The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, “To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he’s not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he’s not white.” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don’t (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the ‘inferior’ humans over the ‘superior’ animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the ‘argument from marginal cases’ and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What’s the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don’t we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)

In this model, since humans are the most evolved and higher than other forms, it gives us the right to kill and eat other species. In the Christian equivalent of this hierarchical model, that last step up in the ladder was the addition of the soul. But even if we do not take the idea of the soul seriously, the idea that humans are at the apex of evolution can be used to support the exploitation of ‘lower’ species.

But that linear, ladder-like model of evolution is simply wrong. Evolution is a branching theory, more like a spreading bush. Starting from some primitive form, it diverged into other forms, and these in turn branched out into yet more forms and so on, until we had a vast number of branches at the periphery. All the species listed above are like the tips of the twigs of the bush, except that some (like the dinosaurs) are now extinct.

According to this model, although all existing species have evolved from some earlier and more primitive forms, none of the existing species is more evolved than any other. All existing species have the same evolutionary status. They are merely different. We are not higher or lower than them. They are our cousins.

The actual theory of evolution says that while some species may be considered to be more ‘primitive’ than others, that word is used in the evolutionary context in a purely technical sense, and not as a measure of any intrinsic worth that might justify killing them. It is not meant to signify that they are inferior in some way but just that their present forms are similar to their ancestral forms. So present-day bacteria and sponges are ‘primitive’ because they are not very different from the forms that their ancestors had billions of years ago. On the other hand, the ancestors of humans start looking very different just a few tens of millions of years ago, so we are considered to be less primitive.

If humans are just the tip of one particular branch in the tree of life, is there any reason to think of us as special or superior? Religious people who accept this correct view of evolution could still argue that god gave only humans a soul and so the justification for dominating other species and eating meat still exists. This requires the soul (or mind or consciousness) to appear just after the human lineage separated from its nearest evolutionary cousins in the Great Ape family, and seems too much like an ad hoc self-serving rationalization for comfort. In the erroneous ladder model of evolution, the emergence of the soul at the final step was still an arbitrary assumption, but had a little better justification since a ladder-like hierarchy could be used to argue for qualitative differences between the rungs.

If we dispense with the idea that humans are uniquely possessed of a soul or some such entity, the basic question is whether humans possess a moral right to kill and eat nonhuman animals. Philosopher Peter Singer argues that the principle of equality that we apply to all humans should be extended to animals as well. In particular, the interests of animals should receive the same consideration as the interests of humans.

But how would this extension of equality work out in practice? Do we have an obligation to send animals to schools like we do with children? Singer explains:

The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. Whether we do so will depend on the nature of the members of the two groups. The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 29.)

Some philosophers have argued against Singer’s view by saying that rights and obligations are inseparable. Humans have rights because they also have obligations. Animals cannot enter into social contracts and thus don’t have obligations, so they do not have rights. Wikipedia has a good article that summarizes the various positions on this issue.

Those who disagree with Singer’s point that animals deserve equal consideration tend to look for specific markers that distinguish humans from nonhuman animals and thus can be used to grant humans privileged status.

In the next post, I will look at whether we can find such markers.

POST SCRIPT: The right to choose your own name

There is perhaps nothing that is so close to one’s sense of identity as one’s name. Hence it is odd that our names are bequeathed to us by others.

One of the things that I am really thankful to my parents for is that they gave me a really ordinary name. ‘Mano’ is a very common name in Sri Lanka. I could never understand people who use this power to name their children something exotic and weird, as in this case where a child was given the name ‘Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii’.

Maybe we should create a custom where everyone, upon reaching some specific age goes through a self-naming ceremony where they get the right to choose the name they use for the rest of their lives.

The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.

One sees how such an argument might have had some force a long time long ago when people lived close to the land and one ate the animals that lived around you. Then choosing to eat meat for a meal meant that a chicken in your vicinity received a death sentence while choosing to forego meat probably meant a direct reprieve. But we now live in an era when most of us are far removed from the animals that provide us with meat, so this type of highly nuanced prohibition does not provide any benefit for animals.

Judaism and Islam have only minor restrictions on eating meat and Christianity has none at all. The Bible says that humans are special, that god has given them dominion over all the Earth and its beings, and they thus have the right to kill and eat them. After all, god does tell Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) And in the New Testament, the Bible says that Jesus’s disciple Peter was shown a vision of all kinds of animals and told “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13).

