Raising atheists redux »« Evolution question

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  1. evilben says

    I am surprised you guys let the caller who was questioning about evolution of different skin tones get as far as he did with out challenging why he was asking about it. as soon as the first sentence was out of his mouth i knew it was going to be a fiasco…

          • says

            Let’s not forget being passive-aggressive and hypocricy awards as well. William is a prime example of what it means to be ignorant and narrow-minded by trying to think up the most pathetic excuses to disprove evolution. George Bush Jr. himself couldn’t have come up with an excuse as lame as this one.

          • Russell Glasser says

            William wasn’t passive-aggressive. He was one of the most actively aggressive people I’ve seen.

          • says

            I do believe one thing is that he was attempting to assume our guilt as atheists or at least guilt by association which is bullshit because Darwin being prejudice or not has nothing to do with evolution. Being an atheist is one of the most objective positions a person can be. Sorry about writting he was passive aggressive, he was being contemptuous. This is just another example of someone who cannot except the fact that their bible promotes slavery and bigotry.

          • houndentenor says

            History is full of people who were brilliant in one area and horrible in another. People who created great art who were horrible human beings, great humanitarians who were ruthless businessmen, etc. We have an odd meme in our culture in which people feel free to dismiss the totality of someone’s work or life if they can catch them doing or saying something that is bad (at least by modern standards). The problem is that almost no one can live up to that standard. (And if they do, it’s just because they hid their skeletons deeply enough in the closet.)

        • says

          If William was even his name. I was catching up last night on the Ask an Atheist radio show out of Tacoma, WA and they had had the week (or maybe two) prior a caller by the name of Joseph who was also from California and had virtually identical questions.

    • houndentenor says

      I don’t want to claim that the caller is racist, but he was certainly using white-supremacist talking points. He got those from somewhere.

      1. All living things have a common ancestor.

      2. Everything living has dna that is a result of natural selection. Since we’re all here at the same time, no living thing can be said to be more evolved than any other. I know we joke about some people not being very highly evolved (referring to their stupidity) but we should probably stop doing that since it misleads people who don’t understand that it’s a joke (like this caller) and actually believe that’s a part of evolutionary biology.

      3. White and black people do not have different skin. Some people have more pigment than others. That is an adaptation. Since our species began in Africa I’ll assume (please correct me if this is wrong) that my earliest ancestors had a lot more pigment than I do. At some point my ancestors decided to migrate further north. They might have even been among the first to arrive in Scandinavia after the ice sheet that covered that part of the world in the last ice age receded. They needed less pigmentation because there is less direct access to sunlight up there and since we need that sunlight for our bodies to produce Vitamin D, that was essential for survival. It’s that simple. And it probably only happened around 30,000 years ago.

      4. As a species we are actually not all that diverse genetically. Researchers were surprised when the early results from the human genome project were released. There were a lot fewer genomes than had been hypothesized. We are far more alike any other human than we are different. The main issue in organ donation is blood type. it doesn’t matter what continent the donor’s ancestors came from.

      5. Along those lines, there were genomes found only in a few groups not on the same continent (or with ancestors from that continent). There was one involving teeth that was only found among Lapplanders (Sumi) and natives of the very southern region of Africa. There were a lot of things like that found. It’s all very interesting.

      I hope others more informed about the human genome project have more to add. The caller was shockingly ignorant but represents the kinds of things I often hear people say. (But they aren’t RACIST. No, not at all!)

      • cbarf says

        3. You’re correct – our earlier ancestors would have had equivalent amounts of melanin as modern day humans in Africa. One of our most important adaptations (co-developed alongside upright walking) was our ability to sweat to cool us as we hunted prey (thought to be out jogging them). This tactic is particularly effective in hot climates where other animals that cannot sweat would be forced into heat stroke. The downside is that for sweating to be effective we have to have hair loss to allow the cooling to be efficient, but that removes the protection from the sun. High melanin production does this. Interestingly (well to me anyway) melanin is found in most organisms.

