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Goodbye Blogger...


Within an hour, if all goes well, the domain http://www.leavethelightson.info/ should point to the brand-new site. The Blogger posts will remain at http://ginkgo100.blogspot.com. If there is a particular post you would like to see transferred to the new site, please let me know! Some of the best posts have already been moved over.

The RSS feed may do strange things until the transfer is complete. Please have patience with the technical issues. And if you are using a feed reader or e-mail subscription, make sure you click through and check out the new site! Contact me if you would like to contribute as a writer. Also please let me know about bugs, suggestions, problems, etc. Thank you to my wonderful readers!


Leave the Lights On is on Twitter!


I just started a Twitter account for this site, LTLOtweets. Unfortunately, the username "leavethelightson" was one character too long. I'll use this account for updates on new posts and site news. Also, my personal Twitter account is ginkgo100.


Women's Health and Other Shameful Women's Magazines

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The blog World of Psychology published an excellent post by Margarita Tartakovsky that examined an atrocious "editor's letter" that recently appeared in the chick mag Women's Health. The letter, by editor-in-chief Michele Promaulayko, was an abysmal failure in women's ongoing search for dignity in a world that demeans us at every turn. You can go over to World of Psychology to read the heinous text, then the five insightful criticisms of it made by Ms. Tartakovsky.

I cannot contain within myself a sixth criticism that was no doubt omitted only due to lack of space (really, a lot more than just five criticisms could have been made, but that would have required a whole series of blog posts). Ms. Promaulayko boasts, "We came up with a plan to help you look great naked—or in a barely there swimsuit."

Why exactly, Ms. Promaulayko, should women be so eager to parade around naked—or nearly so—in public? You did not say "nude," which implies a certain dignity in the natural human form—you said "naked," which is a much more sordidly suggestive word. Why should we do this? Because modern women should have no self-respect whatsoever? Because we should have no sense of modesty, nor view our bodies as temples? Is it because you feel it's important to women's health to manipulate and frustrate men (not to mention, the Catholic in me must add, tempt them to sin), or to to play petty games of intimidation with other women? Really, Ms. Promaulayko.

And no, the answer is not "it's encoded in our DNA."


Natural infertility treatments v. the IVF band-aid

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In a culture that promotes alternative medicine, natural childbirth, and sometimes-bizarre dietary supplements, it seems strange that natural infertility treatments are not well-known. A natural infertility treatment is not necessarily alternative medicine, but rather a conventional-medicine approach that seeks to cure the underlying cause of infertility, allowing natural conception. It stands in contrast to assisted reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is stick a "band-aid" solution that does nothing about the underlying causes of fertility problems.

Why is assisted reproductive technology the current standard of care for infertility? If you type "fertility treatment" into Wikipedia, you are redirected to "assisted reproductive technology." Wikipedia, being written collaboratively by people around the world, reflects the biases and attitudes of those people. Fertility drugs and IVF are what people think of when they think about infertility treatments.

I think the reason IVF is so popular — despite its astronomical cost and mediocre success rate (only 1 in 3 attempts results in a live birth) — is because it is a "magic pill" approach. It is a silver bullet, a straightforward process left in the hands of doctors. Natural fertility treatments are more complicated because they start with diagnostics, rather than jumping immediately into treatment.

Among the diagnostic steps used in natural fertility treatments for women are ultrasound, laparoscopy, and sonohysterosalpingography (SHSG) to look for structural problems in the reproductive organs, as well as hormone level checks. During her menstrual cycle, a woman's estrogen and progesterone levels can change significantly in as little as 24 hours, so daily or every-other-day tests are best. Any underlying disease or structural abnormality that is uncovered is treated to increase the odds of a naturally conceived pregnancy.

How successful is natural infertility treatment compared to assisted reproductive technology? IVF has a maximum success (pregnancy) rate well under 50% (for 27-year-old women), with an average success rate closer to 35%. Statistics for live birth are even worse, with an average of only about 27% of attempts resulting in live births. That means that an average of 8% of attempts result in a miscarriage or stillbirth (or, if the fetus is imperfect, abortion). The poor success rates reflect, in part, the fact that over 50% of embryos conceived in vitro have chromosomal abnormalities, as reported by Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly. Natural fertility technology also has treatments for male infertility.

According to the Pope Paul VI institute, a major proponent of natural infertility treatment, so-called "natural reproductive technology" has higher success rates than IVF for various infertility diagnoses. These results are both statistically significant (i.e. not due to chance) and personally significant (i.e. they're a lot higher). For example, for a diagnosis of endometriosis, IVF has a success (pregnancy) rate of about 21%, while natural reproductive treatment has a success rate of about 57%. It reports a 37% success rate for tubal occlusion compared to IVF's 27%. The whopping 82% success rate reported for natural fertility treatment of anovulation (not producing mature eggs) may be due to straightforward treatment of the most obvious cause of anovulation, hormonal insufficiency (although I am speculating here).

I find it amazing that natural treatments for infertility are not better-known, even though they are more effective than current approaches. That's right: for infertile couples, it is more effective to try to conceive a baby the way nature always has than to inject a sperm into an egg under a microscope, with less chance of complications like chromosomal abnormalities and multiple gestation. Who wouldn't choose that first, if they knew it was available?

Image credit: "Test tube baby" by Brendan Dolan-Gavitt. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Are parents selfish if they have a big family?

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Why do people think it's selfish to have lots of kids?

Recently there was a bit of a dust-up in the combox at my sister's blog, Mama Says*, in which one commenter in particular charged that only selfish parents have big families. Having lots of kids (eight, in this case) allegedly is harmful to the older children in the family.

This is a mainstream attitude in modern American culture. Big families are viewed with scorn and derision, the parents accused of being selfish because either (a) they are dividing their love and attention among too many kids, (b) they are contributing to overpopulation, (c) they are using more than their share of natural resources, or (d) all of the above.

As a cradle Catholic, I have known a lot of big families. I even grew up in one, as the oldest of a brood of eight. But I have yet to meet a big family with selfish parents who are focused on fulfilling their own desires at the expense of either their family or our larger society.

I think this attitude stems from the discomfort people feel when they see large families. They cannot imagine themselves having a baseball team's worth of children, so they feel subconsciously threatened when they see one. That statement is not intended to be judgmental; it's human nature, and everyone experiences feelings like that when confronted with behavior that falls outside of social norms.

Why it is not selfish to have a big family

Let me present a picture of a typical big family. This fictional family has two parents and a startling number of kids. They have a strong religious faith, perhaps Catholic or Mormon or Evangelical. The parents at times feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of people underfoot. They know they could easily take steps to prevent themselves from having so many children, but they don't, because they have decided to trust God. They see each kid as a gift and have faith that God will provide for the kids he gave them. This is not a decision made lightly. This is radical, and they know it.

