Saturday, February 25, 2006

Theory vs. Hypothesis: What's the Difference?

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the June 29, 2005 Albuquerque Tribune.

I have this theory. Well, it’s really more of a hypothesis. Theory, hypothesis – what’s the difference you and many others might ask? And that’s precisely my point. I see a general lack of understanding of how these terms are used by the sciences versus their use on a day-to-day basis by the general public.

In the sciences, a theory is a particular framework used to describe and understand the world around us. Such a framework is only recognized as a theory after a firm empirical basis for its body of knowledge has been established. This is done through such things as extensive and long-term experimentation and observation.

A theory is often initially generated from a hypothesis – a proposed explanation for an observed phenomenon or set of phenomena. This differs from conjecture, which is at best an untested guess based on anything from common sense, to religious mysticism, to that ache in your grandmother’s knee.

But people generally use these three terms interchangeably to refer to any type of speculation. So your eccentric friend’s “theory” that Elvis, JFK, and Princess Diana are all alive and well, residing in Nevada’s Area 51 awaiting transport to their home world in the Alpha Centauri star system is only a theory in the layman’s sense of the term.

For those who haven’t by now skipped to the sports pages, you may be wondering if my initial hypothesis regarding people’s lack of understanding of the scientific definitions is actually more of a conjecture. After all, I haven’t presented any data or observations to base it on.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of supporting data. Just look at any media story regarding the very public debate between Evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) – a debate that’s been playing out across the country. A comment by William Harris, a member of the Kansas Science Standards Committee, exemplifies this equal time argument for including ID in high school curricula: “Public science education is an institution. It appoints a teacher to be a referee among ideas. . . . Nobody would tolerate a football game where the referee was obviously biased.”[1]

In other words, we need to expose our students to all competing ideas, giving equal time and weight to each one. And after all, that does seem to be the most democratic thing to do. Right? What could be more American than that?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Evolution and ID are NOT “scientifically” equal. Yes, Darwinian Evolution is a theory, but it’s a scientific theory. It has survived rigorous scientific testing for over 100 years and forms the scientific foundation of modern biology. Scientific debate regarding Evolutionary Theory centers on the details of how it occurred, not if it occurred.

At best, ID is a hypothesis – a supposition that a certain level of complexity belies an intelligent creator. At worst it’s mere conjecture. But if it is a hypothesis, it’s a poor one because it seeks to answer the ultimate question of why there is life – a question more suited for philosophy and religion than the empirically based sciences.

That there are “gaps” in our current knowledge of how life evolved doesn’t mean such phenomena are too complex to be explained by anything but an intelligent creator, whether that creator be Yahweh, Mother Earth, or some mad alien scientist from Alpha Centauri with too much time on his hands. The history of modern science is replete with examples of filling in such gaps.

Because of all this, the academic debate surrounding ID should play out at the university level, the traditional setting for debating new scientific hypotheses.

And this is why it’s important for the general public and primary school board members in New Mexico to have some understanding of the various meanings of theory and hypothesis. Otherwise, our high school science curricula are created in a state of scientific ignorance – doing our children and society as a whole a disservice. Of course this is all just a theory of mine – er, I mean hypothesis.


[1] Ellen Goodman. Round 2: Fighting Darwin. The Online Edition of the Indianapolis Star. May 12, 2005.

The Tapestry of Our Collective Minds

Threads of thought
pass from person to person,
weaving a cultural tapestry
across space and time.

Each individual thread
is a stream of connected thoughts,
a lineage of ideas,
a phylogeny of connected minds.

This tapestry of woven phylogenies
has many colors, many patterns, many textures,
and many different threads –
wool, cotton, and rayon.

A father teaches his son to throw a ball,
to build a tree house,
to get the girl,
to change the oil,
to use a tool.

A school teaches its pupils to read,
to write,
to add and subtract,
to expand their horizons,
to hone their “tools.”

A society teaches its members to work together,
to tell a joke,
to struggle against the “other,”
to conform,
to reproduce their society,
to be a “tool.”

