Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Men at work in Atlanta, moorhens on a marsh in Guam

Of all the scores of scientific articles I've read, the two with titles that gave me the biggest chuckle were studies of the common moorhen, a widespread aquatic bird. One of the papers, in the journal Science back in 1983, was entitled "Female Moorhens Compete for Small Fat Males." The title pretty well sums up the text; no doubt many male Homo sapiens wish the same was true for our species.

The other title that gave me the giggles appeared in a 1993 number of The Wilson Bulletin, an ornithological journal. The short paper bore the heading "Rapid Colonization of a Human-made Wetland by Mariana Common Moorhens on Guam." I guess the females had to colonize it rapidly to compete for those small fat males.

What's funny to me about the Wilson Bulletin paper is that you will notice there are two species of animals mentioned in the title--humans and moorhens. But while the title uses "human-made" to describe the wetland, as opposed to the more familiar "manmade," no effort is made to make the name of the bird gender neutral. It's called the "Mariana Common Moorhen," not the "Mariana Common Moorhen-cock." Political correctness apparently applies only to organisms that make wetlands, not those that nest in them.

Use of a word to mean either all members of a species OR just those of one sex is not uncommon in the Animal Kingdom. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives one definition of "duck" as: "any of various swimming birds... in which the neck and legs are short, the feet typically webbed, the bill often broad and flat, and the sexes usually different from each other in plumage." A second definition is given: "a female duck — compare drake."

So normally when someone says "duck" he means (oops... I should say "he or she means") all those birds spinning in the pond. But it's also perfectly acceptable to say "duck" and mean just the girl mallards, as distinguished from the drakes. "Mallard" by the way, originally meant only the male of that particular species of duck, see Kear, Man and Wildfowl, 1990, p. 224.

There is another type of animal for which we have a word that means either "all of them" or just "those of one sex." That animal is, of course, man. And by "man" I mean Angelina Jolie as well as Brad Pitt.

Some people are positively uncomfortable with "man" because it has two definitions. One such person is Cynthia Good, an Atlanta magazine editor. Her efforts have caused the City of Atlanta to replace "Men at Work" signs with ones that declare "Workers Ahead." The cost to make the change will, of course, be borne by the Atlanta taxpayers. Thank God for that; when we're closing fire stations and laying off city workers it's nice to know there is still enough cash on hand to keep Atlanta motorists from becoming confused lest they see a sign saying "Men at Work" and just beyond it glimpse a woman manning a jackhammer. (Er... how do I say "a woman manning a jackhammer in a gender neutral fashion? Personing a jackhammer?)

Whenever I hear a story like the the men at work signs, I inevitably turn to page 82 of historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life and read what he has to say on this matter:

"For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; 'Man inhabits all the climatic zones.' Logicians have said 'Man is mortal,' and philosophers have boasted of 'Man's unconquerable mind.' The poet Webster writes: 'And man does flourish but his time.' In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which contest makes clear.. Some may brush aside this lesson from usage old and new with a 'Never mind. Nobody knows or thinks about the past and man remains objectionable.' At this point the reformer must face practical needs. To repeat at frequent intervals 'man and woman' and follow it with the compulsary 'his and her' is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires."

The emphases are Barzun's. He wrote that in his nineties; what a stunning example of wisdom coming with age. Notice he writes of "sentence rhythm" and "good prose;" one hopes that Cynthia Good, being an editor, would agree that these are sound goals in communication.

When I think of the status of today's women--I'm here using "women" because I specifically mean members of the species man who are not male--there is a section of another wide-ranging book that comes to my mind. Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory devotes an entire chapter to Rose Arnold Powell, a woman who campaigned virgorously to have Susan B. Anthony carved into Mount Rushmore along with the four presidents. In a 1934 letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Powell complained, "I protest with all my being against the exclusion of a woman from the Mount Rushmore group of great Americans. Future generations will ask why she was left out of the memorial," Schama p. 385. Actually, we are several generations into the future since Powell wrote that, and I doubt very many people have ever stopped and said, "I can't believe Susan B. Anthony isn't on Mount Rushmore!" You can't get many folks to use her damn dollars, for Pete's sakes.

I don't really mean to blast Cynthia Good; no harm can come from her effort to change the signs. But what she has done here is, I think, a little like Rose Arnold Powell's campaign--it's basically irrelevant. The great opportunities available to women in America today, the marvelous accomplishments of women in our recent past, are not dependant on who is carved on mountains, what it says on construction signs, or whether we say "manmade wetland" or "human-made wetland." Success for today's woman depends on her own initiative and hard work, not on insignificant symbols around her.

