Melvin, Jesus, and Harvey

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some readers may have noticed that I write god with a lowercase initial letter instead of the more conventional way as ‘God’. Once in a while commenters take me to task for this, saying that it should be capitalized because it is a proper noun and wonder if I write it my way in order to gratuitously poke believers in the eye.

It is a deliberate policy of mine to do this but not in order to have a dig at believers, though I am surprised they care about this, especially since it does not seem to bother god at all (at least he has not told me anything so far). I do it because I am trying to change the conventional practice. I look on the word ‘god’ either as an explanatory concept or theory (like evolution) or a generic name, like cat or giraffe, and not as the name of a specific being. I am hoping that my approach will catch on and the practice spread. Of course, I know that I am fighting an uphill battle on this one. The publishers who put out my work have their style manuals that currently require them to capitalize the word. But I am hoping this will change with time.

After all, it used to be the case that third person pronouns for god also were capitalized as He and Him and His, but only the very religious do that anymore. At an earlier time all nouns (not just proper nouns) were capitalized. You can see for yourself that Isaac Newton’s classic book Opticks (1704) followed that old practice. But that is no longer done in English and I see no reason why my approach should also not become standard. For the moment, I have to be content to advance the cause by using this style on my blog.

The problem is that there are many gods around, so just saying god does not specify which one you are talking about. At least the Hindus do us the courtesy of giving each of their various manifestations of god a name like Krishna, Vishnu and so on. So do the Greeks with Zeus and Thor and the rest of the gang, and the Egyptians with Ra and Horus and Isis and the rest. The Old Testament god of the Jews has the name Jehovah/Yahweh. The name Allah is simply the translation of the words ‘the god’ in Arabic and was the name of one of the desert jinns worshiped by the people of the region and chosen by Mohammed to be the one and only god (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 225). At least in the western world it has come to be seen as the name of the Muslim god, so there is no ambiguity as to who we mean when we refer to Allah.

But Christians have not given their god a name. You would think that at some point during the past two thousand years someone would have noticed this deficiency and said, “Hey! How come only our god does not have a name?” and they would have rectified the situation. But that has not happened.

It is also not clear how many gods Christians have. For example, Christians have an ambivalent attitude to their relationship to the Old Testament god Jehovah. They often refer to ‘the god of the Old Testament’ in contrast to ‘the god of the New Testament’. So are they the same god or different gods? The problem is further confounded because Christians have more than one manifestation of the NT god and it is not clear to whom they are referring when they simply say god. This is the famous paradox of the trinity, the three-way split of the father god, the son god, and the spirit god. So which one of the four gods is being referred to when Christians use the term god?

The official Christian line is that the OT god is the same god as the other three gods (father, son, spirit) but in practice the connection is highly tenuous and often easily abandoned by them. If you speak with a Christian, he will initially that say he believes in the entire Bible and in one god but if you then ask him how he can justify the appalling crimes committed by the god in the OT (the genocide of Noah’s flood, the torturing, the commands to his followers to deliberately massacre people, the commands to stone people to death for all manner of transgressions), he will quickly disavow Jehovah and say that the god they worship is the god of love of the New Testament. So does that mean that the NT god is different from Jehovah? Or did Jehovah also have a come-to-Jesus moment and change his nature from a ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrant to a nice guy?

All kinds of ambiguities arise when Christians simply use the generic word god without specifying which one they are referring to. But I have a solution, and that is to give each of the Christian gods a name. The OT god remains Jehovah. For the father god I suggest the name Melvin because it is a good name, worthy of an omnipotent and omniscient deity. The son god is of course Jesus. For the spirit god, I suggest the name Harvey.

Some may object that the spirit god already has a name, the Holy Spirit. But that’s not much of a name, is it? It is more a description. It would be like calling someone Tall Guy with Grey Hair or Blonde Woman with Glasses. It doesn’t seem polite somehow. I think the name Harvey is better.

Christians can then reframe their deep theological questions by asking whether Jehovah is the same as Melvin and/or Jesus and/or Harvey, and how the last three could be the same entity even when they are each separately present simultaneously. (See, for example, Luke 3:21-22.) They are unlikely to arrive at an answer because the nature of the question is the same as the proverbial number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, but at least the question under discussion would be clear.

I hope the naming system I suggest sticks. That would also solve the issue of when god should be capitalized.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and the trinity

Even Melvin and Jesus have trouble figuring out how the two of them relate to each other in the trinity. And that is even without Harvey to complicate the picture. Harvey is quite a mysterious figure, never seen or heard, whose actions cannot be easily traced back to him. He’s like a secret agent.