As a result, there is no religious prohibition in Christianity against eating meat. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes farmer Joel Salatin, an evangelical Christian who practices a very humane form of agriculture in which the animals are treated decently while they are alive, unlike most of what goes on in the food production process in the US. (More on Pollan’s book and Salatin later in this series.) Salatin takes great care to treat all his animals well and seems quite fond of them. And yet, when the time comes, he has no hesitation in personally killing and eating them or selling the meat. When Pollan questions him about how he can bring himself to do this, he responds: “That’s an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t. It’s a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.” (Pollan, p. 331)

This view that animals are inferior because they do not have a soul is just a specific form of the more general philosophical view that animals are merely machines. This may seem bizarre to us now but it was based on the highly successful mechanical view of the universe that arose in the sixteenth century and reached its zenith with Newtonian mechanics in the seventeenth century. It seemed natural to the people of that time to think of everything in mechanical terms and the more that was learned about the workings of organisms, the more that mechanical metaphors were used to describe them – “the stomach as retort, veins and arteries as hydraulic tubes, the heart as pump, the viscera and sieves, lungs as bellows, muscles and bones as a system of cords, struts and pulleys.” (God, the Devil, and Darwin, Niall Shanks (2004), p. 32). The idea of the watch (then seen as the apex of precise mechanical engineering design) as a metaphor for nature, and of god as the ultimate watchmaker/designer flowed naturally out of this way of thinking.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was interested in the relationship of the mind/soul to the body and he felt that it was because humans had a soul that they were elevated from being mere machines. Because animals lack such a mind/soul they remain machines, although exceedingly complex ones that might superficially give the impression that they possess minds. But since they are nothing but sophisticated automatons, they cannot feel pain and we should have no more ethical qualms about killing them that we would have about taking apart a computer.

Nowadays the argument that nonhuman animals are merely unfeeling machines can be dismissed out of hand. Modern science has shown that their neural systems are wired similarly to ours, and that it is very likely that they experience very similar sensations to what we do. It is clear that animals can feel pain and can suffer.

But the underlying idea that humans possess some unique quality, the soul or some other thing, that obliges them to privilege their own kind but allows them to exploit other animals is still popularly held and is used to justify meat eating.

Next: What does the theory of evolution imply for meat eating?

POST SCRIPT: New South Wales?

Ever wondered how some parts of the world got their strange names? Mitchell and Webb have an idea.

The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, ‘everything’ is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus ‘natural’. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater’s guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.

The puzzle of one god but many religions

There is a puzzle that arises from the idea of there being just one god and many religions for which religious people might be able to give an answer: Why do the people of one monotheistic religion fight with or try to convert people of another monotheistic religion?

We know that there have always been conflicts between the followers of the different religions, each calling the other heathens or heretics or infidels or apostates and the like. A vast amount of blood has been shed by people in the service of their own particular god. Why is this?

If you think about it for a minute this just does not make sense. If you are a devout Christian, you presumably believe there is just one god and you pray to that god. If there is only one god, then there can be no possibility of worshipping a ‘false’ god. So logically, any other person who also believes in one god and prays to it (whatever they may call their own god) must be praying to the same god that you are praying to, since you are both sure that there is no other god. Since Christians and Muslims and Jews all believe that there is only one god, they must all be praying and worshiping the same, identical god. In other words, all religious people who believe in a single god must be effectively members of the same religion, though they give different names to their gods.

So why would religious people fight wars over religion? Why would they discriminate against people of other religions and proselytize and convert members of other faiths? Why care at all what the names of the other gods are? Why not treat people of other religions the same way that (say) Christians treat Christians in other countries who worship in other languages. They might have a different name for god in their own language but it is still considered to be the same god. Those people are not treated as if they belong to a different religion.

It is true that the forms and rituals are different for different religions. It is also true that people use different religious texts and thus, in addition to giving different names, also give their god different properties and believe that their god seeks different things. But if there is only one god, then all revelations of that one god must be equivalent at some deep level, and the differences merely superficial.

The Baha’i religion is one of the very few major ones that takes this truly inclusive attitude, and teaches that all major religions come from the one god and thus there cannot be a ‘false’ god or religion. They believe that Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others are all messengers of the same god, and that their own founder Bahá’u’lláh (who was born in what is now Iran in 1817 and died in 1892) was the latest in that line.

