PZ Myers at Glasgow Sceptics in the Pub, The Crystal Palace

PZ Myers at Glasgow Sceptics in the Pub, The Crystal Palace
by KG

The Crystal Palace, where the Glasgow Sceptics in the Pub hosted PZ, is a bit of a disappointment as far as appearances go, being neither crystalline nor palatial, just an over-sized pub. However, the upstairs meeting room is a good size, and a crowd of perhaps 200 filled it but fitted in comfortably for his talk. Most were young, a majority but not a huge majority male, and at least one doing his bit to mitigate global warming with a fine piratical hat. I shared a table with two Edinburgh skeptics, and chatted after the talk with one of the few attendees older than me, who had travelled up from Manchester.

The meeting room has an overhead projector, but unsuccessful attempts to get this to work, involving a stepladder and a variety of electrical leads, caused a 45 minute delay. In the end, the Sceptics abandoned it, and propped a projector up near the floor, so PZ was obliged to give his talk on developmental evidence for evolution – title “The Pharyngula” – using slides that were slightly wonky and overflowed the screen at the edges. He triumphantly overcame this handicap, giving a succinct but vivid and illuminating history of developmental biology and its relation to evolutionary theory.

PZ first noted that the study of development provides, as Charles Darwin noted and as remains the case, perhaps the clearest evidence for evolution of any branch of biology. He first answered the last and key part of the first of the ten questions distributed in advance by Uncommon Descent urging their fellow-idiots to attend the talk:

1) In light of the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm, can you account for the observation that the eggs of the five classes of vertebrate (i.e. fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) begin markedly different from each other? While the cleavage patterns in four of the five classes show some general similarities, the pattern in mammals is very different. Furthermore, in the gastrulation stage, a fish is very different from an amphibian, while both are starkly different from reptiles, birds and mammals, which are somewhat similar to each other. Doesn’t Darwinism predict a pattern wherein the earliest stages are the most similar and the later stages are the most different? [emphasis added]

The answer is, of course: “No.”, thus disposing of the rest of this question and the remaining nine, all of which were premised on this ignorant misconception.

IDiotic questions thus disposed of, PZ turned to more interesting topics. The physicist Ernest Rutherford claimed that “All science is either physics or stamp-collecting” – this is “full of shit”, indicating Rutherford’s ignorance of biology, but also “kind of right” – there is a form of stamp-collecting science that is just a cataloging of facts, and this is insufficient: explanation of the facts is key, and the history of science must also be appreciated. I for one had not realized that the view expressed in the slogan associated with Haeckel: “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, has pre-evolutionary roots in the idea, formulated by C.G. Carus in 1835, that the similarity of animal embryos at early stages is due to organisms climbing the “great ladder of life”, from “inferior” (starting with jellyfish) to “superior” (culminating, of course, in humans). The obsolete term for Downs’ Syndrome, “mongolism”, reflects the racist extension of this view to differences among humans.

Carus’ view was opposed by Karl Ernst von Baer, probably the “greatest embryologist of all time”, although cranky, snobbish and brutal. PZ’s quip: “I’m not as brilliant as von Baer, but I can at least emulate that part!” was appreciatively received. Von Baer was not an evolutionist, and did not become one even after Darwin published the Origin. He gave a very different explanation from the ladder: early embryos express “general characters”. He made a comparison to sculpting: the sculptor first builds a rough outline of the required form, then adds details. This view of development is still valid; Darwin agreed with it in general, but noted that there are also significant early differences, especially in larval characters: we must look deep.

Haeckel was responsible for a reinvigoration of recapitulation theory, giving an evolutionary interpretation of the “ladder”: development as a process of repeating evolutionary history. Darwin made a serious mistake in partially accepting this, due to his ignorance of the mechanisms of heredity and belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics: he thought that every embryo stacked new features on top of previous developmental history, as characteristics acquired in adulthood were assimilated by “pangenesis”. Haeckel exaggerated embryological similarities and at one point – his “somites” diagram (not the one most often criticized by creationists), actually cheated, for which he was severely reprimanded by his university.

The next part of the talk dealt with Hox genes, which are partially responsible for the spatial patterning of the developing body. These genes are clumped together in the genome, and their order can be (approximately) linearly mapped onto positions in the body. The same molecular probes work in a lot of different animals, and genes are often ordered in the same way. There are differences between vertebrate embryos at the pharyngula stage – but most are distortions due to the presence or absence of yolk. At the earliest stages – eggs – there are big differences; there is convergence at the pharyngula stage, divergence from there: this is the so-called “developmental hourglass”. The “neck ” of the hourglass, the phylotypic stage, represents the peak of global molecular interactions. After this, interaction becomes more local. How narrow the “neck” is, is a focus of current research.

Finally, PZ turned to the exposure and analysis of creationist lies. Jonathan Wells, the “most contemptible liar in creationism today” (surely a hotly contested title!) falsely claims that evolution is built on Haeckel’s recapitulation theory – which was, in fact, discarded in the late 19th century as the facts of genetics began to be elucidated. Wells selectively quotes a paper from BioScience 1976 by William (Bill) Ballard – a fish embryologist who named the pharyngula, and one of PZ’s scientific heroes – to support this, but as ever when creationists quote using ellipses, there’s something important missed out, and Ballard did not make the claim Wells attributes to him. The Discovery Institute and other creationist organizations aim to make you more stupid: Wells, bizarrely, grades text books with a “D” if they use photographs rather than drawings – because these show clearly that the facts of development unequivocally support evolutionary explanations.

The overall lesson of the talk: evidence is central, but don’t neglect theory. Good theories are predictive and useful, diligent towards the evidence. Bad theories disregard the evidence and emphasize ideology. Lastly, creationists attack all science and history: evolution is just the most prominent of their targets.

After a break for the replenishment of glasses, the Q&A session followed. I was lucky enough to get the first question, and asked about how the relationship between protostomes (most animals) and deuterostomes (chordates, echinoderms and a few other small phyla) fits into the picture PZ had given – specifically, in relation to the role of Hox genes. PZ explained that a protostome is in effect an upside-down deuterostome (or vice versa), having a ventral nerve cord and dorsal heart rather than the reverse.

The next question was from a creationist – apparently, if not the only one present, one of very few. He attempted a classic “Gish gallop”, asking a string of questions without giving any opportunity for response, but it was actually more of a “Gish gabble”: he spoke so fast and so incoherently that I for one could not make out much of what he was trying to say (to be fair, something he certainly was not attempting, it can’t be easy to conduct a Gish gallop when you know both speaker and audience hold you in contempt). The general line was that of the 10 questions referred to above. PZ responded by asking him if he was not ashamed of himself (but of course creationists are without shame when lying for Jesus/YHWH/Allah/Sun Myung Moon), then requested that he ask a single question. This, I think (he was still gabbling), came down to the misconception underlying the 10 questions, and a claim that changes in the early development of the embryo would always be fatal. When PZ dismissed this nonsense he had the impertinence to say his question was not being answered.

The third questioner (not apparently a creationist) asked whether the Hox genes couldn’t have been produced by “the designer”. PZ agreed that there was no way to rule out a designer acting to mimic natural processes, but absolutely no reason to believe this was so. The pirate later got a laugh by asking about the evidence for unintelligent design (which, I think we must admit, is quite strong :-p).

Remaining questions were mostly less closely linked to the talk. A number covered issues specific to the UK or Scotland (A.C. Grayling’s proposed private liberal arts college, how to combat attempts to smuggle ID into British classrooms and to restrict abortion in the UK, and whether PZ had yet encountered something called “Irn Bru” – which I believe is some kind of drain cleaner – PZ said he had tasted it, and would stick with the Glenlivet.) PZ saw no specific problem with Grayling’s college – an issue on which I, like most left-leaning Brits, would profoundly disagree. Another questioner asked whether creationists might over time be selected out, but PZ pointed out that they tend to have lots of kids, and in any case, creationism is not genetically heritable: we should in no way write of the children of creationists – although adults, as he said in answer to another question about the balance between convincing creationists and fence-sitters, may well be beyond help. The best way to combat creationism is to get involved in your local school, stick up trenchantly for good teaching, and campaign to fund all schools properly and equally – the US has a specific problem in that public schools* are funded through local taxation. A related question led him to cite favourably Dennett’s support for the teaching of comparative religion – which, as an audience member pointed out, is already done in Scotland (to a limited extent, I would add – my son’s schools have certainly favoured Christianity, although he enjoys his “RME” (religious and moral education), as a chance for the majority of atheists to argue with – and mock – the Christians and Muslims).