        Vitamin D is essential to survival. Ocean based animals around 500 million years ago would have been able to absorb it by eating photoplankton (which had the ability to photosynthesise vitamin D). Land based animals did not have this ability so had to develop it (likely it was a dormant quality that was reactivated). So heavy skin pigmentations would have actively decreased survival chances and thus led to a survival advantage when pigmentation was reduced.

        This is not a problem in modern civilisations where you should be able to get enough vitamin D through your diet.

        4. Absolutely – you raise a fantastic point. Our genetic diversity is so small that it is thought that it can only be as a result of a bottleneck population at some point in our past, with some research suggesting a homo sapiens was reduced to as little as 3,000 (although 10,000 is a more common estimate given).

        Our ability to tell other humans apart relatively easily (and therefore conclude that there is a great range of people) is largely down to specialised areas of the brain that do that job specifically. Known as the fusiform face area (within the occipital lobe) it is highly sensitive to recognising faces. Two interesting facts – people with damage to this area cannot tell people apart, and people who go to dog shows like crufts become experts in recognising dog faces and being able to tell dogs apart when most people cannot. So if a breed of dog all looks pretty much the same to you whereas other people all like quite different then it is only because your fusiform face area isn’t doing the same job on both!

  2. L.Long says

    When you consider the bosses of the TSA define finger nail clippers as a lethal weapon, I’m surprised everyone doesn’t have a run in with the dimwits. But they are just what the general sheeple of america deserve, for being scared spit-less of next to nothing. And I haven’t flown since they were put into place. I’d rather drive or take a train but not because of the TSA, but because planes are supremely uncomfortable.

  3. Bob Stammers says

    I just wanted to congratulate you on getting that chap to entertain us all with his hysterical nonsense about evolution and racism, classic!

  4. John Iacoletti says

    I went back and listened again the “evolved from the same ape” guy, and I can’t for the life of me figure out what his original point was. Evolution occurs, therefore racism?

    • Muz says

      Took me ages too. I think he was taking a circuitous tour of the countryside to arrive at evolution/atheism having nothing to stop the continuation of racism, where christianity does (properly understood in context, of course).

      • houndentenor says

        Well, I’m an atheist, and I accept natural selection as the best explanation of how life developed on our planet. I don’t have any tolerance for racism. Why would I discriminate based on pigmentation. I like having interesting conversations and making music. I spend as much of my time doing one or both of those. If you have interesting stories to tell or are a good musician, why should I care that your ancestors adapted to the climate where they lived? What benefit is there for me in denying myself the pleasure of talking to or making music with people based on something that has nothing to do with anything that matters to me?

    • Russell Glasser says

      I think the standard talking point is that evolution was invented to perpetuate racism, Darwin was explicitly racist, therefore it fails as a worldview and can’t be true.

  5. Charles Insandiego says

    The evolution and race guy called in to “ask an Atheist” last week, with the same line of bullshit. The hosts on that show kindly and patiently pointed out where ans how he was wrong, and suggested that he do a bit of research on the subject. I believe they pointed him to TalkOrigins. I guess he was too busy over the past week to read a few web pages . . .

  6. says

    In regards to the “In God We Trust” on our currency, when it comes to explaining what my beef is, this is how I try to explain it.

    Imagine you’re a devout Christian, and you wish to do some basic commerce. In this society, the Government has mandated that in order to do basic currency transactions, you, as a Christian, must hand the other person a note that says “I don’t believe in God”, and the Government has made it required that be done, in order for the transaction to be legitimate. It’s either that, or avoid any transaction that doesn’t need cash, like credit cards, checks, or item bartering.

    The Christians would rightly be up in arms.

  7. John Kruger says

    The entire morality argument has a lot of similarities with presuppositional apologetics, it seems. Define morality as something that can only be given by god, then refuse any moral argument that does not appeal to god including any refutation of the original definition. Change “morality” to “rules of logic” and you get real close to presuppositional apologetics. The argument form is really similar. As Jeff Dee might say, they just peed on something different to claim as their own.

    The monkeys and race caller was not at all arguing in good faith. I don’t blame Matt for getting frustrated with him. Still, I hope by now the hosts would do better than yelling at the phone system that mutes them when the caller is talking. Just cut in with that mute button, or is it more complex than that? I could of course see myself losing my cool and making the same mistake, though, particularly with jerks like that.

