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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 01:10 PM
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open letter to people starting college this fall.

As some of you know, I teach at a university. This includes a large-enrollment class for non-science majors in the fall and more advanced classes in the spring.

I just received yet another email that prompts me to compose this missive, as I'll explain below.

Being a first-year student is exhilarating. It can also be terrifying. You might be far from home for the first time. You might be the first member of your family to attend college. You might have been a stand-out in high school, but now you're surrounded by other stand-outs from other high schools. It's intimidating. You don't have Mom and/or Dad to keep your nose to the grindstone, and some aspects of being a college student - enrolling in classes, for example - are downright labyrinthine. And if you're a student of color on a majority-white campus, you'll be facing racist attitudes that remain in spite of everything we're doing to combat them.

So some general advice:

1. (This was prompted by an email exchange with an incoming student this morning - and it's one of too many such exchanges I've had.) Be careful with assumptions, and always ask before acting. Exceptions can't always be made.

This morning, I got an email from an incoming first-year student. He wanted to confirm that the lectures for my class are being recorded. I responded that although they're on-line (which I very deeply dislike), they aren't pre-recorded. They're what we call "synchronous" - that is, you have to watch them live, no different from if you were taking an in-person lecture course.

This was followed by a request for accommodation because the student has another commitment when lecture is in session.

In other words, the student enrolled in a course he can't actually attend. This was based on the faulty assumption that "online" meant "recorded."

I've encountered all kinds of bad assumptions. They can take a quiz late, even though I said there wouldn't be make-ups? Bad assumption. That a grade is not a goal to be achieved, but a commodity to be negotiated? Bad assumption. That the exam will look exactly as you imagine it will? Very bad assumption. And so it goes.

I know it's a hassle to take the final exam toward the end of finals week. That doesn't mean we're cool with you taking it early because it's convenient.

My ex used to teach a lab that met on Fridays at 4:30. There were quizzes every week. During the first week of class, she had to tell her students that "My parents already paid for the plane ticket leaving that day" would not be accepted as a reason to miss lab on the Friday before Thanksgiving break.

Seriously - ask BEFORE you act. It saves everyone a lot of heartache.

2. Keep your life as simple as possible.

Extracurricular activities expand your horizons and can help you find a community far from home, but it's easy to get roped in too deeply. Overloading yourself with such things reduces the amount of time you have for your homework and studying.

This is why I encourage on-campus living when it's available for first-year students. It keeps life simple.

I'm not saying one should live a monastic existence and ignore the rest of the world. But you'll still be getting your footing during your first year, so don't overdo it.

3. Save everything.

I once had a student approach me after classes were over, wondering why she got a C in my class. She was sure she'd be in solid B range. I pointed out that her final exam and one of her midterms were indeed in the 80's, but her other midterm was a 38. That, I explained, dragged her grade down. "But I didn't get a 38," she replied, "I got an 83!" She showed me her exam, and sure enough, she did. The moron (most likely me) who entered the grades into the spreadsheet typed them in backward. It happens, and mistakes like this are easily corrected - and this is made easier if you can show your professor what you actually got.

Seriously - treat your homework assignments, quizzes, exams, and whatnot like receipts.

4. Keep your family posted about your classroom commitments.

If someone's planning a family event, it wouldn't hurt if they knew when your exams are scheduled.

5. Always contact an instructor before missing something, and always get some sort of proof for the reason.

I've run in to all kinds of legitimate reasons to miss a class or an exam. Illness is the most common, but students have also come to me with job interviews, court dates, funerals, other major family events (weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, confirmations, baptisms, milestone anniversaries), problems with transportation (car broke down, missed bus), or a University-related commitment (sporting event, field trip for another course, etc.).

Getting a doctor's note for an illness is easy enough, but it should be possible to document pretty much any good reason to miss class - including a funeral. I, for one, would never ask for documentation that a student had to attend a funeral. But I know professors who do - and generally, it's not all that hard to get. If you can't bring in an obituary, most funeral homes and houses of worship are willing to provide a letter acknowledging your presence at a funeral service at their facility. (These used to be necessary when airlines offered lower "bereavement" rates for last-minute travel.)