I can understand religious people thinking that god must be annoyed at us atheists because we find the whole idea of god to be ridiculous. But religious people want to believe in god. Assuming that god wants to be worshipped (which is a really odd idea when you think about it), then all these people are worshipping that one and only god, since there is no other god. If he wanted them to worship him in a specific way using a specific name (which seems a little petty, if you ask me, like some people who get offended if you do not address them by their titles) based on a specific book, why would he allow people to be led astray by providing them with charismatic prophets and religious books that make them worship in a different way? It seems like a cruel trick to play on people, no? Surely god cannot care what name people use when they pray or worship him or what properties they ascribe to him or what books they use?

All the different trappings of the various religion are due to the so-called prophets of the various religions (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.), who claimed to speak on god’s behalf and say they know how god wanted people to concretely show their devotion. If only one religion can be the true religion, then at least all but one of these people must have been delusional. Otherwise one would have to think that the one god deliberately told the different prophets different things to tell people. But surely god cannot want to blame ordinary people because of the prophets’ divergent messages. If Muslims (or Christians or Jews or Hindus) worship the “wrong” way to the “wrong” god, then it must be the one god’s fault for creating this confusion.

Salman Rushdie reads a terrific passage from his book The Satanic Verses that describes how ‘holy books’ get written and how it might be possible for the prophet’s message to get distorted. For this blasphemy, Rushdie received a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini that, fortunately, was not carried out.

The hostility between religions, or the widespread idea that one religion is right and the others wrong, makes sense only if you accept the idea that there are many gods in competition with each other to maximize the number of their believers.

Or perhaps people think that there is one god but that he deliberately creates rival religions and prophets as a kind of IQ test, to see which people are smart enough to select the ‘right’ god to see who gets admitted into heaven. This seems unbelievably cruel to people the world over who have a simple faith in the god they learned about as children from their families.

I must admit that this question never occurred to me while I was a believer. One of the disconcerting things that I discovered after shifting from belief to atheism is how so many questions that should have been obvious for me to ask never even occurred to me until I stopped believing. It is as if religious belief shuts down that part of your brain that thinks logically and would ask the kinds of questions that expose the contradictions.

In that sense, religion is antithetical to a scientific approach. This does not mean that religious people can’t be good scientists. It is just that they have to keep separate that part of the brain they use for religion from that part they use for science, and use different standards of reason and evidence for the two spheres.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist?

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts the Good Samaritan story in a different light.

Was Mother Theresa evil?

All of us get a little disconcerted when we discover that someone we like turns out to be an admirer of some public figure whom we think is awful.

For example, take those well-known authoritarian rulers who unleashed immense cruelty on their own and other peoples, subjecting them to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and death. Hitler, Stalin, Suharto, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Duvalier are among the many names that come to mind. Most people do not admire these tyrants and do not hesitate to label them as evil.
[Read more…]

Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn’t understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like “yes, but that’s just arrant nonsense, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. It’s self-contradictory.” To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it’s often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let’s be honest the cultures are different, if they weren’t how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don’t seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I’m not talking about inter-family ‘discussions’ here, I don’t doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I’m talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny. Readers may recall an earlier posting when at a dinner party I created a minor flap when I said to a group of very religious people that I was an atheist. At the end of the evening, I felt obliged to apologize to the hostess if I had caused any discomfort to those guests.

But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.

If someone says something that I think is silly or wrong or bigoted, am I not doing the right thing in challenging that view? Surely social niceties should not trump honest expression of views? It is perhaps time to reject the conventional wisdom that one should not discuss politics and religion in social settings. Instead we should learn how to discuss those things calmly and reasonably.

I have quoted this passage titled Defend the right to be offended by Salman Rushdie before, and it is perhaps appropriate to do so again:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I am more and more inclined to think that we should follow the advice of Rushdie and Fry. One should not be rude or speak in anger or make ad hominem attacks on people. But I think one should express one’s opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

POST SCRIPT: Synchronized motorcycling

The Italian police sometime in the 1950s.

(Thanks to Progressive Review.)

Scientific consistency and Conservapedia loopiness

One of the drivers of scientific research is the desire to seeking a greater and greater synthesis, to seek to unify the knowledge and theories of many different areas. One of the most severe constraints that scientists face when developing a new theory is the need for consistency with other theories. It is very easy to construct a theory that explains any single phenomenon. It is much, much harder to construct a theory that does not also lead to problems with other well-established results. If a new theory conflicts with existing theories, something has to give in order to eliminate the contradiction.

For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution is a slow process, incompatible with the young Earth creationist theory of a 6,000-year old Earth. The acceptance of Darwin’s theory was only made possible with the almost concurrent emergence of geological theories that argued that the Earth was far older than that. Creationists, on the other hand, want to go in the opposite direction and seek to discredit evolution so that they can hold on to a young Earth.

