May 14, 2010 • 6:50 am

I visited The University of British Columbia at Vancouver a few weeks ago, but couldn’t post my pictures until now. That’s because one of the subjects was embargoed until this week. That was the skeleton of a blue whale that was being prepared and installed in the university’s Beaty Biodiversity Center, adjacent to the biology department.  It’s open for viewing now, and so I can show it.

The blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) is the largest animal (by body volume) that ever lived—larger than any dinosaur.  Females can weigh up to 150 tons! (For comparison, that’s as heavy as 50 Hummers.) Because they’re so large and can provide so much oil, they were mercilessly slaughtered in the last century, and now only about 10,000 individuals are left.

A blue whale beached itself on Prince Edward Island twenty years ago, and, after it died, was promptly buried with bulldozers to reduce the stench.  Decades later scientists unearthed the beast, and found that nearly the whole skeleton was intact. It was a remarkable specimen, and was installed hanging from the ceiling of the museum.  Here, embargoed until today, is a photograph of the installation:

Notice that the vestigial pelvis and leg bones are missing. I asked the preparator (the guy up on the scaffold) if they had recovered them.  He said, “Yes, indeed!” and fetched them from the back. (They were to be installed at the end.)  I love vestigial pelvises of whales because they’re one of the most obvious and incontrovertible proofs of evolution.  They let me pose with the bones; those white nubs pointing downward from the tips are the vestigial femurs:

My host at UBC was Dolph Schluter, who’s famous for his work on adaptation and evolution in stickleback fish.  He managed to pry $3 million out of the Canadian government to build a series of experimental ponds, in which he studies selection and speciation in the two “morphs” of sticklebacks, benthic and limnetic.  Here’s Dolph and his setup:

Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology, part of the University, is a hidden gem—one of the best museums of any sort I’ve been in.  It’s a lovely building set on the coast with a background of sea, mountains, and conifers.  The collection of northwestern native art is simply astounding, but there are artifacts, art, and clothing from cultures around the world.  The totem poles are fantastic. Here’s some native art:

And since we’ve been discussing interspecific love, here’s a doll made for an Inuit child:

Here are Dolph and I at the Vancouver airport, demonstrating the very close link between evolution and atheism before catching a puddle-jumper to Portland.  We traveled back to Chicago together because Dolph gave a seminar at Chicago the day after I left Vancouver.  I was reading Victor Stenger’s The New Atheism on the plane, but then a priest sat next to me and, a coward, I put it away.  It turned out that the priest was not a nice guy: he was brusque, unfriendly, and, when he had to visit the bathroom, simply looked at me and shouted, “I have to get up!”, expecting me to rise from my aisle seat let him past.  No “please” and no “thank you”. I realized then that I’d always retained a sort of vestigial faitheism, assuming that anybody wearing a clerical collar would be nice and friendly simply by virtue of their overt faith.  It was a shock to realize that priests could be as unpleasant as anyone else.

Finally, a note on the door of St. John’s College, where I stayed at UBC.  Educational discrimination against chiropterans!

25 thoughts on “Vancouver!

  1. Well, now, the bats need to earn their entrance to the college, just like anyone else, otherwise it is reverse discrimination of bat faitheism.

  2. It turned out that the priest was not a nice guy: he was brusque, unfriendly, and, when he had to visit the bathroom, simply looked at me and shouted, “I have to get up!”, expecting me to rise from my aisle seat let him past. No “please” and no “thank you”.

    Poor guy probably has a prostate problem, not enough alter boys I guess.

  3. Glad you enjoyed Vancouver, it was nice talking with you.

    No please no thank you, well he couldn’t have been Canadian then ;o)

  4. Interspecific love? Are you talking about the cleric/bathroom person? I cant discern the doll pic. Whats interspecific’ anyways? Interspecies?

  5. Last time I went to visit Bama, I was reading Dan Barker’s “Godless” while waiting for my Birmingham flight. Got some squinty looks, and one big dude looked like he was about to explode trying to keep his mouth shut. I kinda wish he’d said something…

    I saw Schluter give a talk at UC Davis yesterday. Really cool stuff.

  6. One time I was reading The Origin of Species on an airplane. The woman next to me was reading her Bible. We just sort of smiled at each other, but we didn’t talk.

    Another time, feeling ornery, my airplane reading was The Satanic Bible, by Anton Szandor LeVay. Depending on who I ended up sitting next to I thought it could be an interesting flight, but, alas, no one seemed to care.

  7. “Perhaps the priest recognized you as one of those damn dirty atheists.”

    Perhaps he’d read this blog.

  8. Jerry, I thought you might be amused to see what Google generates as WEIT-relevant ads for someone in Texas–


    Ads by Google
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    New Spirituality Book
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    Wouldn’t you love to know what “faith-based accounting” looks like?

      1. To the contrary, I have a strong belief in ads, that is why I stridently and aggressively block them.

        1. OK, so when can I buy the next Faithblock Plus socialware?

          I’m really tired of hearing about how five ablutions a day will keep my conscience clean, or why Creationism™ intake boost moral mass.

        2. I think you need to reside in a Scandinavian country (or do you already?). See Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment By Phil Zuckerman. That may be the only Faithblock Plus socialware available.

  9. Fantastic photos!

    Thanks for sharing your journeys with us, your faithful… er, faithless fans.

  10. How dare you brazenly hold up evidence for evolution like that in a photograph. American children might see that and get crazy ideas.

  11. It was a shock to realize that priests could be as unpleasant as anyone else.

    Really? Haven’t you been reading Ophelia Benson’s reports on the reverend Pitcher?

  12. I’ve taken two airplane trips in the last 3 weeks brandishing Sam Harris’s End of Faith. One of those was into and out of *Salt Lake City.* Nobody ever said a word.

  13. You put it away? Disappointed. I agree with your take on the Museum of Anthropology. I took my daughter through it a few years ago – it is fabulous and I’m not aware of another like it.

  14. Jerry,
    If you’re interested in Native North America artifacts and you’re ever in Ottawa, Ontario, take a trip across the Ottawa River to Hull, Quebec and visit the Canadian National Museum of Civilization. I haven’t visited Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology yet but Ottawa’s is pretty impressive.

  15. Second that. I’ve been to both, and the Ottawa one was as impressive, in its different focus, as Vancouver’s. Also, if anyone is ever in Victoria, BC, the BC Museum is a worthy contender. It was there that I first learned of all the fascinating but now extinct mammals that once roamed British Columbia.

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