Why I am an atheist (part 2)

See here for part 1

Many people consider belief in God and religious practice to be essential for raising well-rounded children with a connection to a tradition that helps them to see meaning in the world.  What’s your opinion about this viewpoint?

As a student of anthropology, I fully appreciate the fact that religion is engrained in the traditions of cultures across the world. In fact, I am associated with a Facebook group that is helping the descendants of Jews who settled in ancient China to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. However, religious traditions are not necessary to help someone see meaning in their life. I am a prime example of this. The evolutionary biological meaning of life is simply to eat, survive, and reproduce. But, as humans, our big beautiful brains allow us to transcend our animal nature to find meaning in our modern context. My meaning in the world is to get a good education, love my family and friends, make them laugh, work hard, learn as much as I can, and, once I finish school, pass it on to the next generation. I want to leave this a smarter world than what I was born into. And I will accomplish all of this without the need for a religious tradition to support myself on.

 3.      For many people, belief in God provides an explanation of how the world came into existence and why we’re here.  As an atheist, do you have answers or insights pertaining to these questions?  If so, what are they?

 I fully accept the scientific theories on the origins of the universe and life on earth. (Note: a “scientific theory” is a phenomenon that is supported by a body of evidence, not a “guess” as in the colloquial usage of the word. For instance, Atomic Theory is used to explain the nature of matter.) The Big Bang Theory, which happened around 14 billion years ago, explains the origin of time and matter, as well as the origin of elements that formed the stars, planets, and the organic compounds needed for life. How these compounds combined is not fully understood yet, but it is generally agreed upon that they formed in warm, aquatic environments to create simple-celled organisms around 3.5 billion years ago. The Theory of Evolution explains how these simple organisms became more and more complex as environmental pressures selected changes in gene frequency (random DNA mutations) to cause phylogenic variation. These changes in body form compiled over millions of years to give rise to fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The transition from one species to the next is amply supported in genetic relatedness between groups and the fossil record (among other evidences). Humans and chimps share a common mammalian primate ancestor who lived in ancient Africa around 7 million years ago. The genus homo (human) first arose around 2.5 million years ago. Numerous human species coexisted and or went extinct over this period, the last one, Neanderthals, living as recently as 30,000 years ago. Anatomically modern humans first arose around 200,000 years ago. Behaviorally modern humans appeared around 50,000 years ago with traits familiar to modern humans like language and religion. It was from this time that we started to spread out into the rest of the world.

 The Genesis narrative is demonstrably wrong. I’ll give three examples for why this is. First, the first chapter says god created light (1:3) three days before the sun, moon, and stars (1:14-16). But, of course, there would not have been any day or night without the presence or absence of light from the sun. Evidence suggests the sun was created in a collapsing stellar cloud 4.6 billion years ago. This took place before the earth and other planets formed from an accretion of stellar dust left over from the process. Second, god creates all of the animals of the world (1:20-25) and the first human man and woman (1:27) in their present form. But the fossil record shows that all animals, including humans, evolved from simpler forms of life over millions of years. Third, the fourth chapter says Adam and Eve gave birth to Cain and Abel (4:1-2). Then the fifth chapter lists all of the people who are descended from Adam (through Cain and his second brother Seth) (5:1-32). But there is no possible way that 6 related people (including the wives of Cain and Seth, who come out of nowhere) could have populated the entire planet without some deadly genetic defects happening in the process. The human species would have died out long before we came to the modern era. Even if all six had perfect genetics in the beginning (like the creationist Ken Ham claims), this still amounts to thousands of years of incest. I could go on with many more problems in Genesis, but I will stop here.

 Conservative Christians reject the scientific evidence in favor of what is written in the bible. That is their right as American citizens, but I draw the line when they try to use politics to get their views forced on classrooms. More scientifically-minded Christians reconcile the discrepancies between scripture and science by saying the account of Genesis is simply a metaphor for the Big Bang and evolution. I personally reject this notion as there is no way that simple sheep herders living in the Middle East could have known anything remotely resembling modern physics or evolutionary biology. Though interesting from an anthropological perspective, it is no more credible than the creation myths of the Greeks, Hindus, Norwegians, Chinese, Native Americans, or Aztecs.

 4.      For many people, belief in God provides hope or comfort with respect to suffering in the world and to the inevitability of death.  As an atheist, how do you come to terms with these things?

 A belief in god might comfort the sick or dying, but it makes some healthy people complacent about the rampant suffering in the world. They thank god when one person survives a commercial airline crash, but this doesn’t alleviate the pain of the many families who lost loved ones. When a little girl is raped and killed, they claim her death was all a part of god’s plan. What does this do to alleviate the grief of her parents or, especially, to bring the person who did the heinous crime to justice? This is a cruel philosophy in my honest opinion.

 Conclusion: No questionnaire could possibly cover all dimensions of this topic.  So, do you have any additional information or any further reflection that could help us to understand your experience as an atheist better?  If so, please feel free to add this now.

            I would like to add that just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean that I don’t feel some sense of wonder for the world and universe that I live in. For instance, I often think about the hundreds of thousands of generations that it took to produce me. What if my distant lineage had split in a different direction? Today, I could be anything from a sea sponge to an elephant, but I ended up as a human. Additionally, it is amazing to think about the number of people who had to come together to produce me. I am the product of 200,000 years of chance encounters. My views on my place on Earth and in the universe are best summed up by the Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson:  

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

This is a far more beautiful and breathtaking concept than anything the bible or any other holy book has to offer me.

Additionally, I want to say that I will not raise my child as an atheist. This may be surprising, but I think early childhood indoctrination is a great injustice. Telling a child that a god does not exist is the same exact thing as telling them that a god does exist. I will present my child with evidence from both sides and let them come to their own conclusion. If he or she decides to become religious, then they reached that decision on their own. I am currently providing said evidence for my nephew, whom I’m very close with.

 Lastly, despite my views on religion, I absolutely love religious art. This is because I see them as works of human culture. In the west, my favorite period of religious art comes from the Renaissance. This was a time when scientific study of anatomy and optics was applied to art to elevate it to all new levels of realism. My absolute favorite piece of Renaissance art is Michelangelo’s Rome Pieta, the statue of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. The piece speaks to me because of the shear skill that went into its making. To think such a young person—Michelangelo wasn’t even 25 yet—could transform a solid block of marble into soft fabric and sinewy flesh is just mindboggling. As for the religious art of Asia, I am quite fond of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and paintings from India, China, and Japan.

 Thanks again.  Your perspective is very important to us.

Why I am an atheist (part 1)
Prof. Jerome P. Baggett of Berkley is conducting a study on atheists. I first learned about it from watching a video by the YouTuber ZomGitscriss. Some fellow atheists I've told about the survey have had some concerns that he might take the information and write a very biased paper on the subject. I'll hold my judgement until the paper is done. Just because the guy is a theology teacher doesn't mean he is trying to paint us as amoral baby killers. Anyway, even if the paper turns out to be a dud, I still have my thoughts written down. I can give what I've written to curious relatives who want to know more about my worldview.