If you don't know whether your reason for missing an exam is legitimate, just ask. Often, it is. Sometimes, it isn't - but we can't help you if you assume it was and act accordingly. (Want to miss the exam because a relative is having a birthday party? Unless someone is turning 100, or is terminally ill and won't see the birthday after this one, I'm reluctant to grant an excuse.)

(And before I'm attacked for being hard-ass, please bear in mind - arranging a make-up exam really is an imposition. On our campus, instructors are responsible for scheduling exams for students who need extra time or some other accommodation for a learning disability - and the number of student will such accommodations sometimes hits 5 or 10 percent. For a class of 200 students, that's 10 or 20 students who need accommodation. And that's on top of those who were in a wedding, got sick, or had a family emergency. We're happy to help out when it's necessary, but still, we're being asked to find a time and a place where the instructor and student can meet for a 1 to 2 hour block. That means juggling schedules. If we say "no," it's not because we're mean-spirited - it's because we're trying to manage a complex situation.]

6. Get to know your instructors.

This is arguably more important later in your college career, but it doesn't hurt stop by during office hours. That's what they're for.

This is good not only because you'll understand the material better by asking questions early and often, but because it helps us get to know you. Believe me - it's a lot easier to write a letter of recommendation if I know something about the student beyond his or her exam scores.

I've also seen that students who come to know their professors tend to be asked to participate in research or creative projects. That looks really good on your resume, and it makes you better at what you do anyway. They also sometimes feel less isolated. We professors are no longer the terrifying experts who look down on their students - we're people.

7. Know when to pull back.

Life happens. A lot of students encounter mental or emotional problems they may not have anticipated, or the problems they already have might be exacerbated. You might feel isolated on campus. You might be overwhelmed with difficult classes. You may be trying to balance your classes with a job or the needs of a small child. Your financial situation may change. You, or a loved one, may be facing a very serious physical illness that requires much of your attention.

Sometimes, the best solution is to drop some or all of your classes. Staying in for the sake of completing the semester might be counterproductive if you bomb your classes. Do you want to graduate on time, or with a respectable GPA? Sometimes, these are mutually incompatible.

I'm not saying you should just drop out of school when things get tough. It's always going to be difficult. Besides, dropping below a certain number of credit hours can jeopardize your financial aid. But in consultation with academic advisors and perhaps a mental health professional, dropping one or two courses might not always be a bad idea.

8. Know when to ask for help, and find out where it can be found.

The problems I mentioned above were extra-widespread last year. The world seemed to be collapsing around us - we were facing a pandemic; cities around the country hosted protests that, at times, encountered violence; and voters were being asked to decide whether to vote for a human being or a pallid host to some sort of hairy orange organism to lead the country.

And I know this impacted my students because they told me. Usually, out of a group of 200, I get one or two reaching out to tell me they've missed some assignments because they're having a rough time. Last year, it was more like 15 or 20 of them. Some were students of color who felt the pressure of racism like never before. Others were failing to thrive academically in the on-line system imposed on us by the pandemic. It was bad.

We get it. All of us were students, and many of us needed help at times. That includes me.

There is no dishonor in asking for help, and there are places to find it. Most campuses have some sort of student counseling center - that, or they'll have resources to help you find a professional counselor. They're not there as window dressing - they're there because people need them.

Creating a sense of belonging can go a long way toward alleviating some of the pressure and stress of being a first-year college student. This is why I advise against overdoing it with extracurricular activities - not against avoiding them altogether.

Anyway - some free advice none of you asked for. College will be one of the most formative experiences of your life. Get as much

Something too many Israelis (and Americans) fail to realize...

Getting population statistics for Israel and the Occupied Territories is tricky, because it's not always clear who's being counted. Does the Jewish population listed for Israel include the West Bank settlements? That's one example.

But based on the best statistics I can find, there are currently about 6.6 million Jewish citizens in Israel. That includes the West Bank. They're not going anywhere.

There are about 1.8 million Arabs in the borders of Israel recognized by the UN (i.e. excluding the West Bank and Gaza), the majority of whom are Muslim Palestinians. They're not going anywhere.

That means that the Israeli government has jurisdiction over a population that is about 75% Jewish. This allows Israel to maintain its identity as a Jewish state.

There are a lot of people, in Israel and elsewhere (most especially the US), who want to see Israel annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel already claims to have annexed the Golan Heights; the Trump Administration made the mistake of recognizing this, something I hope Biden can correct.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are about 4.5 million Palestinian Arabs. They, too, aren't going anywhere.

If Israel annexes these territories, its Jewish population would drop to around 50 percent of the total.

It would then have a decision to make - to be a democracy, or to be a Jewish state. If only half of the population is Jewish, it can't be both.

At this point, I think both sides carry much of the blame for the current violence. It hurts me to say this, too - I've been to Israel a couple of times and have valued friends and colleagues there. Moreover, my wife and her family are Jewish, and some of her elder relatives survived the Holocaust - so they have strong opinions I cannot and will not challenge, no matter how I feel about the politics of the moment.

The Palestinian Authority has to take control of it militant factions. Otherwise, Israel will have to defend itself. I also think the Israelis should get rid of the right-wing nationalists who won't compromise on anything - otherwise, grievances on the part of Palestinians will remain to fester, giving extremism fertile ground to flourish.

I'm tired of living like this, and I don't really have that right.

I'm on one of the administrative committees at the college where I work. At our weekly (virtual) meeting this morning, the first topic of discussion was the Chauvin trial.

My public university is in a comparatively small Midwestern college town (not in Minnesota). We attract some diversity because of the university, but the surrounding area is overwhelmingly white, which limits enrollments from students of color. And yet over the summer, at least one of the BLM protests here became very large and ended up tear-gassed.

So our discussion this morning is over what the university will do should the trial end with an acquittal. There will be multiple statements released by different officials, from the president through the provost and down to the deans' offices, with some department heads probably joining in. These statements are already being drafted.

They have to be drafted carefully; the community around the university is progressive, but the state as a whole, as reflected by the governor and state legislature, follows a very different and decidedly rightward path. As long as we rely on the legislature for funding, we have to balance expressing objection to the obvious injustice an acquittal would represent with not coming across as institutionally partisan or reactionary. But we can't stay absolutely silent if the community around us unravels.

Meanwhile, a few miles south of me (I'm living in a different state most of the time because of the pandemic), the National Guard has already been deployed.

I'm tired of this shit. We as a country have never really dealt with the fundamental racial disparities throughout our system. It's gotten so bad that when an opportunity arises to make things right, even by a little bit, it's fumbled. And I have to worry about whether my building on campus might be damaged by a crowd that includes many of my friends. I have to worry about my friends working downtown, either back home near the university or here; will they encounter violence from people using the protests as an excuse to riot? From the police? From the National Guard?

And you know what? I have no business feeling this way. Not really, anyway. I'm a white heterosexual cis-male. I'm a walking billboard for what unintentional white privilege looks like. I get tired of things because I'm worried a riot might break out many miles from where I sit; African American teenagers get tired of being wary of every police officer they encounter, knowing there's a greater likelihood that they'll be shot ton the false theory that they're armed. I worry that the riots will disrupt my travel and make my community look bad; people of color have to worry about how - not whether, but how - their ethnic background will hold them back every day.

When I was a kid, my parents had the "police talk" with me. The police are our friends, I was told. If we're in trouble, if we're lost or something, we look for a police officer for help. We can trust them. Every other kid in my suburban neighborhood got the same talk. I was never told that the police might kill me if they mistook me for a criminal, or if they mistook my wallet for a Smith and Wesson.

So I look at the fact that I'm worried about how this will end almost as a point of shame. I'm safe where I am. I'm doing everything I can to promote equity and inclusion, both at my institution and in my field, so I can at least pretend I'm part of the solution, but why should I worry when my life isn't in any real jeopardy?

So I consciously try to direct my worry where it belongs - to my many friends of color, to my LGBTQ friends, to my friends who are immigrants, and - yes - to my friends in law enforcement, all of whom really are trying hard to rebuild the trust that should exist between every citizen and the police. I work to direct it to their families. It's really all I can do.

I try to turn my worry into real empathy - the kind that promotes positive change.

just wanted to say this.

"I'm old fashioned" and "that's how I was raised."

I'm tired of hearing these excuses for bigoted behavior.

I can understand that being brought up in an environment where racism was openly expressed might impress some racist attitudes on you. "That's how I was raised" would thus be a reasonable explanation for racist behavior. But it isn't an excuse. The second clause shouldn't be "so you're just going to have to deal with it;" it's "but I'm working to do better."

It's never been clear to me from which era those who claim to be "old fashioned" came. Racism and bigotry have been widely understood as character flaws for all 53 years I've resided on this planet. Although bigotry has sometimes been tolerated, it hasn't been extolled much. And though we're all apt to look with nostalgia at the world of our youth, that shouldn't keep us from understanding that progress, overall, has been a good thing.

Just my thoughts. I've run into more than one bigot over the past several weeks who tried to weasel out of his or her predicament by referring to the past as though it's a good thing.

When did Bill Maher jump the shark for you?

Added on edit: Some have claimed that it's ok to watch someone with whom one disagrees. This is absolutely true, just as it's true that there is no human being alive with whom I never disagree. I disagree with President Biden on some things. I disagree with Charles Pierce from time to time. I disagree with my wife at times. We're grown-ups. That's allowed.

It's the nature of the things Maher says, not the mere fact that I disagree with them. Downplaying the importance of vaccines? That's not just wrong - it's flat-ass dangerous coming from someone with a loud platform and a large audience. His agreement with Irving Police about the home-made clock was racist; I doubt he'd have supported the police had the kid who made it been white. His fat-shaming can cause damage to people who really struggle with weight. He's not merely wrong - he's offensive.


Maher often says things I agree with, and he says them very forcefully, but I don't really pay much attention to him anymore.

His regrettable anti-vaccine position keeps me from taking him seriously, but that's not the reason I stopped watching his show.

I stopped watching because of the Ahmed Mohamed clock incident.

Mr. Mohamed was a 14-year-old kid in Irving, TX, who built a digital clock at home and brought it to school, where he showed it to his friends and teachers.

One of those teachers decided it looked like a bomb. That Mr. Mohamed is Muslim almost certainly contributed to that decision. As a result, Irving police were called, and they actually arrested him.

Long story short, his family ended up relocating to Qatar because of the bigotry they faced. It woudn't stop.

That the Irving police should have looked into it was understandable. But anyone with more than a handful of neurons in his or her head would know that a 14 year old who built a something that didn't look like a bomb wouldn't be showing it off to teachers if it was, in fact, a bomb.

Maher supported the cops in this case. It looked like a bomb. The kid is Muslim. That, to him, justified not merely looking into the matter, but actually putting the boy in cuffs.

At that point, I wrote Maher off as a racist. I haven't looked back.

How about others? When did you realize Maher is no friend to us?

a word that must be used when people say they're not getting the COVID vaccine

That word is "selfish."

It's selfish for people to just decide not to be vaccinated. Vaccines only work if a high percentage - 90 percent or more - of a community is vaccinated. This protects people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons as well as those few who didn't pick up immunity from the vaccine.

That's why I get far angrier with anti-vaccine people than nearly every other class of denialist. They're being very, very selfish.

I'm not necessarily talking about people who've fallen for misinformation - and boy howdy is misinformation out there in great abundance. This goes beyond the "vaccines cause autism" trope - people are told the COVID vaccines are unsafe - they haven't been tested carefully enough. Or that a lot of people are harmed by these particular vaccines. Their fear might be real, even if based on false claims that should be corrected.

I'm referring to people who simply decide, for vague personal reasons, that they won't get the vaccine. Maybe they don't like "big pharma" or think this whole thing is a government plot. Or they take an overly broad stance on "it's my body" or "it's my freedom."

"It's my body" works if the only person physically affected by a medical procedure is the patient. It doesn't work when refusal to participate puts everyone else at risk.

Such a decision is grotesquely selfish. One's sense of personal self-importance does not take precedence over the health of everyone.

I'm serious about this. I recently had an exchange with someone who had decided not to get the vaccine. She didn't specify her reason, though it wasn't medical in nature. When I tried to argue that the vaccine really is a good thing, she said something like "all feelings are valid!"

Really? So if I feel that it's OK to force children to drink rubbing alcohol, that's valid? Am I going to get out of an armed robbery charge if I felt it was both legally and morally acceptable to hold up a bank? Or what if I feel very strongly that I'll fly, Superman-style, if I jump off my roof? Are such feelings valid?

I take great exception to the old adage that "there are two sides to every story." No - not always, anyway. There aren't two legitimate sides to climate change, for example, in the same way there aren't two or more sides to the claim that the earth orbits the sun. Or that vaccines are safe and effective. There's just the one legitimate side.

Thus, I don't care about someone's feelings about self determination. When it comes to herd immunity, we're all in this together, and to withdraw for no good reason is very, very selfish.

The word has to be used. You think you're better than me, and that your sense of personal freedom comes before everyone's efforts to end this pandemic, save lives, and allow us to bring back at least some sort of normalcy? You're selfish. That's that. Don't want to be selfish? Get the damn shot.

(I will concede one place where it might be best to avoid that word: I realize people of color have an additional reason to be skeptical of these vaccines - there's a long history of unethical research involving African American subjects (e.g. the Tuskeegee experiments), and African Americans are infrequently parts of medical trials. And they may have had bad experiences at local hospitals based on race. I totally get it. But I also think it would be wrong to not explain to friends of color that these vaccines really are safe, and that it only works if they also get vaccinated.)

its the obstinacy, stupid

Against my better judgment, I've engaged with some people I knew in high school on Facebook over the decision to stop publishing some Dr Seuss books.

My own opinions on this are mixed, largely because the situation is not as simple as people think. There's a good reason they've decided to stop printing these books - they contain images that aren't just a little off-color; they're flat-out racist. I agree with that decision. But Dr Seuss himself spoke out against racism, bigotry, and anti-semitism, both vocally and through his art. Some of the cartoons in the "Dr Seuss Goes to War" anthology, which includes cartoons drawn as World War 2 was starting, were anti-Jim Crow. Racism continued to appear from time to time - have a look at how he depicted Japanese people after Pearl Harbor, and you'll see a glaring example - but he sometimes edited his books to change content he came to see as offensive. So I remain a Dr Seuss fan while acknowledging the shortcomings of the flawed human that he was.

Anyway - one thing I think we on DU can all agree with is that none of this constitutes censorship. The company holding the copyrights is going to stop printing six of Dr Seuss' books, meaning the other 54 can keep being printed. No one is making libraries take them off the shelves, and bookstores can still sell them, so long as they're in stock.

No amount of explanation can get some of the red-hatters among my former classmates to see this. They continue to post memes comparing this decision with book-burning in Nazi Germany. They cry out against this as an example of political correctness and cancel culture. And they claim people are coming to take their kids' books.

This is different from other conflicts I've had, or so it seems to me. In the past, they stuck with their "facts" regardless of my efforts to correct them. The election was stolen, and the evidence they cited remains evidence in their eyes. COVID isn't that bad. Trump's tax cuts went mostly to working-class people. They wouldn't let them go.

This time, they've come to see that what happened wasn't exactly as their memes portrayed it.
Most of them have stopped claiming all of Dr Seuss' books are being taken off the market. They've even stopped claiming that libraries are pulling them from the shelves in large numbers.

But under no circumstances will they accept that this isn't censorship. They're willing to change the definitions of words to avoid admitting they got something wrong.

the war on higher ed in Iowa continues; or, pray for us!

I work at a public university in Iowa. I would thus be under direct threat should any of these bills become law.

The bills, themselves, don't actually bother me very much. The bill to abolish tenure comes up pretty much every year. The state's business community is strongly opposed to it, and everyone saw what happened to the University of Wisconsin when that state weakened its tenure policies. So although I'm keeping an eye on it, I don't think it will become law.

Moreover, the proposed law that would prohibit non-disclosure agreements on research grants would get tossed by the courts almost immediately. It would violate HIPAA policies. The other bills would also run up against contradictory federal law, or even the Constitution itself.

What bothers me is the grotesque ignorance and vindictiveness that drives this effort. The state legislature here seems to think we're a bunch of liberal elitists who want to tear down western civilization. They genuinely don't know what we do, how research grants work, or what we provide to the state, if not the entire nation. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me, given the flagrant stupidity of our governor, who just lifted pretty much all COVID restrictions. (Two major highways - I-80 and I-35 - intersect in the middle of the state. A lot of shipping passes through the state. Think of all the truck drivers who will risk their lives just driving from point A to point B.)

I get really hacked off when a politician dismisses anything I say with "But you don't live in the real world." As if we professors don't put our pants on one leg at a time. We come from the same neighborhoods as anyone else. (My father worked in a dairy factory when I was born.) We work our asses off, just like everyone else. Yes, there's a specialized language that seeps into our daily conversation and we sometimes talk shop when in groups, just like everyone else. And yes, some of us are jerks. But you know what? That's equally true of police officers, dental hygienists, farmers, lawyers, sales representatives, auto mechanics, hair stylists, truck drivers, airline pilots, and anyone else in a field that requires training and dedication. But when it comes to academics, the rules just don't seem to apply in their eyes.

I honestly don't know what to do. I love my institution; my grandfather taught here, I did my undergrad here, and I've been here as faculty for more than 20 years. You know how they say New York is a great place to visit, but you'd never want to live there? Iowa City is a great place to live, but you'd never want to visit. But I am nevertheless feeling the urge to go somewhere else. Somewhere that values higher education.


how this ends - insights from really, really old alligators


A while back, I compared changes in the Republican Party since 1980 with the phenomenon of runaway selection in evolutionary biology. It's especially prominent in the context of sexual selection. When selective pressure on a feature is very strong - for example, if females have a very strong preference for males with elongated tail feathers, brightly colored scales, tall antlers, or some other display structure that doesn't necessarily improve survivability - that structure can evolve very rapidly to an extreme condition. This is even true if the sexually selected trait impairs the ability of a male to escape predators or find food - as long as it survives long enough to breed, an early death doesn't matter.

This is what we've seen with the Republican Party. The Reagan "Revolution" brought a higher levels of demonization of Democrats. This was amplified by AM radio, and then by partisan cable news and the internet, so that each succeeding Republican candidate had to be more conservative than anyone else or risk losing during the primaries. But this may be approaching the limit of survivability, because they've now become so extreme that they risk losing the general election.

I thought some more about this over the past few days, and my own work might indicate how this might end.

It's a generally accepted axiom that generalized ancestors evolve into specialized descendents, but not the reverse. Butterflies that can collect nectar from a wide range of flowers gradually become increasingly specialized toward a particular kind of flower to the point that, eventually, they can only really collect nectar from that one kind of flower. (This also happens with hummingbirds. Look up the sword-billed hummingbird, and you'll see what I mean.) In turn, the flower evolves to cater only to that one kind of butterfly.

(This axiom is actually false, as I'll discuss below.)

This has the benefit of ensuring a relatively competitor-free source of food for the butterfly as long as the flower is around, and it ensures pollenation of the flower as long as the butterfly is around.

