An inspirational poster


I must confess to a cruel game with this post. I saw this poster and thought, “What? But most of these people weren’t atheists!” Surely someone could do a far better job with this idea than that, and everyone would see the problem here (at least John Wilkins did, as did many of the commenters). You were supposed to be inspired to make a better version. At least one person was, but they took it in a completely different direction than I expected.


Anyone care to try and do something better, with a positive message?

Only a Theory

I published a review in Nature this week, of Ken Miller’s Only a Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and boy, was that a tough one. The catch was that I want the book to do well, and I definitely think it has a place as an appeal to the religious majority to support good science (you know, all those people who see my demonic visage leering out at them from the top left corner of this page and want to call for an exorcist), but it also irritated me greatly on several important points.

I think it’s a much better book than his previous, Finding Darwin’s God(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). That book had one point where it simply drove off the cliff with a bunch of handwaving about god dwelling in quantum indeterminacy, which made it virtually unreadable beyond that point. There is no cliff in this one; instead, it’s threaded with some annoying biases throughout.

The big one for me was a lot of naive American exceptionalism, and that’s the issue for which I took him to task in the Nature review. Why does the US have such an aberrant problem with creationism, while Europe does not? I would have answered with something about a tradition of religiosity and anti-intellectualism, and maybe something about a rough-and-ready credulity that allowed for the rapid proliferation of widely variant sects; the recent renascence of creationism under the guise of ID owes something to raging relativism, too. In Miller’s eyes, creationism has absolutely nothing to do with religion at all — it’s all about the American virtues of rebelliousness and disrespect, to which we also owe our eminence in science.

This is news to me, especially lately since Miller’s co-religionists have been madly flinging bricks at me for daring to disrespect their peculiar superstitions. I also don’t think the sheep flocking to the mega-churches are flaunting their rebelliousness…it’s more an expression of conformity. There isn’t one true revolutionary among the creationist hordes, only a mob trying to defend hallowed superstitions from the encroaching modernity. Any explanation for the popularity of creationism that discounts the impact of religion for the worse is like trying to explain the motion of a car while completely ignoring the engine compartment.

The other annoyance of his book creeps in gradually. He’s clearly a fan of Simon Conway Morris’s view that life roughly of our sort was inevitable, that while evolution would lead to variations in the details, a human-like mind was a consequence that was programmed into the starting conditions of the universe. If we restarted the Earth at a point 4 billion years ago, the planet would eventually cough up a pile of social animals that would start going to church and praising their heavenly creator — maybe they wouldn’t be mammals, but our molluscan or reptilian or echinoderm replacements on Alternate Earth would still be occupying a similar niche to ours, and would still be fulfilling the rough outlines of the vision set in motion by a loving god.

This is, of course, untestable wishful thinking, and not at all supported by the science, which shows a genuine role for chance. Real chance. Not the chance of Miller, which is that of a god who throws dice most of the time, but when it is really, really important, he fudges the results a little bit to make sure he wins.

Still, you should read the book. Ignore the apologetics, and don’t trust anything he says about the origins of creationism in the US, but do read it for the excellent rebuttals to common creationist claims. This is a book I’d hand to any creationist students who try to argue against evolution on religious grounds, but I think it would only take them partway to a realistic view of how life came to be.

Evolving snake fangs

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Ontogenetic allometry in the fang in the front-fanged Causus rhombeatus (Viperidae) displaces the fang along the upper jaw. Scale bars, 1 mm. We note the change in relative size of the upper jaw subregions: i, anterior; ii, fang; iii, posterior. d.a.o., days after oviposition.

I keep saying this to everyone: if you want to understand the origin of novel morphological features in multicellular organisms, you have to look at their development. “Everything is the way it is because of how it got that way,” as D’Arcy Thompson said, so comprehending the ontogeny of form is absolutely critical to understanding what processes were sculpted by evolution. Now here’s a lovely piece of work that uses snake embryology to come to some interesting conclusions about how venomous fangs evolved.

Basal snakes, animals like boas, lack venom and specialized fangs altogether; they have relatively simple rows of small sharp teeth. Elapid snakes, like cobras and mambas and coral snakes, are at the other extreme, with prominent fangs at the front of their jaws that act like injection needles to deliver poisons. Then there are the Viperidae, rattlesnakes and pit vipers and copperheads, that also have front fangs, but phylogenetically belong to a distinct lineage from the elapids. And finally there are other snakes like the grass snake that have enlarged fangs at the back of their jaws. It’s a bit confusing: did all of these lineages independently evolve fangs and venom glands, or are there common underpinnings to all of these arrangements?

[Read more…]

Uh-oh…a pro-life poll

Here’s one way to foil a pharynguloid poll invasion: limit your poll answers to those that aren’t even wrong. Try to answer the question of”When does life begin?” — your only choices are at birth, at conception, at some stage, with a god (?), and the ever-useful “I don’t know”. Conception is winning right now, when everyone knows the correct answer is approximately 4 billion years ago. There is no dead stage in the cycle of life!

