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Entries for August 2007

August 31, 2007

The history of western atheism-3: The first published atheist

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In his BBC4 TV series A Rough History of Atheism Jonathan Miller awards the honor of being the first published atheist to France's Paul Henri Thiery, Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789). As the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on him says:

His most popular book, Système de la nature (1770) ("The System of Nature"), published under the name of J.B. Mirabaud, caustically derided religion and espoused an atheistic, deterministic Materialism: causality became simply relationships of motion, man became a machine devoid of free will, and religion was excoriated as harmful and untrue. In Le Christianisme dévoilé (1761; "Christianity Unveiled"), published under the name of a deceased friend, N.A. Boulanger, he attacked Christianity as contrary to reason and nature.

It is said that the Baron's salon was a congenial meeting place for all manner of freethinkers, including Benjamin Franklin during his stay in France, but some of his guests were so alarmed at the inflammatory nature of the speculations that occurred that they stopped coming. Even a nobleman like D'Holbach had to be cautious about his views, as atheism was grounds for persecution and even execution, so his works on these subjects were published pseudonymously.

When you read the Baron's views, one can understand his caution. Here is a sample of his writings, which are bracingly direct and modern:

  • If we go back to the beginning we shall find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that fancy, enthusiasm, or deceit adorned or disfigured them; that weakness worships them; that credulity preserves them, and that custom, respect and tyranny support them in order to make the blindness of men serve its own interests.
  • If the ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.
  • All religions are ancient monuments to superstitions, ignorance, ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated.
  • All children are atheists -- they have no idea of God.
  • What has been said of [God] is either unintelligible or perfectly contradictory; and for this reason must appear impossible to every man of common sense.
  • The Jehovah of the Jews is a suspicious tyrant, who breathes nothing but blood, murder, and carnage, and who demands that they should nourish him with the vapours of animals. The Jupiter of the Pagans is a lascivious monster. The Moloch of the Phoenicians is a cannibal. The pure mind of the Christians resolved, in order to appease his fury, to crucify his own son. The savage god of the Mexicans cannot be satisfied without thousands of mortals which are immolated to his sanguinary appetite.
  • Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.
  • Tolerance and freedom of thought are the veritable antidotes to religious fanaticism.
  • Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.

Pretty strong stuff, especially for the 18th century, and one can understand why the good Baron was wary of saying these things under his own name. But there is nothing in the above list that any modern atheist would disagree with.

Baron D'Holbach's writings are said to have been extremely influential, perhaps because they said so directly what had been thought secretly for so long in the minds of many thoughtful people. It is very likely that his works were well known to Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Charles Darwin's grandfather, who was himself a radical freethinker and who had published his own Lamarckian theory of evolution in the book Zoonomia which was published around 1795.

Although Charles Darwin started out as a religious person and was contemplating becoming an Anglican clergyman early on, there is little doubt that the disbelief of his father and grandfather and brother were factors in his later move away from religion. He knew them to be good and decent people and the thought that they would be punished and suffer torments simply because of their disbelief was impossible for him to accept. As he wrote in his autobiography (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, David Quammen, p. 246):

I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true: for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

The philosopher Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) said that "The notion that faith in Christ is to be rewarded by an eternity of bliss, while a dependence upon reason, observation, and experience merits everlasting pain, is too absurd for refutation, and can be relieved only by that unhappy mixture of insanity and ignorance, called "faith."" Darwin would probably have sympathized with the statement although, being someone who avoided social controversy, he probably would not have stated it so strongly.

It is interesting to see the interweaving of threads of ideas of religion and science and atheism in those times. Was it the atheist writings of people like D'Holmbach that opened up the creative window for Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and other scientists, freeing them from the constraints of having their science strictly conform to religious dogma? It is hard to say. But the more liberal climate definitely would have helped.

Next in this series: Atheism shifts from the intellectuals to the masses.

August 30, 2007

Charles Darwin in his own words

I have written a lot about the theory of evolution and in the process have quoted short excerpts from various authors, Charles Darwin included. (Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

But in going back and reading the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859), I am struck by how prescient Darwin was in anticipating the objections that would be raised against his theory and why. He could well have been talking about the situation today, except that then the people who were skeptical and who he was trying to persuade were his scientific colleagues. Nowadays scientists are almost all converts to natural selection (as he predicted might happen) and it is religious lay people who make the same objections he addressed long ago.

To get the full flavor of Darwin's thinking and his style of writing, here is a somewhat long passage from his conclusions, where he summarizes his case (p. 480-484). The sections in boldface are my own emphasis. (Darwin's complete works are now available online.)