As Voltaire said, “The son of God is the same as the son of man; the son of man is the same as the son of God. God, the father, is the same as Christ, the son; Christ, the son, is the same as God, the father. This language may appear confused to unbelievers, but Christians will readily understand it.”

Have you blasphemed today?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

This year’s International Blasphemy Day was on September 30. As the (no longer active) website created to propagate this said:

International Blasphemy Day is not just a day. It is a movement to dismantle the wall which exists between religion and criticism.

The objective of International Blasphemy Day is to open up all religious beliefs to the same level of free inquiry, discussion and criticism to which all other areas of academic interest are subjected.

International Blasphemy Day is a movement, not just a day, to remind the world that religion should never again be beyond open and honest discussion or reproach.

As usual with anniversaries and other commemorations, I forgot all about it until it was too late. But today’s post can be considered my belated contribution to that celebration.

The idea of free speech is something that everyone approves of, or at least gives lip service to. But when they hear speech that criticizes something that they personally cherish, then some people become willing to chip away at that right. That is a big mistake. The best way to combat speech that you disapprove of is not to abridge that right but to use more speech.

No rights are strictly absolute. All rights, however noble in concept, have inherent limitations as soon as one is part of any social community, because one person’s right should not be allowed to encroach on the rights of others, and free speech is no exception. As far as I can tell, the only restriction that the US Supreme Court has placed on free speech is when it creates a clear and present danger to other people’s safety, that threatens their rights to life and liberty. The classic example is the one that denies one the right to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

But there are always people who want to try and restrict free speech even in cases where there is no danger of immediate harm to others. For example, governments love to invoke ‘national security’ as an exception to free speech because that allows them to prevent the reporting of all their lies and mistakes and crimes.

Other attempts at restricting of free speech come in the form of seductive concerns about civility, arguing that speech should be restricted even if it merely offends people, simply because it expresses ideas that some or even most people find abhorrent. Hate speech legislation that restricts the rights of people to say despicable things against those they dislike is one such example. People who indulge in anti-gay, anti-women, and anti-minority rhetoric may be saying things that we despise and find positively hateful but that is not, by itself, sufficient to suppress their right to do so.

It becomes trickier when speech is used to actively incite violence against the people. People should not have the right to create an imminent danger to others, but defining ‘imminent danger’ and drawing the line between that and hateful, but legitimate, speech is not easy.

But of all the attempts at restricting free speech, are there any more obviously fatuous than the attempts to stifle criticisms of religion by creating laws against blasphemy? After all, blasphemy is aimed against god, the allegedly supreme being, the master of the universe, king of kings, lord of lords, the almighty who knows everything and can do anything. If his feelings are so sensitive, why on earth would he need our puny laws to protect them? He can just smite us with his preferred smiting weapons like floods and earthquakes and hurricanes.

The United States can be justly proud of the fact that unique among countries (I think) its constitution guarantees the right of free speech to everyone. And yet, in an appalling move, the Obama administration is supporting a UN movement backed by conservative Muslim countries to pass an international blasphemy law. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes about the growth and use of such laws around the world:

Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.

While attracting surprisingly little attention, the Obama administration supported the effort of largely Muslim nations in the U.N. Human Rights Council to recognize exceptions to free speech for any “negative racial and religious stereotyping.”

In the resolution, the administration aligned itself with Egypt, which has long been criticized for prosecuting artists, activists and journalists for insulting Islam.

The public and private curtailment on religious criticism threatens religious and secular speakers alike. However, the fear is that, when speech becomes sacrilegious, only the religious will have true free speech.

Muslims in particular seem to think that their religion and their prophet should be protected from anything that they consider insulting, and they often threaten or even carry out violent attacks against those who are alleged to have offended their religion. But Muslims have no more right to be protected from statements they dislike than any other group. They can revere their prophet and their god as much as they want but it is absurd for them to expect the rest of us to do so or to not make fun of them for their irrational beliefs. Their running amok in 2006 when the Danish newspapers published cartoons of Mohammed is an example of what happens when people become too accustomed to thinking that their particular sacred cows should also be sacred to everyone. (I wrote about the cartoon controversy and the hypocrisy on all sides of that issue here and here.)