Another question brought an exciting reply: PZ’s book now is now undergoing revisions and has a planned publication date of May 2012! It’s focused on atheism and the absurdity of religion. It will be “like The God Delusion, but funny and aggressive!” (Go for it PZ, show that accommodationist milksop Dawkins how it’s done!) Yet another asked about the Plos One system of “Open Access” publishing, which PZ considers is essential. Most peer-reviewed papers published are crap – because of the pressure on academics to publish as many as possible: the “least publishable unit” (LPU) syndrome. Peer review remains essential, but everyone should be able to do post-publication review.

The final question returned to the topic of religious education, and gave PZ the opportunity to end on a key point: “Teach kids to think: that’s all we care about.”

Most people stuck around for further drinking and talking, and to all appearances, a good time was had by all. Shortly before I left for my hotel, the gabbling creobot, who turned out to be a biology undergraduate – an aspiring Jonathan Wells, perhaps – was brought over to argue with PZ, but almost immediately declared that he must leave as he had to catch a train. Who knows, it may even have been true!

*In the UK, bizarrely, the term “public schools” refers to the top tier private schools, the rich having captured them for their sons – they were originally intended for bright boys from relatively modest backgrounds – some centuries ago. The real public schools are called “state schools”.

On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era

[I am totally confused. I have not seen the movie Source Code, although it will be playing in Morris next week, yet I have now seen an explanation of the time-travel paradox in the movie by the physicist James Kakalios, and now here is an explanation by an English professor. You guys sort it out. I’m not going to try to read either of them carefully, until I see the movie. Which is already giving me a headache.–pzm]

“On Source Code and the ethics of the modern technological era”

By Brendan Riley

Spoiler Alert: this essay assumes you’ve seen Source Code or don’t mind having the plot revealed.

“Make Every Second Count.” “What Would You Do If You Knew You Only Had A Minute To Live?” These purport to be the dramatic underpinning of the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller, Source Code. But underneath the big-studio whiz-bang lies a story teasing out several ethical questions that haunt the technology we’re just now inventing. The film follows Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who finds himself on a doomed train in someone else’s body with only eight minutes to find and stop the mad bomber. After only a brief respite to speak with his superiors, he goes back and tries again, and again, and again. It’s 12 Monkeys and Quantum Leap meet Groundhog Day, without the piano lessons. Source Code uses a relatively familiar gimmick to tell an exciting story, but under the explosions and Gyllenhaalian studliness, it also prods us to think a bit more about how we should grapple with the new possibilities of the modern era.

[Read more…]

Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig

Lawrence Krauss vs. William Lane Craig
by Lawrence Krauss

It sometimes surprises me, although it shouldn’t, how religious devotees feel the need to regularly reinforce their own convictions in groups of like-minded individuals. I suppose this is the purpose of regular Sunday church services, for example, to reinforce the community of belief in between the rest of the week when the real world may show no evidence of God, goodness, fairness, or purpose.

Nevertheless I was not prepared for the self-congratulatory hype that I have seen spouted on the web, and have received in emails, including a typically disingenuous email from Wiliam Lane Craig to his followers regarding a debate I had with him in North Carolina last week. While carrying out the debate in the first place was something that broke my normal rules–as I said during the debate, I far prefer civil conversation and discourse as a way of illuminating knowledge and reality–I will break another rule and write this blog-like note on my own perspectives, in the hope that it may circulate and counter some of the nonsense that has propagated in the fundamentalist and religious blogs of late. Perhaps Craig will post this on his blog and send it out as well.

I believe that if I erred at all, it was in an effort to consider the sensibilities of the 1200 smiling young faces in the audience, who earnestly came out, mostly to hear Craig, and to whom I decided to show undue respect. As I stressed at the time, I did not come to debate the existence of God, but rather to debate about evidence for the existence of God. I also wanted to demonstrate the need for nuance, to explain how these issues are far more complex than Craig, in his simplistic view of the world, makes them out to be. For this reason, as I figured I would change few minds I decided also to try and illustrate for these young minds the nature of science, with the hope that what they saw might cause them to think. Unfortunately any effort I made to show nuance and actually explain facts was systematically distorted in Craig’s continual effort to demonstrate how high school syllogisms apparently demonstrated definitive evidence for God.

Let me now comment, with the gloves off, on the disingenuous distortions, simplifications, and outright lies that I regard Craig as having spouted. I was very disappointed because I had heard that Craig was more of a philosopher than a proselytizer, but that was not evident the other evening.

Craig began with an attempt to demonstrate his scientific and mathematical credentials by writing a rather meaningless equation on this first slide, which he then argued would be the basis for his ‘evidence’. The equation, in words said that if the probability, given the data, gave one a greater than 50% likelihood for God’s existence, then this was evidence. He even presented this as a pseudo- Bayesian

The problem is that using mathematical probabilities in this fashion ONLY makes sense if you have a well defined probability measure, and if one can check that the conclusions one draws are not sensitive to one’s priors. He did not explain this at all, nor do I think he understood it when I tried to explain it to him. For the rest of the evening Craig simply proceeded to spout his claimed evidence, and then proceeded to state that each gave him a greater than 50% belief in God. The whole purpose of the mathematical nonsense at the beginning was to give some kind of scientific credibility to a discussion which was anything but. It was disingenuous smoke and mirrors. (Moreover, as I tried to explain, in modern scientific experiments, merely finding an unexpected result, with say only a 20% chance of being wrong, is not sufficient to establish evidence. One needs to go to much higher levels of confidence, especially if the claim being made disagrees with all other evidence. It is hard to think of a grander claim than evidence for a divine being who creates the universe without apparent purpose, dominated by dark matter and dark energy and containing hundreds of billions of galaxies, lets it evolve untouched for billions of years, and then roughly a million years into human evolution decides to intervene at a time before Youtube or any other objective recording and archiving tool was available.)

Next, if one is going to frame the argument scientifically, as I argued is essential when discussing empirical evidence, which Craig later took great pains to disavow, one must point out that in science when one is trying to explain and predict data, one tries to explore all possible physical causes for some effect before resorting to the supernatural. Happily it is precisely this progress in our natural philosophy that ended such religious atrocities as the burning of witches. In each and every case the actual syllogism that one ended up with was:

  1. Craig either doesn’t understand how something could happen, or instead believes that events happened that confirmed his pre-existing belief system.

  2. In the absence of understanding physical causes or exploring alternatives, this implies evidence for the existence of God.

  3. Therefore there is evidence that God exists.

This is what I framed as the “God of the Gaps” argument and I continue to view, upon reflection, most of the claims of Craig as falling in this well-known theological trap.

Let me work backwards through his 5 “arguments”:

  1. The resurrection of Jesus, and that fact that the followers of Jesus were willing to die for their beliefs provides evidence of God: I admit that this claim is so sloppy and fatuous that in an effort to demonstrate some margin of respect for Craig I tried to avoid it for as long as I could. Craig argued that most New Testament scholars believe in the resurrection. Even if this were true, though Craig provided no evidence of this, this of course is simply proof that New Testament scholars have an a priori faith that guides them. It is like claiming that most Islamic scholars may believe that Mohammed actually ascended to heaven on a horse. In the first place, there are no definitive eyewitness accounts of these events, and in the case of the claimed resurrection the scriptures were written decades after the claimed event, and the different accounts are not even consistent. Not only are there serious theologians who doubt the resurrection, there are historians who doubt the historical existence of Jesus himself. Whatever one’s views in this regard, however, one must ask oneself the simple question: Is it more likely that all known physical laws were suspended so God could demonstrate divinity–and moreover demonstrate this in a hackneyed way that recreated previous resurrection myths, down to the number of days before being raised from the dead, of several previous, and now long-gone religious cults–or is it more likely that those who were preaching to convert fabricated a resurrection myth in order to convince those to whom they were preaching of Christ’s divinity? Finally, the remarkable, and completely trite claim that the fact the Christians were willing to die for their beliefs demonstrates the validity of these beliefs would be laughable, if it weren’t so pitiful. Especially, as I indicated during the event, in light of the fact that people were recently willing to fly planes into skyscrapers because of their beliefs in a religious framework that I know Craig has openly disavowed. Throughout history people have been willing to die for their beliefs, and it is often the beliefs one is willing to die for that are most suspect. Did Roman soldiers believe in Romulus and Remus. Did Viking warriers believe in Thor. Did Nazi soldiers believe in the superiority of the Aryan race. I found and still find Craig’s statement not only facile, and not even worthy of a high school debater, but I find the claim offensive.