All the members of the family make a lot of sacrifices in order to follow this path. Maybe the kids aren't in as many organized activities, sports, and lessons as most of their peers. Maybe they go to restaurants less often, take fewer vacations, and share bedrooms. Maybe the younger kids rarely see a new article of clothing, being clad instead in hand-me-downs.

But they also have a lot of privileges that their peers will never know. They are never lonely. Their house is the neighborhood social hub for the 18-and-under set. They probably have a groupie or two, lonely children with no siblings whose parents work all day. They have a precocious understanding of the important things in life, like love and sharing. The older ones help their parents and learn child-care skills. They all learn practical life skills by doing chores, such as how to do laundry. They see what it is like to really live according to one's ideals and values.

They never have to hear their parents say that children are burdens, or that they are "so glad" they're done having kids.

And above all, they never, ever feel unloved. Big families like to repeat the saying that "love doesn't divide, it multiplies." It's more than a cute saying, it's literally true: the kids all love each other. Each new baby has a live-in fan club. Each older child has a crowd of younger devotees who think he is the coolest person on the planet.

The truth is, every parent of a crowd has no choice but to give of the deepest part of themselves, every single day. They are practically forced to be unselfish.

Selfish parents could not do this job.

* (cough cough) Which I helped design, by the way (ahem) not that I'm boasting or anything, but I have mad skillz don't I? Nevermind that I didn't do most of the work.


7 Quick Takes 2: Scientist Christians, a blessed Mythbusters event, and more

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I'm mulling over a move from Blogger to my own site. I know what content-management system I'll use (and it's not Wordpress), have hosting already, and really just have to bite the bullet and start setting it up. I'd like to make this a science-and-faith site, not just a science-and-faith blog. The new site will probably have separate feeds for different topics (like science, Catholicism, health), a combined feed if you want all the posts in one place, and ... a forum! I might be looking for new writers or guest posters, too. I am open to feedback about what changes you might like to see here.

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day the terrified and confused apostles were sent out from the second-floor room where they hid after Christ ascended into heaven. The Bible records that the Holy Spirit provided "tongues of fire" that let them be understood to speakers of all languages. Kind of makes Pentecostal "speaking in tongues" (untranslatable tongues, that is) pale by comparison. Wear red to church!

Father Alberto Cutie is not cute. After being caught fooling around with a woman on a public beach, he was put on leave by Archbishop of Miami John C. Favalora. That was scarcely three weeks ago, and now he has already decided to convert to Episcopalianism so he can "be with the woman he loves." (Also, as he did not say in the statement, so he can break his vows without being chastised.) Presumably, he chose his new faith so he can still be a priest, since as a Catholic, he can be married or be a priest, but not both. What kind of priestly formation did Fr. Cutie go through, that he finds switching faiths as easy as buying a new car or repainting a house? Three weeks?

The acting director of the National Institutes of Health is Dr. Raynard Kington, but some (unfortunately not very current) rumors hint that Dr. Francis Collins is a "top contender" for the permanent spot. Dr. Collins is the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. H/T to Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly.

My "Animals and Catholics" series will continue. Really. It's just been a distracting month, what with National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week and everything else. Stay tuned.

Tropical depressions are forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, there was a bumper crop of named storms after two lean years, though not as many as in 2005. Let us pray that this year resembles more 2006 and 2007. After all, if another storm hits southeast Texas, this blog will suffer. I had a very hard time posting last year when the power went out!

Kari Byron is pregnant. You don't know who Kari Byron is? Then you lose geek points! She's the red-headed chick on Mythbusters. The growing belly is growing obvious on the show, and she's been sitting out on the bungee jumping and skydiving. I'm just waiting for her to bust the myth that what you crave during pregnancy will tell you whether it's a boy or a girl. (I thought they had a chromosome for that.)


Dog breeds as different species, and observing evolution

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Are this Great Dane and Chihuahua mix members of different species?

Scientific American published a tongue-in-cheek piece advocating a reclassification of dog breeds into different species of dog. The author has a point: If a species is defined as a reproductively isolated population, then surely some breeds are reproductively isolated from others (the mastiff and the Chihuahua are mentioned).

Following this line of reasoning, dogs would be most accurately described as a "ring species," in which there is a continuum of gradually varying — and potentially interbreeding — forms with two "ends" incapable of interbreeding. The mastiff and the Chihuahua are at the ends. But a German shepherd and a Labrador retriever, on the other hand, could certainly populate the animal shelters with hybridized mutts. And surely that Chihuahua could have some success, so to speak, with a Yorkshire terrier.

Some dog breeds are not capable of reproducing at all, at least not without technological intervention. French bulldog females usually must be artificially inseminated because males cannot mount effectively, and the puppies often must be delivered by Caesarian section. I am not sure how such creatures would fit into the classical species definition. It was not designed for populations that can't reproduce at all!

The impetus behind the proposed dog reclassification was to demonstrate that, in fact, speciation has been observed. Biblical literalist creationists often claim that science has never observed the splitting of one species into two different species.

Alas, if you know Creationists, you know this would not work. First, speciation has been observed already, and Creationists have no problem denying it. (See the Talk Origins information on observed speciation, an Internet classic.) Second, when a Creationist talks of a "species," he does not mean a reproductively isolated population. He means a "kind," sometimes called a "baramin," a concept exclusive to literal Creationism (i.e. not found in science). The Creationist would argue that the various canine breeds, along with wolves and wild dogs, comprise the dog "kind," and that while there might be "microevolution" within the kind, no dog would ever evolve into a new"kind." (Presumably, divine intervention would prevent "microevolution" from going too far.)

The proposal to call dog breeds different species was not made seriously. But it's good to think about the species concept once in a while.

Image credit: Ellen Levy Finch, licensed under the GFDL.


Rest in peace, Faith Hope


Faith Hope, who remarkably lived 93 days with a condition (anencephaly) said to be "incompatible with life," has passed away. Requiescat in pacem. Of course she will. She was innocent of personal sin.

Her mother loved her so much. That love spoke more for Faith's humanity than all the rational arguments I could put in this space.


An argument for celibate priests

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It's not often that the secular media get anything right about the meat of Catholic theology. Father Robert Barron gives us a splendidly reasoned exception with his argument for priestly celibacy, published on the CNN website. From the essay:

This is why, as G.K. Chesterton noted, there is a tension to Christian life. In accord with its affirmation of the world, the Church loves color, pageantry, music and rich decoration (as in the liturgy and papal ceremonials), even as, in accord with its detachment from the world, it loves the poverty of St. Francis and the simplicity of Mother Teresa.
To sum up Fr. Barron's argument, priests should be celibate because in so being, they become living models of the transcendent communion with God that we will experience in heaven.