Thanks for taking time to respond to these questions.  Note that there are no “correct” answers we are looking for and your responses to this questionnaire will be kept strictly confidential.  Also, please feel free to provide as much information as you’d like.  In other words, we encourage you to provide specific examples in your responses, recount stories from your past, and go into as much detail as necessary to give us a thorough understanding of your experience.  We’re more than happy to read all of this because we want to provide the most detailed and most balanced snapshot of American atheists that we possibly can.  Thanks again for helping us to do this.

Background Questions:

1.      Were you raised atheist or did you have a religious upbringing of some sort?

 I was raised Southern Baptist.

2.      If raised religious – When and why did you become an atheist?  What was this transition from religion like for you, for your family, etc.?  Was this a quick transition or a slow one?  Was it easy for you or difficult? 

 My parents were religious, but I can’t ever remember attending church on a regular basis beyond weddings. I guess I was more of a deist as a child as organized religion just seemed silly to me. I was even baptized, but it didn’t really have any significance to me. (If you wanted to psychoanalyze me, the obvious reason for this would be my limited exposure to church). My mother and I used to pray the “Now I lay me down to sleep…” prayer every night before I went to bed, but it eventually lost meaning to me as I grew into my early teens. It’s sort of like a word loses its meaning when you say it over and over and over again. You could say that I was somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist by the time I entered high school. The group that made up my friends was a mix of religious and irreligious people. All of my friends talked about religion, and I found that my views tended to agree with those who identified as atheists. I considered myself a full-blown atheist by the time I graduated in 2000. However, it wasn't until several years later that I began to study the evidence supporting both sides of the issue. A freshman-level biology class I took in 2004 gave me a more in-depth introduction to evolutionary theory and opened my eyes to the interrelatedness of all life on earth (this was solidified by further reading on the subject and a senior-level class I took in 2010 after returning to college). I read the religious texts associated with the major world religions, including the Abrahamic religions and the Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, etc.). Additionally, I've studied history, mythology, psychology, religious art, and primate behavior and material culture. All of this has led to me having a better understanding of human origins and behavior and the progression of human culture, which explains the beginnings of religion, why the texts say what they say and why supernatural beliefs persist to this day. The process to becoming an unbeliever was not difficult at all. If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the way an older child forgets that they once believed in Santa Claus. The process to becoming what I would call a "well-rounded" Secular Humanist was difficult because it involved years of study and reflection. However, it was a very enlightening experience.

3.      If raised atheist – Have you ever been drawn to religion at any point in your life?  Why or why not?


 Thinking About Atheism:

 1.      Do you identify yourself as an atheist?  If so, what does being an atheist mean to you?  Also, how does it feel to be an atheist . . . optimistic / pessimistic, hopeful / cynical, happy / sad, connected to / isolated from other people, etc.?

 Yes, I identify as an atheist. To me, atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god or any number of gods. There are no real emotions that can be attached to it as I was never emotionally invested in religion in the first place. Any positive or negative emotions I have stem from being a Secular Humanist. Many religious people often confuse the views or actions of Secular Humanists as being those solely endorsed by atheists simply because many such people are indeed atheist. For instance, I don’t want to remove “In God We Trust” from the US currency or “God” from the pledge of allegiance because I’m an atheist. I want to remove it because the constitution states there is to be a separation of church and state. Plus, this alienates all of the people of other faiths who live or come to settle in America. Likewise, I don’t want to remove any type of so-called “Creation Science” from classrooms because I’m an atheist. I want to remove it not only because of the aforementioned separation, but also because proponents sidestep the peer-review process necessary to legitimize their claims by gluing their lips and money to the ears and pockets of religious politicians. The only time I feel cynical is when I see elected officials, who should know better than to do so, pushing faith-based laws, like those forbidding gays from marriage or legalizing the teaching of creation science on the state level.

I do feel isolated sometimes knowing that most of America and the world is religious. But I take comfort in the fact that anatomically modern humans lived for around 150,000 years before the earliest shamanistic religions appeared. We lived for around 195,000 years before the major religions started popping up. So we have lived much of our existence without religion. Plus, atheists have been around since the dawn of religion, which means living as an atheist is in no way “abnormal.” Most importantly, studies show atheism is on the rise, while religion is on a decline. According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” poll conducted by Win-Gallup International, the number of atheists in America rose from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012, and the number of religious people dropped from 73% to 60% over the same period. The statistics for other countries are similar. Overall, the number of people worldwide who identify as “convinced atheists” rose from 10% to 13%. The number of people worldwide who identify as “religious” dropped 9%. The study also found a correlation between a country’s economic prosperity and the religiosity of its people. Poorer people tend to be 17% more religious than their more prosperous counterparts. Likewise, they found a correlation between a country’s level of education and the religiosity of its people. People with college degrees tend to be 16% less religious than their less educated counterparts. I see such trends continuing as economies improve and people gain more access to education. The Biopsychologist Nigel Barber has suggested that religion will disappear by the year 2038. That seems a bit soon to me, but religion will fade from the mainstream eventually.   

 It’s important to point out that there are currently far more atheists across the world than any poll would be able to determine. I’m not talking about “closet atheists” either. I’m talking about the billions of people who believe in one or more gods, but reject all others. These people are in effect atheists towards the gods they don’t believe in. I simply take my lack of belief one god further than they are willing to go. The way they feel about, say, Shiva, Zeus, or Huangdi is the way I feel about all gods. I consider supernatural beings to be non-entities just like Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and leprechauns.

2.      Why do you think most people in the United States believe in God, practice some form of religion, and do not identify themselves as atheists?

I would say the most honest answer to this question is that they were indoctrinated as children and were raised in the religion of their parents. I’ve run this argument past religious people in the past. Many rebut that they have had “personal experiences” that told them, for example, the Christian god is real. To their mind, it has nothing to do with the fact that their parents were Christians. My counter-argument is that their experience is no more different than the followers of other religions. Hindus, for example, experience what they call Darshan. This is when they perceive their god and, so they believe, are simultaneously perceived by their god. This lets them know that their god is real. So if every religion has such experiences, it negates this as an argument for why someone follows a particular religion. They would not have had an experience regarding a particular god if they had not been indoctrinated by their parents in the first place.

 3.      Do most people who know you – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – also know that you’re an atheist?  Why or why not?

 Many of my family, friends, and co-workers know that I am an atheist and don’t really have a problem with it. I have “atheist” listed as my religious affiliation on Facebook. The family members that I haven’t told (most likely because I don’t see them very often) have probably seen it, they just don’t feel the need to “witness” to me. That is rather surprising as I have some super religious family members—their faiths run the gambit from Jehovah’s Witness to Catholicism. I would like to think it’s because they love me too much to push their religion on me. Or, it could be that they just don’t know and would witness to me if they had the chance to.

 4.      Are most of your friends atheists?  Why or why not?

 I’d say my friends are evenly mixed. As I explained above, my high school friends are religious and atheist. Many of my military friends are the same.