The tapestry constantly grows,
constantly changes.
New threads are introduced,
as others die out.
Time and space
are forever filled
with this ever-changing tapestry.

But as it grows,
so does it decay.
Older sections lose their cohesion.
Threads unravel, sections disintegrate,
leaving strands of thread here and there –
disconnected, discontinuous,
only telling a part of the story of “Once Was.”

These disconnected threads,
these disconnected thoughts
from our tapestry’s past
are at times recycled,
combined with newer threadsand woven once again.
Woven into newer sections that spill off…into infinity.

And to understand the distant minds of long ago
that stretch back along these threads of thought,
we reweave the stories –
stories lost over time,
stories lost across space,
rewoven from the disconnected threads
and from the threads of thought we know today,
forming the tapestry of “As it Might Have Been,”
instead of “As it Actually Was.”

This is the tapestry of our minds
stretching across time and space,
woven from the streams of our collective thoughts,
the many lineages of ideas,
the phylogenies of our connected minds.

The Archaeological Hazards of our Future's Past

Theron checked the map again on his hand-held electronic interface unit, or HEU. The HEU was interfacing with Wendy, the crew’s nickname for the main computer back at base camp. The map had been compiled from the various remote sensing surveys conducted since the start of the expedition a few weeks ago. For the past several years, Theron and his crew from the Central Archives Archaeological Division had been excavating in the southeast portion of what had once been the state of New Mexico, part of a union of fifty states located primarily on the North American continent. Little was known of this union prior to its fragmentation over 600 years ago, but the work of Theron and countless other archaeologists over the past twenty years was beginning to rectify this.

While rummaging through the archive’s myriad of antiquated electronic and print documentation, much of which was very fragmentary in nature, Theron had come across the initials “WIPP” on a map printed in the dead language of English. The lone reference he found to these initials was incomplete, and all that he could translate were the middle two initials – “Isolation” and “Pilot”. Theron found this intriguing. Was this some type of prototype facility built away from the contemporary populations of the day? What secrets might it contain?

It was decided that, for this season, Theron’s team would focus on the WIPP complex. Initial remote sensing surveys indicated a facility located over 2500 feet below ground, embedded in a massive salt formation, with miles and miles of corridors, much of which appeared to have been filled in to varying degrees by the salt. In addition, there appeared to be four vertical shafts, also long since filled in, running from a previous ground surface down to the facility. The team had borrowed a “smart worm”[1] from the Archive’s Geological division to bore down to the facility adjacent to one of the vertical shafts. A smart worm is a self guided, independent drilling device with a menagerie of electronic sensors in its nose to “see” ahead so it doesn’t drill through something dangerous, or in this case, something of archaeological significance.

Today they would reach one of the old tunnels in the facility, and Theron’s anticipation was growing. On the map before him was displayed a rough outline of the facility. At various locations around the perimeter were what may have been different types of electronic markers, all emitting different types of signals – some acoustic, some magnetic, and one other type of signal that no one on the team was familiar with. Recordings of this unknown signal had been sent back to Central Archives for analysis, but with the backlog, who knew when anyone would get to it.

Two days ago, a marker near the old ground surface had been detected that was not emitting a signal of any kind. This had been retrieved using the smart worm. Emblazoned on this marker were several symbols, two of which had caught Theron’s initial attention. One was a human skull with two associated human long bones crossing each other, no doubt a warning of some kind. The other one seemed vaguely familiar to Theron, but he couldn’t place it. It was a small circle surrounded by three triangles, equidistant from each other, each with one point extending towards the circle. Perhaps when the smart worm penetrated the facility they would have some answers. Ten years ago, a place known as Fort Knox had been excavated. This had turned out to be a heavily fortified vault that had stored vast quantities of gold. There had been a great deal of electronic sensors and warning signs of various kinds associated with that facility, and Theron was quite hopeful that this WIPP complex would be of a similar nature.