He even mentioned G.K. Chesterton. I am pleased.


Tom Hanks, clueless about Angels & Demons controversy

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Is it offensive if someone falsely accuses your family of murder?

CNN reports that actor Tom Hanks, star of the Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons, has stated that there is nothing controversial about this film.

"Everybody is looking for some scandal whether a scandal exists or not," Hanks said of the film. "I think a kind of natural reaction is now that somehow because it's the second Robert Langdon mystery that there is some degree of controversy over it. And there is really not."

No cause for controversy? The movie pits the Catholic Church against the Illuminati, who we are to believe (contrary to reality) were a secret society of scientists dedicated uncovering the truths that the Church was vigorously suppressing. The incorrect portrayal of the Illuminati might be controversial to some, but it could possibly be described as artistic license.*

But still, no cause for controversy? What about Hanks' character Robert Langdon's remark that "the Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence [the Illuminati] forever"? What about this quote from the trailer, in which Langdon declares, "They were dedicated to scientific truth. And the Vatican didn't like that. So the church began to, how did you say it? Oh, hunt them down and kill them."

Making grossly libelous claims about men who are, Catholics believe, God's earthly representatives is cause for controversy. I'm not sure how Mr. Hanks missed that part.

A major religious leader has publicly denounced the film for ridiculing people's faith, spreading lies, creating confusion about the truth, and perpetuating false stereotypes about the Catholic Church. He is not a Catholic leader, nor even a Christian leader; this came from American Hindu statesman Rajan Zed.

Zed, notable for reading the first Hindu prayers in the U.S. Senate, is also a panelist on Newsweek's On Faith. Does Hanks think that thoughtlessly "looking for scandal" because of the name Robert Langdon is a vice that extends to respected, well-informed non-Christian religious leaders like Zed?

What do you think about the controversy around Andgels & Demons? Are Catholics justified in being upset?

*Perhaps before being issued an artistic license, a person should be required to pass a proficiency test in creating art. That may have saved us from films like this.


Free Videos About Depression and Anxiety

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National Anxiety and Depression week is over. This event is sponsored every year by Freedom From Fear, which has advocated for the mentally ill for 25 years.

Freedom From Fear was kind enough to send me a free kit to help me spread the word about clinical depression and anxiety disorders. The kit includes two DVDs:

"The Pain of Depression: A Journey through the Darkness"

"Stories of Hope and Courage" (about anxiety disorders)

I am giving these DVDs away FREE to my readers! I have seen "Pain of Depression" when it aired on PBS, but I haven't seen "Stories of Hope and Courage."

Here's how it works:

Leave a comment to this post. Share a story about how mental illness has affected your life or family, or just say hi. If you prefer one or the other DVD, make a note of that and I will try to accomodate you if you win. Make sure you include your e-mail address with your comment or leave a link to a page where I can find it. The deadline is Sunday, May 17th, at midnight CDT. One entry per person!

I will number the comments in the order they appear on the page, then use a random number generator to pick two winners, one for each DVD.

Good luck! I hope to hear from you.


Anxiety and depression resources

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So you think you or someone you love may suffer from an anxiety disorder or mood disorder. Now what? There is hope for you! You have many options:

  • See your primary care doctor to make sure you are physically healthy and to ask for a referral for mental health care.
  • If your employer (or spouse's employer) has an Employee Assistance Plan, call them.
  • Ask your church. They may be able to refer you to someone who can help.
  • If you have health insurance, call them or visit their website for covered behavioral health specialists.
  • If none of the above will work, try Googling for community mental health services in your area. There are many groups offering help at reduced-cost and sliding-scale fees.
  • If the person who is suffering is someone close to you, above all be there for them, and understand that their behavior is a symptom of a disease. Just as a person with muscular dystrophy has trouble walking, a person with, for example, depression has trouble doing even the simplest tasks, reaching out to others (though they may be desperately lonely), fulfilling their obligations, even getting out of bed (depression is also a sleep disorder).
Where can you turn for help in the meantime? Here are some recommended websites and books:

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Image credit: "Hope" by Martin Gommel. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Four depression myths

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Last year, I wrote a post to clear up an assortment of depression and anxiety myths. Here are more myths about depression and bipolar disorder (also called manic-depressive illness), including children's depression and postpartum depression.

Myth: I'm not sad all the time, so it can't be depression.

Fact: To be diagnosed with clinical depression, you must have either dysphoria (sad, bad, or depressed mood) or anhedonia (loss of interest in activities or inability to feel pleasure). If experience anhedonia without sadness for two weeks or more, and have other symptoms such as sleep disturbance, fatigue, appetite disturbance, or an obsession with death, you may have depression. See my post "Have you experienced depression?" for a full list of depression symptoms. Or take this free depression screening from the excellent website Psych Central.

Myth: Children don't get depressed.

Fact: Children can and do get depressed, as do adolescents. Childhood depression is a serious illness that should not be ignored. Symptoms are similar to the symptoms of depression in adults, but children are more likely to have physical symptoms (such as stomachaches and headaches). Depressed children may talk about running away from home or attempt to do so; may do poorly in school; and become socially isolated. The American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry has more information on depression in children.

Myth: Only new mothers get postpartum depression.

Fact: The hormone changes that occur in a woman's body after childbirth are widely assumed by the public to be the only cause of postpartum depression. But the stress of a newborn, lack of sleep, and changes in family life and roles can all contribute to postpartum depression. It should be no surprise that these factors can contribute to depression in new fathers and new adoptive parents as well as in women who have given birth.

Myth: Mania, in bipolar disorder, is a feeling of extreme happiness.

Fact: Mania is much more than that — and often much less. More, because it also includes symptoms like hypersexuality, decreased need for sleep, grandiosity, delusions, hallucinations, constant rapid speech, "flight of ideas," and more. Less, because the mood, while high-energy, is not always euphoric. It can be angry, anxious, aggressive, or a mix of all of these. It can be extreme, or it can be milder (hypomania). It can last weeks, or it can last hours for rapid cyclers. Or it can be mixed with depression — a truly terrifying experience for everyone. Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist and author who suffers from bipolar I disorder, describes mania as "madness."

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Image credit: "Self" by The Wandering Angel. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Four anxiety myths

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Anxiety disorders are widely misunderstood. Everybody feels anxious at times, but in an anxiety disorder, the feelings take over a person's life. Here are the facts about four common anxiety disorders.

Myth: Being worried all the time is not an actual illness. Everyone is anxious sometimes.

Fact: Everyone is worried sometimes, but it is not normal to be worried almost all the time. People who cannot shake irrational worries, who worry about things out of proportion to their importance, or who have a constant sense of "free-floating" anxiety may suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a common but very treatable anxiety disorder.