 5.      Have you ever been treated differently by people because you’re an atheist?  If so, please describe this in detail.

 Yes, but it depended on where I lived. When I attended high school in the south, the two most common reactions were threats or on-the-spot witnessing. A few people even tried to rough me up on different occasions, but, thanks to previous experience in martial arts, I showed them that I was not a person to be pushed around. By the end of high school, most people, even the few who didn’t like me, accepted me for who I was. I’ve never really had a problem as an adult since I live in the north where it is not as socially dangerous to be an atheist. All of my co-workers know that I am an atheist and have no problem with it. This is primarily due to my jovial personality and good work ethic. They might think otherwise if I was mean and a poor worker. Although, I will say that a previous co-worker said that I was “one of the friendliest atheists” that they had ever met. I have a feeling that they had not met that many atheists. Their perceptions of atheists were most likely formed by negative caricatures propagated in religious circles. Hopefully this study will dispel these caricatures.

Thinking About Religion:

 1.      Overall, would you say that other people’s belief in God is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about?  Why?

It can be a good or bad thing depending on the person. It can be good for those people who feel it gives them a sense of community or tradition. Conversely, it can be bad when people feel that belief makes them superior to others or gives them the right to force their views on another group, punish those who break a particular tradition, or to avenge some perceived injustice through violent acts. As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I’ve seen the kinds of negative things that faith can make people do.

I ultimately think faith is a bad thing for several reasons. First, beyond the reason discussed above, it makes people complacent about the suffering in the world (see the last question below for more). Second, it gives them a false sense of dependence. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting things done on their own, they clasp their hands and pray for divine intervention. A good example of this is when Texas Governor Rick Perry gathered 30,000 Christians at Reliant Stadium in 2011 to pray for an end to America’s “national decline.” Now imagine what could have been done if, instead of gathering civilians, he gathered elected officials with the expressed purpose of thinking of ways to improve the nation. This would have been a far more fruitful usage of time and tax payer dollars. Third, faith makes it difficult for the religious to accept people’s accomplishments, including their own. You often hear someone thank god when a friend or relative pulls through a serious surgery. But this completely disregards the skill of the operating team, which was developed through years of practice, study, and hard work. Likewise, you often hear athletes thank god for winning a game. But they should be thanking themselves for the blood, sweat, and tears they poured into honing their skills. They should be proud of what they have accomplished without the need to point to the heavens. Fourth, and most importantly, it hinders progress. This is because it causes people to accept supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. People who accept, for example, the Genesis account as historical fact are less likely to read about the scientific explanations for the universe, earth, and man. This means their children will most likely be just as scientifically illiterate as they are. This is a danger to America’s future as some of these children will grow up to be our elected officials. Congress no longer has an official science advisory board (Newt Gingrich dismantled it in 1995), so the decision to implement responsible healthcare, climate, and technology policy based on sound scientific evidence falls squarely on the shoulders of these elected officials. Obviously someone with no scientific background is going to make the wrong decision, especially when the possible outcome conflicts with their religious ideology or the views of their big industry contributors. Do you really want people like Todd Adkin, a pro-life senate hopeful who mistakenly thinks victims of so-called “legitimate rape” can’t become pregnant, deciding the future of women’s healthcare? I certainly don’t. This will also hinder our ability to lead the world in scientific discoveries and technologies. Why is this dangerous? Because things like Polio vaccines aren’t created by the average Joe on the street. Scientifically literate people are needed to create the next round of vaccines that will save millions (or billions) of people, as well as the technologies that will make our lives easier in the decades to come.

 2.      Overall, would you say that organized religion is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about?  Why?

 Organized religion is interesting from an anthropological perspective, but it doesn’t serve a necessary purpose in the modern world. As social animals, humans can still come together and feel a sense of community without the need of religion. Heck, we did it for about 150,000 years before religion first appeared. I see it as a bad thing because it strengthens one’s belief in a deity, which leads to the problems I listed above.

 3.      If not a religious person, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person?  Why or why not?

 No, I do not consider myself a spiritual person. Spirituality denotes some type of mysterious underlying metaphysical nature to the universe. This is something I strictly reject (otherwise I wouldn’t be an atheist). Just because something can’t be seen with the (flawed) human eye doesn’t mean it is not a part of this physical universe. For instance, I can’t see quarks, but these fundamental particles make up the atoms of my body and all matter in the universe. The universe is a vast ocean of mysteries that I find to be so utterly fascinating. These mysteries can only be unlocked through scientific study, not prayer or meditation.

 Living as an Atheist:

 1.      Many people say that belief in God provides a foundation for their morality.  As an atheist, on what do you base your morality?  How do you decide what things are good or bad, whether you’re behaving rightly or wrongly, etc.?

 My upbringing surely played a part in my moral compass, but my morality is ultimately derived from two sources: societal laws and innate social morality. Some of today’s laws may appear to have come from biblical sources, but cultures all over the world have had very similar laws. Some are younger than the bible; however, a scholar would be hard-pressed to prove an influence of some kind. Some are older than the bible; this might suggest the Hebrew people were influenced by these sources (which is possible since the cultures were in close proximity). But these overall similarities point to societal laws common to “human” culture. Such laws came about many thousands of years ago when humans were living in tightknit hunter-gatherer societies in ancient Africa. Things like killing and stealing endangered everyone within a group because it weakened social bonds and lessened their ability to survive. People who committed such crimes could be killed or, worse, ostracized, which meant they would slowly die on their own. Thus, groups lived under the assumption that there are certain things that you just don’t do unless you want to get in trouble. When humans began to leave Africa 50,000 years ago they brought these notions of right and wrong with them as they splintered and spread all over the world. These were the precursors of modern laws.

 Early humanity’s notions of right and wrong are ultimately derived from innate social morality that evolved in our proto-ape ancestors who lived millions of years ago. Modern chimpanzees, our closest genetic cousins, are very good models for how our ancestors lived. Chimps have been shown to be highly empathic, compassionate, and cooperative, with a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and reconciliation. Chimps have saved the lives of unrelated conspecifics. They also adopt children that aren’t their own, care for those who can’t care for themselves, and mourn over and protect the bodies of deceased group members. These are things that come naturally to them as highly social animals need social mechanisms that ensure continued cooperation and growth. If a group of chimps is an engine, then this innate social morality is the oil that keeps it running smoothly. For more on animal morality, see the TED talk “Frans de Waal: Moral behavior in animals.”

 Furthermore, I would like to add that I don’t go around killing or stealing because I’m afraid of heavenly or civil punishment. I don’t do them because I don’t feel the need to. Feeling the need to kill or steal beyond a means of survival (e.g., a war zone) is clearly a psychological disorder that needs to be treated with meds and therapy. The average person, atheist or otherwise, is not a psychopath. This is why I find the average caricature of an atheist as an amoral baby killer extremely silly. If this was true, ALL crimes would be perpetrated by atheists alone. However, statics show that atheists make up a very, very small portion of the American prison population. The majority of crimes are committed by people of faith. Also, secular countries tend to have lower crime levels than their more religious counterparts.