The alternative answer is “after the kids all move out”, but that option isn’t listed, either.

Karl Giberson strikes back!

Perhaps you remember Karl — I ripped into an interview he did a while back. Well, “ripped into” is probably the wrong phrase — I pointed out several things I thought were quite good, and then tore up his sectarian defense of Christianity, his blind obeisance before the Christian bible, and his mangling of what other scientists have said about religion. It must have rankled — he now gripes that “Myers doesn’t seem to like me” and has slapped together a nice bit of hackwork that is the lead story on Salon. And clumsy hatchet job it is.

Here’s his opening:

PZ Myers is a true believer, a science crusader with the singled-minded enthusiasm of a televangelist. A biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and a columnist for Seed magazine, Myers has earned notoriety with his blog, Pharyngula, in which he reports on new developments in biology and indiscriminately excoriates those he views as hostile to science, a pantheon of straw men and women that includes theologians, journalists and churchgoers. He is Richard Dawkins without the fame or felicitous prose style.

Then he recounts the tale of the “Great Desecration”, but without any of the context, not bothering to mention the hideous history of the Catholic response to rumors of desecration, and not even mentioning Bill Donohue’s bullying tactics. Oh, and then he compares me to Jonathan Edwards, misrepresents his own interview — he only “suggested that science doesn’t know everything,” which “got [him] condemned to whatever hell Myers believes in” — and claims that atheists like me, Dawkins, Atkins, and Dennett are just practicing a new religion. Over and over again. He goes on at length with this strange claim that we are pushing science as a replacement for religion.

But let’s assume for the moment that this is possible — that science can be canonized, moralized, transcendentalized and politicized into a replacement religion, with followers, codes of conduct, celebrated texts and sacred blogs, houses of worship, “saints” of some sort and inquisitors of another sort. And let’s suppose that it’s possible for this new religion to move out of the ivory towers of academia, where it lives now, to take its place alongside the other “world” religions, attracting hundreds of millions of adherents drawn from the main streets of the world and all walks of life. What would this new religion be like once it became institutionalized? After all, if religion fills a genuine human need, something has to fill the hole created by its passing — something that appeals to billions of people.

He babbles on quite a bit about this bizarre fantasy that we’re trying to replicate the silly superstitions and rituals of his idea of religion. Sacred blogs? Saints? This is just foolishness of his own invention. Right there in the critical post I wrote, I said plainly, “Gould and Dawkins do not claim that evolution as a religion, or that it should be treated as one, and neither do I; that would be ridiculous, since if I were equating the two, that would mean I think people ought to grow out of their absurd faith in evolution.” In the desecration post, I plainly said that nothing should be sacred. Giberson read those, apparently, and then decided that I really meant the opposite.

It’s funny how he provides these botched descriptions of what I said, but doesn’t bother to actually link to it, where it’s rather obvious that his version is misleading and dishonest.

Oh, and I’m not one of the saints. Here’s my role.

And we have inquisitors like Myers to ferret out heretics and martyr them on his Web site when they appear.

Man, my criticism of his ideas must have really burned, that he would now compare me to inquisitors and his own state to martyrdom. Hint to Karl: Catholic inquisitors tied people to stakes and literally set them on fire. Writing in dissent about someone’s ideas does not really compare very well. I might add that historically, Christians murdered Jews by the thousands for imaginary desecrations; I tossed an unpalatable scrap of bad bread in a garbage can. Any comparisons he wants to make will not flatter religion.

In order for many of us to truly feel at home in the universe so grandly described by science, that science needs to coexist as peacefully as possible with the creation stories of our religious traditions. I share with Myers, Dawkins and Weinberg the conviction that we are the product of cosmic and biological evolution, that Einstein and Darwin got it right. But I want to believe that, through the eyes of my faith, this is how God created the world and that God cares about that world. Does this belief, shared by so many of our species, make me dangerous?

No, Karl, it makes you foolish. The eyes of your faith are delusions fostered by tradition and dogma, there is no evidence for your god or that he created anything, and there sure as heck isn’t any evidence that your imaginary friend cares about us.

It also makes Salon look foolish, that they would put an article written by someone with a patent grudge front and center.

Looking for a host, and it’s Molly Time

No, not that kind of host. Our scheduled host for the Tangled Bank had to back out due to time constraints. If anyone wants to volunteer to host it next Wednesday, let me know and I’ll forward the entries to you.

Also, who should get a Molly award for the month of July? Mention your choice(s) and reasoning in the comments here. I’ll tally ’em up at the end of this weekend.


Tangled Bank hosting is taken care of: the first volunteer was PalMD of the denialism blog. Start mailing those links in!