Myth: If you can't stand to step on cracks, are fussy about your things, or wash your hands a lot, you "are OCD" (have obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Fact: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating illness that robs people of their time, often hours a day. It profoundly disrupts people's lives, activities, and relationships, and its sufferers might feel like prisoners to their obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (actions they must do to get rid of the intrusive thoughts). Many people have quirky little compulsions like avoiding cracks or arranging their food "just so," but this should not be confused with true obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is many times more severe.

Myth: "Social anxiety disorder" is a made-up disorder. Lots of people are shy.

Fact: Shyness is not the same as social anxiety disorder. In this disorder, normal, everyday social situations cause extreme fear and self-consciousness, and sufferers often avoid these situations. The situations that are unbearable for sufferers of this disorder are things like making transactions with cashiers, eating in front of other people, talking to receptionists, and other unavoidable activities of everyday life.

Myth: Panic attacks are not a real illness, like a heart attack is.

Fact: The symptoms of a panic attack are very much like the symptoms of a heart attack and can include chest pains, choking, tingling in the extremities, difficulty breathing, and a sense of impending doom. Onset is sudden and may not have any apparent trigger.

Unlike a heart attack, a panic attack does not cause any long-term physical damage. But panic disorder, a condition in which the sufferer experiences recurrent and severe panic attacks, often does cause long-term damage, both psychological (phobias, depression) and physical (medical complications, substance abuse, suicide). People who suffer recurrent panic attacks should be encouraged to get treatment.

Read more information on panic disorder from the American Psychological Association.

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Image credit: "Hi Anxiety" by Tom Thornton. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week 2009

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It's that time of year again: National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week is May 3-9, 2009. Some of last year's series of depression and anxiety posts turned out to be the most popular articles on this blog. This week will feature all new posts about mood and anxiety disorders.

Are you participating in National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week? Bloggers, do you have blog posts in your archives about depression or anxiety? Leave a comment and I will give you a dofollow link.


Swine flu panic, anyone?

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No, don't. Please. Instead, read these articles. I have scoured the WHO and CDC websites and other authoritative sources, applied a generous dose of perspective, and distilled the big picture of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic down to some key essentials.

Bottom line? Wash your hands and don't freak out.

And if you crave more details about the epidemic — which is verging on becoming a pandemic but so far not a very deadly one — here are two more:

I am keeping these articles up-to-date as new information emerges. As the WHO puts it, "the situation continues to evolve." Fortunately, the evolution is trending towards becoming a big "never mind." Pray that this continues!


Jesus is an elephant

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Stephen Colbert is a parody of a right-wing talk show host. (Actually, he's more than just a parody; I think he's a complex mix of parody, sincerity, and humor for humor's sake.) Regardless of how serious the "actor" Stephen Colbert is, the "character" Stephen Colbert does a not-too-shabby job refuting Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorGay Marriage Commercial

Hat tip to Catholic Answers Forums.

I have not read any of Ehrman's books and am unfamiliar with his arguments, but even in this short he shows apparent ignorance that makes me think his ideas are not much of a threat to the Christian faith. When, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he is not expressing simple despair, as Ehrman believes. He is quoting Psalm 22. The Jews, including Jesus and all the other Jewish witnesses, would know the whole psalm, which is a prophecy of the crucifixion. Consider verses 20-25:
But you, LORD, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my forlorn life from the teeth of the dog.
Save me from the lion's mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.
Then I will proclaim your name to the assembly;
in the community I will praise you:
"You who fear the LORD, give praise! All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!
For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out.

Considering the entirety of this prophetic song, Mark's version of Jesus does not seem so different from Luke's stalwart version of Jesus, after all.


Embryonic stem cells declared probably defunct — on Oprah

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Rebecca Taylor of Mary Meets Dolly seems to have posted the story first. (I fell behind on my blog reading, so I am just coming across it now.) Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is both an eminent heart surgeon and Columbia Medical School professor and a pop health celebrity and Oprah darling, told Michael J. Fox to forget about embryonic stem cells.

Dr. Oz said, "I think the stem cell debate is dead.... The problem with embryonic stem cells is that ... it's very hard to control them, and they can become cancer.... In the last year we've made ten years of advancement" on induced pluripotent stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells have turned out to be wild horses. They are too flexible. Induced pluripotent stem cells are recently developed technology that uses a patient's own body cells. They do not cause an immune response in the patient and they do not require the killing of anyone, embryo or adult.

It turns out, in the stem cell debate, that you can have your cake and eat it too: you can have pluripotent stem cells, and you can have them ethically.

Animals and Catholics series will continue soon, I promise.


Extreme traditional Catholics and extreme patriarchy

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My sister Mile Hi Mama gets a hat tip for pointing out a blog called Taliban Rising. This blog is about heretical, patriarchal ideas being promoted by certain radical members of the traditionalist Catholic movement ("Rad Trads"). As blogger Jeanette points out, these ideas delve into the realm of the distinctly non-Catholic (i.e., heretical) philosophy of religious naturalism. (Before reading further, please be aware, if you are not already, that Leave the lights on is written by a woman.)

In her post "Weaving the Mental Burqa," Jeanette (who writes with more clarity and spirit than I can manage here) quotes a few Rad Trad intellectual leaders, including Dr. Peter Chojnowski and the infamous Bishop Richard Williamson. Bishop Williamson's outrageous comments do not need to be refuted; they fairly refute themselves. Dr. Chojnowski, on the other hand, writes with a style reeking of erudition and opaque scholarship, and I consider his work to be a fair target.

He publishes a blog in which he reprints some of the articles he has written. In the introduction to his recently posted article "Our Lady as Woman and Warrior," he decries "the various writers on the internet who insist on distorting everything I have to say about women." I hope he does not consider this quote from that article to be a distortion:

"On account of the fact that the 'lady,' in all of her various aspects and roles, is commonly accepted to be the model of what all woman, on the natural level, ought to be. Just as the masculine ideal is one of being a 'master'...." (emphasis added)
It certainly sounds like much of this writer's philosophy is based on religious naturalism.

I do not mean to say, as some feminists do, that men and women are exactly the same (clearly they are not), nor that mothers and fathers do not have duties particular to their respective roles in the family (clearly they do). But as Jeanette points out, God's plan for men and women is not ordered primarily toward their sex, but rather toward Christ. Our duties arise not from our gender, but from our specific roles in the service of God.

To quote Dr. Gyula Mago, in the article "Feminism as Antichurch" in the Angelus, "[Woman] is subject to man, but not because he is the end for which she exists." The Angelus is a traditionalist publication; this quote is indicative of the fact that the naturalist heresy is not completely pervasive in the traditionalist movement, only in a small number of Rad Trads.