See part 2 for the rest.

Baby Anti-Christ

"Who's daddy's little beast of the apocalypse? Yes, you are!"

The dragon-esque features and multiple crowned heads are based on several 19th-century (?) woodblock prints of a beast described in the Book of Revelations. The flames about the head were based on Hell Boy.* I gave it a turtle shell because they tend to be very long lived, like one would imagine an ageless demon would be. I also did it because Alligator Snapping Turtles (the source of the shape of the shell) look so damn evil. The baby and kitten heads were put there to balance out the evilness of the middle head. I was sure to add little details—like the baby drooling blood—to show they are not as innocent as they appear. The “Censored” box was put there to leave the viewer to guess what the face of the spawn of Satan might look like. The big hairy nut sack hanging from its chin might suggest the face is a penis, or possibly even a vagina. I originally wanted to draw a long jaw full of teeth, like the Violator demon from Spawn, but it just didn’t look right.

Most of this was done on MS paint. The pile of human skulls was found on Google; however, it wasn’t that big. I just cloned it across the page about four times. The shadow under the stomach, which I do not like, was done on Microsoft Office Picture Manager (MOPM). I didn’t want to use a solid black spot for the shadow. Such a cartoony technique would have clashed with the photo of the skulls. MS Paint is not a sophisticated enough program to allow you to color correct different areas of a picture. I learned about MOPM online and used it to create a darkened copy of the original picture. I then copy-and-pasted part of it in between the first set of arms of the normal version. It turned out to be a little too dark, but I’m tired of working on this for now. I may revisit it in the future and fix it. I’m sure Photoshop would have made the process a lot quicker and the end result better looking, but I don’t draw enough to warrant spending that much to buy it.

* I could imagine a drawing of a "mature" Anti-Christ walking down a battlefield shooting fireballs from those things. Or, beams of light connect the three flames, which produce some type of super duper death ray. I may draw such a picture in the future.

My version of Star Wars
Around December of 2010 I went to my niece's Christmas musical. Despite her being very mean and punching very, very hard, I love her a lot, so I took plenty of pictures and video. Her parents and I were sitting in a very bad spot off to the side of the auditorium. To make things worse, part of the curtain on the left wing of the stage was blocking our view of her. We occasionally caught sight of her whenever the girls were moving about on stage. I happened to catch one particular picture of my niece with her left arm raised and bent at the wrist like a crane's head. Her face was blurred (thanks to her movement), and her eyes reflected the flash, giving her an ominous appearance. My nephew and I agreed that she looked sort of like Emperor Palpatine from the Star Wars saga. After finding some stock photos of the Emperor in his throne room, an empty replica version of  the throne, and a lightsaber handle, I came up with this:

You will notice that I inserted a picture of my face. I took an extreme close up so it would distort my features to a cartoonish degree. Beyond the three stock photos, I drew everything else, including the Emperor's robes, right hand, and lightning, and Luke's lightsaber blade, hair, body, and hands. All of it was done on MS Paint using a mouse. Both my niece and nephew thought this was funny. I believe you can enlarge the picture by clicking on it. (Disclaimer: No one is allowed to use this picture without my expressed written permission.)

Here is a Star Wars "crawl" I created for the picture:


How to bind a book
Years ago I had Kinkos print and bind a book I had downloaded from a university. It cost a whopping $45, and the binding agent was just a hard plastic spiral fed through holes punched in the spine. I swore I would never pay that much for such a crappy job ever again. Since then, I’ve been doing my own binding. If I happen to download enough related scholarly papers, I bind them into a book. That way I have them at reach when doing my own research. I also print out downloaded books from Google Books, or I copy physical books with my printer. I don’t do the latter very often because it is a little labor intensive, but it has saved me a lot of money. I figure there are some people out there who would like to do something similar, so I have decided to post some diagrams and instructions. Please keep in mind my method is for paperback books only. The paper size is the normal 8.5 x 11 in. computer paper, but smaller sizes work equally as well as long as it is pre-cut. Here is an example of the finished product, a book I printed out for my niece. It was the first time I had ever printed anything in color, It's usually just black and write.

This is much more than what is called for if you are just wanting to archive research papers. I'd rather have a book in my hands than stare at a computer screen for hours. The method I use produces a book that will last for a very long time. I once made a mistake when making a smaller pocket book version and had to pull it apart. It took A LOT of elbow grease to get the job done!


- Computer paper
- School glue
- Exacto blade (also known as a razor pen), paper cutter, or scissors
- Cutting mat (only for the exacto blade)
- Pencil or pen
- Ruler
- Packing tape or adhesive lamination film
- Heavy duty stapler
- Heavy duty staples (ONLY)
- Hammer
- Hard flat working surface

The kind of stapler I use is a Swingline Heavy Duty Stapler 39005. I’ve seen them as cheap as $18 on Amazon. I purchased mine years ago for about $60, so that is a very good price. Only a heavy duty stapler like this can deliver the driving force to push the staples through hundreds of sheets of paper. It can use staples from 1/4 in (0.635 cm) to 3/4 in (1.905 cm). The 3/4 in staples are rated for up to 160 pages, but I know that I have gone over that before. Needless to say, you can fit a lot of information on the front and back of 160 pages. The most important thing about using the stapler is that you should ONLY USE THE SWINGLINE HEAVY DUTY STAPLES with the stapler. Normal stables are obviously not strong or big enough to go through thick stacks of paper. Even if you intend to use it to staple a couple of pieces of paper together, the Swingline will jam with regular staples. The regular size heavy duty staples are a little more expensive than the regular size light duty staples mostly sold in stores. It’s best just to use the Swingline for binding only. I have a separate stapler for smaller jobs. You can use any type of heavy duty stapler you want, just make sure you have the appropriate staples. I can't stress this enough.


1. Stapling – I have no set method for making sure the paper is perfectly stacked straight. I usually just tap it up and down both length and width wise on a flat surface. The last time I bound something, I pushed the long edge up against a large flat box. The bottom wide edge was pushed up against the spine of a book. This worked out fine. The stapling surface is actually raised about 3/4 inches off the working surface, so you will need to find an object that is the same width. I usually place two books on either side of the stapler base. This will make sure the stack of paper remains flat and isn’t drooping over the edge.

I staple the top, middle, and bottom of the stack, and then I fill in everything in between. Make sure you push down forcefully when stapling. Pushing slow limits the driving force and may not make it through the stack. Keep an eye on the straightness of your stack while you are doing this as well. Driving the first staple in the top can move the paper around. Just push it back straight (if it is needed) with your fingers.

2. Hammering - Depending on the number of sheets you have and the size of staples you are using, you are going to have to hammer the curved ends of the staples flat on the back side.

When you hammer the staple prongs down, make sure you are working on a hard surface because they can come back out the other side. Also, make sure the surface is not important since the hard metal of the staples will leave indentations.