Just be glad you're not moorhens, ladies. Then you'd use up all your initiative and hard work to compete for short fat males.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Kirtland's warbler = caribou--if you discount science, law, and reason

Recently a federal judge blocked a plan to drill for natural gas in a Michigan forest. This, of course, made some folks quite upset:

"Frankly, if it would lower the price of gas I put in my tank I’d serve those warblers at my next barbeque, along with some tasty caribou steaks and some polar bear filets."

Ed Morrissey of is obviously a lot more reasonable guy than "pilgrim," but he too found fault with the ruling.

You will notice that Morrissey quotes the portion of John Cornyn's essay mentioning "Alaskan development" of oil resources. Coupled with "pilgrim's" desire for caribou steaks, there is an implication that preservation of the Kirtland's warbler in Michigan is analogous to caribou management in Alaska.

How preposterous. Just take a look at the webpage the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has on the warbler and compare that to the similar page the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has on caribou.

From the caribou page:

"The world population is about 5 million. Caribou in Alaska are distributed in 32 herds (or populations)... There are approximately 950,000 wild caribou in Alaska (including some herds that are shared by Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory)."

Okay, and now let's check in with the Kirtland's warbler:

"The endangered Kirtland's warbler is one of the rarest members of the wood warbler (Parulidae) family....Nesting population size is estimated annually by counting the singing male Kirtland's warblers...The primary recovery objective is to establish and sustain a Kirtland's warbler population throughout its known range at a minimum level of 1,000 pairs using adaptive management techniques."

And the site has this nice little graphic to remind you that the estimated population of Kirtland's warblers in the whole world is shockingly small (remember they only count "singing males;" if there was one willing female for every crooning cock that's still fewer than three thousand birds.)

So that's a pretty big difference between caribou and Kirtland's warblers. There are millions of caribou, almost a million just in the forty-ninth state, and the species is very widely distributed. On the other hand, there are literally just a few hundred Kirtland's warblers, all confined to a small part of Michigan.

At least when they nest. And that brings up yet another difference. Again from the caribou information, note that it says "some herds" of these deer are shared by Alaska and Canada. Many caribou, however, confine their range just to the United States, such as the Western Arctic herd which has almost half a million animals and inhabits the land west of the pipeline and north of the Yukon River. In other words, we could do a whole lot of good or ill for caribou without the involvement of any other nation.

Not so the little warbler, as the Michigan DNR makes clear:

"The winter range of the Kirtland's warbler was discovered in 1879 when a specimen was collected on Andros Island in the Bahama Islands archipelago. All sightings or collections of wintering Kirtland's warblers since then have been in the Bahamas and in the Turks, Caicos, and Hispaniola islands." (Emphasis mine).

So unlike the Western Arctic caribou herd, the Kirtland's warbler depends on the actions of countries other than ours for its continued existence. Since I'm an American, I say the warbler depends on what the Bahamians do, but conversely, a Bahamian could say the future of this little songbird depends on how the Americans manage Michigan's jack pine forests. The yahoo article I linked above notes that the lawsuit was filed by two environmental groups plus the grandson of the man who originally donated much of the forest tract; I'm a bit surprised they didn't find a group of birdwatchers who regularly travel to the West Indies to join in the suit. That would have hammered home the point that Kirtland's warbler survival is an issue in international conservation.

On last aspect of this that I'd like to touch on. Going back to the yahoo article, notice this bit:

"U.S. District Judge David Lawson of Detroit ruled Thursday the agency had acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in 2005 by giving Savoy Energy LP of Traverse City a permit to drill an exploratory well... the judge ruled the Forest Service didn't consider how degrading the area could harm tourism, and said the agency did a "woefully inadequate" job of evaluating how the drilling might affect the Kirtland's warbler, an endangered songbird that nests in the area."

You have surely seen, as exemplified by "pilgrim's" post, that often when a judge gives a ruling like this, those opposed immediately jump to the conclusion that the man in the robe is an activist wacko. But you know what? Regardless of whether you think a judge got it right or wrong, he's got a job to do, which is interpret the law and give a fair ruling. And if the U.S. Forest Service did a sloppy job, if they didn't do the due diligence necessary under the Endangered Species Act and other legislation, it's the responsibility of the judge hearing the suit to call them on it. Judge Lawson's use of phrases like "woefully inadequate" and "arbitrary and capricious" suggests that he is convinced the agency didn't do its homework. If he's correct, then the ruling he issued isn't activism. It's the bench doing what it's supposed to do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

And to think there was no All-Star Game in 1860...