But while the scientific search for overall consistency results in more logical and satisfying theories and new breakthroughs, the parallel religious attempt to build consistency around a 6,000 year Earth leads to greater and greater loopiness, to the construction of an alternative reality that one can only marvel at.

Take for example, the fascinating response of some religious people to reports of Richard Lenski’s interesting evolution experiment I wrote about yesterday. Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative icon) is the founder of Conservapedia, a religious alternative started to counter what they perceive as the anti-Christian, liberal agenda of Wikipedia. Conservapedia views everything through a Christian, right-wing, America-centered lens. It gives a lot prominence to arguments in favor of a 6,000-year old Earth.

The anti-evolution crowd contains many people who combine ignorance of science with arrogance and Schlafly exemplifies this. Even though he is not a microbiologist, he challenged Lenski’s work with extraordinarily rude letters implying that there was shady work afoot and demanding to see the raw data, leading to a back-and-forth correspondence. You can read all the gory details here. Lenski’s second reply to Schlafly is a masterpiece, combining a lesson in how to get slapped around politely with a good scientific explanation of his experiment.

One benefit of Schlafly’s crusade is that Lenski’s experimental results became elevated from something that just his biology subcommunity knew about to an internet phenomenon, widely discussed in the wider science and religion world. I myself heard about Lenski’s work only because of the fuss that Andrew Schlafly created, so thanks Andy!

If you have not yet experienced the goofiness of Conservapedia, you are missing a treat. Take this gem from its article on the theory of relativity.

A prevailing theory among creation scientists such as physicist Dr. John Hartnett believe that the Earth was once contained in a time dilation field, which explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe. It is believed that this field has since been removed by God, which explains why no such time dilation has been experienced in modern times. (my italics)

That is a typical religious explanation for phenomena – god did it and then hid the evidence that he did it. It always amazes me that these people claim to know exactly what god does and what god wants but plead ignorance as to why.

Take, as another example, Conservapedia’s article on kangaroos. These marsupials are found only in Australia and the scientific understanding of how this happened involves theories of changes in ocean levels, the splitting apart of continents, and the speciation that results when animal populations get separated geographically and evolve independently from their ancestral forms, and thus diverge from their cousins on other continents.

After devoting just one line to the evolutionary explanation for the origin of kangaroos in Australia, Conservapedia expansively discusses the creationist explanation:

According to the origins theory model used by young earth creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah’s Ark prior to the Great Flood. It has not yet been determined by baraminologists whether kangaroos form a holobaramin with the wallaby, tree-kangaroo, wallaroo, pademelon and quokka, or if all these species are in fact apobaraminic or polybaraminic.

After the Flood, these kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land with lower sea levels during the post-flood ice age, or before the super-continent of Pangea broke apart.

The idea that God simply generated kangaroos into existence there is considered by most creation researchers to be contra-Biblical.

Notice that this article disparages the notion that god created kangaroos out of nothing in Australia, but finds perfectly plausible the idea that god created the kangaroos out of nothing earlier, saved just a pair of them in Noah’s Ark, and then after the flood had them hopping over to Australia to raise a family start a new life, like homesteaders in old Western films.

One would think that once one allowed that kangaroos could be created out of nothing, Ockham’s razor would prefer the former theory. The only reason not to do so is to conform to Biblical myths. The Noah’s Ark bottleneck has to be preserved at all costs.

It is a long journey from Mount Ararat in Turkey (where the Ark supposedly finally ended up) to Australia and this theory requires that the pair of kangaroos from the Ark either live long enough to get to Australia before they started breeding or that all their offspring produced along the way stuck with the family for the entire journey (can you imagine how maddening their cries of “Are we there yet?” would become) or that the successor lines of all the ones that were left behind along the way became extinct, leaving no fossil record anywhere else in the world. Or maybe they were raptured early.

Another possibility (which I just thought up or maybe it was god revealing the truth to me, undeserving heathen though I am) is that Noah’s Ark was less like an emergency lifeboat and more like a round-the-world cruise ship, and that different animals left the liner at different ports of call: kangaroos at Sydney, koalas at Auckland, penguins in the Antarctic etc. This theory actually explains a lot about the geographic diversity of species and I offer it free to the creators of Conservapedia to add to their site.