Ann, Theron’s chief crew manager, came running up to tell him that the smart worm had made the initial penetration and was retrieving a metal canister of some kind. After thirty minutes, the smart worm emerged from the abyss and into daylight. Slowly, the white metal canister came into view. The salt appeared to have protected the canister from any type of corrosion; at least none was visible to the naked eye. Then Theron saw it. There were the triangles and circle again, printed in a deep red against a square of bright yellow. The meaning of this symbol still eluded him, scurrying in the dark crevices buried deep within his mind.

Ann scanned the canister with her HEU, using a mixture of x-rays, magnetic, radar, and electrical waves. An image slowly formed on the screen showing what appeared to be a bunch of old tools, equipment, and maybe some type of clothing. The image was oddly fuzzy as if something was interfering with the scanning signals, and Ann smacked the side of her HEU in a failed attempt to clear up the image. “That’s strange,” she said. “My HEU must need a new imaging collator.”

Well, it wasn’t gold, but finding what appeared to be simple, common items buried deep below ground was very interesting in and of itself. Theron gave the go ahead to open it up. In the mean time he was going to jog his memory concerning this strange symbol. Using his HEU, he took a picture of the symbol, and then accessed Central Archives through Wendy to do a quick and dirty search. Within a few minutes a couple of documents were downloaded to his HEU. As he began to read, the meaning of the symbol emerged from the deep crevices of his mind.

“Radiation.” “Danger.” “Death”. Slowly a deep dread began to form in the back of his mind and expand to encompass him in a cloud of fear and worry, much as the radiation was expanding out of the canister to envelope his crew. Nuclear energy and weaponry had not been a part of the human equation for a very long time, and few people were aware it ever had been. The canister that had been retrieved contained transuranic waste, and unfortunately for Theron and his crew, this particular canister happened to be one of the very few containing waste that would emit deadly levels of penetrating radiation.

Immediately he put a halt to the work and evacuated the area. He called in a medical evac team from Central Archives, but for most of the crew the damage had been done. By the time the medical team arrived, many of the crew were already experiencing severe signs of radiation sickness. The sound of his crew retching filled Theron’s ears as he stared at the clumps of his own hair resting in his hands. Many would die before the end of the day; many others would die within a few years, including Theron.


We typically think of such scenarios as the musings of science fiction writers, but the vast quantity of waste our world produces, along with its varying hazardous nature, suggests that some variation of this story may in fact be inevitable. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the US alone generates roughly 13 billion tons of waste each year. Recycling, composting, incineration, and the reduction of waste generation itself, are all gradually increasing in their use, but contained storage is still the dominant means of dealing with much of the waste we generate.

Initially, one might think that archaeologists would be thrilled with this. After all, their future intellectual progeny will have a wealth of middens to explore. Ah, but then there’s that “little” problem of pollution, in all its various guises, that current and future generations will have to face from the production and storage of waste on a scale that the individual mind can only hope to comprehend. And in case it didn’t come across in print, my use of the word “little” in quotes was meant to convey sarcasm – mass quantities of sarcasm oozing a gooey and toxic mix of understatement, irony, and contempt. The fact of the matter is we do not have a clear, long-term vision of how to limit the production of waste, how to safely destroy it after it has been produced, or how to safely store it until it has either naturally decomposed or no longer poses a threat to humanity or the environment [2][3][4]. In some cases this may take well over a million years.

The question of what to do with our waste is something that anthropology in general, and archaeology in particular, can help answer. Very practical and useful applications of archaeology have been used to study and address the problems of waste. In the case of landfills, archaeologists are able to provide a unique view of what is actually going on inside working landfills and document the variability of this across regions [5]. Through such research, archaeologists can 1) clarify the national estimates of what we are actually putting into landfills, 2) document the links between moisture level and the rate of decomposition, and 3) establish the pathway of migration for heavy metals within a landfill. All of this is important for verifying the effectiveness of current landfills and formulating their future design standards.

Even more important are the contributions that can be made to the contained storage of radioactive waste. Within the US alone, the combined total of such waste includes over 265 million tons of uranium mill tailings (ore extraction residue), 472 million cubic feet of low level waste (radioactive clothing, tools, paper, filters, and the residue from cleaning nuclear reactors), 11.3 million cubic feet of transuranic waste (clothing, tools, etc., contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium), and high level waste that consists of 52,000 tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors and 91 million gallons of waste generated from plutonium production [6][7]. Half-lives for radioactive waste range from a fraction of a second to billions of years, though the longer the half-life the less intense the radioactivity. An element is typically considered harmless after ten half-lives.

