Archive for January, 2009

And another thing

A point I try to make sometimes but possibly not as clearly as I should: Creationism is not just patently stupid on an intellectual level; it is also abhorrent on a moral and emotional level. Let me explain why I feel this way:

Both Creationists and ‘evolutionists’ acknowledge…

  • Our DNA determines what we are as humans more than any other factor– If you replace the DNA in a human zygote with that from a different species (and manage to get a viable embryo) the resultant organism will not be human.
  • A person’s DNA is inherited directly from their mother and father, 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 from the father.
  • DNA experiences mutations, randomly as well as through environmental factors.

From this point on, opinions differ…

  • Evolutionists know that mutations are not always bad, and that without them we would never have progressed beyond the primordial ooze. Through accidental duplication of DNA and horizontal gene transfer new material can be added, and in turn this can lead to new forms and new functionality.
  • Creationists assert that mutations can never add new information, and will always lead to degradation of the organism.

Which implies…

  • Evolutionists believe that humans, like any other species, are capable of adapting over time to fit their environment, that we are effectively always “improving” ourselves, by the simple fact that organisms better suited to their environment have a higher chance of survival and are more likely to produce viable offspring.
  • Creationists believe that Man was created in his ideal form, that all of our genetic material originated within Adam and Eve, and that it has been deteriorating and degrading ever since. They don’t accept that random change could improve on God’s handiwork. From this it follows that every generation must be more corrupt, more degenerate than the last– in essence there is only de-volution.

I bring this up not as evidence in support of the fact of evolution, but as a rebuttal to the common appeal to emotion offered by Creationists– that an evolutionary view is somehow ugly and without hope. I counter with the question: is it really more hopeless than the idea that we are doomed to be eternally inferior to our forebears, who committed some kind of symbolic sin against a selfish and wrathful God? This view of humanity as a species doomed to rot fits quite well with Christian doctrine, in that men of the Old Testament routinely lived many hundreds of years, remaining strong and producing children for most of their extraordinarily long lives, and were closer to God than anyone today.

Creationists often try to blame evolutionary theory for the unimaginable evil of the Nazi Holocaust, even though the engine of evolution thrives on diversity, and recogizes purity as at best a meaningless concept, and at worst a dead end. On the other hand, if you believe that you are descended from some mythically superior race, it makes a lot more sense to strive for some kind of fantastical racial purity.

Creationism taken to its logical conclusion offers an extraordinarily pessimistic and self-hating view of humanity, and it deserves to be scorned. The evolutionary view is by contrast rather optimistic– how incredible that we could come so far! Life appears to have limitless potential, filling every available niche and boggling the imagination with its variety and tenacity. And it belongs to no one. It is beholden to no one. According to evolution, the future is not written, and we as a species are truly free to find our own purpose, and be the authors of our own destiny.

On the further wasting of time

Once again I am soooo sorry I have been remiss in posting, but there’s a certain type of idiocy which is truly compelling to me. Ray has put together a new site where he posts even more ridiculous versions of the ramblings from his blog. Here is an excerpt:

Imagine being there when the first dog evolved. There was a big bang, and millions of years later an animal with a tail and four legs, a liver, heart, kidneys, lungs, blood, ears and eyes evolved into the first dog. Fortunately for him, his eyes had evolved to maturity after millions of years of blindness, so that he could see the first female dog that had evolved standing by him. It was actually very fortunate, because if the female dog hadn’t evolved also and been at the right place at the right time, with the right parts and the willingness to mate, he would have been a dead dog. He needed a female to keep the species alive.

He posts this in spite of the fact that a bunch of people (including real biologists) have tried to explain to him how evolution works, how populations and species evolve, and how sex was an extremely useful development in very early evolution.

So why do I bother? Maybe because it is simply easier to argue with someone who is so extremely wrong about almost everything. I certainly don’t think he represents anything but a fringe minority of Christians. I do wonder what makes him so determined to stick with his "literalist" view of a divine act of creation less than 10,000 years ago, and I think I am beginning to understand why he simply cannot concede that he could be wrong about that (while most Christians are totally fine with an old Earth and Cosmos and the idea of evolution).

The problem is, if you take your Abrahamic religion really really seriously, you can’t reconcile evolution with Original Sin.