  2. FineTuning: The appearance of design is one of the most subtle and confusing aspects of our Universe. Charles Darwin, with his Origin of Species, brilliantly and masterfully explained how the modern world, with its remarkable diversity of life forms may have the appearance of design without any design at all. It was one of the greatest and most striking scientific discoveries of all time, and it is the basis of modern biology and medicine, leading to countless other discoveries that have continued to save countless lives. Craig is aware, from his superficial reading of cosmology, of fine tuning problems in Cosmology, which he then immediately argued requires the existence of intelligent life, implying purpose to the universe. Not only does he fall prey to the same fallacy that those who, before Darwin enlightened us, ascribed design in biology fall prey to, he also continually misrepresented the nature of any apparent fine-tuning of quantities that we currently may not understand from first principles. I tried to explain to him that the current entropy of the universe is not fine tuned, nor need the initial entropy be fine tuned, because Inflation provides a mechanism to wipe out initial conditions and produce huge amounts of entropy, without God. I tried to explain to him that the Cosmological Constant, which is perhaps the most confusing finely tuned parameter we know of in the Universe, is fine tuned in a mathematical sense, compared to the naïve value we might expect on the basis of our current understanding of physical theory. While it is also true that if it were much larger, galaxies would not form, and therefore life forms that survive on solar power would not be likely to form with any significant abundance in the universe, I also explained that if the Cosmological Constant were in fact zero, which is what most theorists had predicted in advance, the conditions for life would be, if anything, more favorable, for the development and persistence of life in the cosmos. Finally, even if some parameters in our currently incomplete model of the universe do appear fine tuned for human life to be possible, (a) we have no idea if other values would allow other non-human-like intelligent life forms to evolve, since we have no understanding of the locus of all possible intelligent life forms. And, beyond this, just as bees are fine tuned to see the colors of flowers which they can pollinate as they go about their business does not indicate design, but rather natural selection, we currently have no idea if the conditions of our universe represent a kind of cosmic natural selection. If there are many universes, for example, as may be the case, and as are predicted in a variety of models, none of which were developed to address God issues, we would certainly expect to find ourselves only in those in which we can live. All of these are subtle and interesting issues worthy of discussion by knowledgeable and honest intellects. I found Craig to be lacking in both of the qualities during his discussion of this issue.

  3. Absolute Morals: Craig argued that the existence of absolute morality gives evidence for God. Once again this is simple minded. Indeed in a meeting we convened at my Origins Project of distinguished philosophers and neuroscientists we debated the subtle issues of morality and human evolution, the possible variants of morality, and a host of other issues, without once ever resorting to God. As I tried to explain to Craig, paraphrasing fro Steven Pinker, if there were a God, either God would have the choice to determine what is right and wrong or not. But in this case, if God determined that raping and murdering 2 year-olds is morally acceptable would it be so? If not, as reason and experience suggests, then God really has to resort to other considerations, kindness, compassion, etc (except for the Old Testament God!), on which to base God’s decisions. But if that is the case, why not just dispense with the middle-man? Lastly, if there is evidence that God provides absolute Morality, it is missing from the world of our experience, where different religious groups, all of whom claim divine inspiration, have incompatible moral views, often leading to horrendous and violent acts against women and children, for example. Indeed, the Old Testament is full of such acts.

  4. Contingency: Frankly the argument that humans or the universe do not have to exist but they do as providing evidence for God is something I find unfounded, so I will not devote any more words here to this subject. Many ‘contingent’ phenomena occur by natural causes, from earthquakes to snowflakes and I do not have to invoke God’s will to explain them. What applies to earthquakes and snowflakes applies to the Universe. Just because I cannot yet explain the origin of the Universe does not imply the existence of God…again God of the Gaps.

  5. Our Universe had a beginning, therefore God must have created it: Actually the issue of the beginning of the Universe is the only truly interesting question worth discussing here. A host of scientific arguments need to be discussed here, and there is no doubt the question of chicken and egg is a vexing one for cosmologists as well as theologians. However, let me make a few points here: (1) All things that begin may have a cause, even if the cause is rather obscure and purposeless. However, what is important to note is that every known physical effect whose cause we understand has a physical cause. There is no reason therefore to assume the same will not be true of our universe itself. (2) There are no arguments that our universe need be unique and not derived from something pre-existing, or even eternal. Indeed, the Ekpyrotic Universe promoted by Turok and Steinhardt, which I don’t find compelling, argues for potentially eternal periods of expansion and contraction. Craig doesn’t understand the physics. (2) I continued to try and explain that quantum gravity may imply that space and time themselves are created at the moment of the big bang. This is a rather remarkable statement if true. But if it is true, in the absence of time itself, how one can ascribe arguments based on causality is unclear at best.

This last point illustrates what I tried hardest to explain. Classical human reason, defined in terms of common sense notions following from our own myopic experience of reality is not sufficient to discern the workings of the Universe. If time begins at the big bang, then we will have to re-explore what we mean by causality, just as the fact that electrons can be in two places at the same time doing two different things at the same time as long as we are not measuring them is completely nonsensical, but true, and has required rethinking what we mean by particles. Similar arguments by the way imply that we often need to rethink what we actually mean by ‘nothing’, from empty space, to the absence of space itself.

What I hoped I could convey to the truly open minded intellects in the audience, of which of course Craig was not one, was that the amazing effort to understand how the universe works reveals wonders far more remarkable than those presented by Bronze age myths, developed before we had any clear understanding of how the universe works. Simply arguing that one doesn’t understand the results, or doesn’t like the results and therefore one has to resort to supernatural explanations, which was the crux of Craig’s rather monotonous repetition of his syllogisms, is indeed intellectually lazy, as I did say at the time.

I have taken great effort to describe our actual understanding of the Universe and its implications for understanding how it might be possible for something to come from nothing, i.e. non-existence, in my new book, which will come out in January of 2012.

Guns vs. Butter

Guns vs. Butter
by Audley Z Darkheart

Since the Libyan protests began, the debate over the US led NATO enforcement of a “no-fly zone” has raged nearly everywhere– news outlets, op-ed pages, blogs, even facebook. It all boils down to one fundamental question: Should the United States be dropping bombs on yet another sovereign nation?

My answer is a simple and passionate “no”. I have no interest in discussing whether or not Operation Odyssey Dawn is a truly humanitarian effort, nor do I want to be dragged into another argument over the justification of killing Gadhafi’s forces. Instead I would like to dust off that old standby, the guns versus butter debate.

For as wealthy as the US is, we still have a finite amount of resources. We are told by those in power that we are in a budgetary crisis and programs must be cut in the name of balancing the budget. The rhetoric goes something like this: Regular middle-class American families need to tighten their belts and make do with less and the government should follow suit. Austerity measures will lead us into economic recovery.

Republican lawmakers would like to cut $61 billion out of the upcoming budget. Not for profit organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Swords to Plowshares (an organization that provides services for low income and homeless veterans) face losing all of their federal funding. The EPA and Clean Air Act would be virtually gutted. The EPA would be stripped of its ability to regulate air and water quality and impose restrictions on CO2 emissions, all in the name of deregulation and saving money. Republicans have not forgotten about the fight over healthcare reform, either, as they are proposing to completely defund the Affordable Care Act. What about our wonderful, liberal Democratic lawmakers? They are apparently along for the ride. To avoid a government shutdown, Democrats are willing to cut between $30-$35 billion dollars from the federal budget, mostly from healthcare spending and agricultural subsidies (Washington Post, March 26).

After all of my research for information on the upcoming budget cuts (okay, it was an hour Googling “budget cuts” while drinking beers), I cannot find any mention of any reductions to military spending. Cutting the defense budget, it seems, remains a political hot potato. No one wants to touch it.

According to ABC news (March 25), the military effort in Libya has cost $258 million so far, with estimates of $30-$100 million per week to continue the conflict (New York Daily News, March 23). With no end in sight and no exit strategy, there is no way to tell how many weeks we will be involved. There is no way to estimate how much will ultimately be spent.

To connect all of the dots, the federal government spends roughly $317 million on Planned Parenthood and Title X services every year (New York Times, February 17), which (according to Republicans) need to be cut to balance the budget. Yet somehow, in a week’s worth of fighting in Libya, we were able to spend nearly that amount. Which is it? Do we have the money or don’t we? Should the US be involved in another war (to call it anything else is simply dishonest at this point) when our citizens are suffering?

Our government has answered those questions loud and clear. Waging war is an acceptable expenditure, no matter the costs, but providing much needed services to Americans of all income levels is not. Protecting our national self interests at home is not as important as protecting foreign oil fields.