But this implies a serious cost - if the flower disappears, so will the butterfly. Specialization, in general, increases the risk of extinction if the environment changes in ways that prevent the specialist from functioning. Generalists, being more capable of using other resources, are more likely to survive.

I really do think we're at the point where the Republican Party has become overly specialized. It is now directed at Trump-style populism and nationalism. There are still plenty of people who call themselves Republicans and regard themselves as economic conservatives or libertarians, but who also dislike Trump, but anyone watching the impeachment process can clearly see that fear of offending Trump's base is keeping them from doing anything about it. The party is now specialized for the collection of votes from red hatters in gerrymandered districts.

This hurt them in the 2018 midterms - they may have succeeded in the primaries, but not so much in the general election. It appears to have been less true in the 2020 congressional elections, but it was a weird election all around. I fully expect this trend to continue for the next several election cycles.

So how does this end?

There are two possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is extinction. But here, I see a disconnect between my analogy and political reality. A species goes extinct when none are left alive. The Republican Party might collapse, but its members are still going to be here.

This is where my work, and that of my students, might prove insightful, because we've helped show that specialists can, indeed, become generalists. (This is also where I run the risk of revealing my identity - not too many people do what I do - but so be it.)

A good example is the North American alligatorine radiation. Alligatorines comprise comprise the two living species of Alligator (American alligator, A. mississippiensis, and critically-endangered Chinese alligator, A. sinensis) and extinct forms more closely related to them than to the caimans currently found in Latin America. (Alligatorines and caimans together form Alligatoridae.)

There's only one species in North America today. But if you go back to between 65 and 40 million years ago, there were several. One could find as many as three species co-occurring in parts of the American West. (The same was true in Europe, by the way.) And none of them really looked like an American alligator - they were all very small (6 feet in length for some, no more than 3 feet for others), they had comparatively short snouts, and most had blunt, anvil-like teeth in the back of the jaws. These were specialized for hard-shelled prey.

At the same time, there were several other crocodylians living alongside these wee alligatorines. One was a kick-ass hoofed form with no close living relative, but others were distantly related to modern crocodiles. They also looked more or less like a modern crocodile - about the same size, with a long, flattened snout with conical teeth and a diet that included anything they could swallow. They took the larger prey that the small alligatorines were unable to process, and when young may have eaten fewer turtles or mollusks.

What happened? Climate changed abruptly. Temperature was probably not the main driver - the region was still plenty warm enough for crocs. It probably had more to do with changes in rainfall that led to the expansion of dry areas and the first grasslands. All crocodylians in western North America died out except one of the small blunt-toothed alligatorines.

The modern American alligator is basically like a crocodile, at least ecologically - fairly large, with a long, flat snout filled with conical teeth and a very broad diet. And its ancestors were specialized for small hard-shelled prey.

The transition from specialist to generalist took a very long time. The earliest forms to appear shortly after the diversity crash were still fairly small, though the snout was somewhat longer and the teeth not so knobby in the back. Body size and snout length gradually increased, as did the number of teeth in the jaws. It was another 10 to 20 million years before animals that would have lived like a modern American alligator arose.

I think this is what we'll see. The Republican Party won't go away - not completely, anyway. It might even have a different name. But over time, it will recalibrate toward the center. This will be necessary for its survival; demographic changes in the US will make it much less likely they'll win elections, an gerrymandering might not be able to rescue their chances. They'll see a choice between keeping some red hatters happy and actually being in office. Meanwhile, some media outlets (e.g. Fox "News" will begin to moderate, at least a little. They won't have had a change of heart - they'll be desperate for viewers and advertisers. And the initial changes will be so modest, many of us might not even really notice.

I have no idea when any of this will come to pass. I hoped we'd have seen stronger evidence for this in 2020. And I could be completely full of shit with my analogy. But I really do hope this happens sooner rather than later.

(For your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of skulls showing the kinds of changes I mean. The first skull is about 55 million years in age; the second is about 39 million years in age; the third is modern.)

back yard just now -

it's my 5-year-old daughter's first Accipiter.

(male Cooper's hawk)

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