If you really don’t care what the finished product looks like, you can just stop here. But I would suggest going further because the next two steps make it durable and water resistant. It is important to note that repeated use in this state might even wear the paper around the staples and cause sheets to pull off.

3. Cutting and gluing - This step gives the stapled mass the look of an actual book because paper is used to cover the stables and the spine of the stack. This covering also protects the paper around the staples, ensuring it doesn’t wear from repeated use and cause it to pull off. Take a piece of computer paper and overlap the staples on the front by a centimeter or so (the paper should cover all of the staples from top to bottom). Wrap the paper around the back and take note of where the areas overlapping the staples on both sides are in line with each other. Mark the spot with a pencil or pen. Take the ruler and measure the length from the edge of the paper to the mark. Mark the same length on the bottom of the paper. Align the two marks with the ruler and draw a straight line. Cut the strip out with a ruler and exacto blade, scissors, or a paper cutter. Remember that the strip should be long enough to cover all of the staples. If it is too short, you have the paper turned the wrong direction. You will need a total of three strips. The third should have the title and author’s last name (if you want to go this far). The way I do this is to turn the paper “landscape” style in the word processor I’m using. I decrease the borders to 0.5, and then I type the title in the far left and the author’s last name in the far right corners. Make sure the text is positioned far enough down so that you will have enough paper on the top and bottom to wrap around the spine of the book. Covering the staples in multiple strips will give it a smoother appearance. One layer looks bumpy because you can't hammer the staples flat enough. Well, you could but it would slice through the pages and they would fall off.

I recommend placing two overlapped pieces of computer paper down on your working surface to reduce the glue clean up. Lay your first strip across the paper. Apply a generous amount of glue and smear it over every single inch of the strip (I use my fingers), making sure to cover all of the edges. Take the first strip and apply it glue side down overlapping the staples on the front. Only overlap the staples as far as you did before when you were measuring to make the strips. Be sure to apply firm pressure to the three areas indicated below.

If you do not intend to laminate the cover, these are the three most likely areas to dry and separate from the cover if not properly adhered. The areas where the top and bottom arrows are can “dog ear.” If you were to shove the book into a bag, objects could catch onto these and pull the strips off the spine. The areas in between the arrows need to be firmly pressed as well. When the front is firmly attached, turn the book over and apply gentle pulling pressure to ensure the part of the strip placed against the spine is tight. Apply pressure to the same areas. Do the same for the back of the book. Repeat this for the second strip of paper. I usually do them one after another to make sure they dry uniformly. The procedure for the third and final strip is a little different. I usually apply it to the spine first to ensure the title and author’s name is straight and centered. Then wrap the rest over the front and back like before. Let everything dry for a few hours.

4. Lamination – This step makes the cover durable and water resistant. It can also be the most nerve racking if you are a perfectionist! You can use either packing tape or adhesive lamination film. I’ve only used packing tape because I have an endless supply of it where I work. Adhesive lamination film might make the procedure easier in the long run, though. Start off by pulling out 7 or 8 pieces of tape that are longer than the cover. Apply the first piece to the spine like you did the paper strip in the above picture. It is important that you smooth it out with firm pressure to ensure it has a solid grip on the paper. I usually use the smooth, rounded edge of the school glue bottle to do this. There will be air bubbles and creases in the tape that form if you go to fast. The key is to go slowly. (The lamination film may solve these problems if you choose to use it.) Then place the second strip of tape over top of where the tape from the spine was wrapped around to the front. Smooth it out firmly with the glue bottle or some other hard smooth object. I made the spine of the book gray in the picture below to differentiate between tape and spine paper. Take the rest of the pieces of tape and overlap them according to the arrows below. Overlapping them will prevent gaps in the tape that water could get through to soil the cover. It also provides structural support to make the paper stouter. Remember to completely smooth out each piece of tape before moving to the next. Repeat this for both sides. You only need to put tape on the spine once. Then cut the excess tape from around the edges with scissors or an exacto blade.

Of course, my way is not the only way to do it. I'm sure you could find tutorials elsewhere. I've never actually looked up how to do this, it just seemed like a natural conclusion. Staples are stronger than thread and glue (another method), and then the staples would need to be covered up. Voila! Let me know if you have any questions.

Funny things to say on the phone #1
Whenever I am hanging out with my niece and nephew, their mother will call and ask: "How are the babies doing?" One time I replied:

(upbeat, yet nervous) "Well, Paige is holding a gun to the hostage's head and Peyton is counting the money...hold on a second."

(Putting the phone down and speaking to the kids in the back of the car) "What, they are shooting at us? Well RETURN FIRE!"

(Bringing the phone back and speaking in a calm voice like nothing wrong is happening) "Look, we are kind of busy right now, so I'll have to call you back later. Love ya. Bye."
This wasn't spontaneous or anything. I actually thought this up awhile ago. I suggested to the kids that we crack two boards together to simulate gun fire, but that would require I spend money on a stupid phone prank (something I didn't want to do). Plus, we never knew when she was going to call, so we never did the sound effects. Anyway, my sister called me a dumbass. I FEED ON HER DISAPPROVAL!!!

My thoughts on the Kaifeng Jews
What follows is a selection from a letter on the Kaifeng Jews I sent a scholar earlier this year. It explains my own thoughts on the community's early life in the Middle Kingdom (China). I have added underlined corrections in brackets where needed:

"[Recipient's name]


I am sure there has to be more mentions of Jews in China in other records. Perhaps these allusions have been confused with Muslims or other religious groups. S.D. Goitein said there has never been any Geniza letters found that point to India Traders having direct contact with China. Roxani Eleni Margariti believes this might be because China was so far removed from the farthest reaches that Cairo Geniza letters traveled from (mainly India). It’s possible a letter will turn up someday, but it is by no means a certainty. Such a letter wouldn’t necessarily be connected to the Kaifeng community anyway.

At one time I spent a great deal of effort trying to connect the Jews to the Mediterranean India Trade. It just seemed like a natural fit because it involved 11th – 13th Jewish merchants active in India that adhered to Maimonides’ code and the Yemen ritual. But beyond these similarities, I couldn’t find anything conclusive. I later came to appreciate their Persian origins and learned the Mediterranean and Persian Jews were active in two different areas of India. The Persian Jews were prominent in the Punjab, while their Mediterranean brothers were prominent along the Malabar Coast and in the south. Another difference was that the Persian Jews generally came by land, the Mediterranean Jews by Sea. According to Goitein, the Persian India Trade was actually beyond the scope of the Geniza. Despite these differences, the activity of those on the Malabar Coast still stands as a very good example for how the Kaifeng Jews might have lived prior to and after settling in China.

There are actually a large number of Geniza documents written in Judeo-Persian. I believe most of these were written by Persian Jews whose ancestors had moved to the Mediterranean during the 9th century at the request of their Karaite leaders. New efforts are being made to translate these documents. Five volumes are scheduled to be published in 2012 by Dr. Shaul Shacked. I currently have access to Cairo Geniza documents via the online Friedberg Geniza Project, but none of the Judeo-Persian documents have transcripts yet. To my knowledge, no one has ever compared these documents with the Kaifeng Liturgy. Such a study might turn up some valuable information.