I have been called “morally bankrupt” because I am a pacifist who does not want to see the US involved in another war. For those of you who think this of me, I implore you to look long and hard at what is happening here at home and honestly tell me that you think spending millions (perhaps billions) fighting a foreign military is an acceptable use of our money.

The Credulity of Americans is Unquenchable (with bonus poll!)

The Credulity of Americans is Unquenchable
by Juno Walker

An evangelical pastor and his wife are making money off their 11 year-old son’s book about his near-death experience. If you think I sound cynical, you’re correct; unfortunately, it seems there are far too few Americans who share my skepticism.

But first, a little background about the story: the son, Colton, was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Upon coming to, the boy recounted how “he had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus.” He said he even noticed that Jesus’ eyes were a sparkly blue. (Now, keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and while it’s not impossible for him to have blue eyes, the boy’s description more closely mirrors the typical Anglophilic portrayal of a long-haired, pasty-white Jesus with a goatee. Also keep in mind that Colton was only about 4 years-old when he had his “vision.” Do you think the images of Jesus he had seen up to that point would portray Jesus as a typical Jew of his day, or as an Anglo-Saxon hippie with blue eyes?)

Colton’s 163-page book has sold astonishingly well: there are currently more than 1.5 million copies in print, and it is on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks now. Clearly many Americans have a strong need for this type of feel-good rubbish.

What’s not clear is whether he actually had a near-death experience, per se – I haven’t read the book (I refuse to spend money on it), and this article in the NYT isn’t clear; it merely says that he woke up from surgery and claimed he had died. Colton’s parents believe him, of course. They believe him so much that they published this book for him. And although Colton’s father says he was simply hoping for the publisher to break even, and that he plans on giving away most of the royalties, he is in fact keeping some of the money for “home improvements.” Well, there’s a nice plus. But as a Christian – and as a pastor – wouldn’t that money be better spent for the poor, the homeless, the sick, or other Christian goals?

Now, every parent wants to believe their kid. No parent wants to intentionally belittle and condescend to their child. And, given the parents’ religious faith, it’s easy to see how they are inclined to credulity.

But isn’t it more likely that something else is at work here? I mean, when you become a Christian, you make a commitment to a set of beliefs, a dogma, and the nature of a dogma is that you can’t doubt it and believe it at the same time. For example, a Christian can’t claim to be a Christian and doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead. That’s the essence of being a Christian – at least from an evangelical point of view. And the typical believer can’t venture too far into the exegetical disputes over literal versus metaphorical interpretations; the theological ground there is too shaky – the fate of his eternal soul depends on it!

So the temptation to believe what would otherwise be met with a healthy skepticism and gentle patronization (e.g., if Colton woke up and said he died and met Alexander the Great), is so strong as to blind one from the more obvious explanation. The parents, of course, claim that Colton made reference to things that “there’s just no way he could have known.” The example they give is that the mother had had a miscarriage but never told Colton about it; but Colton had referenced it directly. This is a common refrain among those who have had near-death experiences.

But we know that our brains absorb a lot more stimuli via our senses than our “conscious minds” can register. I don’t intend to get into a discussion of consciousness – other than to say that no one really knows how to explain it yet – but there is literature out there documenting research and experiments related to human perception and human memory – but all too few people read this stuff.

And for all you parents out there – how many times have you been surprised at something your child has repeated to you that you were convinced they never could have known? How many times have you heard them parrot something that you swore they couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand?

What’s particularly sad is the effect this experience will have on Colton himself, as well as the effect his book will have on other credulous families with children. For his part, Colton, 7 years later, “now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football.” That seems innocuous enough; but listen to what he says about his book: “”People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts…I’m happy for that.”

He’s happy that people will believe a delusion as long as it makes them feel better. We are breeding generations of children who will gladly accept a lie instead of truth, so long as it makes them feel good. But one day, at some point in their lives, they will have no recourse to any real resilience in times of real crisis; they’re used to digesting the superficial bromides and platitudes our culture relishes. They won’t be able to digest a truly harrowing physical or psychological experience.

And don’t get me started on the further dampening of scientific curiosity and thinking this type of anecdote permits – and almost encourages.

And you know that if Colton were born a Buddhist, he would have seen the Buddha; if he were born a Muslim, he would have seen Muhammad; and if he were born a Hindu, he would have seen Krishna – or any of the other myriad deities in the Indian pantheon.

Stories like this one, especially when presented uncritically in a venue such as The New York Times, makes me truly pessimistic about the future of humankind.

By the way, there’s a poll by the Today show on this subject. Help it out.

Do you believe in heaven?
Colton Burpo had a near-death experience at the age of 4 during which, he says, he not only sat in Jesus’ lap, but met a sister lost to a miscarriage and his late great-grandfather — things of which he could have had no knowledge, his parents say. Do you believe there is a heaven?



I’m not sure, but I hope so!

Clarifying tetrapod embryogenesis, accurately

Clarifying tetrapod embryogenesis, accurately
By OldCola

[Note from pzm: The text of this one is a little rougher than I like, but the content is interesting and addresses the claims of a character who has been lurking about here for a while, and whose work I’ve criticized before. If nothing else, I’d also like to see a few science posts submitted as guest articles, so think of this as priming the pump.]

The article, “Clarifying tetrapod embryogenesis, a physicistʼs point of view,” by V. Fleury, hasn’t steered the revolution expected by Fleury in evo-devo. Two years after the publication, cited by one (Fleury himself), the article seems to have being more useful to clarify the way he perceives the world, then anything related to the tetrapods embryogenesis. And the most useful elements are to be found on the Web, not in the article per se. Direct questions remain unanswered, critics are threatened by legal action for defamation, and hierarchical superiors are solicited to politely ask the critics to STFU.

While Fleury must be aware by now of major flaws in the way he represented several of the articles he used as sources of information, and of several inconsistencies of his model and the way he extrapolates his own data, he doesn’t seem to have done anything to correct them. The article remains available unchanged, a shame for EPJ AP editorial board (and Editor-in-Chief Dr Drévillon B. in particular), sufficiently shameful at least for the guy who invited the review, for Fleury to avoid disclosing his name.

A new element comes to complete Fleury’s quest:

The pattern of tetrapods exist in the platonician space of forms, just like the sphere. You can write its essence without evolutionnary arguments.

V. Fleury, Dynamic topology of the cephalochordate to amniote morphological transition: A self- organized system of Russian dolls, C. R. Biologies (2011), doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2010.11.009

During evolution of vertebrates a sequence of events is empirically observed: first, animals are bilateral, but they have no heart, no head, and no surrounding bag during development (these primitive animals are called cephalochordates [1]).

From the very first phrase of the Introduction, you know hope that no biologist read the manuscript before it was accepted for publication. And certainly not any evo-devo person, which would be the right choice for a referee for this kind of subject.

Cephalochordates are certainly not vertebrates and they certainly have a head, the sub-phylum being named after the fact that the notochord extends into that head. One may think that Fleury misused the word “head”, meaning “skull” or whatever, but if you read the French summary of the paper you do get the same information, Cephalochordata don’t have a “tête” (French for “head”).

And he dare give a reference! But if you had the courage to read his previous article (for a review) you may be familiar with the strange way Fleury reports his readings (at least the way he understood them), in an absolutely surreal way, including data from his own lab! If not, there is a brand new example in this one (see below).

By the title you may have expected to read about comparative embryology/anatomy that will enlighten you on the relations between the body plans of cephalochordates and amniotes. If so, you will be deceived. Fleury focuses entirely on chicken embryos, hoping to prove experimentally the existence of some kind of order in the ontogeny of the chicken that reflects an order in the phylogeny of chordates. The reading is interesting not to learn anything about evolution or embryology (or physics by the way), but to see how an a priori can lead someone to mess up things badly. Fleury observes the world through a keyhole shaped by Plato a long time ago and he seeks some equivalent of the Holly Grail: a way to write the essence of the pattern of tetrapods without evolutionary arguments, as it “exist in the platonician space of forms, while avoiding being embarrassed by the bullshit produced by embryologists, geneticists or evo-devo people.

The aim of this work is to support that “the formation of amniotes would be a deterministic attractor of a physical process over a flat visco-elastic plane,” and that the formation of the heart and the chorion (you should pronounce it amnios to make sense) are the consequence of the body’s growth along the anteroposterior axis.

Thus, any embryo with the amniotic (and chorionic) cavity formed before the beginning of gastrulation would falsify Fleury’s model definitively. I’ll come to that later.