Contrast this statement with the following from Dr. Chojnowski's article "Flesh of my Flesh":
"It will be my contention that women have their being as women actualized only through their relationship with men. Women need men in order to be truly women. Men, however, do not need women in order to be truly men. ... Every convent has its father confessor and the Eucharistic Bridegroom." (emphasis original)

Though Chojnowski states this is based on Thomistic philosophy, I think St. Thomas Aquinas would shudder to think of his clearly reasoned philosphy invoked for such confused, pop-psych drivel. There are two errors in this quote. The first is the statement that "women have their being actualized by men." Nowhere in Catholic theology does one find this sentiment. The second error is the assertion that the presence of priests in convents somehow "proves" the first. It proves nothing of the sort; what it proves is that women, like men, need Christ. The priest is there to bring Christ in the sacraments to the nuns of the convent, not to "actualize their being," whatever that means.

My experience suggests that women have as much of a civilizing influence on men as men have a stabilizing influence on women. Even these observations are only broad generalities, as individual men and women vary widely in temperament.

Dr. Chojnowski can continue writing to encourage men to find women to actualize into being. (I imagine he does not intend women, being mentally inferior and subordinate to men, to read what he writes. I also imagine he has not ever had a real conversation with an actual woman.) As for me and my blog, we will serve the Lord, not the male sex.


Religious LOLcats and more

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While searching for an image to use for a logo for my series on animal welfare, I came across some, ah, rejected entries. Here are some religion-themed LOLcats:



If you're not familiar with LOLcats, you should know that "Ceiling Cat" is LOLcat-speak for God.


And as a bonus defying further description, here's a dog who apparently did not get excommunicated:


My animal background


You, dear reader, may already know my background on things religious: I was raised Catholic, have never left the faith, have a decent layperson's understanding of the Catechism, and teach Confirmation candidates at my parish. For the new series "Animals and Catholics," here is my background on the topic of animals:

I belong to a club known as "animal lovers." We are the ones who other people call with questions about the baby bird in their yard, or wondering if their dogs can stay with us while they are on vacation. We are the ones who stop our cars when we see an ailing creature by the side of the road. We are the ones with the phone numbers to our veterinarian, an emergency animal hospital, and animal control all stored in our cell phones. We are the ones who buy those expensive "fancy" pet foods and debate the relative merits thereof.

My degree is a bachelor of science in zoology. I spent a couple of years as an animal control officer, which gave me a perspective on the impact of animals on public health. (More on that later int he series.) I have also worked as a professional aquarium biologist (read: I scuba-dived into giant fish tanks to scrub algae). And except for a small part of my college years, I have never been without a pet of some sort. I have had various freshwater fish, assorted birds large and small, cats, a snake, a lizard (briefly), and hermit crabs. A dog is certainly in my future, though there are no immediate plans.


Animal welfare and the Catholic Church

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One area of Catholic theology that seems underdeveloped is a clear explanation of our moral obligations towards animals.

Certainly, it is not inappropriate for this subject to be underdeveloped. The Church's thinkers have explored theology according to a heirarchy of importance. The nature of Christ and his sacrifice came first, as the various Christological heresies (Arianism, Monophysitism, etc.) were rejected. Then the nature of the Trinity was explored. Next came the rejection of the various Protestant heresies and explanations of many of the sacraments. In modern times, the sacrament of marriage and the issues surrounding the beginning of life have been explored by John Paul the Great in his Theology of the Body.

This very crude overview leaves out a great deal, but it makes the point that the field of theology has started with the most important things and proceeded to subjects of lesser and lesser importance.

Humanity's moral obligations toward animals, and the nature of the relationship between God and animals — in short, a theology of animals — is near the bottom of the ladder of importance. I believe that the need to develop this area is becoming more pressing because of the increasing prominence of several heresies regarding animals — for example, the vegan heresy that animals are the moral equivalents of human beings — and an increasing general cultural concern for the welfare of animals.

I want to explore the Church's present teachings on animals. Over the next few weeks, I plan to make a series of posts on the theology available to us lay people so far. I am eager for comments on this series! Please "leave a light on" for this and other posts in this series.

"Animals and Catholics" image adapted from "dog & cat" by Yukari. (CC) Some rights reserved.


The human dignity of anencephalic babies

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Anencephaly is a birth defect in which the brain fails to form properly. An anencephalic baby is commonly described as having "no brain," although in fact the more primitive parts of the brain are generally present. Of those who are not killed before birth, many anencephalic infants are stillborn, but others live for a short time after birth, and a very few can survive a matter of months.

Some in the medical community view anencephalic babies with a sort of vampirish greed. As early as 1988, a journal article on anencephaly and organ donation noted that "as neonatal transplant science advances, the already acute shortage of small organs will likely grow worse unless new sources of organs are identified" (emphasis added). It being the case that small organs do not grow on trees, the new sources that need to be "identified" can be nothing other than live babies less "valuable" than the ones needing transplants.

One of these potential "sources" is named Faith Hope. Today she is 53 days old and breathes without any intervention. Her single mother Myah, blogging about her baby, reports being encouraged by doctors to kill Faith before she was born and being told that her baby would die shortly after birth. To be fair, most anencephalic live births do die shortly after, but Faith is not unique in her survival, either. Though she does not discuss it much on the blog, apparently Myah is feeling some pressure to offer her baby up for organ harvesting. In her post "Spare Parts," she writes with heart-wrenching irony,

It would be such a noble thing for me to do... after all, what other purpose could my baby's life possibly serve? She is harboring valuable baby organs, and let's face it... she's as good as dead anyway. Her organs could be used to save a baby who actually has a brain.

Myah might be encouraged by the opinion published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the dignity of anencephalic infants. The Church explicitly rejects the opinion "that anencephalic children, 'because of their apparent lack of cognitive function, and in view of the probable brevity of their lives', lack human rights 'or at least have lives of less meaning or purpose than others'."

Meanwhile, a secular ethical report on anencephalic babies as organ donors (PDF) asked, "Are anencephalic infants being considered as potential organ sources because they are dead, because they will die imminently and inevitably, or because their brains have not yet developed, and never will develop, to a stage at which they can be considered 'human persons'?"

The question really comes down to who has the best claim to the right of having the anencephalic child's organs: the child herself, or the potential transplantee? As with all organ transplants, clearly the answer is that the person born with the organs has first rights to them. A life cannot be ended, regardless of any external valuations of the quality of that life, in order to claim organs. Just as killing an embryo for its stem cells is wrong, so is killing a baby with a brain defect for its organs.

Further reading:


Victimae paschali laudes


Death and life have fought a huge battle,
The Prince of Life was dead, but lives and reigns.