  8. says

    It never ceases to amaze me how creationists insist on seeing evolution as a moral philosophy rather than a framework for explaining observed facts of nature. You never hear them making claims about how the Gravitational Theory of Attraction is actually “Gravitationalism” and demands that you drop people from high places, how Atomic Theory of Matter is actually “Molecularism” and demands that we disassemble people into component molecules, or how the Germ Theory of Disease is actually “Bacterialism” and demands that we invade others’ habitats and convert their resources to our own use (political commentary aside).

    Although those might make good satires…

    At any rate, this week’s episode was a nice cross-section of typical hackneyed arguments – everything from “belief in evolution is immoral,” to ” what if you’re wrong?”

    • Aaroninmelbourne says

      Shouldn’t that be Newtonism, Bohrism, Listerism… maybe then they’d label it all as subject to Heisenbergism and then argue that “As a theistic Heisenbergist, I am concerned about Hawkingism!”

      • says

        Lol. There actually is a trend among creationists lately towards referring to acceptance of evolution as “Evolutionism.” A term no doubt aimed at trying to portray it as being a religious belief and/or trying to saddle it with the kind if moral baggage the caller in this week’s episode seemed determined to give it.

        But I like the direction of your humor :)

        • houndentenor says

          Yes. This is why we hear Natural Selection referred to as Darwinism by Creationists. They can’t imagine anything that isn’t religious in nature. They believe things only because some authority tells them to (and threatens their doubt with eternal damnation). They can’t imagine that science operates with a different set of standards than religion.

        • Mauricio Duque says

          Yup, they are trying to make look like, evolution is a top-down idea with the “prophet” Darwin and his religion, and of course, they are quick to “forget” all the evidence behind the theory of evolution.

          It’s a argument used only by people ignorant of dishonest.

    • Tawn says

      “It never ceases to amaze me how creationists insist on seeing evolution as a moral philosophy rather than a framework for explaining observed facts of nature. ”

      Indeed and we encounter a similar problem when discussing religion and belief in god in general. We atheists tend to argue about observation and evidence when justifying our lack of belief… which seems to have gone over the head of believers when they respond with ‘well it makes people feel good’ or it ‘gives people’s lives meaning’ or ‘gives people morality’.

      • Lana says

        I always hated the “gives people morality” argument. My mother used that on me when I tried to explain to her that I didn’t feel it was necessary to take my children to church in order to teach them to be moral individuals. I still haven’t had the “Mom, I’m an atheist” discussion.

        • Mauricio Duque says

          People that say, “religion give morals”, forget that the cristian religion became the major religion by political dominance, wars, invading other lands, taking its people as slaves and forcing their religion into them.

          So yes, it give morals, but it doesn’t mean they are any good.

          • Lana says

            Quite true. In this particular case, she has her head so far up her posterior that she truly believes that the only way a child can grow into an adult with good character is to attend church every week. I obviously disagree. I got a small measure of satisfaction this week when my 12 year old was the recipient of a “Character in Action” award for his work with special needs students at his school.

            Oh and when I mentioned many of the appalling things done in the name of god throughout history, she countered with the idea that it was those awful catholics and not her brand of christianity. totally ignoring that her brand is an offshoot of those awful catholics

  9. Corwyn says

    “How did blacks and whites come from the same ape?”

    They came from the same (species of) FISH too. Does that point out the problem with your question?

    Seriously how can someone have no problems with all the other differences between (ancient) apes and humans and balk at skin color?

    How did Gold Labradors and Black Labradors come from the same wolf?

    I commend the hosts for their patience with that guy.

    • mond says

      The question is just overt racism on the questioners part.

      He could have easily asked a similarly stupid question about evolution if he just choose a different variation in the species.

      Eg.
      “How did tall people and short people come from the same ape?”
      “How did gingers, blondes and brunettes come from the same ape?”

      • Corwyn says

        Right, I think he was trying to JUSTIFY his racism. ‘Some more evolved than others’ As if the same amount of time and same number of generations didn’t happen to all humans.