Currently, the US has one “permanent” operating storage facility for radioactive waste – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been designed to house transuranic and low-level waste. A facility to “permanently” house high-level waste is currently being constructed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, though the state of Nevada and environmental groups are fighting the federal government to keep it from going into operation. And currently, there are no working ideas on how to eliminate or safely store uranium mill tailings, which simply sit out on the landscape. In the US, the EPA has set the time limits for public and environmental health regarding such facilities at 10,000 years [8][9]. Longer times were not considered because the EPA felt there were too many uncertainties beyond that point. Uncertainties relative to what? I typically have little idea what's going to happen the next day. One wonders how the number of 10,000 was finally agreed upon, and what was used to estimate degrees of certainty.

No matter how one views the politics of radioactive waste, there are problems of long-term containment that must be addressed. It would be preferable to destroy the waste as it is created, but there are currently no means to safely do this for radioactive waste (and the “safe” nature of the incineration of other types of waste is highly debatable [10]). So whether we are talking 500 years, 10,000 years, or one million years, the future unknowns regarding containment structure material performance and the environmental/social/political contexts of these containment facilities are two areas that archaeology and anthropology can help address.

Examples of this include the archaeological analyses of long-term material performance being conducted at the University of Sheffield in England and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, Maryland [11]. Glass currently plays a major roll in the containment packaging of radioactive waste, and glass that has spent hundreds to thousands of years buried in the earth can provide clues as to how the modern packaging might fare over the next 10,000 to one million years. Variations in the composition of the glass and the associated environment greatly affect the type and amount of decay that occurs. And the metals that provide historical glasses with color, such as cobalt in medieval blue glass, can stand proxy for the radioactive elements in nuclear waste. Their leaching into the surrounding soil provides an indication of how radioactive particles might disperse. It’s only a rough approximation, but the deep time nature of the data provides an important supplement to the data obtained from engineering simulation tests of current glass packaging materials.

In addition to materials research, archaeology and anthropology can 1) provide assistance in envisioning potential future scenarios of accidental human intrusion and 2) help develop markers to be used as warnings against such intrusions [12]. In the early 1990’s, anthropologists and sociologists composed part of the panels that did just this for the WIPP facility. Factors that must be considered in developing these future scenarios include institutional memory, predicted changes in language and cultural makeup, forms of written communication, patterns of regional migration, population density, technological advancements, resource use and availability, and developments in the physical environment that could compromise the effectiveness of markers (as well as the facilities themselves).

The envisioning of such scenarios and the design and placement of warning markers to account for all potential scenarios is an extremely daunting process. In the potential cases of language, institutional, political, and general cultural discontinuity over a large span of time, an important issue is the type of visual symbol(s) that should appear on the markers. Carl Sagan once suggested that a simple skull and crossbones be used [13]. Such a simple symbol can be justified through cross-cultural studies demonstrating a common notion that contact with corpses is “polluting”[14]. Corpses can be a source of pathogens, so from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that there is a universal human tendency to avoid or carefully handle them. However, the cultural reasons that are often linked to such avoidances vary substantially across space and time, and such a symbol by itself may not effectively communicate the desired warning. And in addition to the warning itself, there would ideally be some sort of way to communicate the nature of the danger, which would require more than one simple symbol.

Perhaps an even more substantial result of such efforts is the realization that the future is extremely uncertain and almost impossible to predict [15]. Even with the limitations that are placed on the future by the conditions of the present, there are still an almost infinite number of potential future scenarios. About the only thing that can be said with a relative degree of certainty is that things will change. The only true way to limit these potential hazards of the future is to eliminate or at least minimize the production of such wastes in the present and near future. The development, perfection, and expansion of alternative fuel sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cells, cold fusion, and the like, offer viable alternatives to fossil fuels and fission. Such a transition would reduce much of the production of radioactive wastes. And though waste production is cited less when arguing for a reduction to or stop in the continued manufacturing and proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is none-the-less a very important one. The less WIPPs and Yucca Mountains our future generations will have to deal with, the better.