Since Conservapedia, like Wikipedia, is a fairly open system that allows almost anyone to edit its entries, some suspect that much of the site’s content consists of subtle parodies by people pulling the legs of Schlafly and his co-religionists, and that they have not cottoned on to it yet. For example, I found the above passage about relativity just last week but today noticed that the passage has been changed, to be replaced by the briefer “Prevailing theories among creation scientists such as physicists Dr. Russell Humphreys and Dr. John Hartnett are time dilation explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe.” Was the original a parody that the site editors discovered and scrubbed? Is the kangaroo explanation a parody? It is hard to tell.

It is a sad reflection on your credibility when readers cannot tell when the material has been created in good faith and when it is a hoax.


Steve Benen points out that new research mapping the genome of the platypus causes yet more headaches for creationists.

Seeing evolution in real time

Evolution opponents tend to try and dismiss the evidence in its favor, as a last resort often resorting to the argument that no one has actually seen evolution occurring and a new species emerging, with all the intermediate stages clearly identified. One reason for this is, of course, that evolutionary change occurs very slowly, not visible in the transition from one generation to another. The emergence of a new species is almost always a retrospective judgment, made long after the fact, of a process that often takes thousands, or tens of thousands, of generations. By that time, most of the intermediate forms have become extinct and left no trace, since fossilization is such a rare event.

This is why researchers are finding that bacteria and other microbes, organisms that can go through multiple generations in a single day, to be valuable targets for study, allowing them to see evolutionary change and speciation within the span of a human lifetime.

In a truly remarkable piece of work, Richard Lenski of Michigan State University, starting from a single E. coli bacterium in 1989, kept breeding them in environments with a limited supply of food to see how they would adapt to their situation.

The experiment ran as follows:

He created 12 identical lines of E. coli and then fed them a meager diet of glucose. The bacteria would run out of sugar by the afternoon, and the following morning Dr. Lenski would transfer a few of the survivors to a freshly supplied flask.

From time to time Dr. Lenski also froze some of the bacteria from each of the 12 lines. It became what he likes to call a “frozen fossil record.” By thawing them out later, Dr. Lenski could directly compare them with younger bacteria.

Within a few hundred generations, Dr. Lenski was seeing changes, and the bacteria have been changing ever since. The microbes have adapted to their environment, reproducing faster and faster over the years. One striking lesson of the experiment is that evolution often follows the same path. “We’ve found a lot of parallel changes,” Dr. Lenski said.

The clever part of this experiment was that by freezing samples every 500 generations or so along the way, Lenski could go back in time if necessary and identify when specific changes occurred. He now has over 40,000 generations of bacteria and has thus been able to track closely the way that random mutations and natural selection, the fundamental basis of evolution, works. What these and other similar experiments do is show evolution occurring in real time.

One result of his experiments is that the bacteria are now twice as big as their common ancestor and reproduce 75 percent faster.

But the more dramatic result that Lenski observed was that after 33,127 generations, suddenly one of the colonies of the E. coli bacteria evolved the ability to absorb citrate, a nutrient found in abundance in the broth in which the bacteria are cultured. One of the signature marks of standard or ‘wild’ E. coli is their inability, unlike many other microbes, to absorb citrate.

Science reporter Carl Zimmer, who has been following these experiments, reports on the analysis they did of what happened.

[Lenski’s graduate student Zachary] Blount took on the job of figuring out what happened. He first tried to figure out when it happened. He went back through the ancestral stocks to see if they included any citrate-eaters. For the first 31,000 generations, he could find none. Then, in generation 31,500, they made up 0.5% of the population. Their population rose to 19% in the next 1000 generations, but then they nearly vanished at generation 33,000. But in the next 120 generations or so, the citrate-eaters went berserk, coming to dominate the population.

This rise and fall and rise suggests that the evolution of citrate-eating was not a one-mutation affair. The first mutation (or mutations) allowed the bacteria to eat citrate, but they were outcompeted by some glucose-eating mutants that still had the upper hand. Only after they mutated further did their citrate-eating become a recipe for success.

So we see the clear emergence of a new form of E. coli, able to live on citrate in a way that ‘wild’ E. coli are not found to be able to do. The fact that these bacteria developed the ability to switch their diet from the meager glucose to the abundantly available citrate is a significant evolutionary step, showing how an organism can adapt to its environment in ways that make it better able to survive.

This really is a beautiful experiment, illustrating once again how much of science depends on painstaking, long-term, careful study.

Next: Religious anti-evolutionists attack Lenski’s work.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Dave Allen on the story of Genesis

The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ”Conservative Think Tanks’, (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement’s efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of ‘junk science’ lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised ‘Davids’ battling the powerful ‘Goliath’ of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed ‘godless communism’ with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

POST SCRIPTS: Amazing back flips