While aware of the lateral folding of the embryo around an antero-posterior (AP) axis, Fleury avoid to discuss it as his model don’t explain it. Cardiac tubes are formed as mirror structures at both sides of and parallel to the AP axis, they migrate to the midline where they fuse to form the heart and they are already pre-determined to produce almost fully developed hearts if by some mutation their migration to the midline is impaired. Cardiac formation is not caused by the the cephalic fold renamed “cardiac fold” by Fleury.

The fact that the cephalic and caudal folds forming the anterior and posterior intestinal portals are distant in time by almost 24 h doesn’t bother him and his model lack any modality that would explain the latency for the formation of the posterior intestinal portal. On the contrary, he manage to represent the two folds as the result of the AP axis extension in a single schema, as being the consequences of a single phenomenon, “[f]or the sake of clarity“. He is not at his first temporal jump of embryonic structures, even of imaginary ones.
What kind of physicist could have reviewed the manuscript without requiring some kind of explanation about this particularity?

There is nothing really new in his description of the development of the chicken embryo, except the errors and omissions which make it unusable. One may prefer a classic textbook, published a while ago: Patten, B.M. (1920). The Early Embryology of the Chick. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son and Co. You can browse through it at UNSW Embryology pages, where the scans of the illustrations are of much better quality.

Some data may be interesting for people interested by the dynamics of the embryo formation, the article being based on time lapse videos of the developing embryo. There is no much of it and the graphics seem to report on single experiments (no number of observed embryos given, no variance bars on the graphics). What is really new for me, is that Fleury found a way to report a “rate of variation of the radius” of an ellipse, with a major vs minor axis ratio of ~1,5 (fig 3, a, 0′), giving a single value! Any mathematician around to explain us this?

As Fleury decided to rename the formation of the subcephalic pocket “cardiac fold”, and he was seeking some symmetry at the caudal region, he also renamed the subcaudal pocket “cardiac fold” and he triumphantly mention the “aneural heart” of the hagfish as an evidence of the power of prediction of his model. Now, the caudal heart of the hagfish is just a pair of specialized structures on the caudal veins, parallel to the AP axis, as the primitive heart tubes, separated by a cartilage septum and they are innervated! Jensen, in the Introduction of his paper clearly explain the anatomy of the circulatory system of the hagfish and what elements are innervated, or not. Either Fleury didn’t bothered reading the paper or he is simply unable to understand what he is reading (or both, your guess). It would have be nice if he had read the paper, because he passed over the existence of the portal heart and of what some people call the cephalic hearts of the hagfish (specialized gill musculature which propel the blood through the arterial circulation). There is even an illustration for people bored by textual explications (fig 4). Such a little animal, so many hearts and not enough folds to explain them. Unnerving.

Patten starts his Introduction by a very wise advice:

The only method of attaining a comprehensive understanding of embryological processes is through the study and comparison of development in various animals.

As I said, any embryo with the amniotic cavity formed before the beginning of gastrulation would falsify Fleury’s model definitively. Let me present you an artist’s rendition of Dr Fleury at his early youth, second week of development

Capture d'écran 2011-02-21 à 18.24.47.png


The illustration is from the online Human Embryology course notes (clic the image for the full page). I’m not sure they had in mind Vincent Fleury when they draw this cartoon, but it’s the best I can offer you: A cute embryo with his amniotic cavity lined with cells from the epiblast and his primary yolk sac lined by cells derived by the hypoblast. The Heuser’s membrane is still attached to the extraembryonic reticulum.
A few days later, the secondary yolk sac had formed and the chorionic cavity was installed.


At this stage little Vincent was still bilaminar with fully formed amniotic and chorinic cavities.

Those of you interested to learn about embryo’s folding can also visit Folding of the germinal disk and the generation of the abdominal wall, in which case the comparison of the two foldings (cephalo-caudal and lateral), animation is a must for the visitor, and certainly for Fleury.

How sad that a great model from an experimentalist working all day with embryos, goes down the drain after being confronted to elements of chapter 5 of a Human Embryology textbook.

Several questions come in mind in this situation, the first one being: who the hell reviewed the manuscript. Not a biologist, probably not a physicist (he should have ask for a mechanism explaining the delay of formation of the caudal fold). Not a second year student of biology or medicine neither; she would have spotted the problem with the amniotic and chorionic cavities subito presto.
Fleury’s precedent paper was an invited review by one of the editors of a journal of physics. You can’t blame the guy for being unable to understand the bunch of errors the review contains. OK, you can blame him for not having a specialist’s opinion on the final piece of work. Misplaced trust. And sometimes, some physicists are just pissed-off by life scientists. Fleury didn’t even dared to give his name.

This time, the journal is a publication of the French National Academy of Science and it displays “Biologies” on the cover. Shame on them. Until this paper is retracted who would trust the “Development and reproduction biology” section of the journal, or the journal at all? I wouldn’t, would you?

Therefore, this suggest” is one fabulous transition.

The Methods section of the paper may be interesting if you plan a few experiments with chicken embryos, but dramatically incomplete. The most interesting part is missing: the references of the software and the method Fleury is using for PIV, which gives him astonishing images. I would like to be able to check by myself, previous interpretations of experimental data, even the ones generated in his lab, by Fleury being as much surreal as his usual stuff. Hopefully he could complete this section in the comments of this post.

In Heart formation, Fleury undergo to explain how the heart is formed by the heart fold. Here is the first part where it goes really bad. I can understand the frustration of a physicist who would like to have more data concerning the biomechanics of the process, and hopefully somebody else than Fleury will go for them. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel, there are nice descriptions of the movements by which the heart tubes are forming, how the lateral folding of the embryo make them join along the anteroposterior axis and describing their fusion to produce the unique heart tube [1]. Certainly, the 125° rotation of the heart fields and the lateral folding of the embryo necessary for the normal cardiogenenic process are not perpendicular to the anteroposterior axis and doesn’t fit Fleury’s model, but it isn’t reasonable to just ignore them. You can’t just ignore what it doesn’t fit your model to make it sound plausible.
Anyway, even the fusion of the primary heart tubes doesn’t seem to be necessary to support the development and morphogenesis of the heart, up to some point: “a highly differentiated four-chambered mammalian heart” in the case of Foxp4 mutant mice embryos [2].

The point of junction of the cardiac tubes do travel caudaly along the anteroposterior axis of the embryo, but that’s just the point of junction…

An interesting description of the heart formation can be found in a relatively old textbook: The Early Embryology of the Chick (pp 68-72, fig. 26 & 27, with emphasis for fig 27) [3]

For those who will take the time to read the paper, please pay attention to the part discussing the role of chemotactic forces ; Fleury didn’t managed yet to understand morphogenic gradients and that most of them are embedded into the cells and the extracellular matrix.

You may need to go through the whole section about the Chorion formation to understand that Fleury discuss just about the amniotic folds of the chorion and completely ignores the rest of it. It’s just that it isn’t folded in the right direction for his model. On the other hand the amniotic folds of the chorion are folded in the right way and Fleury carefully studied the ways the meet around a single point. Not only it’s weird how he doesn’t discuss the lateral part of the amniotic folds (absolutely necessary to form the amnios and the dorsal part of the chorion), but not perpendicular to the anteroposterior axis, but somehow he manage to found a single rate of variation of the radius of an ellipse!

Patten [3] offers a series of diagrams showing the growth and foldings of the somatopleure which form the amnios, from transverse sections of the embryo, in fig 30 and from longitudinal sections in fig. 32. That gives a global image of the tissue growth, in all directions, not just the keyhole presentation Fleury is giving in his article.

While Fleury is aware that the cephalic and caudal amniotic folds appear at different developmental stages, he present their occurrence as being caused by the “extension of the median axis” without explaining what may be the mechanical causes for the delay of almost 24h for the apparition of the caudal amniotic fold. “For the sake of clarity” he present them in the same figure (4b of his paper) as if they occurred in the same time. As much clarity as usually.

1. Heart Field: From Mesoderm to Heart Tube, Radwan Abu-Issa, and Margaret L. Kirby, Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology Vol. 23 (2007): 45-68, doi: 10.1146/annurev.cellbio.23.090506.123331

2. Advanced Cardiac Morphogenesis Does Not Require Heart Tube Fusion, Shanru Li, Deying Zhou, Min Min Lu, Edward E. Morrisey, Science Vol 305 (2004): 1619-1622, doi: 10.1126/science.1098674
3. Patten, B.M. (1920). The Early Embryology of the Chick [link to scans in pdf at archive.org]. Philadelphia: P. Blakiston’s Son and Co. You can browse through it at UNSW Embryology pages, where the scans of the illustrations are of much better quality.