[1] e.g. Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[2] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[3] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9;

[4] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[5] W. L. Rathje, W. W. Hughes, D. C. Wilson, M. K. Tani, G. H. Archer, R. G. Hunt, and T. W. Jones. 1992 The Archaeology of Contemporary Landfills. American Antiquity 5(3):437-447.

[6] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[7] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9;

[8] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[9] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[10] Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Research Council. 2000 Waste Incineration and Public Health. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

[11] Philip Ball. 2002 Archaeologists Advise on Nuclear Waste Disposal. Report from the December, 2002 Materials Research Society Meeting, Boston, MA. Nature News Service, Macmillan Magazines Ltd

[12] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[13] K. Trauth, S. C. Hora, and R. V. Guzowski. 1993. Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. SAND92-1382 UC-721. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Sandia National Laboratories.

[14] Pascal Boyer. 2001 Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[15] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

From Darkness to Light

Here's a little engineering poetry

In darkness I stand,
Enclosed within a space I cannot see
A vast architectural surround
One I cannot fully know with touch, smell, hearing, or taste
Its far reaches beyond my local self
Colors, hues, textures, contrasts, and shadows,
Perspectives, wayfinding guides and cues
All telling the grand story of my structural surrounds
All lost to me without sight, without … light.

In the distance, somewhere in the darkness,
I hear the flip of a switch.
Contacts closing, electrons flowing
Filaments alighting, ballasts igniting
Sending forth light to challenge the dark
Photons and waves charging through space
Instantly filling this architectural volume,
Banishing the dark to the shadows
Shadows created by the play of light and surface

Garbage In, Garbage Out, Garbage Piles Up

Aaargh!! Again I forget to put the garbage out. We've recently moved to a new city and I'm still trying to get used to a different trash day. This would be the third week in a row that I've forgotten to put our garbage out in the morning. (Yes I could put it out the night before, but I'm anal about the whole identity theft thing).

So I now stare into a garage with 14 white trash bags haphazardly piled up in the corner. Sigh.

Hmmm... 14 trash bags over the course of three weeks - thats a little over 4 trash bags a week for a family of four (two adults, two small children). Considering the wasteful nature that is the American way, that's probably not too bad, but let's do a little math here.

I live in a city of approximately 85,000 people. Ok, I know many of you will roll your eyes and say 85,000 is no city, but for lack of a better word let's just say city (town just doesn't seem to work for 85,000 either). Anyway, assuming the average household is composed of three people (hold your criticism, this is just a little exercise here), then there's roughly 28,333 households here. If each household puts out four bags of trash a week that's 133,332 bags of trash per week for only 85,000 people - all going to our local landfill.

If that doesn't make you stop and think at least just a little about the disproportionate affect Americans have on the environment in terms of the consumption of resources and the amount of waste we discard, then I don't know what will.

Marriage Metamorphosis

A version of this commentary appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on April 8, 2004.

As the service nears completion, the priest leads the couple, hand-in-hand, around the lectern. The three find themselves warmly enveloped in the voices of the assembled that fill the church nave with song. Upon the hymn’s conclusion, the priest recites a prayer for the couple and ends with the traditional closing of:


Ever so slowly, the two raise their heads – each one’s gaze penetrating to the very soul of the other. The rise and fall of their chests slightly quicken, anticipating the final pronouncement. After a nod from the priest, they lightly, gently, kiss, bathing each one’s face with the soft breath of the other. Then with an almost parental air about him, the priest joyfully presents the couple to those assembled, reciting Psalm 133:1:

“Behold how good and sweet it is for brothers to live as one.”
And with that, the union of the two men is complete.


While the above narrative may be a dream of many same-sex couples in the United States, it is actually based on a type of same-sex union ceremony, one might even say marriage ceremony, that was occasionally performed in Europe from at least the fifth century through the middle ages, if not later [1, 2, 3].

