The bestest toy in the whole house

I will not post cute cat pictures. I can’t. Our cat is in her manic phase right now, darting about the house, pouncing on us as we try to fix breakfast (her next phase will be her hyper-manic phase, in which she is just a blur), so she won’t hold still for photos. I can show off her handiwork, though. She has lately discovered the most fantastically wonderful cat toy we’ve got:


I think it’s been ripped down to the bone.

If you think you’d like living with a spawn of satan — and what atheist wouldn’t? — contact the Stevens Community Humane Society and ask for Ivy. Please.

Evolution is still evolving in the United States

I brought up that 2012 Gallup poll on evolution that showed we’ve been in the doldrums on educating the public about the subject — poll after poll for decades has shown that only about 50% of the American public accept the science.

The latest Pew poll for 2013 has a slight surprised for us: that number has reached 60%. It’s slow, but we’re getting there.


Now the bad news (there’s always bad news). Of that 60% who accept that humans evolved, how many get it right? 24% still babble about it being guided by a god, which is wrong, but at least that’s less than half of the evolution-accepters.


And there’s mixed news. There’s a big partisan divide: Democrats have been getting slightly better, but Republicans have been getting significantly more stupid.


Of course, that probably doesn’t mean individual Republicans are getting more ignorant: it may be a sign of something much better, that the kind of rational citizens who can recognize the facts of a science are increasingly unlikely to identify as Republicans. I’m hoping it’s a sign that the Stupid Party is shrinking.

Of course, I could be wrong. It could also mean that the party is solidifying its ideology and more people are flocking to the Know-Nothing banner and they’re all rallying around their dogma. I hope that’s not the case; everything else I’ve seen says they’re busily marginalizing themselves.

The lesser evil is still evil

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.


Every time I see another atheist praising Pope Francis, I think of that quote from Hamlet. It could be worse, they say; at least he seems to have a conscience, he nods to the outcasts now and then, he may even be a tad more liberal than that last pope, so we should be thankful for the small improvement. I’m not. I’d rather have an unbeguiling bad guy in the papacy than the kind who does a better job of public relations. You’ve heard of the metaphor to describe optimists and pessimists: the optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees it as half empty. But what about the guy who sees the glass as half full…of poison? Because that’s me.

There are a lot of issues in the Catholic Church that we all ought to find repugnant, say, child raping and forced birth and disease spreading policies, and I don’t see Pope Francis changing a thing about church culture on matters that are important. I’m going to focus on a less significant concern, but one that I find personally indicative, and one that I know a little bit about: evolution.

Gallup has been polling the American public on the question of evolution for 30 years, and the results have been remarkably consistent: a bit less than half our citizens have been reporting back as holding young earth creationist views. Here are the results of the 2012 survey:

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process 32%
Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process 15%
God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so 46%

A pessimist would say that 46% are creationists; an optimist would say that 47% believe in some form of evolution; I would say wait a minute — the poll designers don’t understand evolution (“from less advanced forms of life” is a clause that would have caused Darwin to cringe — “never say higher or lower”), and that 32% who claim evolution is divinely guided get it completely wrong, as badly as the young earth creationists. That’s poison in the cup, and we’re perpetuating misinformation if we continue to treat that as an acceptable answer.

People accept this “god-guided” caveat as a reasonable compromise in far too many circumstances. In the last presidential elections, for instance, Mitt Romney, one of the presidential candidates who did not raise his hand to testify in his disbelief in evolution at a Republican debate, later explained exactly what he meant.

I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.

That is not evolution. That is freaking bullshit. Evolution is not the magic wand used by the Space Fairy to conjure people into existence. Evolution is an unguided process. Nobody called him on it, though, because if you’d asked any of the Democrats, they’d probably mumble the same nonsense about believing in a god who created the world and then shaped it to his own ends. It’s the poisonous platitude injected into the culture to reconcile a creation myth to a biological process that directly contradicts their story.

The Catholic Church has a similar rationalization. The church “allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul,” according to Notice the magic words: guidance from a god, and a special creation event for an invisible ghost. And yet, somehow, everybody is under the impression that the Catholic Church has endorsed evolution.

That is not evolution.

If your auto mechanic said they used standard mechanical and electronic tools to fix your car, but oh, by the way, there’s a charge on your bill for the necessary sacrificing of a goat, would you trust their work?

Claiming that the inclusion of a teleological function within our understanding of evolution is a reasonable accommodation is a fundamental distortion of the evidence and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the science of evolution — an awkwardly common misunderstanding, but still definitively wrong. It’s a very common error to mistake a phenomenological description of a march of species as a proxy for the theory of evolution — but it’s not. From the very beginning, in its formulation by Charles Darwin, and in our current ongoing research in the field of evolutionary biology, evolution is a mechanism and a process. Many scientists before Darwin had hypothesized that species transformed into other species, but the Darwinian difference was that he proposed how these changes could take place.

