Islamic embryology: overblown balderdash

I have read the entirety of Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ paper, Embryology in the Qur’an: A scientific-linguistic analysis of chapter 23: With responses to historical, scientific & popular contentions, all 58 pages of it (although, admittedly, it does use very large print). It is quite possibly the most overwrought, absurdly contrived, pretentious expansion of feeble post hoc rationalizations I’ve ever read. As an exercise in agonizing data fitting, it’s a masterpiece.

Here, let me give you the short version…and I do mean short. This is a paper that focuses with obsessive detail on all of two verses from the Quran. You heard me right: the entirety of the embryology in that book, the subject of this lengthy paper, is two goddamned sentences, once translated into English.

We created man from an essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place. Then We made that drop of fluid into a clinging form, and then We made that form into a lump of flesh, and We made that lump into bones, and We clothed those bones with flesh, and later We made him into other forms. Glory be to God the best of creators.

Seriously, that’s it. You have just mastered all of developmental biology, as taught by Mohammed.

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Lynn Margulis has died

Sad news: Lynn Margulis, advocate of the endosymbiosis theory of eukaryotic origins, has died. She was smart, creative, and promoter of a lot of wild ideas…and to her credit, some of them were even right. I think her greatest strength was her eagerness to step right out to the edge of science and push, push, push — sometimes futilely, but sometimes she really did succeed in pushing back the frontier a bit.

(Also on Sb)

Good to know in case you’re on the #OWS lines

I’ve heard of the Scoville scale, which measures the potency of spicy peppers. Those boring green bell peppers get a 0; habaneros get a score of 350,000.

The stuff those UC Davis police officers so casually hosed into the faces of peacefully demonstrating students? between 2,000,000 and 5,300,000 Scoville units.

But we’ve taken to calling it pepper spray, I think, because that makes it sound so much more benign than it really is, like something just a grade or so above what we might mix up in a home kitchen. The description hints maybe at that eye-stinging effect that the cook occasionally experiences when making something like a jalapeno-based salsa, a little burn, nothing too serious.

Until you look it up on the Scoville scale and remember, as toxicologists love to point out, that the dose makes the poison. That we’re not talking about cookery but a potent blast of chemistry. So that if OC spray is the U.S. police response of choice – and certainly, it’s been used with dismaying enthusiasm during the Occupy protests nationwide, as documented in this excellent Atlantic roundup – it may be time to demand a more serious look at the risks involved.

Their goal is to cause intense pain. Where has the police gotten this bizarre idea that somehow inducing agony in protesters is somehow humane or reasonable?

(Also on Sb)

Why not?

We’ve encountered Michael Voris before: the painfully dogmatic and fervent Catholic Dominionist kook. He has a ridiculous video in which he asserts that theology is the queen of all the sciences because everything reduces to god, ultimately — which does leave one wondering why theology never produces any ideas that are actually useful to all of those scientific disciplines. I mean, take math for example: mathematicians are constantly coming up with tools and ideas that chemists and physicists and biologists and geologists all find awesomely useful. But what has theology given us? Nothing.

Michael drones on, going through the motions — he really seems dead-eyed and robotic in this video, doesn’t he? — and you probably got bored 30 seconds into the 5 minute clip. So I want to focus on just one point that Voris made, and mentioned in the caption, and which actually isn’t unique to Catholic nutjobs at all.

The fields of science can offer all kinds of information in answer to the question how… through the observance of the human intellect. But when asking the question why, man MUST turn to the divinity of the Creator.

How many times have you heard that claim: science can answer “how” questions, but it can never answer “why” questions, therefore we have to leave those kinds of questions to a non-scientific domain, which must be religion, therefore god. And that’s wrong at every step!

There’s no reason the interpreter of “why” questions has to be religion…why not philosophy? That seems a more sensible objective source than a religion burdened with a dogma and a holy book and wedded to revelation rather than reason. Voris assumes there has to be a divine creator, but that’s one of the questions, and you don’t get to just let it go begging like that.

The more fundamental question, though, is this oft-repeated distinction that science can’t answer “why” questions. Of course it can, if there’s a “why” in the first place! We are perfectly capable of asking whether there is agency behind a phenomenon, and if there is, of exploring further and identifying purpose. Why should we think otherwise?

Imagine you came home, as I did the other day, and saw this on the edge of your yard.

You’d immediately assume it was artificial, as I did — the perfectly circular outline suggests that a machine came by, and someone lowered some auger-like device and drilled a large hole in the yard. You could also look up and down the street and see that the hole-driller had struck several other places, all in a line parallel to the road and exactly the same distance from the curb. They are almost certainly the product of intent.

Does that in any way imply that I’m now done, that asking why these holes were dug is beyond the scope of all rational inquiry? That I ought to drop to my knees and praise ineffable Jesus, who caused holes to manifest in the ground for reasons that I, as a mere mortal man, cannot possibly question? Oh, Lord, mine is not to question why, I must accept what is!

Of course not. I can speculate reasonably; it looks like a hole for planting something in. I can check into the city offices, and learn that there’s concern about emerald ash borers killing trees in our community. I can see the next day that a city crew came by and put new saplings in place all up and down the street. Even without actually talking to anyone directly, I can figure out from the evidence why there is a hole in my yard.

Similarly, if there was a god busily poofing the entirety of the cosmos into existence, that’s an awful lot of evidence that can be examined for motive…are we to instead believe it is so incoherent that we can discern no possible purpose behind all this data?

And what if instead, I’d come home and found one hole in the neighborhood, it was a rough-edged and asymmetrical crater, and in the center of it was a small rocky meteorite? Then I could ask how it came to be there (it fell out of the sky and smacked into my yard), and I could try to ask why, but the answer would be that there was no agency behind it, there was no purpose, and it was simply a chance event of a kind that happens all the time.

When people try to argue that science can’t answer “why” questions, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t like the answer they get — there is no why! There is no purpose or intent! — and are actually trying to say that the only valid answer they’ll accept is one that names an intelligence and gives it a motive. That is, they want an answer that names a god as an ultimate cause, and a description that doesn’t include agency doesn’t meet their presuppositions.