This ceremony was part of a Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox institution that combined the idea of a spiritual companionship with the desire of some Church members to bond with people of the same sex. These “brother-making” rituals were recorded in perhaps hundreds of Church liturgies. And within the Church’s stored collections of liturgies, they were typically placed immediately following those of different-sex ceremonies.

John Boswell, a medieval historian, has argued that the strong similarities between these early same- and different-sex ceremonies imply that both were seen as a form of marriage. But other scholars limit their view of these same-sex ceremonies to formal Church recognitions of very deep bonds of platonic friendship.

However, these ceremonies were often performed between monks and missionaries, and the same-sex, tightly knit environments of schools, monasteries, and nunneries helped foster a degree of intimacy. It is quite possible that some of these same-sex unions consisted of deep, monogamous, homosexual relationships.

Therefore, it would appear that the intellectual tradition of marriage has not been as unchanging as many would have us believe, including the President. While proposing the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on February 24, he stated the following. “After more than two centuries of American jurisprudence, and millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization.”

Yes, the institution of marriage has primarily been centered on the union of a man and woman for the obvious reason of propagation of the species. But it certainly hasn’t been limited to this over the course of human history, contrary to what the President and others may think. Socially acceptable “marriages” between same-sex couples have been a part of many cultures, including, but not limited to, Ancient Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Yuan and Ming dynasties of China, several African cultures, and many Native American groups throughout the New World [4,5,6].

Neither has the definition of marriage between different-sex couples remained constant throughout history. In fact recent changes include the abolishment of laws forbidding interracial marriage, still on the books in some US states well into the twentieth century [7]. Earlier Christian differences included the institutional forbiddance of second marriages and the strong discouragement of marital sex beyond what was needed for procreation [8].

So not only did Christianity limit acceptable sex to marriage, but even marital recreational sex was strongly discouraged. Can you imagine going to confession? “Yes Father, I know all of the signs of her being with child are there and have been for several months, but surely God doesn’t want us to take any chances.”

The point is that the definition of marriage as an institution and intellectual tradition has varied over time and across space, specific to the culture and time period in question. Down through the ages philosophical treatises, religious texts, codes of law, etc., have been modified, reinterpreted, and completely changed to keep up with society’s changing social and cultural norms. We humans are born, live, and then die; and intellectual traditions, including marriage, change as the generations do.

Think of a flowing river. It picks up water from its tributaries and may split downstream into two or more channels. Over time, its course may change and its banks may widen or narrow. Intellectual traditions are the same, flowing between people across time and space, changing direction, widening and narrowing as they add or discard various elements.

The changing nature of marriage as an intellectual tradition over humanity’s history means that one cannot appeal to some ideal definition of marriage etched in stone as an argument against same-sex marriages. Whatever decisions are made regarding such unions, they will have to be based on the current understanding of our past, and the current social, cultural, and political world we live in.


[1] John Boswell. 1994. Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard, New York.

[2] William N. Eskridge, Jr. 1996. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Free Press.

[3] 1996. Social and Cultural History of Marriage.

[4] John Boswell. 1994. Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard, New York.

[5] William N. Eskridge, Jr. 1996. The Case for Same-Sex Marriage. Free Press.

[6] 1996. Social and Cultural History of Marriage.

[7] Katherine Ellinghaus. 2002. Margins of Acceptability: Class, Education, and Interracial Marriage in Australia and North America. Frontiers 23 (3):55-75.

[8] David G. Hunter. 2003. Augustine and the Making of Marriage in Roman North Africa. Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1, 63–85.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Still A Thrill: The Olympic Games ideal to reach deeper and aim for the stars inspires us and gives us hope

A version of this commentary appeared in the Albuquerque Tribune on August 24, 2004.

Citius. Altius. Fortius. Or for those of us whose Latin is a little rusty – Faster. Higher. Stronger. The motto of our modern Olympic games encompassed in three simple words.