V. Fleury, Dynamic topology of the cephalochordate to amniote morphological transition: A self-organized system of Russian dolls, C. R. Biologies (2011), doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2010.11.009

The Catholic Church still doesn’t get it

The Catholic Church still doesn’t get it
By Adrian Liston

No matter how many revelations of child sex abuse by Catholic Priests come out, the Catholic Church still doesn’t get it. Take, for example, this story told by the Archbishop of New York, in which he recounts a (probably apocryphal) encounter with an angry man at an airport.

According to the Archbishop, the ex-Catholic said that he cannot look at a Catholic Priest without thinking “sexual predator”. The Archbishop’s response is telling, as he thinks only of the “shame and damage of the wound” that had been inflicted on himself with those words, rather than the far worse damage inflicted upon countless children by the Church’s actions.

Archbishop Dolan considered yelling and swearing at the guy, but instead proceeded to excuse the Church from all misconduct — taking the common line that sexual abuse is everywhere, so the Catholic Church should not be singled out.  The Church just doesn’t get it, still treating child sexual abuse as just another sin on par with consensual homosexuality, rather than as a crime. They are also ignoring their own records, which suggest that Catholic Priests are more than 100-fold more likely to be a child sex offender than an average member of the public. There is a real genuine problem of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church that just cannot be eradicated until the Church accepts that the problem is within Catholicism itself, rather than just being a society-wide problem that has reached into the Church.

Most revealing of all is the musings by the Archbishop on the reasons why the Catholic Church is attacked over child sexual abuse. The Archbishop gives three reasons:

1. “For one, we priests deserve the more intense scrutiny, because people trust us more as we dare claim to represent God, so, when one of us do it – even if only a tiny minority of us ever have — it is more disgusting.”

I have to say, I think the Archbishop has a point here. Not about “a tiny minority”, the Church’s own figures suggest that ~9% of Catholic Priests ordained in 1970 were child sex offenders. But it is true that the crime is more horrific when the same monster who is abusing children is also telling adults in a loving consensual relationship that their act is a crime against God. The solution is simple, however – until the Church achieves some semblance of morality itself it should cease from condemning others.

2. “Two, I’m afraid there are many out there who have no love for the Church, and are itching to ruin us.  This is the issue they love to endlessly scourge us with.”

Ah yes, the Church is the victim of a witch-hunt (a term which originates, incidentally, from the practice of the Catholic Church in persecuting innocent women and executing them without evidence). America does indeed have a history of Protestant discrimination against Catholics, but the child sex abuse scandal is not limited to America. There has been scandal and outcry in staunchly Catholic European countries, such as Belgium and Ireland. The rise of anti-Catholicism in these countries is not due to historic prejudice, but rather is being directly created by the actions of the Church. The Archbishop has cause and effect the wrong way around – child sex abuse is driving anti-Catholic sentiment, not the reverse.

3. “And, three, I hate to say it, there’s a lot of money to be made in suing the Catholic Church, while it’s hardly worth suing any of the other groups I mentioned before.”

This is contemptible, the Archbishop is making the outright accusation that cases of child sex abuse are being invented for profit. Once again, the Church is considering itself to be the victim rather than the culprit. Not only is this a disgusting slap in the face to all those people abused by Catholic Priests, but it is certifiably wrong. The John Jay Study, commissioned by the Catholic Church, detailed that Church investigations of sex abuse allegations found that 80% were “substantiated” and only 1.5% were “false”. So even when the Church investigates itself, using a Canon Law process that is judged by the local Bishop and does not allow for forensic evidence, they agree that only the tiniest minority of cases are made up.

The Church needs to stop assuming that the outrage against child sexual abuse is confected for political or monetary gain. The outrage against child sexual abuse is genuine outrage at the horrific nature of the crime itself.

I have suggested before the five steps that the Church needs to take in response to these crimes:

1) Admit that child rape is a wide-spread crime being perpetrated within the Catholic Church by a substantial proportion of Priests, reaching across continents and as far back as records exists.

2) Admit that this child rape has nothing to do with homosexuality or secularism or any such, and is instead a problem disproportionately within Catholicism.

3) Admit that the Church knew for a long time that this was a problem but chose to cover it up, and that Church doctrine is still preventing cases being reported directly to the secular authorities.

4) Admit that the Church has spent, and still spends, far more time devoted to petty concerns such as preventing contraception than it has to preventing child rape by its own members.

5) Fix the damn problem. Sell a few pieces of art and pay restitution to the victims. Make it official Church policy to report every incident to the police. Investigate Priests with the zeal shown during the Spanish Inquisition. Shut up about other people’s “sins” until the Church is clean. Change those aspects of doctrine or theology that drive child rape. Show some humility.

Unfortunately, decades into the scandal the Church is still failing to grasp step 1.  

An Atheist’s View On Abortion

An Atheist’s View On Abortion
by Juno Walker

On the drive home from work tonight I was behind a pickup truck that had a rather large white sign with red letters that read: “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN” taped to the inside of his back window. In addition, he had a bumper sticker with a picture of a smiling infant and a Bible verse, Jeremiah 1:5. For those who don’t know, this verse reads in part: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” I’ve seen this before; and one of my colleagues cited this verse as the main reason she attends anti-abortion rallies each year in Washington, D.C. But on bumper stickers — and the mouths of fundamentalists — only this first clause of the sentence is ever cited.

On the face of it, it would seem that the Christian — in her mind — has a relatively strong justification for her position of opposing abortion. However, it’s been pointed out by others that, not only is God talking specifically to Jeremiah, but the context refers to Jeremiah’s calling as a prophet. The context of the verse has nothing to do with abortion. But I don’t want to dwell excessively on this particular fact; most agnostics and even liberal Christians can see that this is a stretch. I’d like to talk more about the philosophical and scientific aspects of abortion.

There is much ambiguity and dispute between various Christian sects regarding the “soul.” The first problem is that Christians have no idea what a ‘soul’ is. What is it made of? How is it attached? What are its mechanisms? As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist church, I would say that the consensus — if it could be said that there is one — is that the soul is immortal but not eternal. That is, the soul is created at conception, and will live forever — either in Heaven or Hell — but it’s not eternal, which would imply that it has neither beginning nor end. In most Christian thought, God (or the Trinity) is the only eternal one. In other words, the human soul isn’t eternally existing like God, but is created at the moment of conception; but it will also survive the death of the physical body — to spend forever in either Heaven or Hell.

That said, let’s consider some practical implications. If — as is implied in Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 5 — God somehow knew us before we were born, what could that possibly mean? How could he know us? We only come to know us gradually throughout childhood, eventually developing a coherent, consistent sense of self. In what sense does God know us? Presumably only half of us is formed — i.e., our genetic blueprint. But what about the ‘nurture’ side of us? That hasn’t been formed yet. That results from our life experiences; and obviously we haven’t had any life experiences before we were born.

Of course, if — as many, if not most, theologians believe — God is outside of space and time, and presumably sees ‘time’ as one big frozen block; i.e., He sees past, present and future as one, then God might know us in the sense of knowing our entire lives — past, present and future. In that sense, God would truly know us before we were born. That’s really the only way the Christian could make sense of it. If I’m wrong, then by all means let me know.

Yet this notion, it seems to me, would present all sorts of thorny ethical problems for the believer. The most obvious one — and one theologians have debated for centuries, and still are debating — is the concept of predestination: if God knows the future, then he already knows who will end up in Heaven and who in Hell. Indeed, proponents of this theory even cite the Jeremiah verse in question. And some New Testament verses provide strong support for it as well — see Matthew 22:14 and Ephesians 1:3-5.

But how would a non-believer make sense of the soul? Well, first of all, the non-believer probably doesn’t believe in souls. The non-believer probably believes that the soul — or mind — is ultimately the brain, a physical organ. Exactly how the mind is the brain is still up for debate, but the consensus among philosophers and scientists is that material processes give rise to the subjective experience that most people would associate with the ‘soul.’ But here we need to distinguish between the Christian’s ‘belief’ in an immaterial, categorically different soul, and the atheist’s ‘belief’ that the mind is the brain.

The Christian bases her belief primarily on scripture — i.e., what she believes is a direct revelation of God, the Creator of Souls — and her personal intuition. non-believers possess that same intuition — which they believe is a product of our evolutionary heritage — but also come to their conclusion that souls don’t exist based on evidence from the sciences — primarily neuroscience. Anyone who has taken the time to read books by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazziniga, or V.S. Ramachandran — or even summary articles in popular media venues such as Scientific American and Science Daily — is quickly presented with some difficult and puzzling questions about the nature of the self and consciousness.

Phenomena such as split-brain experiments, anterograde amnesia, bizarre results of various types of brain damage, or even mental illnesses such as schizophrenia all seem to present an intractable problem for the believer in souls, namely, if the soul is separate and independent from the body (and has ‘free will’), then why can’t the soul overcome these difficulties?

Non-believers believe that the Self (i.e., the mind/brain) develops over time through the genetically-determined growth of the brain as well as the brain’s interaction with its physical and social environment. The Self is ‘conscious’; that is, it is aware of itself, it has desires, it feels pleasure and pain, as well as all gradations in between these two poles. And this is where a non-believer’s view of abortion comes in.

Since the non-believer believes that the Self is the brain, then the non-believer can provide a demarcation between Self and non-Self: the nervous system. Feelings of pleasure and pain presuppose a viable nervous system. Without a nervous system, not only are pleasure and pain not felt, but there is no Self to do the feeling. We could say that this is the baseline test for abortion — if you abort something that doesn’t have a fully-developed nervous system, then you are not aborting a Self. You are not aborting a person.

I don’t believe anyone out there is pro-abortion. Unless you’re a psychopath, you value life over non-life, existence over non-existence. Obviously, women aren’t getting pregnant merely with the intention of aborting a fetus. So the decision to abort is not a whimsical, capricious, or malicious decision (the potential immaturity and impetuousness of some teenagers notwithstanding). What is usually being weighed here is the strife of an unwanted pregnancy versus bringing a human being into the world. So we should have a method for weighing the needs and desires of the adult human versus the non-existent needs and desires of a potential adult human, assuming he even makes it to adulthood. (He’s like the sea turtle hatchling scrambling to get to the ocean before the sea birds get him.)

And this is where I believe the non-believer stands on firmer ground than the believer. The non-believer can present empirical, non-emotional, experience-based evidence in support of a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that is deemed to be inimical to her life’s intentions and plans — and well-being. The non-believer can present the image of an actual person, with a history, with life experiences, with memories, with intimate and complex social relationships, and with a refined capacity for pleasure and pain, versus a non—Self with no memories, no life experiences — and indeed no capacity at all for pleasure and pain. The believer falls back on — what? — ‘scripture,’ on personal feelings, on intuition?

The truly gray area for the non-believer, in my opinion, is pregnancy terminations beyond this demarcation line. When does a fetus begin to feel pain? Does the nervous system have to be fully-developed? Partially? If so, which parts? Etc. But even if we could say that the nervous system is most likely registering pain, we can’t really say for certain that the Self of the fetus is experiencing it — or that there really is a Self there to be experiencing it.

But given the track record of the life sciences, the non-believer can possess a more justified confidence that these things will be sorted out with the development of new technology and new research methods.

Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little Snowflakes

Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little Snowflakes
by Amy Peters

My four-year-old has a book of science activities.  One rainy day not so long ago, my husband and son decided to pull out the book and complete a biology activity on classifying living things.  The objective was to cut out pictures of animals in old magazines and decide how they should be grouped together.  Should they be grouped by the number legs they have?  By whether or not they are plant-eaters or meat-eaters?  Sea or land animals? Daytime or nighttime creatures?

Let’s be honest here.  My boy is only four.  Even with my husband’s help, the project basically turned into playtime with magazine clippings, safety scissors and glue sticks.  By the time they showed off their final product, the animal photos glued on their poster weren’t even close to being classified in the right groups.  Mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles had all been mixed together on his poster board in a beautiful, biologically diverse, gluey mess.  For some reason, amphibians and those spineless invertebrates didn’t make the poster. Maybe we don’t subscribe to the right magazines.

To my rapturous joy, near the top of the poster was a picture of a sleeping Homo sapiens.  That’s right.  My husband had thought to include a picture of a human baby.  It was glued squarely between an ocelot and a rhinoceros (at least they got them in the same phylum and class, right?).  Still, I thought it was quite clever of my husband to use such a simple exercise to demonstrate the characteristics we share with the animals on this planet and, in doing so, show that we are animals too.

Parents expect their children to have short memories, and are thus caught off guard when something we think was overlooked or forgotten ends up being significant.  Several days later, I was pretty sure my son had moved on from the kingdom Animalia to more exciting things like trucks and candy. Out of the blue one day he asked me, “Mommy, are we animals?”  My mind immediately went back to the science activity he’d completed the week before.  “Yes, we are animals,” was my response.

“But, Mommy, we seem… different.”

There it was.  An uncomplicated observation from a very brainy boy.  There was no disputing it. He was right.  We are… different.  So how to help him understand our place in the animal kingdom?  I was taken back to my own childhood where I was raised in a very anthropocentric mindset.  Not only was I taught that human beings were the most significant and special of all god’s creatures, my parents took it even further than that. I was taught that I was god’s special girl, that god knew me before I was even born, and that god knew the number of hairs on my head at all times. Why this hair-counting, voyeuristic god didn’t completely creep me out at the time, I have no idea.  Maybe I wanted very much to hear how special I was and maybe the god myth filled that need.

Yes, humans are different, but are we supreme?  And if we are supreme, was it a god or gods that made us that way? The Bible would lead us to believe so.  Why, it is completely integral to the Genesis story.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ Holy Bible, NRSV, Catholic Edition

What does science tell us?  Well, for starters science in no way confirms the Genesis account.  Science tells us that we are very tiny life forms in a very, very big universe.  Compare your mass to the mass of the planet.  Then, compare our planet to our entire galaxy.  Then think about our galaxy in terms of the entire observable universe.  It blows the mind.  We are so tiny compared to all of that, how can one ever begin to feel special or significant?  We are not only tiny in size, but in time as well.  The age of the universe is reckoned at approximately 13.7 billion years. The Earth itself is dated at 4.5 billion years old.  Out of that 4.5 billion years, anatomically modern humans only originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago.  This means that for the majority of the life of the universe and, indeed, our planet humans have not been around. How then can we be supreme, the most significant entities in the universe, as Christianity would have us believe?

The answer is that we are not supreme.  We are, collectively, a blip on the radar.  The earth will still be here long after we are gone.

How are we to go about the 80 or so years we have on this planet knowing how tiny and inconsequential we are?  The answer is that we are not insignificant.  We are living things!  You, reader, are the product of millions of years of gradual, inching evolution.  Every cell in your body is a triumph of nature.  You are incredible because you are here and you are alive.  It is not necessary to believe in a deity or that as humans we have something supernatural within us that separates us from other animals.  Our significance is our place in the natural world, and the fact that that place is only temporary.

My little boy is far too young to understand this, so my response was a visit to the new Africa exhibit at the zoo.  My overly-cautious little one looked on as I stood inches away from a chimpanzee, separated only by a pane of glass.  The chimpanzee put his hand up to the glass.  I held mine up to meet his.  His eyes met mine and we considered one another.  In absolute awe (and yes, a little choked up), I looked back at my tiny son as if to say, “See.  Not so different.”

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” – – Richard Dawkins, Unweaving The Rainbow, 1998.

In Defense of Mockery

In Defense of Mockery
by Iris Vander Pluym

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.

Thomas Jefferson

I read with profound weariness a piece in Salon by Michael Lind entitled Hey, liberals: Time to give the Beck bashing a rest.
Lind is apparently under the impression that (a) Rachel Maddow and
Chris Matthews engage in “constant mockery” of bloviating right-wing
demagogues such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Glenn Beck, and
that (b) this would somehow be a bad thing, because it is likely to
backfire on “liberals.”

He could not be more wrong.

First, Lind’s charge of “constant mockery” is patently ridiculous. Rachel Maddow has committed some of the most astounding acts of journalism
on a major cable network that a U.S. primetime audience could possibly
hope to see. Maddow regularly does long, in-depth interviews over
multiple segments for which she is extremely well-prepared, enough to
swat away any bullshit a guest might dare to fling at her. Even Tweety has his moments.
Lind’s implication that anyone on MSNBC fills all or even most of their
airtime snickering over the jaw-droppingly stupid and inane bullshit
that right-wing politicians and pundits say every day is simply
absurd. I just cannot fathom how anyone — much less someone with a
platform on Salon — could possibly be unaware that one can report on
our devastated economy, or revolution in the Middle East, and also mock morons.

But putting this accusation of “constant mockery” aside, Lind’s
larger point is that such snickering is counterproductive, and a waste
of “precious center-left media time.” He goes into his reasons in some
detail, but upon even cursory examination all of them fail to convince.

