It’s the understatement of the century that my life hasn’t gone the way I imagined it would. By now I should have been a year into a postdoctoral fellowship, with my eyes on professorship opportunities in some other city and a steadily growing academic resume. I should have been building a research program around the seven years of work that became my doctoral dissertation, extending it into new directions, new species, and new theories to fit with the interests of my postdoctoral supervisor. I should have been teachinglecturecourses, as a guest or full-time, and developing my teaching credentials. I had a plan.
The ring-shaped coral islands called atolls are a defining feature of the South Pacific, put on magnificent display in the recent Disney-Pixar film Moana. Atolls are known for being convenient harbors almost by default, rich habitats for marine life, and the source of the famous stark line between blue-water and green-water regions that surrounds Pacific islands. Atolls are also extraordinarily rare outside of the South Pacific, which is curious, because neither coral nor islands are similarly restricted. Other warm regions should have their own atolls, but they almost always don’t. So the question is…where are the Caribbean atolls?
If you’re building a marine aquarium and the thought of putting an octopus in it crosses your mind, consider not doing that. Consider not doing that so hard that you put this ill-conceived notion to permanent rest, no matter how much fun Finding Dory made it sound. An octopus makes for a difficult, finicky, and potentially even dangerous marine-aquarium inhabitant, best left to nature and specialists.
China is home to a fish so rare that photographs of living specimens can be counted on two hands. Its lineage is so bizarre that it has only one close relative, found a continent away, and its skeleton straddles the anatomical cues that divide cartilaginous and bony fish. Even within its kin group, its habits and anatomy are unique.
The Chinese paddlefish or báixún, Psephurus gladius, is the only apparent preferential piscivore in the order Acipenseriformes. (The North American paddlefish is a planktivore, and sturgeons prefer shellfish.) Unlike its American sibling, its “paddle” is conical, and it is sometimes termed the “Chinese swordfish,” “white sturgeon,” or “elephant fish.” As an active, predatory schooling fish, it was once known for leaping across the surface of the Yangtze in large numbers. Rumor holds it can exceed seven meters in length and therefore rivals the beluga sturgeon for status as the largest freshwater or anadromous fish on our planet. However, the largest recorded specimen did not exceed a still-impressive four meters. Chances are, no Chinese paddlefish ever will.
I’m an antitheist, more so than many of the people in my social circle. I do not merely disbelieve in deities and the traditions that come along with them; I also think that other people shouldalso disbelieve. I think that religion has, at best, severely outlived its usefulness and, more likely, has been a force for consistent ill in humankind’s history. I think them all false, and I think them all dangerous. There are some I find more palatable than others and some that are more reality-based than others, but none meet with my actual approval. I know many people who cleave to various religions and who are exemplary human beings my life is richer for including, and I know a much larger assortment of religious humans who fit in Donald Trump’s basket of deplorables. As a Taína trans lesbian, I am targeted for harms both ongoing and historic by the largest religious establishments in my vicinity, including through non-religious institutions nevertheless suffused with religious sentiment, and the entire edifice fills me with loathing; as a scientist, its non-empirical silliness me with irritated bemusement. As far as I am concerned, the good ones are good despite their faith, not because of it.
I’m often challenged, with all of that in mind, to describe what a version of Christianity my antitheism wouldn’t encompass would look like. If indeed my antitheism isn’t driven purely by emotional antipathy, then surely there is such a version. And there is.
Reading The Way of the Heathen, first and foremost, reminded me of why I fell in love with Greta Christina’s writing. A series of meditations on weighty topics from an atheist, science-loving perspective, The Way of the Heathen is the antidote to religious insistence that we have no answers for what it means to live a life well lived, and a much-appreciated bridge between the scientific and the sublime.
Western culture is full of quirky superstitions and traditions. Many of them are leftover bits of former religious practice, retained long after the traditions and beliefs that gave them meaning fell away, while others are more recent inventions designed to convince people to spend money or part of quasi-religious traditions still gaining ground. I have one (las doce uvas de la suerte) I maintain for cultural reasons. Humans are peculiar creatures, and derive much benefit from activities whose instrumental utility is opaque or absent.
Perhaps the best-known such traditions are horoscopes and birthstones. Both of these connect the date of one’s birth to something in nature (a constellation and a gemstone, respectively), and have been used to generate loads of money for people who convince others that the association has magical or predictive significance. Horoscopes in particular get treated with bizarrely outsized seriousness in some circles, but for many of us, they’re a cute little game.
And why should folks interested in gems and stars have all the cute little games?
So here’s a new one: Your Birthfish. You’re now symbolically linked to this kind of fish, and obligated by the same rules that make people obsess over Gemini and Taurus to tell everyone that you’re now a Chinese high-fin banded loach or pumpkinseed sunfish. May this amusing bit of fake superstition entertain and confuse your friends and family, and lead to some seafood-themed birthday dinners and greater appreciation for the beauty of fish.