Gods and River Monsters

I like it when I see polytheism and animism sneaking into places where you don’t expect, and especially when those beliefs are treated with respect. It reminds people that Christianity or monotheism aren’t the only options out there.

And sometimes I run across an author, television personality, or other celebrity and think, “You would make a good pagan.”

Jeremy Wade, the host of River Monsters, is one of those people.

River Monsters is one of the few shows left on Animal Planet that’s actually about animals (I knew when that tagline, “Surprising Human,” came out it was a bad sign). Basically it’s about a biologist trying to catch large, dangerous freshwater fish, but it’s also a show about the people who live with these fish, and treats indigenous, animistic, and polytheistic beliefs with a lot of respect. Coming from a western society where those sorts of beliefs are usually derided as primitive and superstitious, Jeremy takes them surprisingly seriously.

When I’ve mentioned this before to people, they’ve said, “Oh, it just makes good television” to have Jeremy talking to shamans and medicine men and taking part in rituals, but even so, he could have that “Oh, these savages are so silly!” type of attitude I would expect from most westerners.

But he doesn’t, and I think that if treating indigenous people and their beliefs with respect gets him better ratings than treating them like superstitious savages, then that’s a good sign for our society.

I think it was in the first season when he tried to catch a large catfish in India that was eating partially cremated remains people would throw into the river. The fish was seen as being an agent of the gods who would carry the person’s soul to the afterlife. A guru warned Jeremy not to try to catch this fish, but he ignored the advice and tried anyway.

After trying for weeks to catch the fish, he got one of the catfish on his line, almost reeled it in, and then the line broke. It was one of the few fish he never successfully caught.

In a later episode Jeremy went to Mongolia to try to catch a giant species of trout that lives in the rivers there. It’s also taboo for the Mongolians to catch that fish. They say it belongs to the river god. Jeremy learned his lesson from what happened in India, and got a shaman to talk to the river god and ask permission to catch the fish.

That was one of my favorite episodes. In Mongolia, like in pre-Christian Scandinavia, being a shaman is a woman’s job. The shaman became possessed by the river god and talked to Jeremy directly with this deep voice, and then gave him permission to catch the fish as long as the fish is not harmed. It was amazing to watch.

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

Jeremy Wade with his Nyaminyami pendant and the giant Vundu catfish from the Zambezi River

In another episode he’s trying to catch another giant catfish in the Zambezi River, which is ruled by the god Nyaminyami. Fisherman wear amulets that look like a cross between a fish and a snake as a sign of respect to the god, though they all know it doesn’t guarantee that he won’t still pull them to their deaths one day. Jeremy got one of those amulets to wear, and once Jeremy caught the catfish, he remarks that it looks very similar to the amulet, but is Nyaminyami really just a giant catfish the silly natives have mistaken for a god? Jeremy doesn’t quite say that, like I expected him to. It’s left up to interpretation.

I think the last episode I saw was in Canada or maybe the northern United States. Jeremy was trying to catch a giant pike called a “muskie” and was having no luck. He gave an offering of tobacco to a rock that the Native Americans of the area thought was sacred, and then switched to light gear to try to catch some small fish to boost his confidence. He immediately got a muskie on the line.

Jeremy keeps saying that he’s a scientist and he has to think “rationally” about all this, but he also says that “all fishermen are superstitious”. So he’ll do the ritual, he’ll give the offerings, he’ll put on the amulets, and maybe it’s all a coincidence that he catches the fish when he does those things and doesn’t catch anything when he doesn’t, but that’s how it goes in episode after episode.

It’s a tension that I can relate to all too well. I think anybody who works out in nature has that feeling that you’re interacting with things that are beyond your control. It’s easy to start to think that something like whether or not a fish bites your hook depends on the whims of a river god.

And maybe you think that because there actually is a river god.

I just appreciate that the show leaves the possibility open. This show could have easily been about “debunking” these myths about water monsters, and showing how they’re really just giant fish the silly natives have mistaken for water monsters, but it doesn’t have that kind of tone at all. It’s about looking at how there are still wild places in the world where giant freshwater fish lurk that are capable of killing a person (and how maybe, just maybe, some of them are agents of the gods). It shows that there are still places in the world where human beings aren’t in total control.

And even if you look at this in a completely “rational” way, Jeremy still draws attention to the fact that a lot of the large fish are becoming rare and endangered and even extinct, and losing them would be a huge shame. What’s going to happen when creatures like these no longer exist?

If only more shows on Animal Planet were like this.


Big Bend National Park: A Holy Place

When American pagans think of sacred places, they usually think of somewhere like Stonehenge or ruins of Greek temples, but you really shouldn’t ignore the places closer to home. Some worry that it would be cultural appropriation about Native American culture, because they were here first and first regarded these places as sacred sites. However, I think the Native Americans were just the first human beings to recognize them (unless of course it’s a site they built themselves), and we should respect them for that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these places belong to them. They were here for millions of years before our species even existed. I think they’re sacred in their own right, independent of any human observer, and should be recognized as such by anyone who believes that the natural world has sacred power.

I’m going to tell the story of my relationship with a place near and dear to my heart: Big Bend National Park.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande left there by kindred spirits from long ago.

Petroglyphs along the Rio Grande. Left there by kindred spirits from long ago?

Getting to Big Bend from here requires a day of driving west. I’ve heard people say the long, “boring” drive is a reason why they don’t go, and to those people I say, “Good!” If you think it’s not worth the drive, then you don’t belong there. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that’s one of its great advantages. I’ve never been there on Thanksgiving, but I’ve heard that’s their only “busy time”. If you go there during summer, like I usually do, there’s hardly anybody there. You certainly won’t get caught in a crowd like you might at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.

I live in the Texas Hill Country, which is on the eastern edge of the Edward Plateau ecoregion. Driving to Big Bend, I first have to pass through the rest of the Edwards Plateau, with its familiar oak-juniper woodlands, herds of goats, and peach orchards. Going west, the climate gets drier and drier. The woodlands open up into grasslands, and finally, after several hours of driving, you reach the Chihuahuan Desert. The vegetation changes to agaves, cactus, and the majestic ocotillos standing tall among rocky hillsides.

It’s really not a bad drive at all.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

Driving through the harsh but beautiful desert landscape.

The last bit of “civilization” is Alpine, the largest city in the Trans-Pecos, with about 6,000 people. That’s big enough to have a supermarket, shopping center, and fast food restaurants. Stock up here, because after this, there are only gas station convenience stores in little towns. The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross State University campus is also worth a visit to stock up on some knowledge about the history of the place if you have never been here before.

From Alpine, Big Bend is straight south, into that “bend” in the Rio Grande that gave the region its name. Things are so “big” out here, that after you reach the borders of the park, you still have a long drive before you get to the headquarters at Panther Junction.

The first time I went to Big Bend I had just moved to Austin for college. I also just joined the Pagan Student Alliance, and that Beltane I went to my first pagan festival. My new friends, knowing I was majoring in biology, introduced me to a lady who worked for Bat Conservation International, and she started talking to me about an opportunity to have something to add to my resume. It was so strange “talking business” at a pagan festival with a lady who was wearing nothing but a sarong around her waist, but at the end of the conversation I had agreed to go with them on a trip in June to Big Bend National Park to study endangered Mexican long-nosed bats. My job was to be the camp cook, errand-runner, and laundry-doer for the scientists, who would be on a nocturnal schedule just like the bats.

I gave one of the other scientists a ride out there. Neither of us had been there before. When we arrived at Panther Junction and got out of the car, I was hit with the most wonderful fragrance. I asked my companion what it was, and she didn’t know. I laughed and said maybe it was fresh air. It wasn’t until later I found out that I was smelling creosote bush, which is known as “the smell of desert rain”. June is the rainy season out there, and when it rains, creosote bush gives out a scent that I think is invigorating.

A field of creosote bush.

A field of creosote bush.

The Chisos Mountains are the centerpiece of the park. Out in the middle of this harsh desert, these mountains rise up, creating an island of lush forest. There are several legends about the mountains being “enchanted” or “haunted,” which means people long before me recognized their spiritual power. Imagine being among the first human beings to make it out here, after crossing miles and miles of desert to find mountains with lush forests of Douglas fir, aspen, and madrone growing on top. There’s a winding road that takes visitors into “the Basin” where you’re surrounded by the mountains. On my first trip there, it had rained, and there were waterfalls cascading over the rock faces. The Basin is also a good place to camp in the summer, since it’s much cooler up in the mountains than the desert below.

The Chisos Mountains

The Chisos Mountains

To study the bats, we had to hike up the Emory Peak trail, higher into the mountains, to where the bats roosted, stay there all night catching bats in a net and attaching radio transmitters to them, and then hike back down in the morning. That night I went with the scientists so they could show me how it was done, but I had to go back earlier than everyone else so I could get up the next morning to cook. I was freezing up there because it had rained, and I had gotten sweaty on the hike up, so I ended up leaving at about 3 am. The problem was that now I was hiking down a mountain trail I was unfamiliar with, alone, in pitch darkness (with only a small, fading flashlight), with thoughts of mountain lions stalking me running through my mind.

When you’re in that situation, your mind starts playing tricks with you. I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me, but when I stopped walking, the sound stopped. It took a long time before I figured out it was my canteen knocking against my backpack when I walked. I walked as fast as I could, and ended up startling some large animal just off the trail in the blackness outside the narrow beam of light coming from my flashlight. All I heard was a snort and crashing through the brush as it ran away from me, and I ran away from it. To this day I have no idea if it was a deer, a javalina, or a bear that I disturbed.

Later on, I lost the trail somehow. I must have gone down a deer trail, and slowly it faded out until I found myself standing in the middle of a patch of lechuguilla with no sign of any trail at all. I looked all around, and everything looked the same. I started to panic, and then I remembered what they told me to do if I had trouble, which was “curl up like a bear on the trail and wait until we come down and find you in the morning.” Yeah right! I wasn’t on the main trail, and I had no idea how far off I had wandered. I ended up finding a rock to sit on, turned off my flashlight, and just sat there a while. This turned out to be a good idea, because the adrenaline started to fade, my eyes adjusted to the starlight, and I calmed down as I looked at the black silhouettes of the mountains against the spectacularly starry sky. That was the first time I was anywhere that was dark enough at night to see the Milky Way.

After a while my eyes had adjusted to the point where I could actually see a small metal sign several yards away. I walked towards it and found the trail. I thanked the mountain spirits for not killing me this time, and managed to make it all the way back to the parking lot, to my car, and then safely back to the research station out in the desert where I was staying.

Sunset over the mountains.

Sunset over the mountains.

Modern pagans (and modern people in general), seem to either idealize Nature or hate it. They’ll say nature is good, and go camping at pagan festivals, until they get stuck with a thorn and then they want to go home back to air conditioning and soft beds. I think if you really want “nature-based spirituality”, then you have to embrace the fact that Nature is amazingly beautiful and healing to the spirit, and can also kill you. I probably wasn’t really in any danger as I hiked down the mountain that night, but it sure felt like it to me when that primitive part of my brain kicked in, and I was reminded that out there I’m not at the top of the food chain. And really, you’re not supposed to hike on those trails alone at night like that. If a mountain lion wanted to eat me that would have been her opportunity to do so. A few days after that, as I was running an errand in Study Butte, I bought a walking stick made of a sotol stalk. It’s become sort of a magic staff for me (I later burned my name in runes on it), but I also carry it on hikes to make any predators think twice about pouncing. (Though it’s more of a psychological thing. If a lion really set her mind to it, the staff probably wouldn’t help that much.)


Terlingua, an old mining “ghost town” turned quirky tourist spot next to Study Butte.

Since I was there during the rainy season in June, every morning there was a thunderstorm. Huge claps of thunder would blast through the desert, and out there nothing obstructed my view of the towering clouds and flashes of lightning. The desert plants soaked up the water and burst into bloom. After that, the sun would come out, and rainbows arched across the blue sky. Then the desert heated up, and by mid-afternoon it was baking hot until the sun went down, and nocturnal creatures like rabbits, coyotes, and kangaroo rats came out of their burrows as the temperature rapidly cooled. The next day the cycle would start over again. Fortunately the fridge at the research station was well stocked with beer, and I managed to sneak out into the desert to pour offerings for Thor and Heimdall and the desert spirits at sunset a couple of times.

That was my first trip to Big Bend.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A Vermilion flycatcher at the Cottonwood Campground.

A couple of years passed. I neared completion of my Bachelor’s degree at UT. When I graduated, it felt like my entire life fell apart. My boyfriend broke up with me the day before I walked across the stage, several of my friends moved to other states, and I had no idea what to do with my life. I had no job, and I was just starting to find out a Bachelor’s degree in biology is worthless, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle graduate school. None of my family or friends was in the sciences, so they couldn’t give me any advice. My relationship with that boyfriend was very unhealthy. I spent months putting a huge amount of emotional energy into trying to make the relationship work out, and then he dumped me right before my graduation. I felt worthless in just about every way.

I moved in with some friends after I had spent most of college living alone in an efficiency apartment. Living with supportive friends helped, but I still slipped into a deep depression. It felt like I had spent the last few years working so hard but everything I worked for had been worth nothing.

So I started planning another trip to Big Bend. This time I would go all by myself, and I wouldn’t tell anybody I was going. I told myself it was so that they couldn’t stop me, but part of me also wondered if anyone would notice I was gone. I needed to get out there and away from my pathetic little life.  I was also aware it was a bit dangerous taking a trip like this by myself, but I was at that point where you’re not quite suicidal, but you don’t really care if you just so happen to die somehow, you know? The thought of dying in Big Bend had a certain appeal.


You are so small out here.

That morning I got up early and was loading the camping gear into my car, and of course one of my roommates caught me. I instantly realized the whole sneaking away idea was one of those stupid things that the fog of Depression comes up with, and my roommates would have noticed and would have called the police to report me missing. She made me promise I wasn’t going to kill myself and would be careful, and then she told me she’d let my other friends know not to worry, and she wouldn’t worry about me until I was gone for more than a week. Then she thought it was an awesome idea for me to take this pilgrimage.

I spent a week in Big Bend by myself. Since it was summer, I camped in the Basin where it was cool. I had only been there a little while before the depression was swept away. Since this was the first time I wasn’t there “on business” I got to leisurely hike lots of trails I hadn’t before, like the Lost Mine Trail. The rangers advised not hiking on any of the desert trails in the summer because of the potentially deadly heat, so I didn’t. I did take some of the scenic drives through the park, and at one point became overwhelmed by the mountains. It was when I was looking at an interpretive panel explaining how some rock formations in front of me were built, and I saw the tiny road I had been on an hour or so before off there in the distance, with a tiny little car driving along it, and realized how tiny I am, and how huge these mountains were that took millions of years to form. Some of the rocks in the park are billions of years old. It actually wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. I get a similar feeling when looking up at stars. “Feeling small” isn’t a strong enough description for those moments, but I still think that’s a good thing to experience. If more people really knew how small they are, they might change their priorities a bit.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

Looking out over the mountains from the top of another mountain at the end of the Lost Mine Trail.

When I got back, I enrolled in graduate school. That turned out to be another really, really difficult time in my life. I didn’t know what I was getting into. My thesis didn’t work out. I thought I would have to quit and had wasted all that time and money for nothing, and I still wouldn’t be able to find a job. Thankfully, the department chair, when I thought he was about to kick me out, suggested I change my degree plan. It freed me up to take classes I was much more interested in, like Ornithology, Mammology, and Field Botany. For those classes, we had field trips where we traveled all over Texas learning about the different ecosystems, and I ended up going back to Big Bend two more times. It reminded me of why I got into this career field to begin with.

After I abandoned my thesis and started taking those classes, I finally learned what I wanted to learn this whole time. I learned bird calls, and animal tracks, and how to identify plants, all knowledge my previous thesis advisor thought was useless trivia, while real scientists program ecological models on computers or run electrophoresis gels in a lab all day.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

A Great Horned Owl looks down from a cottonwood tree.

I took my husband to Big Bend in the summer of 2013. He had never been before. I told him about all my past history with the place, and now that I was happy, done with graduate school and with a job I liked and a nice husband, I wanted to share it with him. We went to Davis Mountains State Park for a couple of days first. Neither of us had been there before. We stayed at the beautiful Indian Lodge. That was so nice, he said maybe we should stay here the whole time, but I told him Big Bend was even better, so we went there next, and he said I was right. All the pictures in this post are from that trip.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

The Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park.

While we were there, I bought a book at the gift shop called Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent and read it on the drive home. It was interesting reading about these now-familiar places in the park and how they turned on some people. There are several tales of people who died of heat and thirst. I always give offerings of water to the land spirits for that reason. When people have actually died out there from not having enough water, giving some away to the spirits is a huge sacrifice. There are also stories of people freezing to death, getting hit by lightning, and even suicides and murders, but no one eaten by a mountain lion.

I really related to some of the people’s stories, like the old man in the first story who hiked the Outer Mountain Loop without enough water (and possibly suffering from the early stages of dementia) and died of thirst. He left a journal of the whole thing. He had been going to Big Bend for years, sometimes taking his kids with him. I got the sense that he felt a similar love for Big Bend that I do, and when he figured out he was going to die there, it didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

My husband and I didn’t bring enough water hiking the Window Trail. One bad thing about that hike is you go downhill first when you’re fresh, and then have to go uphill to get back when you’re tired. We ran out of water about halfway back up, and were feeling pretty bad by the time we got to our vehicle. It’s a popular trail, so I’m sure if we really got into trouble we would have been found soon enough, but you never know. One story in the book was of a man who died hiking Grapevine Hills, which is a short, 2 mile trail in the desert right next to the road. He didn’t bring any water, got disoriented, wandered off the trail, and his body was found in an arroyo.

Looking out The Window.

Looking out The Window.

The Window was worth it though, because at the end you can look out over the desert for miles. As my husband was looking out, and I was getting a drink of water in the shade, we heard this strange bird call I’d never heard before. My husband yelled at me to come look, and a golden eagle swooped past. Of course I didn’t get a picture of it, and when I talked to a ranger later, they said they didn’t know of any golden eagle nests down there. But we’re absolutely sure it was a golden eagle after looking up its call on the internet when we got home. That was the first and only wild eagle I’ve seen.

I know a lot of people are afraid of the wild because of the dangers, though I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on my way to work than anything else. There’s just something humbling about being somewhere like that where human beings aren’t in control. For most of us it’s rare to be in a place that hasn’t been altered and tamed for your comfort, a place where there’s no air conditioning and all the plants have thorns and there are animals there that look at you as a food source. And I think that makes it even more important to visit these places sometimes and get reminded of what that’s like.

One of the things I look forward to about having a kid one day is bringing her (or him) to Big Bend as soon as she’s old enough. I thought about that a lot when I was there with my husband. I want to pass on my love and reverence for that place to another generation.

Santa Elena Canyon

Santa Elena Canyon

This May I’m going to Sul Ross University in Alpine for a week-long workshop for STEM educators. I just got the itinerary, and most of the week will be spent taking classes on things like scanning electron microscopy and GIS, but it looks like at least on Friday we’ll be going to Big Bend for a Field Geology workshop, and then to the Davis Mountains that evening for a Star Party at the McDonald’s Observatory. I hope I get time to sneak a quick hello to the mountain spirits, the rivers spirits, and the desert spirits. It’s not quite the same going there “on business” as going there when I can do what I like, but at least it’s a free trip to Big Bend. All my expenses are being paid by the university, including room and board, and I’m getting a stipend.

I haven’t been to many other national parks, and I haven’t been to any other national parks more than once. I haven’t gotten to travel much in my life in general. But I think even if there are more impressive parks out there that I may see some day, Big Bend will still seem special to me.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Some locals enjoying the shade at the Cottonwood Campground.

Wotan vs. Ignorance

The fool who fancies he is full of wisdom
While he sits by his hearth at home.
Quickly finds when questioned by others.
That he knows nothing at all.

Havamal 26

One of the assignments I have in my Biology II class is a book review. I have a list of about 20 important biology books for them to choose from. My list includes On the Origin of Species, along with more recent books such as Silent Spring and The Selfish Gene. I allow the students to turn in their papers halfway through the semester to be graded and handed back to them, and then if they don’t like their grades, they get one chance for a rewrite.

This semester I received a paper about On the Origin of Species that claimed that most of Darwin’s ideas have been thoroughly discredited since the book was published. The paper had no citations for this, so I counted off points and handed it back with comments saying he needed to cite his sources. When I got the rewrite back, most of his citations were from something called The Journal of Creation. It also still included several claims with no citations, including some classic anti-evolution arguments such as “If humans ascended from apes, then why do apes still exist?” and “How could something as complex as the human eye evolve by chance?” There were several others I hadn’t heard before, like how the existence of tiger-lion hybrids disproves evolution, or how “natural selection can only remove information, not create new information.”

I looked up The Journal of Creation online, and found out it’s a so-called “peer-reviewed scientific journal” published by Creation Ministries International. Looking up CMI, I found out that Answers in Genesis, founded by Ken Ham, split off from it. Ah ha! I’ve had Creationist students try to use AiG as a “scientific source” before. Browsing the AiG website only briefly, I was able to find articles about every single claim the student made in his paper.

The problem with these organizations is that they sound just scientific enough to fool someone ignorant about science. I was first made aware of AiG a few years ago when I was teaching about embryonic development, and how all chordates, including humans, have pharyngeal slits as embryos (which develop into gills in fish). A student (wearing a “Proud to be Homeschooled” t-shirt) raised his hand and said he heard the whole idea was discredited back in the 1990’s. I told him I hadn’t heard about that, and asked him what his source for that information was. He told me couldn’t remember, “some website”. I asked him to find me that website and give me the link later, and I’ll look at it. He never did. But I was curious, so I started searching myself, and that’s when I found Answers in Genesis. There was the article about how human embryos don’t really have pharyngeal slits, never addressing the problem of how, well, you can see them right there!

The Journal of Creation also looks, to the untrained eye, like a legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal. It’s enough to make someone who doesn’t know much about the science (like say, someone who was homeschooled and sheltered his whole life) think that evolution by natural selection really is a controversial idea in biology. The fact that there’s still a significant portion of Americans who are Young Earth Creationists doesn’t help either. It’s not that hard for people to find others who agree with their views. But no matter how hard Young Earth Creationists try to make their ideas look scientific, assuming your religious book is true and then trying to twist observations around to fit what it says is not how the scientific method works.

Of course, there are many Christians who aren’t Young Earth Creationists, especially ones outside of the United States. The pope has said it’s totally OK for Catholics to believe in science. Many protestant denominations also don’t believe in YEC. Jews don’t either, even the most conservative Orthodox sects, even though they share the same creation story. All these religious groups who believe in science and God at the same time somehow manage to reconcile the two. It’s only a small minority of believers who have a problem with that.

Unfortunately, Christianity is not the only religion that contains people who use bad science to produce bad religion. There is a faction of American Heathenry that believes that religion has something to do with race, and race has something to do with genetics. The most famous essay on this subject is the misleadingly scientific-sounding “Metagenetics”, written by Stephen McNallen, the founder of the Asatru Folk Assembly, one of the largest Asatru organizations in the United States. He’s written other essays and blog posts about this as well, and he’s certainly not the only Heathen who believes in this. The recent controversy over Irminfolk’s membership criteria shows another example of this kind of thinking. Irminfolk has since taken its bylaws off its website, but I got a chance to read it before it was taken down, and it did say that they will only admit people with “Ethnic European” ancestry, and they will DNA test you if necessary. Just as Young Earth Creationists are an embarrassment to other Christians, racist Heathens are an embarrassment to the rest of us.

Now, I know that it’s not politically correct to call someone a racist who’s not actually out there lynching black people or shooting at Jewish community centers, and Heathen groups like Irminfolk and the AFA prefer to be called “folkish”. I just don’t see the difference between not allowing people who aren’t “European” enough into your religious group and something like refusing the hire non-white staff at your business or refusing to serve non-white customers, which are both considered racist by the general populace and are illegal under the Civil Rights Act. We can debate over whether it should be legally allowed for a private business to have racist policies (at least some Libertarians think it should be allowed), but they’re still racist policies by the dictionary definition of the word. Now, unlike businesses, religious organizations are allowed to have racist policies like this, so Irminfolk is well within their legal rights. It just annoys me that people are trying to redefine the term “racism” to only include the most extreme examples, so that the vast majority of racist actions don’t count. Words have definitions. Don’t try to redefine the word just because it has bad connotations. It would be more accurate if they said something like, “we’re not like those bad racists. We’re the good racists,” but they’re still following the dictionary definition of racism.

Racism, by the dictionary definition, includes not only violence towards other races, but the belief that different races have different innate abilities. For example, the belief that whites and Asians are better at science and math than blacks, or that blacks are better at sports than whites and Asians. What folkish heathens are saying is that whites are better at being heathens than non-whites. To justify this, they say that whites are equally unable to practice African or Asian religions, but that really doesn’t make them any less racist. That’s just saying they’re equally racist against whites, ironically. Others have already written about the theological problems with this, but what stands out to me as a biology professor is that racism is just bad science. Using pseudoscience as a basis for important religious beliefs isn’t working well for the Young Earth Creationists, and I don’t like this sort of thing going on in my religion either.

A Little Genetics Lesson
Part of my graduate school curriculum was two semesters of Population Genetics. We learned a lot about how one determines if a species has genetically distinct populations. It takes some math, but fortunately the math is fairly simple once you get the hang of it. For groups of a species to be distinct populations, there has to be so little gene flow between them that the variation between groups is greater than the variation within each group. Gene flow happens when a member of one group gets together with a member of another group and, you know, mixes their genes. If you are trying classify a species into distinct populations, but you genetically test them and find out that the variation within each group is equal to or greater than the variation between groups, it turns out they really should be treated as the same genetic population.

This works for any species, whether it’s pine trees, salamanders, or humans, and it turns out that humans don’t have a lot of distinct populations. Maybe there are still a few isolated tribes on a Pacific Island somewhere, or in the highlands of New Guinea, but certainly the category known in this country as “white people” is not a genetically isolated population. President Obama is genetically closer to his white mother and grandparents than he is to most black people. That’s gene flow. Now that genetic testing has become cheap and easily available, it’s become clear that gene flow between the “races” is the norm rather than the exception, and it has been the norm for a long time, certainly it has been with “white people.” Just look at the map. Europe is not isolated at all. People have been easily traveling between Europe and Asia, Africa, and North America for hundreds if not thousands of years. And thanks to widespread genetic testing now, we can see how much gene flow that’s resulted in between Europeans and people from these other continents.

“But they look different!” people say. Yes, humans have variation in the genes for skin color (just like cats and dogs come in different colors too), but skin color is not a good way to classify distinct races of humans. Having a certain skin color can be an advantage or disadvantage in certain climates, so over generations, populations of humans living in sub-Saharan Africa and Australia evolved darker skin on average, while humans living in Eurasia evolved lighter skin on average. It’s similar to how wolves that live on the tundra tend to have lighter fur than wolves that live in dark forests.

What makes it even more complicated is that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, which is how you get the range of shades from very dark to very light, rather than only a couple of colors. Very dark people have lots of dark skin genes, while very light people have lots of light genes, with lots of people intermediate between the two. Hair texture, hair color, eye shape, and even eye color are polygenic traits as well, and they’re all separate from skin color, so you can have people with all sorts of combinations. My point is that there is not one gene that designates a person as being a “white person”, or a “black person”, or any other race. All of us have various combinations of various genes, but there are no lines you can draw between the races using genes. Europeans still have some “dark” genes, and Africans still have some “light” genes, they just have them in different proportions. We’ve just culturally decided that people that have certain combinations of traits belong to certain “races”, but that distinction doesn’t map onto the genetics of the people in these groups.

“But what about sickle-cell anemia? Surely diseases that are associated with one race or another prove that races are biologically distinct.” That’s even simpler to explain. Unlike appearance, it’s only caused by one gene. It’s recessive, so if you have two copies of that gene, you have sickle-cell anemia. If you have one copy of that gene, you are resistant to malaria. Most people don’t have any copy of that gene at all. Since having one copy gives you resistance to malaria, it has an evolutionary advantage in areas where malaria is prevalent, such as West Africa, so the gene is more common there. It’s also found in people from Central and South America, and people of Mediterranean descent. In other words, it’s not that much different than dark skin genes. It gives people an advantage in a certain environment, so natural selection makes it more common there. The sickle cell gene is only indirectly related to having dark skin, because in Equatorial environments, there is both more malaria and more sun exposure, so the environment selects for both those traits at the same time.

It’s certainly not a gene that can be used to distinguish black people from white people, because even though more people who have the gene are black than white, most black people don’t have it, and it’s possible for a white person to have it.

This brings me to something I’ve been wondering, as a biologist, reading things by folkish Heathens. Stephen McNallen claims that religion can somehow be inherited by your children, and therefore “white people” have all inherited Asatru from our European ancestors and non-Europeans have not, so that’s why only white people can practice Asatru.  Unfortunately “metagenetics” can be easily confused with epigenetics, a legitimate biological concept, by a layperson. It reminds me of Ken Ham making up the scientific-sounding “baraminology” as Creationist alternative to phylogeny. McNallen is rather vague about how metagenetics works. He does say in a follow-up essay that it’s not something as simple as having a certain DNA sequence. However, Irminfolk says they will go so far as to DNA test people who want to become members to see if they have enough European ancestry. So apparently they do think that the DNA in a person matters.

So what is the Asatru gene?

Since they took their bylaws down, I’m not sure if it says in there anywhere what circumstances a DNA test will be necessary, but I do distinctly remember DNA tests being mentioned. So what genes are they going to test for? As I’ve already explained, “European” and “white” are not genes. There are only genes that may be more common or less common in people of European descent. For any gene they pick, there are going to be people with pale skin who may not have it, and people with dark skin who may have it, as long as you test a large enough sample of people.

I just can’t help but think these people simply don’t understand how genetics works. Just like when I read Answers in Genesis, and it’s so obvious right away that they have no idea how evolution works. And yet you’re going to base an important tenant of your religion on it? If they do genetically test someone, how does that particular gene make a person able to worship the Aesir? We’re learning more and more about how genes work every day, but as far as I know they haven’t yet found a “religion” gene, much less developed a test for it.

Why Bother Explaining This?
One of the complaints Christians have against Young Earth Creationism is that it turns some people away from Christianity entirely. Adhering to YEC requires a willful ignorance of biology, astronomy, geology, and the scientific method in general. Racism also turns people against Heathenry. As people in general become more aware of the non-reality of biological race, “folkish” Heathens are going to look more and more ridiculous, like T-rexes in the Garden of Eden.

Creationism is not the only pseudoscience that has come up in my classroom. I’ve also had to deal with students who think global warming is a hoax, and students who think vaccines cause autism. That second one is becoming common enough now that I had to add a whole extra section to my lecture on vaccines to address the topic directly. Some would tell me that trying to argue with people who believe these things is a futile effort. Bill Nye the Science Guy was strongly criticized by other scientists for debating Ken Ham, because they thought it gave Ken Ham some kind of legitimacy. I agree that hardcore Creationists, global warming deniers, anti-vaxers, and racists are seldom persuaded by scientific arguments. I can cite all the scientific literature I want about any of these topics, and they’ll only say that the scientists are also part of the conspiracy.

One of the most frustrating things about that paper my student turned in this semester is that all of his arguments against evolution were covered either in my class or in Biology I that he should have taken as a prerequisite. In his paper he wrote “evolutionists have never explained” these things, and that’s certainly not true. Explanations for all these things are in the textbook he was supposed to have purchased and read. He just refused to pay attention, I guess.

So it’s true that convincing the hardcore believers is probably hopeless, but there are a lot of people out there who really haven’t taken sides yet. I’ve had students who didn’t know what natural selection is at all, or have never heard of global warming, or had no idea how vaccines work. I’ve had a student ask me, “What’s polio?” Those are the people I want to reach.

The idea that race is biological is a myth that’s been ingrained in our culture for hundreds of years, so I really can’t blame most people for believing it. I didn’t learn about it until I was a junior in college and took an anthropology course as an elective. This was also around when I first started getting curious about Asatru, so it really came just in time. Before that I also thought that there was a biological component to race, and I still catch myself slipping into that mode of thinking every now and then. It can be hard to unlearn these things.

Anthropology and genetics are really not my areas of expertise. I specialized in ecology, even though I’ve found myself teaching general biology now. I’d much rather talk about birds and trees, but I’ve now found myself in a religion with a racism problem. Hopefully this essay will make my position on that issue clear. In the end, I really don’t understand what would be so horrible about someone with no European ancestry practicing Asatru. I think that it’s important that pre-Christian religions are preserved (all of them), but who cares about the DNA of the people who are doing the preserving? Why am I more worthy of the task just because I’m pale? I can imagine the possibility of someone with darker skin than me being a better heathen than me. Why should that person be excluded?

Again, Folkish Heathen kindreds who only want to admit white people are free to do what they want. I have absolutely no power over them. But I do think that I’m the one who’s on the right side of history here. I guess we’ll see.