Simple yes, but also elegant and full of meaning on multiple levels, extolling all involved (athletes, organizers, and observers) to reach deeper, aim for the stars, and give it your all. Such participation, according to the Olympic Charter [1], is done peacefully, without discrimination, and in a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.

And despite the games numerous flaws – despite the doping scandals, the huge egos (of both athletes and nations), the dangling carrot of endorsement money, the media’s over dramatization, and the threat of terrorism – despite all of this, I still experience a thrill watching the Olympics.

It’s a thrill born from my sports exploits as a youth, set in the context of the Olympic ideals. A thrill experienced by countless individuals across the globe, no matter the sport played, even if just weekend games between friends and family. And yet the origin of this shared experience goes even deeper. For sport, athleticism, and the coming together in competition form part of what it is to be human.

Roaming the planet, our hunter/gatherer ancestors honed many of the skills we associate with modern athletes: strength, endurance, speed, patience, concentration, cunning, focus, and courage. All were important for foraging, hunting, fishing, fending off predators, exploring unknown environments, and just generally surviving on a daily basis.

So important were these skills, that “downtime” was probably spent to some degree perfecting them through activities such as sport. And in fact, cave paintings from Southern Europe and Northern Africa do depict figures performing such things as running, jumping, swimming, and throwing [2, 3].

Such skills would also have well served our hunter/gatherer ancestors in war. Down through the ages, sport has become intertwined with combat and warfare – each seen in some ways as training for the other [4]. Certainly the training for sport would have helped fortify a bond between comrades essential for success in war.

Consider the prehistoric ballgame of the Americas. This ancient team sport, played from northern South America up into the American Southwest, was commonly associated with warfare. Ballplayers were warriors, and the training for each overlapped. The ballgame sometimes served as a proxy for warfare with the losers paying the ultimate price – their lives through human sacrifice.

The link between sport and war may be ancient, but so is the link between sport and peace. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors traveled about in relatively small, kin-based groups – groups that no doubt experiencing testy relationships with one another from time to time. But periodically they would have come together for such things as the exchange of resources, one of the more important being genetic – obtaining a mate outside of one’s own kin group.

Various sporting activities in addition to rituals and feasting would probably have been common at these gatherings. Competitive games would have provided one means of diffusing rivalries that may have existed between some of the kin groups – acting as a proxy for armed conflict similar to ballgame of the Americas just discussed, as well as uniting the various groups in common play.

Ideally, the ancient Olympic games of the Greeks were to be carried out under a state of truce. But as with most human endeavors, the ideal was not always met. Though it was fairly successful in protecting the participants and spectators traveling to and from the games.

Our modern Olympics carry on the goal of protecting the athletes and promoting diplomatic solutions to international conflicts. The winter and summer games provide a means of diffusing international rivalries through peaceful competition via shared sporting activities, as well as through the global viewing of those sporting events.

We get a chance to see and root for athletes as they attempt to compete Faster, reach Higher, and be Stronger. We watch as they compete in team and individual sports whose roots trace to all parts of the globe.

We root for athletes from our own nation, but also those from elsewhere – those whose personal stories we connect with. Athlete and viewer become bonded in a common experience.
Admittedly, the Olympic ideals are never fully met. Cheating is ever present, and neither Nations nor terrorist groups cease hostilities. But the dream of those ideals is never lost.

With the advent of every Olympic games we are reminded of our own individual sports experiences. And the world at large comes face to face with its common hunter/gatherer past, writ on a global scale. It comes together to share an experience of competition, and to see that others from the other side of the globe aren’t so different. It reinforces the relationship of sports with peace as opposed to war. And as long as that’s so, we still have hope.


[1] International Olympic Committee (IOC). 2003. Olympic Charter. ISBN 92-9149-001-6. August, 2003. International Olympic Committee, Lausanne. Switzerland.

[2] Pp. 18-19, H. W. Jansen. 1967. History of Art. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

[3] P. 131. A. Strenk. 1979. What Price Victory? The World of International Sports and Politics. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 445:128-140.

[4] Pp. 586-587. N. Crowther. 1999. Sports, Nationalism, and Peace in Ancient Greece. Peace Review 11(4):585-589.