(Full translation)

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani
Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
Reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando,
Dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.
Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
Et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angelicos testes, sudarium et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea:
Praecedet vos in Galilaeam.
Credendum est magis soli
Mariae veraci
Quam Judaeorum
Turbae fallaci.
Scimus Christum surrexisse
a mortuis vere:
Tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere.
Amen. Alleluia.


Good Friday rerun: Why we practice penance

Here's a rerun from this blog, published for Lent 2008. For Good Friday, you might enjoy my reflections on why we practice penance. Have a blessed Easter weekend.


Praying robots

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Keyboard PrayerWhen I was young, our priest had a sermon he recycled every year. The key point of that sermon was that we should be attentive when we pray. After all, if one programmed a robot to recite prayers, it would be meaningless.

Seems pretty straightforward to me. God is not some machine who can be fooled by machine repetitions. He's a person who listens to our personal messages.

It is not, apparently, straightforward to everyone. According to Marketplace, a show broadcast on National Public Radio, there's a website (not named) that will pray for you for the low, low price of $4.95 a month. For that sum, the text of your prayer (all denominations and faiths welcome) will be run through a voice synthesizer three times per day.

Yeah. God will really be moved by that.


April Fool's Day and wishful thinking

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Yes, my last post was an April Fool's joke. Christopher Hitchens did not convert to Christianity in a moment of clarity (does he have any?) and the Answers in Genesis crowd did not adopt an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. It was all wishful thinking on my part. Actually, if I had my wish, Hitchens would have become Catholic, not Evangelical, but I liked the line about him accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (There is precedent for the conversion of prominent atheists, though...)


If you'll believe this...


The following post, dated April 1, 2009, is an April Fool's Day joke and contains no truth whatsoever.

This morning there were not one, but two incredible stories making their rounds of the blogs. They seem unrelated as far as I can tell, but they are eerily similar.

First, notorious anti-theist Christopher Hitchens, author of the book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has released a remarkable statement declaring that he has rethought his ideal of secularism after discovering the "sinner's prayer" of Evangelical Christianity. In the statement, he says,

"I said the sinner's prayer with the intention of proving that it is a meaningless appeal to an imaginary being, no more real than the Tooth Fairy.... [but] Christ illuminated my soul and showed me what my own intellect could not grasp: that the spiritual world, though undescribable by science, nevertheless can and indeed does exist.... I have humbly accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour. May God forgive me for my persecution of Him."

The second story is a press release appearing on the website of the anti-evolution Christian organization Answers in Genesis. In it, AiG CEO Ken Ham (not to be confused with AIG CEO Edward Liddy) explains,
"Answers in Genesis has always been dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on the Book of Genesis, which we assumed was the most-attacked book of the Bible due to the scientific popularity of the 'theory' of evolution. In regard to scientific observation, AiG has always taught that 'facts' don’t speak for themselves, but must be interpreted. Our think tank has had the revolutionary idea of applying that belief not only to scientific theories that we don't understand, but also to the Bible itself. We have discovered, to our awe and amazement, that the Book of Genesis can be interpreted in an allegorical way, such that it does not contradict the 'theory' of evolution, yet still proclaims the glory of God's creation. While we are not endorsing evolution, which is after all still just a theory, we are no longer opposing it as long as God gets all the credit."
I am not even sure what to make of all this. I will be posting more about these two incredible stories later in the week, after I have time to let it sink in.


More about stem cells

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My stem cell articles for Bright Hub for March have been published. There are some articles about treatments. If you only read one, read the one about induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These show incredible promise as a controvery-free replacement for embryonic stem cells.

Stem cell research is moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. Already there are clinical trials that may actually heal spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately, they use embryonic stem cells. Amazingly, embryonic stem cells may not even be necessary for this treatment; adult stem cells have healed spinal cord injuries in rats, just like embryonic stem cells.


A scientific look at traffic and car culture

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I recently read the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt, a fascinating look at many aspects of car culture: how roads affect traffic patterns, how both safety and danger are often an illusions, how driving behavior varies around the world, and how traffic deaths are correlated not to GDP or highway spending, but to governmental corruption. This book examines a lot of psychological science and the intersection (hah) between psychology and engineering that goes into traffic management.

It turns out that traffic engineering is not rocket science. It's way more complicated than that.

For example, road capacity is directly related to the demand for road capacity. In other words, if traffic engineers put in a new lane or road to ease congestion on an existing road, they will be confounded by a number of new drivers on that road. Adding to capacity somehow adds to the number of drivers using it (and vice versa: when roads or lanes are removed, for instance by construction, demand falls). This peculiar phenomenon stems from the fact that drivers are independent beings who make choices based on what is available to them. If a road is too crowded, some will choose to make fewer trips (perhaps telecommuting or combining errands into one trip). If new capacity becomes available, some will choose to make more trips (perhaps not making the effort of combining errands into a single trip).

I have some questions for you, dear reader, and would love it if you shared your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. What are your traffic pet peeves? What driver behaviors and road conditions drive (hah) you crazy?
  2. Do you think you are an average driver, in terms of skill and safety? Below or above average? Why?
  3. What do you think of the use of the horn? Is it always rude? When is it not rude?
  4. And where do you do most of your driving? I'm wondering about geography, since traffic culture varies widely among locations. New York drivers are very different from London drivers or Salt Lake City drivers.


Sex, lies and embryos

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Mouse adult stem cell-derived immune system cell (dendritic cell)President Barack Obama is rescinding the U.S. ban on research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. The narrative that his administration is promoting is that this research is "pro-science," and that the Bush ban on such research was "anti-science" due to ignorance about the potential of stem cells. To strengthen the narrative, the propagandists seek intentionally to confuse the difference between the two major types of stem cells used in research.

Therapies using so-called "adult" stem cells, which can be obtained without significant harm to the donor, show great promise as potential treatments for diseases from heart disease to diabetes. Embryonic stem cells, which are obtained only after killing the human donor, have so far proven to be more problematic, as they have a tendency to form tumors called teratomas.

Julia Dory Ransohoff, a 17-year-old prodigy who has conducted her own stem cell research, has appeared in the news as a finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search. She was invited to meet the President as part of the pro-embryonic stem cell research propaganda effort.

But here's the "lie," which is actually an omission meant to confuse: Ms. Ransohoff's research is not on embryonic stem cells at all. She used adult stem cells from bone marrow. She found that heterologous stem cells to treat heart disease elicit a greater immune response for female donors than for male donors (that's the "sex").

The tactic used by supporters of embryonic stem cell research is to cloud the ethical questions surrounding it by failing to distinguish between embryonic and adult stem cells. There is no serious ethical opposition to the use of adult stem cells. Bioethicists from all sides of the debate agree on that point. Failing to make the distinction is dishonest and dishonorable.