If we evolved from apes, monkeys or whatever, then there was no Garden of Eden where everything was perfect, and there was always death in the world. From an evolutionary perspective, there could be no Adam and Eve as the first humans, because there would be no hard line to delineate where a particular hominid became human. Even if somehow they were the first humans (for argument’s sake) due to some freak accident of simultaneous mutation (much like Ray’s ridiculous caricature above) they clearly weren’t perfect, because evolution will never produce perfection; it will merely produce "Good enough".

If humans were never perfect in the first place, then there could be no Fall, because there was nothing to fall from, and so no Original Sin. After all, we were merely intelligent animals, surviving as we could. For God to show up and nominate a couple of us to be His children (thought obviously not in His image, since God didn’t evolve hiding from predators and digging for ants) only to then damn them and their descendants for eating some fruit just seems idiotic. After all, if He just waited a few million years longer before putting us to the test, we might have evolved stronger intellect and reasoning skills, so that a talking snake wouldn’t be able to fool us.

So what are the implications if there was no Original Sin? For one thing I think it means we don’t automatically deserve to go to Hell, and we can’t consider ourselves "corrupted", because after all we are just animals and we’ve done pretty well getting this far, raising families, forming communities, creating languages etc. If anything, God should be impressed with how far we’ve come since He sparked life into existence all those eons ago.

To the fundamentalist Christian, I think this implied absence of Original Sin nullifies the whole point of Jesus coming to save us (from the damnation we deserved). In sending Jesus to us to be crucified, God sacrificed Himself to Himself to save us from Himself; paying our debt (to Him) for Original Sin. Although it could be argued that God doing this makes no sense at the best of times, it just gets worse if you do away with Original Sin by accepting evolution.

Non-fundies seem fine with evolution, and I’m glad of it, but to be honest I’m not 100% sure why they’re ok with evolution, because then you have to wonder what it was that Jesus was sent to pay for exactly. I guess we can just look at Jesus more as a teacher than as a sacrifice, but that whole crucifixion thing is still pretty pivotal to most Christian doctrine isn’t it?

And what of the soul? If man was created out of whole cloth then it’s easy to make a distinction between him and other animals and say that he has a soul, and further that that soul is eternal. But if you believe in evolution AND you believe in the soul (as something beyond our material selves) then you have to assume one of the following:

  • God granted us a soul at some arbitrary point in out evolutionary history, perhaps at the moment we ate the fruit? I guess that’s an obvious interpretation; that the soul itself was the knowledge of good and evil, and it made us all miserable the same way Spike’s new soul made him miserable, and Angel’s was given as a curse (see Buffy TV show).
  • We developed a soul in the same way we developed intelligence: Gradually. Which means we have to consider the sticky problem of all the animals we share the planet with who must therefore all have some semblance of souls of their own. What happens to them? I don’t think they’ll be going to Heaven or Hell, so will their souls be extinguished? Should we just keep eating them and try not to think about it?

Am I wrong to suggest that there are irreconcilable differences between a belief in evolution and pretty much any flavor of the Christian faith? Obviously I can google this question and probably get some excellent answers but for now I am just trying to work it out in my own head.

On the Wasting of Time

I have to own up to something, re my flurry of interest in arguing with people who refuse to accept the same rules of logic that sane people do.

I look for things to distract me from doing the things I should be doing. The things I want to be doing. The things which would give me great satisfaction were I to actually do them.

I’ve had some time off work, during which I honestly had every intention of achieving great things. Did this happen? Of course not. I’ve wasted all my valuable time online, sleeping in, watching copious amounts of TV, staring at the sky, driving around, shopping etc. What is this incredible force which prevents me from opening my developer tools and getting to work on JujuEdit, Drivey, or any one of a bunch of worthwhile projects which languish for lack of attention?

It’s the procrastination monkey, and I can’t get him off my back. He’s always been there but lately he’s grown to gorilla proportions, crushing me and constantly pointing at new shiny things which might divert or dilute my attention still further. He beats his chest and howls with glee every time another birthday rolls around and I realize I haven’t done all the things I promised myself I would do.

Why did I buy a 1TB hard drive? Was it help with my work? Of course not. It was to store all the media I distract myself with. To expand the possibility that I might sit down and browse a collection of TV I’ve already seen when I could be adding new blending modes to JujuSketch, creating terrain for Drivey, or adding macro support to JujuEdit.

I hate this monkey, I’m going to try to kill him.

The Scientific Case for Intelligent Design

ID proponent: Wow, these bacterial flagella sure are complex!

Biologist: Hey they sure are, isn’t that neat! I wonder if we can work out how they got that – hey where are you going?

ID proponent: To write a paper showing how flagella support my thesis for intelligent design!

