn’t spring up out of thin air, and they didn’t arise out of a secret conference held by men (and maybe women were invited but probably not say the “We’re all equal” crowd). Instead, they are hardwired into us as they developed during humanity’s Era of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), the 2+ million year period of time before the Agricultural Revolution.

image

During the EEA, genes in men and women selected for certain traits. The genes that left more historical ancestors are the ones that are still with us today, in both men and women.

And men’s genes and female’s genes have different biological requirements. Women can reproduce whereas men cannot. Women evolved to be sexually choosey and look for the mate who could both (a) provide the best genes for her offspring to survive, and (b) stick around to help raise the child into adulthood. Picking one who failed at either one would mean fewer chances at the child surviving to pass on its genes.

That’s why women are less into having multiple partners than men – having more sexual partners does not result in them leaving more descendants since women can only have one child at a time (or twins). In other words, more sex != more descendants.

Conversely, men cannot have children. Either they convince a female to reproduce with them or face genetic extinction. Since males know that females are choosey, men have to compete with each other to show that they are the best selection. This is why men have testosterone – it prepares them for conflict with other men. It is the hormone responsible for aggression but if men weren’t aggressive with each other when competing for women, they couldn’t demonstrate that they have the best genes.

This is doubly-reinforced for men that having a variety of sexual partners increases their chances of leaving more descendants. Whereas for women it makes sense to be choosey, for men it makes sense to not be too choosey because they don’t know when, or if, they will get another chance. Better to increase their chances, at least from a gene’s point of view.

Thus, the reason for gender differences is biological – men and women’s genes have the same goal, to reproduce. But they have different strategies to attain it. They are competing with each other (men vs. men, women vs. women) to further propagate the species.

Since men are the ones with more testosterone, they are also the ones who are bigger and stronger (I once had a sociology professor say that if society encouraged women to be muscular and strong, the size differences between the sexes would erode; this is flat wrong, too bad I didn’t know it at the time). If men are the ones who are bigger and stronger, then it makes sense that they would be the hunters. This serves two purposes:

  1. Being bigger and stronger, they could be better hunters where this is an asset – staying alive is a minimum requirement for passing down your genes.
  2. By being a successful hunter, they could demonstrate to women that they were big and strong, and could feed children, and their children would survive, and thus demonstrate to women that they’d be a good choice for reproducing with.

If men were the hunters, women would be the gatherers. And if women were the gatherers then certain traits would come in handy such as the ability to differentiate between different shades of particular colors of berries. If the dark red berries were poisonous but the light red ones were not, that’s an advantage. And it’s a serious advantage if that ability is genetic. The ones that could tell the difference would would leave more descendants.

And we can measure this today. Women, in general, can see colors better than men (the wife being an exception). For example, in the following diagram, men can typically only see 3-5 shades of red:

image

Women, however, can usually see all 7.

Why? Is it because women are socialized to seeing colors more clearly? And that this is arbitrary?

No, women can see colors more clearly because it was useful in our EEA, and society eventually noticed.

The point of all this that gender roles didn’t arise arbitrarily. Men didn’t get together and say “Okay, we’ll be the jerks and women will be the nice ones. We’ll do this just because we get to set the rules.”

No, men have more testosterone because it was an evolutionary strategy. Women are sexually choosey because it was an evolutionary strategy. One of the tradeoffs of having more testosterone is that it makes you more aggressive. And if you’re not aggressive, you face genetic extinction.

And so the Canadian military Chief of Defence was right when he said that biological differences account for why men are normally the ones who are the offenders of sexual harassment. Of course it’s hardwired into men.

And his critics, as what normally happens when people try to explain gender differences using biology, misinterpret what he was saying. Explaining gender differences using genetics does not excuse the behavior. All of these criticisms thinks that what these people are doing; they aren’t.

As a society, we have decided that while some things are natural, that doesn’t make them right. I think people suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance when it comes to using biology as an explaining factor – everything natural is good. “If homosexuality is okay due to biology, then so is men being jerks because of biology. But since men being jerks is not okay, it cannot be natural because everything natural is good (The Noble Savage). Therefore, we need to look for another source for the behavior and thus it must be learned (The Blank Slate).”

image

But not everything natural is good. There are many things that modern society has discarded that are natural. Pre-agricultural societies were violent. They used to practice population control by performing infanticide, and they used to regularly kill the elderly once they became less useful. They also used to kill members of foreign tribes if they accidentally came into contact with each other. They conducted raids on each other, killing the men and taking women as “wives.” All these things are natural. And all these things are condemned by modern society.

Thus, explaining behavior using biology does not excuse the behavior. Instead, it examines the source and then looks for ways to shape it. Since people are adaptable and can learn, we can reinforce other behaviors using classical and operant conditioning until people internalize the behavior. Language is natural but writing is not. Speaking is natural but public speaking is not. Male aggression is “natural” but society has figured out ways to contain it by directing men into sports, video games, the military, enforcing law and order, creating educational opportunities, and a bunch of other things.

In other words, we can get people to change their behavior.

But in the end, you’re still left with a human.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And that brings me back to biological differences between men and women in STEM. If men and women are genetically different, then it makes sense that they would have different preferences.

If women are better at picking out colors, then interior design would be a good fit because they’d more naturally be better at it. If men were historically good at requiring eye-hand coordination to take down a mammoth, it makes sense that they would be more inclined to go into athletics (a field that also requires testosterone when being competitive).

This does not mean that some fields are better than others, and society can work to ensure that men and women have equal opportunity to pick whatever field they want.

But if they want to go into different fields in spite of equal opportunity, that’s not a bad thing, either. Society can level the playing field, ensure that law and order is enforced, provide educational opportunities for women and minorities, and so forth. All of these things are unnatural but we do it because we need to.

Discrepancies in society do exist. As a white male, I have benefitted from unconscious bias and my class is the most favored class there is. And, I went into STEM. I went into it because I was good at it and it was my preference.

Women may not want to go into STEM because they simply don’t want to at the same rate as men. This is not a bad thing; but if society rewards STEM financially then we should make sure that the scales do not get tipped to far out of balance, either. It leads to people (men) thinking that their privileged place is due to their own abilities rather than understanding that there are multiple factors at play.

We ought to ensure that people’s preferences are given priority, rather than suppressing the reality that genetics plays a role in people’s behavior.

The myth of The Blank Slate needs to go. The Noble Savage, too.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »