How to end religious strife

Give all the fundamentalist Christians a copy of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, then sit back and wait for them to kill each other. I’m amused that the article calls it a “theological argument”: the guy gets upset at the movie, sees his wife, calls her evil, and tries to strangle her. Yep, that’s a “theological argument” in a nutshell.

(via Andrew Brown)

At Ken Miller’s request

He has asked me to post this section of his book to show that he had not suggested that human origins and the Cambrian explosion might have been a miracle.

To the nonbeliever, there is no spiritual reality, and hence no miracles. To a person of faith, miracles display the greater purposes of God, giving them a meaning that transcends physical reality.

If this is true, why shouldn’t we allow that the creation of our species was a miracle? Or why not agree that the sudden explosion of life in the Cambrian might have been a miracle. Both might have been. In 1900, we could easily have said that the sun’s fire was a miracle. Unable to explain the biological basis of immunity, we could have chalked that up to God, too. And for good measure, we could have told our students that the interior heat of the earth might be the work of the devil.

We are now far enough along in the development of science to appreciate that its track record suggests that ultimately it will find natural causes for natural phenomena.

Did he say it might have been a miracle? Well, sort of. Did he say natural causes are sufficient? Well, sort of. Miracles, no miracles, you can read into it what you want. This is an objection I have to this entire section of the book—in theology, anything goes. I dug a little deeper to see what he means by “miracle.”

By definition, the miraculous is beyond explanation, beyond our understanding, beyond science. This does not mean that miracles do not occur. A key doctrine in my own faith is that Jesus was born of a virgin, even though it makes no scientific sense—there is the matter of Jesus’s Y-chromosome to account for. But that is the point. Miracles, by definition, do not have to make scientific sense.

That’s a very handy excuse—they don’t need to make sense!

Job opportunity!

Look, everyone! The Lehigh University biology department is hiring! I wonder if they’re searching for a “design theorist” to complement their eminent Professor Behe…

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR

Evolutionary Biology

The Department of Biological Sciences seeks candidates with outstanding research that employs modern analytical methods in the study of fundamental aspects of the evolutionary process. Areas of specialization may include field and/or laboratory studies on molecular aspects of population genetics, molecular mechanisms of phenotypic expression, cell division, asexual or sexual development, neural/endocrine processes, genome conservation, or phylogeny. The successful candidate for this TENURE-TRACK position will have the potential or demonstrated ability to generate extramural funding and have a commitment to instructional excellence at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The College of Arts and Sciences at Lehigh is especially interested in qualified candidates who can contribute, through their research, teaching, and/or service, to the diversity and excellence of the academic community. Applications should be directed to: Professor M. Itzkowitz, Chair, Evolutionary Biology Search Committee. E-mail: inbios@lehigh.edu Send curriculum vitae, representative publications, description of research and teaching interests, and four letters of reference to the Search Committee Chair electronically or to: Department of Biological Sciences, 111 Research Drive, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA 18015 Deadline for submission is December 1, 2006.

Lehigh University is an Equal Opportunity Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to recruiting and retaining women and minorities.

…Nope, guess not. They’re a sensible university, not insane. It is a rather wide-open call for applicants, though—it’s like they’re saying all they want is someone with solid standing in almost any aspect of evolutionary biology.

Reason #3,221 for opposing faith-based charity

Because their priorities are screwed up.

Benedict—on the second day of a visit to his native
Bavaria—said that spreading the word of Jesus Christ
was more important than all the emergency and development
aid that rich churches like those in Germany gave to poor
countries.

Don’t even get me started on his complaints that science is scaring away the gullible, tithing rubes.

(via Hank Fox)

Get enturbulated

A reader sent me a link to this unpleasant video of Scientologists in Clearwater, FL. I recognize the work: it’s by Mark Bunker of XenuTV, where you’ll find a whole collection videos documenting the kind of religious fascism Scientology, the creepiest cult on the planet, sponsors.

Bunker’s videos show how these grim fanatics can take over a whole town by terrifying the residents and coopting the police—it’s very unsettling.

I’m not the only one talking about Miller!

Surely you can’t be tired of dissecting Ken Miller yet, can you? Perhaps you’re tired of me going over it, though. In that case, Jon Voisey discusses his talk and the Q & A afterwards (don’t worry, he’s less vicious than I am, despite being an angry astronomer), and Mark Perakh points us to Amiel Rossow’s review of Finding Darwin’s God. Personally, I find it a strange book: pages 1-164 are excellent, among the best and plainest and most direct critiques of Intelligent Design creationism you’ll find; pages 165-292, eh, not so much. It’s like mild-mannered, sensible Dr Miller wrote the first half, then he drank the potion that turned him into the wartily odious Mr Theologian, with his temporal lobe unshackled and the mystical caudate nucleus unleashed, and we get page after page of unearthly prolix rationalizations for superstition. Oh, well…165 pages of first rate biology makes the book worth buying, and you can always read the rest as an exercise in facing down religious apologists.

A new bathtime dilemma

Both Proper Study of Mankind and Thoughts in a Haystack have summaries of this bizarre paper that was published in Science last week, showing a connection between a sense of cleanliness and ethical thought. I guess it’s not surprising that physical sensations impinge on unconscious decisions, but it is interesting in that it hooks into some cultural rituals. I’m not at all clear on what it means, though: should I skip out on taking a shower so I’ll feel more compelled to do good in thought and deed to compensate, or should I do pre-emptive washing so I won’t be hindered from skullduggery?

How to make a tadpole

i-0971a73433e3e9f1ec34d16d40e543e1-tadpole.jpg

I’ve been tinkering with a lovely software tool, the 3D Virtual Embryo, which you can down download from ANISEED (Ascidian Network of In Situ Expression and Embryological Data). Yes, you: it’s free, it runs under Java, and you can get the source and versions compiled for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. It contains a set of data on ascidian development—cell shapes, gene expression, proteins, etc., all rendered in 3 dimensions and color, and with the user able to interact with the data, spinning it around and highlighting and annotating. It’s beautiful!

Unfortunately, as I was experimenting with it, it locked up on me several times, so be prepared for some rough edges. I’m putting it on my list of optional labs for developmental biology—3-D visualization of morphological and molecular data is one of those tools that are going to be part of the future of embryology, after all—but it isn’t quite reliable enough for general student work. At least not in my hands, anyway. If one of my students were to work through the glitches and figure out how to avoid them, though, it could be a useful adjunct to instruction in chordate development.

If you want to play with it, I’ll give you a quick overview of what’s going on in the dataset. A paper by Munro et al. has used these kinds of data to summarize key events in the transformation of a spherical ball of cells into an elongate, swimming tadpole larva.

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