This being the all-star break in baseball, it's time to share an interesting tidbit involving America's government and America's pastime. Here are the major league clubs ranked in terms of payroll:

The top ten, if you don't care to click:

1. New York Yankees $209,081,579
2. Detroit Tigers $138,685,197
3. New York Mets $138,293,378
4. Boston Red Sox $133,440,037
5. Chicago White Sox $121,152,667
6. Los Angeles Angels $119,216,333
7. Chicago Cubs $118,595,833
8. Los Angeles Dodgers $118,536,038
9. Seattle Mariners $117,993,982
10. Atlanta Braves $102,424,018

Four of those clubs are in first place in their division at the break (Red Sox, White Sox, Angels, Cubs) and both New York teams are well over .500, so teams that spend a lot obviously also benefit in the standings. (On the other hand, the Mariners are now have 37 wins and 58 losses; making them one of the worst teams in baseball. Nobody in 2008 has spent more and gotten less except maybe Hillary Clinton.)

In 1860, the entire federal budget was sixty-three million dollars (Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1988, p. 23). Out of the thirty major league baseball teams, only seven have payrolls in 2008 that are lower than what the entire U.S. government spent right before the Civil War.

Or how about looking at it this way: the 2008 Washington Nationals payroll, one of the lowest in baseball, is within ten million bucks of the 1860 Washington national expenditures. The New York Yankees of today pay their players more than three times what the Yankee government spent 148 years ago. Probably a few of their men slept with Madonna, too.

Alas, the age of low American budgets was ending in 1860, thanks to the Civil War. As Foner notes, the federal budget grew to over a billion dollars by 1865.

And you know what? A billion dollars is still less than what teams 1 through 8 in the list above, added together, are spending on their 2008 payrolls.

I just hope the Cubs make the World Series this year. It's an exaggeration to say they've not been there since the Civil War, actually it was right after World War II that the fall classic last came to Wrigley Field. But it's still a long, long, time; I hope the big payroll at Wrigley finally pays dividends.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sins of the father

In Christianity and the Constitution (1987), John Eidsmoe identifies principles in the Constitution which have a Biblical origin. One such piece of the Constitution, writes Eidsmoe (p. 375), is contained in Article III, Section 3:

"The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted."

No "corruption of blood" means the traitor's children are not made lepers because their dad sold secrets to the Russians. I presume in the over two decades since his book was published, someone has notified Professor Eidsmoe that he erroneously quoted the last word as "attained" rather that "attainted." That's understandable; how often does one encounter "attainted"?

Anyway, Eidsmoe notes that this constitutional provision is similar to Deuteronomy 24:16:

"The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin."

What a fine concept; don't hold dependent children responsible for the conduct of their parents. It's been a long road to reach this noble idea; humanity is loaded with examples of offspring suffering for the misdeeds--or perceived misdeeds--of those who bore them. We see this everywhere from Greek mythology (Hera exacting revenge on Zeus for sleeping around by persecuting Hercules, the son resulting from one of his illegitimate liaisons, see Mythology by Edith Hamilton, 1942, pp. 223-243) to the Russian Revolution (the Bolsheviks not only killed the tsar and tsarina, but also their children, servants, and dog, see The Human Story by James B. Davis, 2004, p. 302).

We have over time, here in America, progressed from a mere notion that a child should not be punished for a parent's treasonous or criminal act to a more expansive view that the kid is not to suffer for any of mom or dad's little transgressions. Like, for instance, not being actually legally married when they conceive him. Writing around the time of the American Revolution, Sir William Blackstone put succinctly what rights of inheritence a bastard child had:

"...(H)e can inherit nothing, being looked upon as the son of nobody, and sometimes called filius nullius, sometimes filius populi." (Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, p. 447; "fillius mullius" means "a son of nobody" while "filius populi" means "the son of the people.")

It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared it a violation of Fourteenth Amendment equal protection to restrict the right of children to sue for wrongful death of a parent to those progeny conceived legitimately, see Levy v. Louisiana,391 U.S.68 (1968)(

Well I'm glad we don't do that sort of thing anymore, restrict the blessings of democracy of kids whose mom or dad messed up, arent' you?

Not so fast:


"In the past two years, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma have refused in-state tuition benefits to students who entered the USA illegally with their parents but grew up and went to school in the state."

I think this is very wrong and very shocking. Let me get this straight: if a Mexican couple waded across the Rio Grande in 1994 with a four year old on daddy's shoulders, and they settled in Georgia, and the kid has grown up in Atlanta, he should now be denied in-state tuition at the University of Georgia because of something his folks did when he was pre-school age?

I like the concept of Deuteronomy 24:16 and Article III, Section 3 better. Give the kids a break.