Image: Mouse dendritic cells (a type of immune system cell) derived from bone marrow adult stem cells. Source: National Cancer Institute.

Update: After I published this post, I saw this headline: "Obama moves to separate politics and science." Just as I said, the Obama administration is trying to paint the issue as one of noble science v. extremist politics, rather than as an ethical debate.


Words nominated for banishment 2009

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Every year, Lake Superior State University compiles a list of words to be banished for "mis-use, over-use and general uselessness." As I like to fancy myself a writer, this blog has an annual tradition (of which this is the second installment; that's a respectable lifespan for a blog!) of nominating words and expressions for the next LSSU list. Here are my 2009 nominations:

Green collar. This one was actually banished this year by LSSU, along with every other construction using the word "green" that does not have to do with nausea or envy. I wanted to single this one out for being an especially egregious and useless expression.

Down economy. Unforgivably overused.

These tough economic times. This clich├ęd phrase usually shows up in platitudes that are themselves useless.

Pass Constitutional muster. This terribly overused expression returns over 66,000 results from Google. What is a muster, anyway?

Shock and awe. This oldie was appearing in stories broadcast on NPR as recently as last month. I'm shocked that it is still in wide use despite appearing on LSSU's list five years ago.

Signature — as in, "signature dish" (uttered frequently by the infamous Chef Gordon Ramsay as he abuses struggling chefs), "signature service" (marketed by a certain large oil-change franchise), and many other abuses.

Give back. The phrase "give back" requires an object; one gives back to someone. To describe charitable endeavors as "giving back" is vague, ungrammatical, and devoid of meaning. (Oh wait: this was on the 2008 LSSU list. Well, it bears repeating.)

My readers (hi Grandma!) are an erudite bunch, and I know you are thinking of some words you ardently wish to see banished. Nominate them in the comments below!


Should babies be made to order? Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis

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The Scientific American headline asks, "Can Babies Be Made to Order?" It is typical of SciAm, as well as of many members of the research community, that the more important question was overlooked: "Should Babies Be Made to Order?"

The article is an interview with Maria Lalioti, an expert in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In PGD, embryos are created in vitro and then screened for certain genetic traits, which may include traits incompatible with life or merely traits that increase risk for certain diseases.

The embryos that fail the screening are labelled "undesirable." I'm not making that up: Lalioti says the parents decide the fate of "undesirable embryos" whose genes are imperfect. They may be experimented on, or they may be killed. Lalioti's euphemisms, respectively, are "donated to science" and "discarded."

Let us be crystal clear about what PGD does and does not do. PGD does not save lives — it takes them. It kills young, tiny humans before a couple invests significant affection and financial resources on them. It kills them before they are cute enough to inspire sympathy.

PGD is a ghastly "solution" to preventing diseases with a genetic component. It's the solution of Adolf Hitler, who also took undesirable people and discarded them or donated them to science. At least his victims could look their killers in the eye.

The real kicker occurs near the end of the interview, in which Lalioti self-righteously announces that her clinic does not permit sex selection of interviews "for ethical reasons." She derisively adds that some clinics "are making a lot of money" doing just this.

As for the question "Can Babies Be Made to Order?" The answer, according to Lalioti, is probably not. We don't know enough about the genes that influence cosmetic traits like hair and eye color. After all, researching those genes does nothing to teach us how to save lives. PGD does not save lives, either; it takes them.

Correction: When first published, this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Lalioti's clinic "does permit sex selection." This was a typo; it was supposed to read "does not permit sex selection." The error has been corrected and I apologize for any misunderstanding.


Readings for the first Sunday of Lent: Noah, the Flood, and baptism

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During this season of Lent, my parish is using custom-printed booklets for "worship aids" (which we use instead of missalettes). The booklets contain all the hymns for each Sunday, as well as the first two readings. Each Sunday is prefaced by a little meditation written by Father Paul Turner, a priest in Missouri who has created a large body of writing for this purpose.

Some of Fr. Turner's "bulletin inserts" are quite though-provoking and provide good food for meditation. The blurb for this past Sunday is another story. With my mad Google skilz, I found it online, at the top of page 2 of this parish's bulletin (PDF link). The subject is the first reading for March 1, Genesis 9:8-15, the end of the story of Noah's nautical adventure, in which God makes a covenant not to flood the earth again. Fr. Turner's commentary includes this:

So, what did God give up? God gave up global floods. “There shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.” God gave up giving up on people.

As I read these words, the catechist in me cringed. God did not give up giving up on people — because God has never given up on people. Though the Genesis account may make it sound as if God was intent on destroying his creation, our understanding of God makes it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Old Testament stories like this are included in Scripture because they teach us something about humankind's relationship with God. It was sin that destroyed the earth, and God who saved it (through Noah). The covenant not to flood the earth is a prefigurement of the final covenant, when God sent Christ to save the earth from the flood of our sins.

The second reading for last Sunday is taken from the first Epistle of Peter. I rather think St. Peter had much more astute thoughts on the Noah story. From the reading:

[Christ] also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. (1 Peter 3:19-21)

The catechist in me was struck with wonder at this interpretation, which seems so obvious, but which had escaped my notice until now: The Great Flood, which symbolically cleansed and "purified" the world, prefigured our water baptism, in which our souls are really cleansed and purified from all original and personal sin. God did not give something up; he gave something to us.


A primer on stem cells

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You may know that I write science articles for the a science and technology website called Bright Hub. I just completed a short series on the basics of stem cells: terminology, classification, and sources. Each article is meant to stand alone, so they are a little repetitive.

These are not opinion pieces, so I did not express my personal strenuous opposition to any use of embryonic stem cells. I did carefully note in every article in which embryonic stem cells are mentioned that harvesting embryonic stem cells kills the embryo.

Only one article is about stem cell treatments. That's because I was only assigned to write one. Here are the links:

Would you like to see me write more about stem cells? Are there any particular topics you would like to see covered? I can always write as much as I like in this space, and I can ask my editor for more stem cell assignments at Bright Hub.


Seven Quick Takes Friday 1

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I am jumping on a meme bandwagon: Seven Quick Takes Friday, hosted by Jen F. at Conversion Diary. Since this is a blog about science and faith, not a personal diary, I hope Jen will forgive me if my seven snippets consist of news, info, and thoughts about those subjects.


Gray nurse shark, aka sand tiger shark, at the Minnesota Zoo by Joe LencioniIf you grow your young in a uterus, but you have not evolved a placenta, how do you feed them? For the gray nurse shark, aka the sand tiger shark, the answer is incestuous cannibalism. Gray nurse shark pups in the womb eat each other for nourishment, so only two are born per pregnancy (females have two uteruses). Since they are endangered, marine biologist Nick Otway is trying to develop an artificial uterus for gray nurse shark pups. Back when I worked as an aquarium biologist, we had several of these huge sharks. They are quite docile despite their fearsome complement of teeth.

At right: Grey nurse shark at the Minnesota Zoo, courtesy Joe Lencioni. (CC) Some rights reserved.


Check out this video of comedian Stephen Crowder, hosted by the Raving Theist (formerly the Raving Atheist). He does an over-the-top parody comparing Planned Parenthood to a used car salesman.


From the world of physics (via Scientific American) comes a story about the continued dissonance between Einstein's special relativity and quantum mechanics. This particular story has to do with a principle of special relativity called locality, which conflicts with a principle of quantum mechanics called entanglement. Of note is a comment buried on page 4 of the online article:
The old aspirations of physics to be a guide to metaphysics, to tell us literally and straightforwardly how the world actually is—aspirations that had lain dormant and neglected for more than 50 years—began, slowly, to reawaken.

This is good news for philosophers who, like me*, view reality as a concrete thing and truth as absolute.

*Not that I am any kind of philosopher.


Shame on the New York Times for its headline, "For Catholics, a Door to Absolution is Reopened." The article is about the church's promotion of indulgences — which are decidedly not the same as absolution, and which have never had the door closed, having always been available. The Times notes that the tradition of indulgences is "one of the most complicated to explain," then proceeds to do a rotten job of explaining it. In particular is the omission of the crucial point that Purgatory is a process of purification, of making us more like God so we can enter his heaven, not a place in space-time where one serves a sentence of days or years. (Hat tip to Science and Religion News.)


Hubble photo image of Pluto and moonsWhen Pluto was removed from the list of planets, it became the first discovered member in a brand-new class of space objects: the dwarf planets. In a way, this is actually a promotion, not a demotion. But apparently a lot of people are emotionally attached to Pluto as a planet. In 2007, the State of New Mexico (home of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh) declared Pluto officially a planet. (Hat tip to Spaceports blog.) This reminds me of the apocryphal tale of one of the Appalachian states (Tennessee?) trying to declare the mathematical constant pi as equal to exactly 3.

At right: Image of Pluto and its moons by the Hubble Space Telescope (courtesy of NASA).


If you are Catholic, and the Pope himself told you to your face that you were wrong on some issue, would you reconsider your position? Apparently, Nancy Pelosi would not. She shows no signs of easing from her pro-choice stance despite a face-to-face reprimand from Pope Benedict XVI. One prays that at least a seed was planted.


Until now, the Alavesia fly was an insect known only from amber fossils from the Cretaceous period, before the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs and many other species. Now two species of living Alavesia have been found in Namibia and have been dubbed "living fossils" by the media. A completely new suborder of insects, the Mantophasmatodea, was discovered as well. There is still much we do not know about the mysterious world of living things. It's no surprise the new discoveries were insects; there are an estimated six to ten million species of insects, but only about a million have been described.


Order your designer baby today!

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Once, babies were considered gifts from God. Then we invented in vitro fertilization and took God out of the equation.

Now that babies are commodities, it stands to reason that we should be able to custom-order them. And finally, we can, thanks to Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles, California.

This clinic allows prospective parents to choose cosmetic traits in their offspring, such as hair color and eye color. Before today, baby trends included stroller brands and popular first names. Now baby trends can include baby blues!

Can we go any further on the path to making human life a commodity rather than a sacred gift? I'm asking seriously, not rhetorically. Leave an answer in the comments.


The marvelous Ichthyostega: One of Darwin's "missing" transitional fossils

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This post is a contribution to the blog swarm "Blog for Darwin," held from February 12-15, 2009, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, introducing the world to the revolutionary concept of evolution through natural selection, he noted that "perhaps ... the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory" was the apparent lack of "transitional" fossils in the geological record. He speculated that the reason that "geology ... does not reveal [a] finely graded organic chain" of intermediate forms was because of the paucity of fossil discoveries at the time.

In one sense, every species that has ever existed is a "transitional" form; it reflects characteristics of its ancestors, and its characteristics will be reflected in its descendants. But humans are impressed by the dramatic, and in the years since Darwin's first book on evolution was published, some very dramatic fossils, intermediate between two large classes, have been discovered.

The most famous of these is Archaeopterix, which depending on one's interpretation is either a a bird with teeth and clawed hands or a feathered, flying dinosaur. But another lesser-known fossil is equally dramatic as an example of a transitional form: the marvelous Ichthyostega.

Ichthyostega is an intermediate form between fishes and amphibians from the late Devonian period, about 365 million years ago. One could describe it as a fish with legs that could walk around on land, or one could say it was an amphibian with the head and tail of a fish. Since fish have their weight supported by the water, Ichthyostega faced the problem of supporting its weight on land, which was accomplished by thickened, overlapping ribs — a clumsy, primitive solution necessary because it had so recently evolved from its lungfish-like ancestors.

Ichthyostega had seven toes on each hind foot, notable since the number of toes on tetrapod* feet stabilized at five early in their evolution. Its shoulder and hip had adaptations to help it move about on land. Its hind limbs could support its body as a juvenile, but were likely too weak to support its full weight on land in adulthood. It is hypothesized that juveniles could leave the water to escape predators, but adults only partially pulled themselves out of the water to sun themselves.

Ichthyostega is one of many fossils that fill in the natural history of the evolution of tetrapods from fish. The story is still not complete: "Romer's gap" (named after paleontologist Alfred Sherwood Romer) is a 20 million year period of missing fossils between Ichthyostega and its contemporaries and the next-oldest known tetrapods.

Gaps in the fossil record like this were a worry to Darwin, who recognized them as a potential rebuttal of his seminal theory. Yet absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; the most parsimonious explanation for Romer's gap remains the one Darwin put forth — the incompleteness of the geological record. Charles Darwin's extraordinary theory is now secure as one of the most well-established, concrete principles of biology.

*Tetrapods are four-legged vertebrates and their descendants; in other words, all vertebrates except fish.

More information on Ichthyostega

  • Ichthyostega from the Tree of Life web project
  • Cladogram showing Ichthyostega's place in the evolution of tetrapods (Palaeos database)

Ichthyostega image information

  • Top right: Reconstruction of a juvenile Ichthyostega from the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan. Photo by Alton Thompson. (CC) Some rights reserved.
  • Left: Pencil drawing of Ichthyostega. From Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL).
  • Bottom right: Drawing of Ichthyostega skeleton. The forelimbs are incompletely fossilized and the hand morphology is unknown. From the Tree of Life web project (link above), after Ahlberg et al. 2005. (CC) Some rights reserved.