We’ve got a ways to go

I hear that the big American Atheists conference in Austin had an attendance of about 900, which is a good number, and of course, let’s not judge the quality of an event by the number of attendees. By all accounts, it was an excellent conference (I keep seeing these gushing comments on twitter about AC Grayling’s talk, making me very envious.)

But…perspective. I’m at a middling-to-good-sized SF convention, which is one of the larger regional events.

Attendance, I’m told, was about 3000 people. Costs for the two events were roughly comparable to attendees. There’s absolutely no comparison with the big national events like Comic-con and Dragon*Con.

I’m sorry, but I think secularism, humanism, and atheism are of greater relevance to people than comic-books. What can we do to grow our audience?

How I spent the last few days

I am sad to say I missed the American Atheists 2013 National Convention — it sounds like it was a blast, but I was booked up with a series of talks out in lovely warm sunny Seattle. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

On Wednesday, I talked to Seattle Atheists on “Moving Atheism Beyond Science”. I argued that modern atheism is built on the twin pillars of anti-religion and science, and not that there’s anything wrong with either of those, but that we have to have a wider foundation. In particular, I defied the recent trend to broaden science to encompass morality — I see that more as a conservative effort to refuse to step out of our comfort zone of science to consider philosophy and ethics — and most of the talk was a review of the ways science has failed to support a moral standard. Science has a definite place of importance, but let’s stop using it as our sole hammer.

Then I attended Norwescon, a science-fiction convention. People give me weird looks when I say I’m going to a con as a scientist/educator — but really, this is another example of stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching out to a different population of people…and SF people are a very receptive audience for science talks. So here are the sessions I was up-front and talking (there were others where I just sat back with the audience, of course).

Evo-Devo: More than a cool band name. This one was cool and right on my interests. I shared the panel with Annie Morton, a local ecologist, Jim Kling, a science journalist, and Dr Ricky, a scientist and also author of a food blog, Science-Based Cuisine. I started off by giving a definition I’d been asked to give on Twitter: Evodevo: Primacy of regulatory mutations in the evolution of form in multicellular organisms. I know, it’s much narrower than the standard definition which emphasizes comparative molecular genetics, but I was trying to summarize the current focus. And then we went back and forth on the details.

The Anthropogenic Extinction event. Somehow, I ended up on a series of depressing panels. I shared this desk with Annie Morton again, and Kurt Cagle. Short summary: we’re doomed. My final statement was that one basic rule is that you don’t shit in your own nest, and now that we’re a global species, we apparently have forgotten it.

Bullies Still Suck: Why We Don’t Just Get Over It. Oh, jeez. The most depressing panel ever. I was on it with Mickey Schulz (Geek Girls Rule!) and Maida “Mac” Cain. I think I was there to represent targets of online bullying, but here’s the deal: it was attended by a large number of SF con nerds and geeks who could give us all lessons on what real bullying is like. I didn’t have to say much at all: the audience spoke out with testimonials about their lives as four-eyed nerds, gay people, trans women, Asperger kids, “sluts” so-called, and rape victims. I think my main job here should have just been to shut up and listen.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It, with Gregory Gadow, Peter Blanton, Russell Campbell, and Dr Ricky. We were supposed to talk about our favorite doomsday scenarios. I don’t have one. I did say I thought all the emphasis in the popular press on big explosions and cosmic collisions and such was egocentrism, that that’s not how most extinctions occur. I gave the example of the Heath Hen, a chicken-like bird that was common on the eastern seaboard at the time of the European colonization, and that gradually was reduced to a single isolated population on Martha’s Vineyard by habitat destruction and hunting, and when it was down to the last few hundred animals in the 19th century, efforts were made to give it a sheltered sanctuary. The population briefly rose to a few thousand individuals before a fire killed many, then a storm killed more, and then a disease spread from turkey farms to kill even more, reducing them to 7 individuals, mostly male, and the last lonely bird died in 1932. That’s what we should expect. No grand spectacular drama, we’re most likely to flicker out with a dismal whimper.

Blinded by Pseudoscience. I wasn’t suppose to be on this one, but Dr. Ricky asked me to get on the stage with Janet Freeman-Daily, Gregory Gadow, and Ro Yoon. We talked a lot about cancer quackery, especially the Burzynski fraud, and tried to deliver some suggestions about how to detect when you’re being lied to: too good to be true promises, demands for money up front, lack of scientific evidence, etc.

Designer Genes. Gregory Gadow was the moderator, and it was largely a discussion between me and Edward Tenner…and we pretty much agreed on everything. I think the theme was unintended consequences: sure, we can and will be able to do amazing things with somatic and germ line gene therapy, but trying to do this with complex systems is likely to have all kinds of unexpected side effects. Correcting single gene defects is one thing, but ‘improving’ the human race is a far more complex problem that isn’t going to be easily accomplished.

Remedial Exobiology, with Annie Morton and Dame Ruth. This one was very well attended and less depressing! At a science fiction convention, there were a lot of authors in the audience who are very interested in the topic of implementing good biology in their stories (sorry, but I said that there were almost no science fiction stories that addressed biology competently, and we also snickered at James Cameron a bit). I tried to be fair and give shortcuts: I said imagination is good, you don’t have to master all of biology, but instead of just starting with bipedal anthropoids and building a new alien on that body plan, at least browse through the available and highly diverse morphologies present in other lineages on this planet, and build on that. One person in the audience also recommended this book, Eighth Day Genesis: A Worldbuilding Codex for Writers and Creatives, as a tool for inspiring science-based creativity.

And now I’m winding down and getting ready to fly home and resume teaching biology in Minnesota again. I encourage all science educators to stretch out and try talking about their favorite topics in different venues: it’s how we expand the relevance of science!

Y’all going to church today?

I think I’ll skip it, even though I’m staying at my mother’s house, which is right next door to some freaky conservative Protestant shitbox church. They aren’t promising to talk about evolution, which would at least be interesting.


I do like the little addendum someone pasted on to the sign, at least.

It is a little weird to think that all across the country round about now, in every church, some guy is standing up and lying and saying the magic words, “He is risen”, when he’s not. He died, people, and he rotted away, and his myth has been used ever since to oppress and delude and confuse and frighten people.

The last intelligent creationist


Earlier today, Maggie Koerth-Baker posted this tweet:

I dig this graph, but I think it misses an outreach opportunity by ascribing common misconceptions to creationists only bouncingdodecahedrons.tumblr.com/post/17808416988

It links to a diagram showing evolution as a linear path rather than a branching tree, and it got me thinking about terribly popular misconceptions about evolution that were started by smart people, and a doozy came to mind. A whole collection of doozies, actually, from one single terribly clever person.

You’ve all heard the stupid creationist objection to evolution — “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — but have you ever wondered who the first person to come up with that criticism was? You might be surprised.

The first instance I’ve been able to find was by Richard Owen, head of the British Museum and one of the premiere scientists of his day, and it was said in a rather notorious review of Darwin’s Origin, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1860. So not a stupid fellow, but one with an axe to grind, and also a creationist…but then, just about everyone was a creationist in 1860. Still, it’s a remarkable document.

Some background you need to know, though. This review was authored by Owen. When it needs to cite a scientist for its claims, it cites…Professor Richard Owen. It does so 11 times. Reading it with knowledge of its authorship really diminishes its authority to an amazing degree, and greatly inflates Owen’s appearance of pomposity.

It’s also an agonizing read. Darwin sometimes sounds a bit quaint and wordy nowadays, but at least he’s lucid and logical, and his writing flows well: I found Owen’s review to be a rough read, turgid and inelegant. I know I’ve got a bit of a bias which colors my opinion, but seriously, when you read the excerpt below, you’ll see what I mean.

On the other hand, if you read the whole thing, you’ll be struck by how it uses a whole collection of arguments that sound little different than what creationists say now, but that it is considerably more erudite. I hate to give them advice, but if creationists tossed out the trash written by Gish and Ham and any of the hacks at the Discovery Institute, and just regurgitated Owen’s words, there is a great deal that most of the warriors for evolution would have a tough time rebutting. Owen knew a lot of zoology, and he deploys it effectively to buttress some fundamentally flawed arguments.

Like this one. He doesn’t literally say “if evolution is true, how come there are still monkeys?” — he uses much more obscure examples and far more convoluted language, but it’s the same sentiment.

But has the free-swimming medusa, which bursts its way out of the ovicapsule of a campanularia, been developed out of inorganic particles? Or have certain elemental atoms suddenly flashed up into acalephal form? Has the polype-parent of the acalephe necessarily become extinct by virtue of such anomalous birth? May it not, and does it not proceed to propagate its own lower species in regard to form and organisation, notwithstanding its occasional production of another very different and higher kind. Is the fact of one animal giving birth to another not merely specifically, but generically and ordinally, distinct, a solitary one? Has not Cuvier, in a score or more of instances, placed the parent in one class, and the fruitful offspring in another class, of animals? Are the entire series of parthenogenetic phenomena to be of no account in the consideration of the supreme problem of the introduction of fresh specific forms into this planet? Are the transmutationists to monopolise the privilege of conceiving the possibility of the occurrence of unknown phenomena, to be the exclusive propounders of beliefs and surmises, to cry down every kindred barren speculation, and to allow no indulgence in any mere hypothesis save their own? Is it to be endured that every observer who points out a case to which transmutation, under whatever term disguised, is inapplicable, is to be set down by the refuted theorist as a believer in a mode of manufacturing a species which he never did believe in, and which may be inconceivable?

Doesn’t it sound so much more intelligent to ask, if evolution is true, why haven’t inorganic particles evolved into free-swimming medusae, and hey, why are there still polype-parents of the acalephe? Why aren’t we observing new forms bursting up out of the inanimate world in the same way they must have in Darwin’s version of the past?

The intelligent design creationists are also missing an opportunity. This is one of my favorite parts: Owen is snidely berating Darwin for thinking up this cunning new mechanism and then discarding the other ‘scientific’ mode of biological change…that is, divine creation. Transmutationists, as he calls evolutionists, are unable to see other ways that creation might work. “You can’t handle the truth!” is what he’s saying here.

Here it is assumed, as by Mr. Darwin, that no other mode of operation of a secondary law in the foundation of a form with distinct specific characters, can have been adopted by the Author of all creative laws that the one which the transmutationists have imagined. Any physiologist who may find the Lamarckian, or the more diffused and attenuated Darwinian, exposition of the law inapplicable to a species, such as the gorilla, considered as a step in the transmutative production of man, is forthwith clamoured against as one who swallows up every fact and every phenomenon regarding the origin and continuance of species ‘in the gigantic conception of a power intermittently exercised in the development, out of inorganic elements, of organisms the most bulky and complex, as well as the most minute and simple.’ Significantly characteristic of the partial view of organic phenomena taken by the transmutationists, and of their inadequacy to grapple with the working out and discovery of a great natural law, is their incompetency to discern the indications of any other origin of one specific form out of another preceding it, save by their way of gradual change through a series of varieties assumed to have become extinct.

Similarly, Owen siezes on Darwin’s remark that all life descended from one primordial form “into which life was first breathed” to chastise him for limiting god:

By the latter scriptural phrase, it may be inferred that Mr. Darwin formally recognises, in the so-limited beginning, a direct creative act, something like that supernatural or miraculous one which, in the preceding page, he defines, as ‘certain elemental atoms which have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues.’ He has, doubtless, framed in his imagination some idea of the common organic prototype; but he refrains from submitting it to criticism. He leaves us to imagine our globe, void, but so advanced as to be under the conditions which render life possible; and he then restricts the Divine power of breathing life into organic form to its minimum of direct operation.

I have some sympathy for this argument, and I think Darwin himself regretted making that one concession, because as we can see, creationists will sieze any excuse to invoke their personal god.

There’s also a section where he chides Darwin for not giving enough credit to Lamarck, and another where he favorably cites Buffon for his idea that species are mutable to a limited degree (Owen himself accepted some range of change over time), and calculated that all mammals could be reduced to 15 basic stocks. Creationists calculating storage space on the ark, take notice.

So yes, a lot of creationist arguments have their source not in really stupid people, but in some very intelligent and scientifically conservative people in the past. The problem is that modern creationists are clinging to rotten antique ideas that have long been dismantled. I’d also point out that creationist arguments have decayed: Owen’s writing, opaque and pretentious as it is, is far more challenging than anything I’ve seen from his degraded intellectual descendants.

I think if I were teaching a course in anti-creationism, I’d give this essay to my students and we’d spend about a week taking it apart — it would be a good exercise for them. And oh, they would hate me for it.

Run, Ben, run!

The far right has lately been gushing over the idea of getting Dr Ben Carson to run for president — he’s their One Black Friend who believes in exactly the same things they do. Among his latest typical conservative faux pas, he recently compared gays to pedophiles and fans of bestiality, and has had to backtrack a little bit. Look at this beautiful not-pology:

If anyone was offended, I apologize to you. What I was basically saying is there is no group. I wasn’t equating those things, I don’t think they’re equal. If you ask me for an apple and i give you an orange you would say, that’s not an orange. And I say, that’s a banana. And that’s not an apple either. Or a peach, that’s not an apple, either. It doesn’t mean that i’m equating the banana and the orange and the peach.

The intelligence of Ronald Reagan, the eloquence of George W. Bush…please make him your candidate!

Oh, wait. Those two guys got elected. Uh-oh.