It makes other far-right Republican conservatives look moderate.”
I don’t believe this is true, and Lind provides no evidence of it. Say
a wingnut makes a fool of him- or herself while pontificating on a
particular issue. When the same issue comes up again in another
context, isn’t one likely to associate it with the earlier
foolishness? And wouldn’t this be especially true if, when it came up
the last time, one had enjoyed a really good laugh at the exact same
nonsense? But okay, I’ll grant for the sake of discussion that by
laughing at egregious examples of wingnut stupidity, we somehow make
others who hold exactly those views seem more reasonable by comparison.

Lind points out, correctly, that run-of-the-mill, right-wing
politicians routinely spout ideas that are equally as batshit insane as
anything Glenn Beck has ever spewed. But, his argument goes, because
they project more “statesmanlike gravitas” than those ignorant loonies
over whom we all snigger, they receive more respectful treatment and
thus appear more moderate by contrast. This is — excuse me — a huge
load of crap. Even if it it is true that the more “statesmanlike”
wingnuts enjoy more respect than their uncouth counterparts, and as a
result their equally crazy positions are mainstreamed and legitimized,
it simply does not follow that the solution is to stop mocking the
Christine O’Donnells of the world. If anything, what we need is far more mockery, relentlessly and consistently deployed in the general direction of anyone
who says that the separation of church and state is unconstitutional,
or that global warming is a hoax, or that the Earth is 10,000 years
old, or that eliminating Social Security is a grand idea. We should always attack stupid ideas, regardless of how nice a suit the proponent is wearing at a press conference.

Mock. Point. Laugh. State facts. Satirize. Call a lie, a lie.
Mock again. Laugh again. Point to facts again. Repeat. Repeat again.
Repeat yet again, until everyone thinks twice before ever uttering
anything so destructive, ignorant and idiotic in public.

How more people skewering right-wing falsehoods would not lead to a better world escapes me.

“It makes liberals look like snobs.” Lind explains that whenever liberal pundits bash right-wing stupidity, it only confirms in the minds of wingnuts — who already hate all those smarty-pants in-tee-lekshuls — that liberals are looking down on them.

Since the ’60s, conservatives have managed to recruit
populist voters by claiming that the intellectual elites look down
their noses at them. By theatrically sneering at less-educated
politicians and media loudmouths, progressive pundits seem to prove
that the left consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated
professional class making fun of the errors of people who did not
attend prestigious schools.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a problem here. Right-wing conservatives live in an insular world where there exists nothing but
confirmation that liberals are elitist snobs. To even attempt to
convince them otherwise would be a complete waste of time. Perhaps
Michael Lind is under the mistaken impression that an extreme
right-wing mind can ever be changed in the slightest? Or that such
people are actually the intended targets of the mockers pointing out
their “errors”? Because this is not the case at all.

Directly calling out the sheer ignorance and bone-headed stupidity
of politicians and pundits is critically necessary to a functioning
democracy. But the reason this is so isn’t because ignorant, arrogant
boneheads and their followers will suddenly become informed and
enlightened, renounce their erroneous and backward views, and sincerely
apologize to the American people for all of the pointless suffering
they have caused throughout their careers. (As if.) Calling out sheer
ignorance and bone-headed stupidity is vitally important so that everyone else
knows that there are other people who think these are really stupid and
terrible ideas. Because maybe, upon hearing of this, many people might
consider the possibility that these are, in fact, really stupid and
terrible ideas — instead of thinking wow, it sure is true that the left
consists only of snobbish members of the college-educated professional
class who attended prestigious schools.

“It’s a reactive strategy that gives the initiative to the right.”
I’ll admit this point has a good deal of superficial appeal. Whenever
your enemy defines the playing field, you are certainly at a
disadvantage. But Lind himself reveals the fatal defect in his

When progressive opinion leaders wait for conservatives
to say something stupid and then pounce on it, they cede the choice of
topics in national debate to their enemies.

Progressive opinion leaders are not sitting around in silence,
waiting for conservatives to say something stupid just so they can
react to it. (Of course they will never have to wait very long if they
are.) They cover many, many other topics of interest every day. What
Lind suggests with this line of reasoning is that there exists an
either/or binary, wherein it is not possible to set the topics of
debate and mock truly bad ideas. In fact, sometimes both of
these things intersect, and can be employed simultaneously to great
effect, as when a conservative says something incredibly stupid and/or
demonstrably untrue about a topic high on the liberal agenda. Letting
such a golden opportunity slip by would be nothing short of political

“It’s a waste of effort and attention.” Not to be trite, but you know what? Citation needed. Lind says:

We are mired down in two wars in the Muslim world and
suffering from the greatest global economic crisis since the Great

At the risk of stating the obvious, those disastrous wars and the
U.S.-instigated global economic meltdown are due in very large part to
the stupid and terrible ideas of right-wing conservatives blaring from
every major media outlet, from CBS News to the Wall Street Journal, for years,
effectively suffocating and drowning out all adversarial points of
view. Mockery may not have averted these epic disasters, but a little
more of it could certainly have helped mitigate their disastrous
effects by raising the profile of the opposition. Whenever George Bush
said something breathtakingly stupid and John Stewart or The Colbert
Report ripped it to shreds, they did this nation an enormous favor. It
really shouldn’t have to be pointed out that anything that galvanized
people against the stupidity and astonishing incompetence of the
Bush-Cheney wingnut circus was a good thing (even if Obama didn’t
ultimately deliver).

Even if Lind were right about any of these things, there is a far
greater danger in ignoring or dismissing the deranged rantings of
prominent right-wing conservatives. We do so at our grave peril. Left
alone to fester and spread with nothing to forcefully counter them, the
destructive dogmas of the fringe right-wing ooze into mainstream
political discourse, and calcify there. That is what
legitimizes those ideas, and makes them seem moderate. With a mass
media more concerned with appearing “fair and balanced” than debunking
pernicious falsehoods, we need more, not fewer people willing to pick
up the torch and chase bad ideas back into the shadows, where they

Lind does makes an excellent point about many Americans, in the
absence of alternatives, being drawn to “village explainers” like Ross
Perot with his charts and Glenn Beck with his blackboard diagrams,
which liberals mocked. (Although I would suggest it is not the charts
or blackboards being mocked per se, but the bizarre ideas
expressed on them.) “The center-left needs its own village
explainers,” he says, “with their own charts and their own
blackboards.” While I agree that we could certainly use a lot more of
them, there are plenty of high-profile liberals like Paul Krugman who
have made careers out of explaining difficult concepts like Keynesian
economics in terms that even I can understand. And at any
rate this is a red herring, because no one is claiming we don’t need
more “village explainers.” What I am claiming is that satire, mockery,
and ridicule must also be part of the liberal arsenal.

I mentioned the absurdity of Lind’s “constant mockery” accusation,
but I want to make one more point in this regard. It’s rather
well-known fact that the right has a goddamn pantheon of full-time
Mockers of Liberals. Limbaugh and Coulter, for instance, are but two
who have made spectacularly lucrative careers out of this, and this is
possible precisely because it works. To pretend that
liberals are or should be above this tactic is not only dangerous, it
renders our opponents wielding an effective weapon, one that we refuse
to deploy against them, even in self-defense. Doing so also forfeits a
powerful strategic advantage. Modern conservatism (if that is not an
oxymoron) is defined by nothing so much as “anti-liberal.” Not anti-liberalism, either. As our good friends the taxpayer-funded-scooter-riding teabaggers can attest, right-wing conservatives very much want to keep the government’s hands off
their Medicare. And we all know that when in power, right-wing
conservatives abandon nearly every single one of those values we are
told are so sacrosanct, like fiscal restraint, reverence for the Constitution, States Rights, opposition to divorce, an aversion to so-called judicial activism,
etc. Their behavior belies any belief in their so-called principles.
No, right-wing conservatives are united by one thing, far more than
anything else: they are anti-liberal, in the sense that “latte-sipping,” “Prius-driving,” and even “vegetable-eating
(?!) are epithets meant to express visceral disgust and contempt at
those depraved, treasonous liberals who are illegitimately running
their country. (Yes, I know. I wish.) Childishly taunting
those dirty hippy feminazi queer-loving manginas is a powerful tribal
reinforcement for Real Americans (who, I gather, all drink shitty
coffee, drive gas-sucking SUVs, and subsist entirely on whatever the hell it is that Taco Bell is passing off as “meat”).
It is unwise in the extreme to forego any opportunity to likewise
reinforce in those with genuine liberal instincts a similar
“anti-conservative” sentiment.

After all, what is the worst that could happen by whipping up
snickering leftism to a fever pitch in the U.S. population?
Single-payer universal healthcare? Defense spending halved? Lower teen
pregnancy rates? Stable Social Security? Legalized pot? Higher tax
rates for the obscenely rich? Clean energy?

The horror.