The true intent of blasphemy laws is to pander to the dominant religious bloc in a country and to preserve the protected status of at least some religious beliefs because people know deep down that religious beliefs have no rational basis and that if they are exposed to sustained criticism, the whole structure will fall apart.

POST SCRIPT: CNN and Christopher Hitchens on the UN move

You have to sit through Lou Dobbs’ anti-UN rant, his nativism, and xenophobia though. This report was back in February, before the Obama administration’s support for the move was announced in October.

What Francis Collins believes

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some time ago, I had a detailed critique of Francis Collins’s book The Language of God. Collins is a distinguished biologist who has done very good scientific work and successfully headed the massive Human Genome Project. However his book revealed the power of religion to turn its followers’ brains into mush when they discuss god and religion. It was an appalling exercise in logical fallacies and question-begging, using the common bait-and-switch argument style of arguing that since we have not yet explained how the world began, that meant that believing in the whole Jesus-god story was rational.

There was some controversy recently when Collins was nominated by president Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, the premier research agency that funds and guides medical research. The concern was whether Collins’s evangelical religious beliefs would influence his decisions over what science to pursue, and thus whether his nomination should be opposed.

I didn’t think he should be opposed. What a person believes is largely his or her own affair, as long as they do not use their official position to covertly advance a religious agenda. There is no evidence that Collins has done so in the past and we should assume that he will continue to maintain that distinction in the future, unless he starts giving us reason to think otherwise.

But having said that, it is interesting to revisit the question of what Collins believes in the light of his new position. Sam Harris listed a series of slides, presented in order, from a lecture on science and belief that Collins gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008:

Slide 1: “Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.”

Slide 2: “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.”

Slide 3: “After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’ (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.”

Slide 4: “We humans used our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.”

Slide 5: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?”

What is interesting is how little there is to separate this set of beliefs from those of people like the Banana Man and Crocoduck, who are considered nutty religious fundamentalists, although Collins would be quick to disavow any similarities. Apart from the age of the universe and the inference that the human body was created by the process of evolution, everything that Collins believes could be the statement of beliefs of any Christian religious fundamentalist. And all of them are simply assertions, without a single shred of credible evidence to back up any of them.

This is why I have argued that the distinctions that are drawn by religious apologists between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religion, between ‘moderate’ and ‘fundamental’ beliefs, are an illusion. Once you allow evidence-free, logic-free statements in any single area to come in through the door, rationality disappears through the window. As Bart Simpson said in trying to stop an argument between the followers of two religious sects, “The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”

The final slide is particularly curious. He seems to be arguing that it would be uncomfortable to think that our sense of morality is an adaptation of evolution. Why? He does not seem to realize that we can have a sense of good and evil without god that can arise out of evolution. In fact that is a huge area of research. So yes, as a ‘strong atheist’, I have no trouble at all living with the worldview that the sense of morality that we possess is a product of evolution.

The real problem with Collins’s statement is that he does not seem to realize that a true scientist would not shy away from a conclusion just because he or she does not like it or because it violates a religious belief. In fact, we are obliged to accept even a highly unpalatable conclusion if that is what the evidence points to. Physicists have struggled with this for years when it comes to quantum mechanics and objective reality. You have to face up to facts. That is the only way to deal with reality effectively, not by indulging in wishful thinking about what you would like things to be and acting on those illusions.

Also, why should we consider ourselves to have been ‘hoodwinked’ by this discovery? That is like saying that pre-Copernican people who had believed in a geocentric universe had also been hoodwinked. When science uncovers new truths, it is not because nature somehow tricked us into our prior beliefs. They were held because of lack of evidence or ignorance.

It is amazing that a distinguished scientist like Collins can have views that differ so little from any other primitive belief in a Magic Man.

POST SCRIPT: Huxley vs. Orwell

A comparison of the differences between Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future in Brave New World and George Orwell’s in 1984. Who do you think turned out to be more prophetic?

(via Progressive Review)

The worldwide distribution of species

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Some of the most powerful evidence for evolution comes from the geographic distribution of species, because we find the widest range and the strangest species in Australia, Madagascar, the Galapagos, and other isolated landmasses, some of them quite small islands.

Small but isolated regions turn out to be good breeding grounds for producing new species. When some members of a species get isolated from other members and their gene pools cease to mingle, then they start to diverge from each other. This is why one sees new species proliferating on islands or other forms of isolated areas due to separations caused by mountains or lakes or deserts. The appearance of the new species in these isolated areas is explained by requiring specimens of the ancestral species somehow making it to the remote location and reproducing there. The pattern that emerges is of the new species being different from, but sharing common features with, the parent species from which they originated.
[Read more…]

Catastrophism and uniformitarianism

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post, I examined some of the ways in which young Earth creationists try to deal with the scientific evidence arrayed against them. In this post, I will look at how they deal with geology, which poses the biggest challenge to their belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old.