I too am interested in how the Jews accommodated themselves to the Chinese environment. While writing this letter, I consulted some psychological / anthropological papers on “Ethnic enclaves”. These enclaves are cultural centers peopled by various ethno-religious groups living in foreign countries. This need to be around similar people in unfamiliar settings is known in psychology as “situated identity” and “contextual identity.” This is the basis for such famous enclaves as Little China, Little Italy, Greektown, etc. If you think about it, the Kaifeng Jews were an ethnic enclave themselves. One paper I am currently reading states:

"Segregation is natural as a group enters the United States. In the beginning, people's limited market resources and ethnically bound cultural and social capital are mutually reinforcing; they work in tandem to sustain ethnic neighborhoods [...] immigrants entered American cities, in which working-class people had to live near their places of employment and had little contact with people outside their neighborhood."


This information could easily be applied to ethnic groups in other countries and other times. For instance, the 14th century sojourner Ibn Battuta described the Muslim quarters of China as being cities within cities, closed off from the Chinese, with their own food, and entertainment. These areas were so self sufficient that one did not need to leave. The Muslim inhabitants simply continued to live their lives like they had done in their birth country despite being in China. The communities often had a representative that dealt exclusively with the Chinese. (A “representative of merchants” is a common and very prestigious position held by various people mentioned throughout the Geniza documents.) This is basically how I believe the early Kaifeng Jews lived. Their enclave was formed by Jewish merchants that coalesced in the city center of Kaifeng. This might have been officially sanctioned since Arabs, Persians, and Koreans had their own areas designated for them by the government. This would naturally verify the stone inscription that states the Jews were welcomed to stay. Since the Jews were merchants that probably did most of their business near their enclave, they naturally would not have come into contact with the neighboring Chinese very much. I would think only a few Jews actually spoke Chinese (not all of them needed to anyway); therefore, a representative was probably used to initiate business dealings. The community probably consisted solely of men at first. Once they were established, religious leaders were the first to be brought in [CORRECTION: SOME MERCHANTS WERE HOLY MEN THEMSELVES, SO THEY WOULD ALREADY BE PRESENT IN CHINA. ALTHOUGH, I WOULD NOT DISMISS THE POSSIBILITY THAT SOME CAME TO CHINA AT A LATER DATE SPECIFICALLY TO HOLD RELIGIOUS OFFICES.] , followed by the merchant’s own families provided they lived close enough [CORRECTION: I HAVE SINCE LEARNED THAT MERCHANTS ACTIVE SO FAR FROM HOME FOR SUCH LONG PERIODS WOULD OFTEN DIVORCE THEIR WIVES. THEREFORE, THE FOLLOWING SCENARIO SEEMS MORE LIKELY FROM THE VERY BEGINNING]. Many probably began to marry the Chinese early on because of the low numbers of Jewish women. Although it was a taboo, merchants on the Malabar Coast would sometimes marry their Hindu slave girls and convert them to Judaism. This included the most famous India Trader of them all, Abraham ben Yiju, who was active during the early to mid 12th century. The aforementioned paper also states:

“People with more financial resources and mainstream jobs avoid ethnic zones, and these areas are left behind by immigrants with more experience and by the second generation in search of the 'Promised Land.'"

I think the last part of the sentence is a great illustration of how later generations of Jews found it necessary to assimilate more of the Chinese culture in order to better their social positions. More and more of them certainly began to learn the language, which would have enabled them to intermingle with the local populace and take on new professions.

The 1489 inscription simply states the Jews “brought tribute of western cloth to the Song (court).” This is rather ambiguous. A person could read the passage any number of ways and provide support to that effect. For instance, the cloth could be taken as flax because it was popular in the west. According to the 9th century Afro-Arab scholar Al-Jahiz, "All men know that Khorasan is the land of cotton, Egypt the land of flax." One might argue that Flax was known in China as well and couldn’t be the cloth alluded to. However, both Flax and cotton were widely known during the Ming when the 1489 inscription was first commissioned. So my question is: why didn’t they just name the specific cloth? I will agree with past researchers that cotton is the most plausible due to it being less popular than Flax and Silk during the Song, but I think this is as far as we can speculate. We can’t confidently state the Jews were merchants who dealt exclusively in cotton without further evidence. One thing we can be certain of, though, is that the material had already been processed and was no longer in raw form. This would have taken up much less room than huge bails of raw cotton.

History shows Jewish merchants active in the East often dealt in more than one product. The India Traders on the Malabar Coast exported everything from fragrant wood to brass furniture. The Radanites dabbled in “musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries.” The Judeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uliq in Xingjiang province, China points to the Jewish merchant dealing in sheep, cloth, and possibly even slaves. Specializing in only one product would be somewhat risky since that particular item may only be in demand at certain times of the year or may fall out of favor altogether. Having several items would give a merchant more flexibility to meet his buyer’s changing demands and return a better profit in the end. So it is more likely cotton textiles was only one of many products the ancestors of the Kaifeng Jews specialized in.

Robert M. Hartwell’s unpublished book Tribute Missions to Song China 960 -1126 (1983) lists envoys from countries ranging from Africa to Korea and everything in between. Most of the recorded tributes seem to be of a political nature, foreign kings and princes paying homage to the Song. Ralph Kauz states merchants often presented themselves as political envoys in order to gain favor with the court during the early Ming. I wouldn’t doubt if this was a common practice performed in prior dynasties. The available records mention “local products” being among the bulk of the tributes, apart from money and horses and the occasional 300 pound block of Jade or a "dancing elephant." Some of these certainly could have been cotton textiles.

The Jews might not have actually met the Emperor upon their arrival. You will recall the vagueness of the stone inscription: “bought tribute … to the Song (court).” The Emperor’s call for them to stay in China is not mentioned until the second line. This could mean the Jews’ tribute was forwarded onto the Emperor who later sent out a decree. Envoys mentioned in Hartwell’s book were routed away from the capital if they had taken a forbidden route through enemy territory to arrive in China (usually a northerly route) or didn’t have proper credentials. Sometimes even annual tributes from neighboring kingdoms would only be allowed to venture to the capital every other year. The areas they were rerouted too were far away from the capital, meaning an imperial decree would have to be sent out to inform them of the Emperors acceptance or decline of a tribute. So not everyone got to personally meet the emperor.  I think it is plausible that the Jews were trading in Song China long before they sent the tribute to the court. Now, the inscription says 70 people arrived, but, as I’m sure you know, other researchers believe that it could have been a scribal mistake for 17. A small contingent of merchants would be more likely to fly under the imperial radar than a huge one. (Hartman mentions one envoy so big that 50 were split off and allowed to go onto the capital, while the rest were routed to a different location.) But the number would steadily increase over time and a place would have to be designated for them. Perhaps the tribute is why their enclave was designated for them. All of this is, of course, conjecture on my part.