Evolutionary theory is not about the detailed phenomenology of what species evolved into what, what structure is derived from what, or what gene is present in what frequencies in which organisms, although of course those details inform our understanding of evolutionary history or trajectories. What evolutionary theory is about is how environment and time and chance modified a species, how novelties and changes arose, and what processes changed the frequency of alleles in a population. These questions are all answered by understanding mechanisms, and we’ve got long lists of factors that shape evolution, from random chance to environmental selection to sexual selection to recombination to the constraints and opportunities of sexual and asexual reproduction.

Most importantly, nowhere in the lists of processes that enable evolution is intervention by a god. We’re explicit: there’s no teleology in evolutionary theory at all.

But religious meddling, including but not exclusively that of the Catholic Church, has poisoned the idea in the public mind, and made this nonsense about “guidance” and some special things being “created”, part of the common understanding of evolution. The revolutionary nature of the theory has been blunted by slathering it with this toxic, misleading lie.

And it’s everywhere!

Here’s Francis Collins, in The Language of God:

God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanics, of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him .

That’s the same manure Mitt Romney was spreading. Show me the evidence for any of that; how does Francis Collins know? This intentional intervention by a deity is not supported by anything in the science, it is all entirely derived from religious claims.

Then there’s the National Academies statement on the Compatibility of Science and Religion. This is painful.

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible.

Look at the Catholic statement that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Do you see any conflicts at all? I should think that the little unscientific addenda postulating that evolution is a guided process with a specific purpose and end would be setting off alarm bells in any scientist’s mind — but no, it’s the slick goo that lets the lies get injected smoothly.

Take a look at the results of the Gallup poll above once more. The real lesson of those numbers is that only 15% of the American public actually have the slightest glimmerings of the implications of evolution, 78% are creationists, and about half (at least!) of the creationists are actively spreading disinformation about the meaning of evolution.

I’ll believe people who tell me that Pope Francis is different when I see him demonstrating that he actually understands the import of evolution, that there was no guiding influence, that humans are a product of chance and natural selection, and that we aren’t any more special to the universe than a sea slug. And the only thing that would demonstrate that is an open repudiation of all of Catholic doctrine, which I don’t quite see the Pope doing.

And that’s just a small piece of the problem with the Catholic Church. If he’d actually been different, he wouldn’t have accepted the leadership of the world’s richest pedophilia ring in the first place. That alone is sufficient to mark him as a villain, smile and smile as much as he wants.

Uganda, Great Britain, same difference

Uganda is notorious for having some of the most repressive anti-gay laws in the world, but that’s not enough for the bluenoses of Africa, oh no: they’ve just passed sweeping anti-pornography laws.

The Bill defines pornography as any cultural practice, form of behaviour or form of communication or speech or information or literature or publication in whole or in part or news story or entertainment or stage play or broadcast or music or dance or art or graphic or picture or photography or video recording or leisure activity or show or exhibition.

It also prohibits any combination of the preceding that depicts unclothed or under clothed parts of the human body such as breasts, thighs, buttocks and genitalia, a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct; erotic behaviour intended to cause sexual excitement and any indecent act or behaviour tending to corrupt morals.

That’s a bit…broad, don’t you think? That “underclothed” bit is already being interpreted as a ban on mini-skirts, for instance — just exposing any bit of the thighs has just been criminalized. Give ’em time, they’ll get around to making exposing the knees illegal, and then the ankles, and eventually everyone will be wandering about dressed like Victorians.

But it’s not just Uganda that is run by prudes: David Cameron in the UK is anxious to police the internet with the same prim attitude. He’s been working with ISPs to lock down the internet.

The language of the mythical ‘porn filter’ is so insidious, so pervasive, that even those of us opposed to it have been sucked into its slippery embrace. And so even when it turns out that O2 are blocking the Childline and Refuge websites, or that BT are blocking gay and lesbian content, we tend to regard them as collateral damage – accidental victims of a well-meaning (if misguided) attempt to protect out children from the evils of cock.

But this was never the case. As Wired reported back in July, Cameron’s ambitions extended far beyond porn. Working through secretive negotiations with ISPs, the coalition has put in place a set of filters and restrictions as ambitious as anything this side of China, dividing the internet into ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ categories, and cutting people off from huge swathes of it at the stroke of a key.

“As well as pornography, users may automatically be opted in to blocks on “violent material”, “extremist related content”, “anorexia and eating disorder websites” and “suicide related websites”, “alcohol” and “smoking”. But the list doesn’t stop there. It even extends to blocking “web forums” and “esoteric material”, whatever that is. “Web blocking circumvention tools” is also included, of course.”

And the restrictions go further still. Over the weekend, people were appalled to discover that BT filters supported homophobia, with a category blocking, “sites where the main purpose is to provide information on subjects such as respect for a partner, abortion, gay and lesbian lifestyle, contraceptive, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.”

Wow. That had me wondering whether freethoughtblogs was blocked yet, but as Martin Robbins explains at that link, they are being secretive about who is getting blocked, as well.

Hey, I wonder if they swapped the Ugandan and UK parliaments, if anyone would be able to tell?