For example, they know that they have to deal with vast amounts of scientific data that puts the age of the Earth and the universe in the billions of years. For example, the rings of trees, the slow rates of sedimentation and erosion, the layering of soils, radiometric techniques that depend on the many different half-lives of radioactive elements, the rate of mutations in DNA, rate of continental drift, the switching of the magnetic fields at the undersea geologic faults due to continental drift, and fossils are all used to build a network of clocks that can date even very old events. All these clocks are constructed by calibrating them using known events and other clocks, once again showing the interconnectedness of science.

It is with the age of the Earth that the young Earth creationists face their biggest challenge because apart from the true believers, nowadays everyone else takes an old Earth for granted. Even the media, always solicitous of the sensitivities of their religious viewers when it comes to evolution, do not bother putting on a phony balancing act by suggesting that some people disagree with the scientific consensus of an Earth that is billions of years old.

But the creationists try to provide their followers with at least some reason to defy science. When it comes to challenging the ages of things as established by science, what the creationists do is seek out anomalies here and there in the radiometric results (and these can always be found because there are often confounding factors that prevent clean analysis in some cases) and then argue that all the dates for things and events cannot be trusted. They are using the same bogus argumentation as ‘Where is the missing link?’, where they pick on something they think is a weakness (whether it is or not) and then argue for throwing out the entire theory. So be prepared when talking to a creationist for them to quote some obscure result where, for example, radiometric dating suggests that something whose age is known was found to be wildly off.

As for geologic evidence, in the early days people could see that things like the creation of mountains and valleys and gorges and cliffs required some explaining, unless one assumed that they always existed. The popular scientific view of that time was that they were due to a series of large scale catastrophic events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and the like, that caused massive changes to occur rapidly. This model had the generic title of ‘catastrophism’. People like paleontologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who advocated this model were not necessarily religious and the age they arrived at for the Earth was in the millions of years, which was quite an achievement, given how inconceivable such large time scales must have been to them, and that religious beliefs of that time pinned the value in the thousands of years.

In the early nineteenth century, during the time just prior to Darwin going on his famous voyage of discovery, catastrophism went into decline and the idea of ‘uniformitarianism’ took hold, which held that most of the major geological features could be explained by the slow and steady accumulation of very small changes. Of course this meant that the Earth must be much older than previously thought and new estimates by people like Charles Lyell ranged in the hundreds of millions of years. This advance had a major impact on evolutionary thinking in general and Darwin’s in particular. It helped him develop his idea that, just as major geological changes came about by incremental growth, small changes in organisms could, over a long time, also lead to major changes such as the creation of new species. And the much older Earth meant that there was enough time for those changes to have occurred. So again we see the interconnectedness of science, advances in geology leading to advances in biology, and the two needing to fit together.

To counteract this, what the young Earth creationists try to do is resurrect an extreme form of catastrophism, in which there was just one major event, Noah’s flood, that was responsible for pretty much everything that we see in the Earth’s features.

The creationists have been forced to concede some points. For example, they have been forced to accept that there was originally just one big land mass and that plate tectonics caused the break up and drifting apart of what we now call continents. (This raises the interesting question of why the Bible makes no mention of such a major event.) In order to make continental drift consistent with a 6,000 year old Earth, they have to argue that the speed of the moving continents reached orders of tens of miles per day or feet per second (i.e., at the rate of a brisk human walker), rather than the accepted range of 2-10 cm/year. Of course, this ‘continental sprint’ theory conveniently happened a long time ago, during Noah’s flood, and the continents then slowed down to their present slow rate, which is why we (conveniently) cannot detect these high speeds now.

They also need to assert that the reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field had to occur rapidly as well, flipping multiple times within the forty days. Though they are coy about how frequently it switched, a back-of-the-envelope calculation gives about once every hour! Of course sprinting continentals and magnetic fields run amok require that they try to construct a wholly different model of the Earth’s core to try and deal with all these problems, resulting in them further losing contact with mainstream science (and reality).

For the acceptance of these alternative realities by their followers, they have to depend on two things: Their ability to create faux-scientific theories that look and sound impressive enough to fool the naïve, and the ‘no one was around to see it then so how can we know for sure which theory is true’ fallacious argument to cast doubt on accepted scientific theories.

Next: The worldwide distribution of species

POST SCRIPT: Cherry picking health care comparisons

The health industry and its supporters know that if comparisons are made on the basis of aggregated data, the US compares terribly with other countries in the developed world. So what they do is try and divert the discussion by picking on one or two items in which the US looks relatively good and fixate on it. It is like the tactics used by creationists in opposing evolution, with their “Where are the missing links?” red herrings.

When a health industry shill tries this tactic on Al Franken at a Senate hearing, he knows exactly how to respond.

The earnest efforts of Answers in Genesis

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post, I spoke about how the strength of science lies in the fact that it is an interconnected web of theories. Thus one cannot simply remove one single theory that one dislikes and replace it in an ad hoc manner with a new theory. This is where the intelligent design people stumbled badly in their strategy. They tried to take what they thought was a minimalist approach to introducing their theory, in the hope that it would make it more acceptable to scientists. They said that they accepted all of science, including an old Earth, the big bang, and evolution by natural selection for producing almost everything. They said that all they wanted was an exemption from the laws of nature for a handful of cases of allegedly ‘irreducible complexity’ that required an intelligent designer, which everyone knows is a euphemism for god.

But they misunderstood that is not the number of cases that is important but their significance and implication. Even if they wanted to have just one case of irreducible complexity accepted, the fact that they were introducing the radically different idea of a supernatural force into the methodological naturalism framework of science sent shock waves through the entire network, since this was a change that had enormous universal implications. Hence all areas of science, not just evolutionary biology, reacted to reject the change. It is like what happens when a single virus is introduced into one part of a body. The whole body recognizes the problem and creates antibodies to repel and eject the intruder and restore the smooth working of the system. Intelligent design was perceived by the body of science as being just such a virus.

Some of the most extreme young-Earth creationists, those who take the Bible absolutely literally and as an accurate record of history and science, recognize that they need take a more global approach and that they cannot reject just evolution but must make their creationist theory fit with at least some other areas of science as well.

The website Answers in Genesis is one such attempt. Their website is a real hoot with all kinds of earnest theories constructed to explain exactly how it can be that the Bible can be literally true. I haven’t yet seen their creation museum but what I have read so far, with images of children riding dinosaurs, makes it seem equally wacky. But unlike the intelligent design people who wanted to introduce god into science on the cheap, you have to give these Biblical literalists credit for making this effort, although they still get a resounding F for their science.

Their website lists the things that they really care about and will defend to the hilt: a young Earth that is about 6,000 years old; the Genesis story of creation with Adam and Eve as historical figures (for some reason they seem to prefer the version of the story told in chapter 2 and ignore the different version told in chapter 1); and a global Noah’s flood. In order to try and reconcile all the contradictions with modern science that inevitably arise, they go to elaborate (and even comical) extremes to make the case that all modern scientific knowledge is consistent with those three axioms.

This means that they have to respond to at least some of the scientific techniques that are used for dating things and events and which have established the age of the Earth as 4.6 billion years old. They also have to try and discredit the theory of evolution, at least as far as species change goes. And they have to explain how all the geological changes that have undoubtedly occurred in the Earth could have taken place within such a short time.

They know that they cannot possibly counteract all the evidence and arguments of science so they carefully pick their battles so that they directly address only those scientific findings that contradict those three basic beliefs. The strategy they adopt is to try and discredit any scientific theory or technique that leads to any conclusion that contradicts their Bible-based beliefs, and they talk only about those things that they think they have counter-arguments for.

The catch is that the Bible is a fixed document but science keeps moving forward discovering new things. As a result creationists have to keep backpedalling as scientific theories become more and more robust and their techniques get better. Each new fossil find, for examples, shed new light and understanding for science but for them simply creates a new problem that has to be explained away.

They also cannot deny those areas of science like quantum mechanics and the principles of radioactivity that can be directly experimented with. So they resort to denying the power of inferential reasoning, essentially arguing that we cannot know for sure what happened millions of years ago because no one was there to see it.

Next: How the creationists challenge science to maintain their beliefs.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore on why newspapers are dying

The interconnectedness of science

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Even the most die-hard religious person will concede that scientific knowledge is extremely powerful. In thinking about evolution alone and the arguments presented for evolution by natural selection in Richard Dawkins’s new book The Greatest Show on Earth, questions that might occur to the reader are: Why is science so powerful? What is it about its structure that has made it so successful?
[Read more…]

Book review-2: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the previous post about Dawkins’s book, I talked about almost all the kinds of evidence that Dawkins presents for evolution, except for the fossils.

But what about fossils? He talks about that evidence too but repeatedly points out that the case for evolution would be iron-clad even if there were no fossils at all. The fact that fossil evidence exists, and keeps accumulating thick and fast in recent years, is simply a bonus. Remember that when Charles Darwin developed his theory, there was hardly any fossil evidence to speak of, except for those that had been sufficient to persuade the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) to conclude that the Earth was at least hundreds of millions of years old, much older than the 6,000 years or so that was currently believed, even though he himself at that stage believed in special creation and thought that species remained unchanged.

So why do creationists keep focusing on the fossil record and keep saying things like “Where are the transitional fossils?” or more crudely “What about the missing links?” Some of them (yes, I am looking at you, Crocoduck) are either woefully ignorant of what the phrase ‘transitional fossil’ means or are taking advantage of the ignorance of their audience. Others who are a little more sophisticated do this because they know that the conditions for successful fossilization rarely occur, and since we are talking of a fossil record over hundreds of millions of years, there are bound to be periods for which we have no fossils along any branch of the evolutionary tree. But we keep finding new fossils and the intervals over which there are no fossils keep getting smaller.

Some evolution deniers exploit a feature of the Linnaean classification system of biology that divides living things into discrete categories and requires one to place a newly discovered fossil into a specific category. But evolution is a smoothly transitioning system and it is inevitable that some decisions as to where to place an item are going to be arbitrary. As Dawkins says, it is like the definition of an adult. The law might classify you as an adult on your eighteenth birthday but were you significantly different the day before? As one moves from (say) fifteen to twenty one, one makes the transition to adulthood but one cannot pinpoint exactly when it occurs. There are some people younger than eighteen who are very mature and there are people over that age who are quite immature. But the system requires us to fix who is an adult and who is not and put each person into one or other category. So people who really are in a transitional stage will be classified as either adult or non-adult, and the system of classification by itself eliminates any identification of transitional stages.

The classification system of biology similarly eliminates the labeling of transitional forms. One sign that a fossil is an intermediate between two species is when paleontologists strongly argue about the category in which it should be placed. But once that argument ends, and the fossil placed in one or other category, it does not mean it is no longer transitional. It simply means that it has been pigeonholed for convenience.

Dawkins points out that further evidence for evolution comes from the relatedness of the body patterns of living things that indicate that we had common ancestors. The closer the details of the plans, the more recent the common ancestor.

Furthermore, the way that our bodies are presently constructed reveals our evolutionary history. There are so many aspects of our bodies that are inefficient or wasteful and cannot be made sense of in terms of good design. But they can be understood when we look at the body plans of our primitive ancestors and see how the inefficient aspects of current species were the result of slow adaptations to changes in other parts of our bodies.

He provides a good analogy to illustrate the difference between how a god-like designer and natural selection work. An aircraft engineer (representing a god-like designer) can ignore much of what came before and design a jet engine from scratch using the principles of aerodynamics, and optimize its workings using current technology. But what if the designer were constrained (like natural selection is) to start with a propeller engine and had to make changes using only what was readily available at hand and each change had to be tiny and also provide at least a slight improvement in performance? He would still end up with a better aircraft engine but it would a patchwork mess, nowhere close to the sleek modern jet. Our body plans reveal the patchwork model of natural selection and not the planning of a god-like designer.

Will Dawkins persuade more people to realize that evolution by natural selection is the way to go and that the god hypothesis is unnecessary? Yes, but it will not be easy and not many will change their views directly. As Hugh Laurie says in one episode of House: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” That might be an overly pessimistic view of the power of reason but I think it is largely true. But the secondary effect of the book, enabling many more people to make the arguments that only a few specialists like Dawkins makes, is what is important.

This is why we need to speak out for science and against religion and show that religious beliefs are in opposition to rational thought. We need to allow people’s inner rationality, which we all possess and use in almost all aspects of our lives, to break free of the smothering effects of religion. Once people realize the need to apply rational thought to even their religious beliefs, then there is hope.

POST SCRIPT: Media coverage of atheism

NPR has a report on the new atheists and the accommodationists.