Biologist: But why? Shouldn’t we study this further and try to understand the–

ID proponent: It’s too complex! It clearly can’t have evolved. Finally I have proof for my religious bel… I mean my completely naturalistic proposition that life is too complex to have simply evolved without intervention.

Biologist: But since there’s so much evidence in support of evolution, maybe we should look a little harder?

ID proponent: lalalalala!

Biologist: But surely you understand that the first step in testing any hypothesis is to try to prove it wrong? We have an obligation to investigate further!

ID proponent: Oh alright, if you insist…

– The following day –

ID proponent: Well, I’m stumped. The only explanation is that Go… I mean some organizing intelligence… designed this little wiggly thing. I mean, come on, it’s so effective and clever a design– and a design needs a designer right?

Biologist: Honestly, I’m starting to suspect that you’re not trying very hard here. You can’t seriously be planning to use your inability to explain something as proof of such a proposition?

ID proponent: Ok wise guy, tell me how it evolved then?

Biologist: Well I don’t know, we need to investigate further before simply assuming it’s impossible…

ID proponent: Oh, nice. So you get to assume that this feature evolved, but I don’t get to assume that it didn’t. You’re an atheist aren’t you!

Biologist: What does that have to do with anything? And I just want to explore how it might have evolved.

ID proponent: Ha! As an atheist you have an ideological predisposition to ignore evidence of a creator! You’re biased!

Biologist: What evidence of a creator?

ID proponent: It’s right in front of you on that slide! Flagella man, flagella! What are you thick or something?

Biologist: Sorry… how exactly is this evidence for a creator?

ID proponent: Well if you found a watch wouldn’t you consider that proof that there was a watchmaker?

Biologist: Sure.

ID proponent: Because watches don’t make themselves right? They are a complex machine of many working parts, one isn’t just going to fall together.

Biologist: Sure.

ID proponent: So someone designed this bacterium! It’s obvious! It didn’t just fall together either!

Biologist: Well, a bacterium made this bacterium, which was in turn made by another bacterium… I’m pretty sure you know this. And watches don’t reproduce, so we know that some other entity must have created it. I honestly fail to see the equivalence here.

ID proponent: Honestly you just hate God don’t you. Admit it!

Biologist: Look, all living organisms have an ancestry, and we can observe bacteria evolve even in the lab, so I really can’t see why on earth you wouldn’t want to try to explore the evolutionary path of this mechanism. At least to its most primitive form? I mean, even if there was some original bacterium designed by a supreme being or alien race or something….

ID proponent: Hmmmph! Aliens! Yeah right!

Biologist:… I’m saying even if it was designed… this sample is still going to be a descendant millions of generations removed from the original isn’t it? So there’s still an incentive to trace the lineage back as far as we can go.

ID proponent: Only if you believe in evolution.

Biologist: Wait… what? Are you saying you don’t believe in evolution? At all?

ID proponent: Only micro evolution, not macro. Animals evolve only within species, that’s why cats can never turn into dogs.

Biologist: What the… What the hell are you even talking about? This bacterium reproduces asexually… there is no delineation of species here.

ID proponent: Why are you atheists so angry all the time?

Biologist: You are so fucking fired…

ID proponent: Oooo this is just like Nazi Germany… I’m going to tell Ben Stein!

Why is this atheist angry?

Because the majority of people claiming to have evidence (or even good arguments) supporting "Intelligent Design" (aka Creationism) are lying sacks of sanctimonious shit, who simply will not rest. It’s that simple. The annoying irony is that because there is no God they will go to the grave never knowing just what utter douchebags they were in life, because He will not be there to tell them just how badly they misrepresented Him and what an awful job they did of obeying that frikking commandment about not bearing false witness.

Read the comments on this article about the Christian financier behind the hideous propaganda documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and you can see a perfect example of the bullshit that gets spouted everywhere I look for anything approximating any honest debate or discussion on ID. It’s a classic example of lying for Jesus (Ray does it all the time, but he’s not half as convincing):

Anonymous – January 03, 2009 – 3:20 PM

I work in a genetics research lab and I can assure you… That if I mention that intelligent design by God is a possibility, I would get fired instantly. As reported in the movie, there is hyper-political correctness in the academic community. There is no mercy for dissenting views, especially on such fundamental issues like evolution. Everyone’s on the same bandwagon, just like in Nazi Germany… Half of my lab probably thinks about intelligent design, but no one dares mention it. The irony is that, when pressed, even the brightest geneticist cannot explain how it is possible that chimpanzees and humans have different chromosomal counts, when both species originate from the same ancestor. They have a fancy word for it, "chromosomal rearrangement", but in truth, no one knows how a population with 46 chromosomes can end up as a population with 48 chromosomes.