[...] "


To date, I haven't read any research papers that try to describe how the Kaifeng Jews lived during the early years of their settlement. Though brief, I think my letter does a good job of showing what their life would have been like. I would definitely like to look into the psychological aspects of "Ethnic Enclaves" more, but that will have to wait until later.

Story idea

Back in April, I posted an entry about amphibians' strange habit of becoming cannibals when faced with a low food environment. I noted this could be used in a story to explain why humans transform into werewolves, vampires, zombies, and the like. But since then, I have done a little research and the "self-initiated micro evolution" (Phenotypic Plasticity) that I spoke of is not really feasible for humans because our physiological make up is just so different from amphibians. However, I thought of an idea for how this could happen: experimentation.

I came up with a scenario where U.S. military scientists are wanting to create super-soldiers who can survive and even thrive in environments most humans would not be able to. For the aquatic domain, the scientists take navy seals and splice in genes from various species of amphibians. This gives the soldiers the ability to breathe through their skin, spend long periods of time under water, swim quickly, jump long distances, cling to surfaces, and even hibernate. The latter ability would be a boon because they could dig down into the mud and hibernate in enemy lines for a given time, awaken, perform a series of guerrilla attacks, and (if necessary) find a new hibernation place to escape apprehension. Squads of these soldiers could operate on alternating schedules, meaning a whole platoon could take out a larger enemy component without the U.S. having to resort to sending an entire division.

But would happen if these soldiers were exposed to the same circumstances that lead amphibians to become cannibals? Considering they operate on alternating schedules, I could see one or two squads awakening during winter when there is little food. This causes them to take on drastic physiological changes akin to the Amphibians whose genes have been spliced with their own. As I explained in my post from April, these "change[s] include...a restructuring of the jaw, a widening of the mouth, enlarging of the head, and, in frogs especially, the lengthening and increase of Vomerine teeth." This means the soldiers would take on a monstrous appearance to fit their monstrous diet. This is a permanent transformation, so they would continue to reek mayhem even after the food situation had changed. The other squads could awaken to battle their mutated brothers, but I like to think the latter would be more powerful as their amphibian traits have become more dominant.

To make the story more interesting, I was thinking of a way for there to be more half-human-half-amphibian monsters. Then I remembered back to some of the research papers we had to read in my Herpetology class. One scientist did an experiment where he exposed a male frog to a large dosage of the herbicide Atrazine. In short, the chemical turned the frog into a female who could mate and lay viable eggs of its own. Therefore, a mishap could introduce some of the mutated soldiers to Atrazine, turning them into females. This means the soldiers could mate and produce mutant offspring. (I realize this last bit is gross, but it makes these monsters so much more alien as it crosses the line of gender.) If the outbreak of the "Cane Toad" in Australia is any indication, these monsters could rapidly reproduce and span out over large distances eating everything in their path.

I think this would make a nifty horror movie.

Poor, poor Eugene
I was recently at my grandparent's house during my short break from school and my grandfather told me a most disturbing story. When my grandparents were a young couple, the Littleton Funeral Home had the body of a long dead black man on display. My grandpa told me that they found this man in a ditch on the side of the highway and Littleton preserved his body while local authorities searched for any family members who could claim his body. The only problem was no one came, so the body literally mummified as it just sat there for years. People that came to view his body picked at it so much that they finally had to bury him. Since they never knew who he was, they just called him "Eugene."

What was Eugene's real name? Where did he come from? Did he leave behind a wife and children? These were things that I wanted to know.

Now I am not a journalist, but I had originally intended on doing a write up on the story to see if I could get it published in the newspaper. But, when I initially looked up info on the Littleton Funeral Home, I happened upon an article that was written in the early 60's. It turns out it wasn't some dark secret. It was something almost celebrated back then:

(Sabina News Record - October 22, 1964) It was cloudy, a cool October day and a brisk wind was bIowing across the cemetery; the tent was set up around the grave site, the casket lowering equipment, artificial grass, and chairs for the unknown family were in place; the Littleton Funeral Home hearse approached the grave site and stopped. Personel of the Sabina Cemetery, Spurgeon Vault Co. and Littleton Funeral Home acted as pall bearers.

As the eight men present removed their hats, Dr. F. M. Wentz, local Methodist Minister had the committal service. . . . . . and, "Eugene" was buried.

It was a simple but dignified committal service and was the concluding chapter of 35 years of mystery, this 21st day of October, 1964.

June 6, 1929 was the beginning of the story, when the body of a man 50 to 80 years old was found on the 3C highway near the Borum Road. The Littleton Funeral home was notified and the late Dr. C. E. Kinzel, then coroner, was called. He said the man had died of natural causes. The only identification that could be found on him was a slip of tablet paper with the address 1118 Yale Ave., Cincinnati written on it. The Cincinnati police checked the address and found it was a vacant lot. The closest man to this address was a man named Eugene Johnson and for this reason the unknown man was given the name of "Eugene." Those who gave him the name have since passed away; Mr. Olin Moon, mortician at Littleton's for over 40 years; and the present owner's, father and grandfather, Roger and Harry Littleton.

Several years ago the late Mr. Moon related the story that the regular method of embalming was used in preparing the unknown African American man for burial, after he was found dead. His burial was delayed while an effort was made to locate his survivors. None ever could be found, althogh Mr. Moon recalled that one person who came to see this man appeared to recognize him, but did not say anything and his identity is still a mystery.

Several people of Sabina recalled at the time of having seen the man as he slowly walked through town the evening before he was found dead. Among those who saw him was Mr. J. C. Phelps. who lived at that time on E. Washington St. Mr. Phelps says he was sitting on the front steps that evening when "Eugene" passed by. For many years Mr. Phelps has lived at the comer of Elm and Jackson Sts. across from the Funeral Home and has witnessed the many thousands of people who came to see 'Eugene."

In the 35 years since, a conservative estimate would be that over a million and a half people came to see "Eugene" where be lay in state at the Funeral Home in his own little house in the side yard of the Littleton home. Nearly a million signed the many register books being kept at the building, a remodeled upground cellar. Many famous celebrities names are to be found among the signatures.

"Eugene" received a new suit almost every year and after a few years it was necessary to build a wire screen across the room to protect him from curiousity and souvenir seekers.

Frequently on holidays and summer weekends there were lines of people waiting to pass by the bier of this unknown man. Many large chartered buses passing through this town found their way to Littleton's and paused while the groups passed through the little house to see "Eugene".

As time passed "Eugene" became the object of pranksters and was taken from the building a few times, but was always quickly recovered. One time he was taken as far as the Ohio State Campus in Columbus.

Barth Littleton, present owner of the Funeral Home said Wednesday they just felt it was time to bury him. All the good reasons for keeping him having been fulfilled, and pranksters were detracting from the dignity of the home and "Eugene".

He was not buried in potters field. Mr. Littleton purchased a lot in the Sabina Cemetery and bore all the expenses incurred in the burial. "Eugene was fitted with a new suit and will be furnished with a marker (source).

Despite reading this, I am still unsatisfied with the information available. Chances are we will never know who Eugene really was. I can only imagine the hardships that this person went through as a black man in the 1920's when he originally died. What he went through after death was something that should not have happened. The above article claims he was displayed in the hopes that someone might recognize him, but the real truth is that he was simply a side show attraction. According to another source, Buses of people on their way from Columbus to Cincinnati would stop in Sabina, Oh in order to view Eugene's body. And this is not the worst part. College kids stole his body all of the time and drove him around town. He even ended up in different cities.

Here is a youtube video on the subject. The part about him actually starts on minute 4:15:



When I was accepted to Miami University in November of 2009, my advisor told me that I needed a Biology with a 4-hour lab in order to fulfill the science requirement for one of my degrees. She gave me a class directory with a long list of Biology/Zoology courses that I could choose from. However, when I finally got a chance to register, all of the classes were closed out. Now I usually like getting as many of the core classes out of the way as I can, so I looked for another class that I figured would count if it fit the same criteria. I found one class that had a good time slot called Herpetology. I didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up. It’s the “study of creeping things” like snakes, lizards, salamanders, frogs, and turtles. I’ve always liked snakes, lizards, and frogs, so I thought the class would be perfect for me.

The first day of class rolled around in January of 2010 and I soon found out the class was a 400-level course for seniors about to graduate with their degrees in Biology/Zoology. It turns out the administrators were unaware that there was no prerequisite block for the class on the registration website, meaning anyone could sign up for it even if they were sorely under qualified like me. I am a sophomore with little to no scientific background, so it has been a huge struggle for me. On top of tests on the evolution, anatomy, and day-to-day life of Herps, we also had to learn the common name, family name, and Latin binomial for 88 different species living around the school. Here is an example of just one set:

Common: Eastern Hellbender
Family: Cryptobranchidae
Latin binomial: Cryptobranchus alleganiensis

Imagine trying to remember 88 different sets of these! And the worst part was, if we spelled it wrong (even one letter out of place), forgot to underline the Latin binomial, or didn't capitalize the first and lowercase the second words of the binomial we lost half a point for each infraction. You only had to miss a couple to get zero points.

Through out my time in the class, I did pretty crappy on the multiple mid terms. For instance, I got a 68 on the first midterm and a 73 on the second. After my disastrous performance on the first midterm, my teacher came up to me and actually asked: "Do you have any scientific background?" She probably thought I was some poor mentally challenged chap who had slipped through the cracks in the public education system. I even did really bad, at least in the beginning, on the weekly species quizzes. We ended up having 22 such quizzes (worth 5 pts each). But I did really well on our individual "practicals" for each of the snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, and salamanders (93 on the first and 97.5 on the second). I also did really well on our weekly research paper discussion (12.5 pts each) and the work sheets on the individual species under the snakes, lizards, frogs, etc (10 pts each).

Towards the end, the teacher assigned an in-depth research paper. We did several experiments to see how varying dosages of herbicides and pesticides effected the development, activity level, feeding, and overall survival of Spotted-Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) larvae. Once we handed in all of the numbers, the teacher input them into a program that came up with several sheets of complicated statistics. It was assumed that everyone had taken statistics and were able to understand the computations, but this was not so. Even though some people probably did have such a class, very few people could interpret the info into usable material for the paper. I never took statistics as my degree didn't call for any kind of advanced math, so I didn't understand it either. This sorely inhibited my ability to finish the paper. The only part of the paper that I did finish was the introduction, which talked about similar experiments completed by professional biologists, and the methods section, which described our own experiment. Unfortunately, I had to turn the paper in half finished. I ended up getting a 30 out of 50 for the effort that I put into it, not to mention the fact that they were aware I was in the class by mistake.

Two additional assignments that we completed were a life history on a chosen Herp and a cartoon. The idea for the life history was to create a flashy, yet informative handout that could be given to the general populace. I chose the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta) because I used to see them climb the trees around my house when I was younger. I got a 50 out of 50. The idea for the cartoon was to incorporate stuff that we had learned in the class. Here is mine:

(I actually drew this in bitmap format because the colors are smoother, but I had to convert it to jpeg in order to post it here. That is why some of the colors look blotchy. Note the red shirt for example.)

I have to explain a few things in order for people to fully appreciate the strip. First, the principal's name "Bufo" is the genus name for the American Toad (Bufo americanus). The mother's name "Necturus" is the genus name for the Mudpuppy Salamander (Necturus maculosus). Second, the stuff the principal is saying about Billy not wanting to leave the pool or his refusal to mature has to do with the Mudpuppy's biology. Being aquatic salamanders, they never leave the water for life on land. Because of this, they retain their childhood characteristic of external gills (that is what those purple things are on the sides of Billy's head). So, basically, even in their adult state, they look just like their children, only bigger. Therefore, Billy's refusal to mature can be taken as both his mental maturity level and his physical growth. Third, amphibians can become cannibals in environments with low food resources.

I got a 25 out of 25 for the cartoon.

For all of our past practicals, we were mainly tested on the specimens housed in the classroom and a few supplemental pictures for the specimens that we didn’t have.

For our finally practical, the teacher decided to throw us a loop and test us entirely on brand new pictures for everything, even the specimens we did have. The problem with this is that our specimens look nothing like their living counterparts as the preservative mutes their colors and the pictures we did have were not necessarily representative of the general populace. While individuals may fall under the same family, their color changes according to what region they live in. For instance, the pictures of the Upland Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) that we were used to depicted them as being light brown with dark brown stripes, but the picture used on the final practical was jet black with bright green stripes. How crazy is that?!? I ended up getting the equivalent of an 89 on this.

The circumstances for the final were not all that great. I was horribly busy the prior week with trying to write several lengthy papers for all of my classes. I, of course, had to work over the weekend, so I didn’t have time to study for it. I had a Chinese final on Monday and then I had to go home and get some sleep before working all night into Tuesday morning. I was able to study a little bit on Monday evening, but not much. My final wasn’t until 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, so I knew I could get some sleep after work. I only intended on sleeping for a couple of hours and then studying from 8 a.m. until I had to leave at 10:50 (because of the 45 min. drive to school). But, I was so tired from work that I turned off the alarm and didn't wake up until a little after 10. This gave me little time to study. I studied during my drive into school and finally took the test. I would say a good 85% of the test was stuff that we had recently gone over and the remainder was cumulative. I figured that if I got at least 60 out of the total 150 pts that I could miraculously pass the class with a (B-). You can only imagine how happy I was when I saw that I got a 128 out of 150, the equivalent of an 85.

The final grades recently came out for all of my classes and I ended up getting a (B+) in Herpetology. The two universities that I have attended seem to drop the lowest grade in the class, so this is probably how I got the grade that I did.

I feel pretty good that I was able to pass such a class. Now all I have to do is petition the class to count as one of the core biology courses that I was originally supposed to take. The head of the Zoology department signed a petition form for me sometime ago and noted that a previous class that I took at the University of Cincinnati and this class more than made up the class. She was totally amazed that I was passing the class with no scientific background.


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