Book review-1: The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I just finished the latest book by Richard Dawkins where he makes the case for evolution. One might think that this is what almost all his other evolution books have been about too but as he says in the introduction, in his previous books he was tacitly assuming that people accepted the basic idea of evolution. He was just explaining in more detail how it worked.

His goal in the current book is to persuade the reader that evolution is an undeniable fact by marshalling all the evidence and logic that has persuaded almost all scientists that it is true. Will he persuade those who disbelieve in evolution? That is unlikely to occur directly because the real disbelievers in evolution are too locked in their religious worldview to even read a book by a noted atheist. Even the few religious apologists and theologians who will read the book in order to try and counter its arguments are unlikely to change their views because their denial of evolution and the theory of natural selection has no rational basis. As Jonathan Swift said, “You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.”

But Swift may have been too gloomy in his assessment. If what he said were strictly true, then there would be hardly any atheists at all since almost all of us were likely raised in religious households and simply accepted religious beliefs the way we accepted Santa Claus and other fairy tales told to us by the adults in our lives. And yet unbelievers are a rapidly growing group. But in Swift’s time (1667-1745), the arguments against god and religion were not nearly as strong as they are now and there were not nearly as many open atheists actively promoting disbelief, due to various blasphemy laws that protected religion from the arguments of apostates. We are truly living in a much more hopeful time.

The religious readers who may be persuaded by Dawkins’s book are those who already realize that creationism is a weak explanation of life and are looking for something better. Others who may be persuaded are those religious people who have had some kind of epiphany that has made them realize that the god hypothesis is implausible and are now looking for a satisfactory worldview that can replace their former belief structure.

But the people for whom TGSOE will prove to be most valuable are readers like me, who are not specialists in evolutionary biology but have heard and read enough to realize that it is a powerful theory and that intelligent design and other forms of creationism are laughably inadequate as competing explanations of the diversity of species. What this book does is provide us with a one-stop shop, where the evidence is presented in a clear and concise way, that we can use to persuade those whom we know and who are open to persuasion.

In his book, Dawkins convincingly makes the case for two things: that evolution has occurred and that natural selection is (largely) how it occurred.

He points out how we know so much about evolution from artificial selection, from the experiences of breeders to produce new species and from the way that species like dogs and cabbages have evolved before our very eyes. Even the banana, which in its current form is seen by some as the ‘atheists nightmare’ because it seems to be so perfectly suited to human eating, was initially a highly unappealing and unpalatable food, coming into its present form only as a result of careful breeding.

He then talks about how in the wild, symbiotic relationships that occur between insects and plants or between predator and prey or as a result of competition for sexual favors or the sudden isolation of a species all can drive evolution quite dramatically, sometimes visible in our lifetimes, although most of the time it is very slow. These natural processes play the role that breeders play in artificial selection.

He points out that although evolution in the wild is usually glacially slow, we have many independent ways of judging time over geological scales, using sedimentation rates in geology, radiometry, the magnetic field switches that are recorded in the shifting continental plates, the rate of DNA mutations, and so on.

Furthermore, the way species are distributed across the globe is powerful evidence for evolution and against special creation. Why are the marsupials concentrated in Australia? Why is it that we find different species in different parts of the world? How come Madagascar and the Galapagos have so many species found nowhere else? This particular feature that Darwin noted in his around the world trip on the Beagle was what initially caused Darwin to question special creation by god and to realize that something else must be going on.

It is interesting that in Darwin’s time the idea of continents moving was not even considered. And yet as that theory became accepted and the idea that initially there was a single land mass called Gondwanaland that became broke into bits and separated added to the explanatory power of evolution because it explained how species spread all over the globe.

And then there is the very recent and powerful DNA evidence, which really seals the case that we are all descended from a common ancestor, the original self-replicating molecule, probably a primitive form of RNA, that became DNA and slowly evolved as a result of errors during the replicating process, leading to the diverse species we see.

What is most impressive is that all these diverse pieces of evidence and argument tend to converge in their results. It is this convergence that provides the power of the argument for evolution.

Next: What about fossils?

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on superstition and spirituality

It is amazing how people take seriously stuff that they have just made up.

Film review: Capitalism: A Love Story

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

I finally managed to get to see Michael Moore’s new film Capitalism: A Love Story after travel and other duties prevented me from seeing it as soon as it came out. I am sorry that I waited so long. It is a film that must be seen.

Unlike most feature films where once you have seen the trailer you pretty much know what the entire film is about, the trailers and what you read in articles and in mainstream media commentary about Moore’s film capture only a tiny slice of it. The film is much richer.