        • says

          It seems like one if the hardest concepts to get across, even to people who aren’t necessarily invested in a creationist mindset, is that there really is no such thing as “more evolved.”

        • Muz says

          It’s even better than that, in a way.
          He’s quite convinced he’s the only one who can avoid being racist (because he has jesus to tell him not to be, or whatever).
          In order to hold this position he has to think an awful lot of basically racist stuff about people of the world and evolution.

          The irony is awesome.

    • houndentenor says

      for that matter Chihuahuas and Great Danes descend from the same littler of wolf cubs that were raised by humans a few hundred thousand years ago. That’s a far greater difference than the tallest/shortest and lightest/darkest pigmented humans.

  10. kestra says

    Regarding the “I’m-not-a-racist” racist guy trying to draw a line between evolution and racism, I weep for the state of our educational system.

    Some points (Apologize for any inaccuracies, I’m not a geneticist or a historian, just an interested amateur.):

    Firstly, the most genetically diverse populations of humanity are found in Africa, because the human race evolved there. The earliest humans had a phenotype very similar, if not exactly the same, as modern African populations, including dark skin and textured hair. The various phenotypical deviations, like the epicanthic fold or hair texture and color, seen in human populations today are a result of beneficial mutation spreading through isolated human populations.

    Lighter-complexioned populations nigh-uniformly live in cooler climates with less sunlight during the year, because Vitamin D (aka “sunlight”) is absorbed via the skin, and there’s a lot more sunlight around to absorb if you live in sub-Saharan Africa than Scandinavia. Dark skin is adaptive in a very sunny environment due to the large amounts of UV light, which light skin is adaptive in darker environments for the same reason. The light-skinned mutation has actually arisen more than once, with slightly different gene combos, which is why descendents of Eastern Asians have a skin cast that is a little different than those of Northern European descent.

    Secondly, on the influence of Darwin on Eugenics: The accusation that Darwin’s theories encourage racism is thoroughly debunked, but is based on the popularity of eugenics as a pseudoscience at the turn of the 20th century. The most horrible outcome of application of eugenic theories can be seen in the Third Reich, but involuntary sterilizations of the “infirm”, mentally ill, and otherwise undesirable populations (like African-Americans) was another result.

    The Eugenicists latched on to ideas that seemed to justify the prejudices and racist views they already held, and allowed them to feel urbane and charitable while they legislated “Mississippi Appendectomies” for poor black women. This was mainstream thought in European and American circles in the Progressive Era, and owed most of its source material to Francis Galton, not Darwin, but eugenic ideas (that populations can be “improved” by killing off “weak” members or preventing them from breeding) can be found in texts as ancient as The Republic. Here’s a pretty thorough essay about how deeply entrenched eugenic thought was in the progressive area, and its tenuous, at best, connections to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: http://www.princeton.edu/~tleonard/papers/mistaking.pdf

    This “Darwin Inspired Nazis!” accusation is very popular in Creationist circles (indeed, most of the source material about it on the web is hosted by Creationist websites), the logic being, if Darwin’s theory had bad social consequences, it is somehow a bad or wrong theory. This logic is, obviously, wrong; even if the Progressive Era never ended and we were living today in a eugenics-inspired distopia with mandatory sterilization and breeding allowances and whatthefuckever, it still wouldn’t make natural selection or evolution any less true.

  11. omar says

    Nice Lady Lisa said she watched the show. Then she made Pascal’s Wager. How could she not know what Matt’s answer to that would be? Ditto on the god healed her claim. Matt’s response to that shows that he’s a nicer guy than he gets credit for. I would’ve asked: “so why did god heal you instead of a child with leukemia? Did his parents not pray hard enough?”

    Listening to Racist Monkey Guy was like watching a car accident in slow motion. I could see what was coming, but I couldn’t turn away. I don’t take the bible seriously. But I’ve read it. And I try to understand it. Why can’t creationists do the same for the Origin of Species? What’s the purpose of arguing with someone if you don’t know what you’re talking about?