Wow, food for thought huh? At least if you didn’t already know that he was talking out of his ass it might be. Fortunately someone who has a clue about genetics calls out Mr Anonymous out in the very next comment:

Michael Thomas – January 03, 2009 – 4:22 PM

To Anonymous: Your post is the exact mix of lies, misrepresentations, and distortions standard in Creationist propaganda, including "Expelled." The reason for the differing chromosome numbers is well known. Chromosomes occur in pairs; the other great apes have 24, humans have 23. Human chromosome 2 is the result of fusion of two great ape chromosomes (#2 and #13). 24 pairs -1 pair = 23 pairs. There is no doubt that it is the result of fusion as it contains extra telomeres in the center where the two chromosomes fused (telomeres in normal chromosomes occur only at the ends). If you were really a geneticist you would know this.

Anonymous is just one of thousands online and in the media who care only about one thing: putting Jesus into government and public education. These are the morons (or close associates of the morons) who think that abstinence only education is a brilliant idea which only doesn’t work yet because we haven’t gone far enough, and who would withhold funding for AIDS assistance in poorer countries from agencies who would also promote the use of condoms. They are obsessed with dictating where other people stick their genitals, and think gayness is one of the biggest threats to civilization (even though civilization was practically invented by a rather queer friendly society). These people think that when something bad happens, it’s the fault of liberals and terrorists, and when something bad doesn’t happen, it’s all thanks to the mercy of the Lord! They think the world was designed for humans to have dominion over, that we only have death and disease and suffering because Adam and Eve ate a frikking apple (and that we all deserve to suffer for this "original" sin), and that soon it will all end with some kind of Armageddon and they’re looking forward to it! It’s collective insanity, and an amazingly dangerous and stupid distraction from the very real environmental, political and economic issues we all face.

In my ideal world there would be three questions about religion for anyone who wants to enter public office or education:

  1. Do you believe in any form of religious or supernatural prophecy (specifically that which is yet to be fulfilled)?

  2. Do you believe that any particular religious doctrine has a place in the making of policy or law (including the blocking of laws), or holds precedence over secular law?

  3. Do you or would you reject empirical evidence where such evidence contradicts a particular religious doctrine?

If someone answers yes to any of these they should be disqualified from any position of public authority. I think GW Bush would probably answer "maybe", "sometimes" and "it depends" respectively, and that this is no small part of how everything got as fucked up as it is right now in the world.

__________

If you’re interested in the chromosomes of chimps and humans, you can read more about them here

Happy whatnot

I’m still here, so sorry to regular readers (especially those who don’t use RSS feeds) for the gappy posting of late. I’m thinking that this blog needs a spruce up, a new direction maybe, but I’m not sure where to take it. On one hand I’m thinking I should post more on skeptical topics (that’s proper skeptical topics, not this "climate skeptic" bullshit). Then there’s the compulsive need to redecorate and go for a new look, which inevitably means things will get a bit ugly around here before they get pretty again.

I went and saw Young @ Heart yesterday, a lovely weepy documentary about a chorus of old people who tour with modern songs, ostensibly to demonstrate that "you’re never too old" to try something new or do something you love. One old chap in particular reminded me of Alan Arkin, and I came to this decision: When I am old, I want to be old exactly like Alan Arkin– he has just the right blend of abrasiveness and sensitivity for an old man. Also, on a similar theme, I finally got around to seeing The World’s Fastest Indian, and indeed it was a wonderfully sweet film.

I continue to post frequent comments on Ray’s terrible creationist propaganda blog, in the probably vain hope that perhaps some of the credulous suckers who read it might actually start thinking for themselves a little. I think it’s good mental exercise to talk with people who disagree with you, even if they never appear to pay attention to what the other side is saying (and think that every biblical non sequitur they utter is somehow a fatal blow to our fragile empirical worldview). Ray is truly an ass, enthusiastically misrepresenting and misquoting atheists every chance he gets. We are but straw men to him no matter how carefully we explain our (rather simple, easily defined) positions. But just because someone is an ass doesn’t mean it is safe to ignore them, for he is working to build an army of asses, who would yield their collective influence to FUBAR public education and science as we know it.