There are Moore’s trademark funny stunts (trying to make citizen’s arrests of Wall Street executives and roping off their headquarters as crimes scenes) and these tend to be shown in highlights but the strength of the film (for me, at least) was in his always dead-on portrayals of ordinary people struggling to live their ordinary lives, only vaguely aware of the powerful forces that treat them like chattels, squeezing as much work as they can out of them for as little as they can pay, and then discarding them when they are of no value anymore, literally throwing them out of their homes and their jobs and onto the streets. The invisible hand of the market that Adam Smith wrote about has become a claw wrapped around the neck of most people, squeezing the breath out of them.

Moore shows that this is not because of the actions of evil people but is the inevitable result of capitalism. Capitalism has an internal logic and dynamic that, in its early and healthy stages, produces competition and the manufacture of useful goods, resulting in growth and prosperity for large numbers of people. But in its later decadent stages, when wealth has become concentrated in a few hands, it results in a few people making money (and lots of it) not by producing any useful goods and services but by manipulating their money to make more money, which is what ‘derivatives’ and ‘credit default swaps’ are all about. It is all about taking bets (literally) using other people’s hard earned money stored in pension funds and the like. Wall Street is a casino.

As we know (and I have discussed exhaustively in my series, The brave new world of finance), this process of decay is now in the end stages in the US where the financial interests have essentially taken over the government. Moore’s film masterfully shows how Goldman Sachs now pretty much runs government economic policy and that they have both parties almost completely under their thumb.

I learned a new word from the film: plutonomy. It is a word coined in a secret internal Citigroup document in 2005 to describe a country that is defined by massive income and wealth inequality and it is only what the wealthy do that matters to the economy. The memo says that this is what the US has become, in which the top 1% of people have more wealth that the bottom 95%. In such an economy, the needs of the bottom 95% can be ignored because they do not influence anything. This is why we now see the stock markets rebounding and the news media cheering as if things are great, although unemployment is growing, people are increasingly in debt, and foreclosures keep coming thick and fast. Moore says that ordinary people are treated like the peasants in the final stages of the Roman empire, kept amused by spectacles of no value to distract us from the decay that is all around us. And yes, as I learned from the film, we are thought of, literally, as peasants by the plutocracy.

Only a few people in congress, notably Ohio congresspersons Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich are willing to speak openly about what is essentially a coup d’etat by the wealthy that has taken control of the country, rushed through the near trillion-dollar bailouts of Wall Street in secret deals behind closed doors, and then railroaded Congress to approve it.

What the wealthy fear most is true democracy, because the vote of a poor person counts as much (in theory, at least) as that of a rich person. That is why the election system has to be stacked in other ways to ensure that money plays the dominant role, so that no one who genuinely represents the interests of the poor will get into any major office. Barack Obama is as much in the grip of these powerful people as was George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan before him. The USA is a one-party plutocracy.

What the plutocrats fear is a mass revolt as people realize that the rules and the laws are stacked against them, and decide to take unilateral action. The high points in the Moore film are when workers in a factory who have all been abruptly fired and ordered to leave the premises immediately decide to illegally sit-in in defiance of the police. And when a small community challenges an eviction notice for one of their neighbors and forces open the padlocked door to let the family back in and forces the sheriff to back off. And when a sheriff in another county refuses to enforce eviction notices because he sees them as unjust.

These small victories are won by people saying, in effect, to hell with the laws and the rules, all of which are designed to favor the interests of the rich. We know what is right and what is wrong and we are going to fight for it. But as one young woman factory worker plaintively said, why must we have to fight so hard to get what people should be entitled to as the normal course of things?

Moore points out that a lot of poor and middle class people misguidedly sympathize with the rich and against those just like them because they have been deluded into thinking that they too can one day be rich, although the odds against that happening are huge. Such is the power of propaganda.

Moore also shows some workplaces that are run by the workers themselves and the kind of positive spirit that prevails there, where people look out for each other and put in their best work because they know they are benefitting the lives of themselves and their co-workers and their communities, not some distant shareholder whose only concern is profit margins and distant executives whose only concerns are to get a huge salary and stock options and bonuses.

I loved the film. While it was funny (because Moore deals with serious issues, people often overlook the fact that he has a deft touch with comedy) and heartwarming, it also made me angry at what is being done to defenseless people. I hope you see it and that it makes you angry too.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Moore interview

Moore is interviewed on ABC.