  12. says

    I’m a physical anthropology graduate student who has investigated the evolution of skin pigmentation pretty thoroughly, and I’d say that the gentleman who called regarding race and evolution really needs to take an intro physical anthropology class. If he had, he’d understand that we have a pretty good idea of how skin pigmentation came about.

    Below is a quick rundown of the evolution of skin pigmentation in the hopes that the guy that listened is reading (or for anyone’s benefit). A really good book to read on this subject is Nina Jablonski’s “Skin.” It’s written in a vernacular style, so you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy it.

    Given that natural selection had favored those humans who had less hair (potentially due to an increased thermoregulation capability, which led to an increase in the differential reproduction of these individuals), humans needed some way to resist the ultraviolet radiation (UVR), which can destroy vitamins (B in particular), cause sunburn, cause skin cancer, etc. So, in equatorial regions, individuals who were darkly pigmented were more likely to survive and reproduce.

    The real question comes in when you’re looking at the process of depigmentation. The common argument, as you presented, is the idea that as humans moved north there was less and less solar radiation, which starts a biochemical reaction in the skin that results in Vitamin D. So those who were darkly pigmented were only able to receive a fraction of the already severely reduced amount of UVR, resulting in vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to bone diseases (Vitamin D is key to binding calcium to the bones) such as rickets (in children) and osteomalacia (in adults). In this case, natural selection would favor those individuals who were lightly pigmented, so they could filter out as little UVR as possible and make as much vitamin D as possible.

    However, fossil evidence for this hypothesis is scarce — there simply isn’t a trail of skeletons with rickets and osteomalacia in Northern latitudes. In fact, you only really see these diseases post-Industrial Revolution. There has been some evidence indicating a positive selective pressure on the genes for skin pigmentation, but it has seemed somewhat weak.

    The hypothesis I favor is simply that as these individuals traveled north over generations, the selective pressure for dark skin pigmentation was relaxed, and mutations could accumulate to a point (given the latitude), resulting in a progressively lighter skin tone the further north you travel. This hypothesis seems to have the fewest assumptions (as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, not everything has to have a nice selective story explaining it — some things just come about due to genetic drift, etc.), which makes me inclined to accept it, until the vitamin D hypothesis has more solid evidence.

    On top of this, humans are humans. There is no end game, no “faster” evolution of one collection of humans or another. The idea of “race” is a cultural construct, and despite us liking to think in terms of racial categories, there is no discrete racial traits — the variation in human skin pigmentation, facial features, and other methods people use to determine race exist on a continuum. You might find clusters of traits in certain areas (likely due to natural selection or genetic drift), but pretty much any trait can be found in any human. Genetically, there is more variation within “racial” groups than between them.

    In all, this caller could do with a little bit of knowledge to challenge his assumptions.

    • says

      There’s a good bit of racism involved in the caller’s position. He’s essentially saying “If you believe in evolution, you must be racist, because clearly evolution must tell you that black people are less evolved.” But unless he comes from a position that black people are somehow a less perfect form of human, why on earth would he even think that?

      It’s not as though white people split off and kept evolving, while black people simply stopped at that point. There’s tremendous genetic diversity among African populations, which suggests there’s quite a bit of evolutionary activity going on there. It’s just that skin pigmentation doesn’t happen to be one of the heavily affected areas.

      Sigh. Really, the basic concepts are just so simple to grasp. I have to think that either the caller has never had them correctly explained to him, or is willfully refusing to come to grips with them. I can understand Matt’s frustration.

      • says

        Right. As Matt pointed out, the presumption with his line of questioning is that evolution is like a stepladder with a progression toward perfection. This is not the case. It is simply the differential reproduction of individuals in a given environment.

        Humans have what is known as clinal variation — we’re a widespread species which has variation across geographic space. In some organisms this kind of variation leads to speciation, but as we humans are not picky about our mating habits and because we’re pretty adept at moving relatively quickly across geographic space, there has always been continuous genetic exchange, resulting in relatively minor variation across the species.

        While it seems that some of the features are extremely distinguishing, one must remember that this variability is simply on the surface. Features such as skin pigmentation, epicanthic folds, wider nasal apertures, etc. are very hard to distinguish when you’re looking at skeletal remains. I’ve taken a couple Forensic Osteology classes, and determining “race” (often a categorical requirement to assist law enforcement, not an acknowledgement of such classification as a biological reality) is one of the hardest things to do with a skeleton. There are subjective measures, such as the appearance of a “rocker” jaw or “shovel-shaped” incisors (often an Asian or Native American trait) or a broad nasal aperture that you can use, but any of these features can be found in any ethnic group — you can find “shovel-shaped” incisors in African populations, or in English populations. Even the objective measures — often regression calculations based on measurements of specific parts — are only able to estimate “race” to a certain degree of confidence. These categories do not hold up beyond the simple categorizations that human brains attempt to place them into.

    • Monocle Smile says

      That was awfully nice of you to provide this information. I learned some new things today.

      Personally, I think William just needs a boot to the junk.

      • says

        Sure! I love to talk (at length) about my field. I hope next week someone talks about how the superior articular facets of the sacrum prove that evolution isn’t true, because then I could really go on a rant.

    • houndentenor says

      How about this as a hypothesis. Lighter skinned people got tired of the sunburns and the heat they weren’t equipped for in Central Africa and headed north. The lighter the skin, the further north they headed. The really pale ones (my ancestors) were happy in the snow and ice of Scandinavia. That probably has some holes in it too. It’s also possible that we’ll never have quite enough physical evidence to know in detail what happened in pre-historic times. And does it really matter? I find this sort of thing interesting but most people obsessed with theories about this kind of thing seem to have a racist motivation. I’m happy that there are different cultures that developed in different ways, but many can’t stop there and have some need to “prove” that their culture is objectively superior to all the others. That’s when it’s a problem.

      • says

        Keep in mind that evolution works by variation, selection and heredity. In equatorial Africa, the amount of UVR exposure is extremely high. Any individuals who, through random mutation, have more lightly colored skin are going to be less likely to (survive and) produce offspring than those who maintain an high amount of melanin in the skin.

        The best supported mechanisms for selection against lightly pigmented skin pigmentation are: 1) Folate photolysis — the UVR destroys folate in your skin which is of primary concern to pregnant females, as folate is key to the development of the nervous system in a fetus; 2) Sunburn — sunburn can be severely debilitating (you can get second- and third-degree burns from UVR) in regions with high levels of UVR, not to mention devastating to newborns with sunburned lips or mothers with sunburned nipples (which is why, some argue, lips and nipples are more darkly pigmented than the rest of our bodies); 3) Skin cancer — does kill you, though it is often a post-reproductive death, but it could still have had an effect in combination with the last two.

        While these can seem like “just-so” stories, there is genetic evidence which can demonstrate, to some degree of confidence, the effects of selection on certain parts of the genome, not to mention the extremely high correlation between UVR and skin pigmentation of native populations. Something is going on, and we have some pretty plausible explanations for it. It might be difficult if not impossible to discover the minutiae, but we can still get a pretty specific picture of what happened.

    • Muz says

      The loss of pigment is pretty interesting. In Aus I’ve heard local people’s describe the pigmentation as recessive, genetically. I’m not sure that’s right, but it is very easy to lose it seems. You’ll find people who are three quarters native that are virtually white skinned. Or the children of two half caste folks as well.
      It’s been used and abused endlessly in Australia’s colonial racial context and made correcting things quite complicated, politically (since you’ll get people claiming Aboriginal identity that don’t look “black enough” to ignoramuses)

      Peoples interbreeding doesn’t really make the point I suppose, but It has made me wonder if it is something that humanity (or enough of us) can shed in only a few generations.

  13. Paul Wright says

    Hi.

    I missed the live feed on Sunday. I’ve tried watching the upload on Blip and TAE website but it keeps throwing up an error.

    Any chance a moderator can have a look. I really want to watch the show :)

    Thanks
    Paul.

  14. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Yeah, Racist Monkey Guy’s trajectory was pretty obvious after a few seconds with his implication that different skin colours are somehow evolved from different apes.

    I really missed Jeff not being on the show for him to reply to Pascal’s Wager. I know that it’s his favourite* theistic argument!

    * This might be a lie.

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