I have now recapitulated the chief facts and considerations which have thoroughly convinced me that species have changed, and are still slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favourable variations. Why, it may be asked, have all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists rejected this view of the mutability of species? It cannot be asserted that organic beings in a state of nature are subject to no variation; it cannot be proved that the amount of variation in the course of long ages is a limited quantity; no clear distinction has been, or can be, drawn between species and well-marked varieties. It cannot be maintained that species when intercrossed are invariably sterile, and varieties invariably fertile; or that sterility is a special endowment and sign of creation. The belief that species were immutable productions was almost unavoidable as long as the history of the world was thought to be of short duration; and now that we have acquired some idea of the lapse of time, we are too apt to assume, without proof, that the geological record is so perfect that it would have afforded us plain evidence of the mutation of species, if they had undergone mutation.

But the chief cause of our natural unwillingness to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species, is that we are always slow in admitting any great change of which we do not see the intermediate steps. The difficulty is the same as that felt by so many geologists, when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland cliffs had been formed, and great valleys excavated, by the slow action of the coast-waves. The mind cannot possibly grasp the full meaning of the term of a hundred million years; it cannot add up and perceive the full effects of many slight variations, accumulated during an almost infinite number of generations.

Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. It is so easy to hide our ignorance under such expressions as the "plan of creation," "unity of design," &c., and to think that we give an explanation when we only restate a fact. Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

Several eminent naturalists have of late published their belief that a multitude of reputed species in each genus are not real species; but that other species are real, that is, have been independently created. This seems to me a strange conclusion to arrive at. They admit that a multitude of forms, which till lately they themselves thought were special creations, and which are still thus looked at by the majority of naturalists, and which consequently have every external characteristic feature of true species,—they admit that these have been produced by variation, but they refuse to extend the same view to other and very slightly different forms. Nevertheless they do not pretend that they can define, or even conjecture, which are the created forms of life, and which are those produced by secondary laws. They admit variation as a vera causa in one case, they arbitrarily reject it in another, without assigning any distinction in the two cases. The day will come when this will be given as a curious illustration of the blindness of preconceived opinion. These authors seem no more startled at a miraculous act of creation than at an ordinary birth. But do they really believe that at innumerable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? and in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother's womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence.

It may be asked how far I extend the doctrine of the modification of species. The question is difficult to answer, because the more distinct the forms are which we may consider, by so much the arguments fall away in force. But some arguments of the greatest weight extend very far. . . I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number.

Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

And then the very last, almost poetic, words in the book (p. 490):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin's achievements are truly magnificent, putting him in the same class as Einstein and Newton, among the greatest scientists of all time.

POST SCRIPT: The Larry Craig incident

Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) has taken some strong "family values" and anti-gay stands in the past, despite long standing rumors that he himself was gay. The recent news report that he had pleaded guilty to "lewd" conduct in a public restroom has caused speculation that his career is now over.

It is despicable to harass gays with anti-gay rhetoric and legislation, becoming even worse if those doing so are secretly gay themselves. But Talking Points Memo expresses well my unease with what happened to Craig in the most recent episode. It is not clear from published reports that he did anything that really warranted his arrest and that he was, as Josh Marshall says, essentially caught in a Catch-22 caused by his own risky behavior.

Glenn Greenwald documents the brazen contradictions that right-wingers are indulging in the way they respond to the recent Craig revelation, the reports that surfaced back in 2006 that he was gay, and the recent case of Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana), another "family values" champion who was found to be a customer of prostitutes.

August 29, 2007

The history of western atheism-2: The beginnings of modern atheism

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) may have unwittingly been the trigger for the revival of freethinking during the Enlightenment. Although he always asserted his own fidelity to the teachings of the church, the clarity of his thinking about the mind-body relationship exposed some of the fundamental problems and contradictions that inevitably accompany religious beliefs.

Belief in god has always required a kind of dualistic 'two different worlds and two different kinds of matter' way of thinking, but usually left unexamined the thorny questions of how the two interacted. Descartes' exposition on this duality and his attempts to find a way by which the world and matter of god interacted with the world and matter of people exposed the difficulties with dualism, problems which plague thoughtful believers to this day as they try to reconcile a scientific perspective with religious faith.

Jonathan Miller in Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief suggests that the first modern philosopher to seriously challenge the basis of the existing religious orthodoxies was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). He advocated 'monism', the idea that only one kind of stuff exists, and that stuff is what we see as matter. This ruled out dualism, especially other kinds of non-material entities like the soul and god. Although Hobbes's book Leviathan (1651) advocated a strict materialism of both human nature and knowledge, he was not really an atheist and might better be classified as one of the first modern deists, someone who allows for the existence of some prime mover who set the universe in motion but then does not interfere subsequently.

The official climate in Hobbes' time was still strongly discouraging of any forms of skepticism and people had to be cautious about going against these norms of belief. Perhaps as a result of the alarm caused to the supporters of religion by the spread of the kind of views expressed by Hobbes, in 1694 the British parliament had a long debate and passed a bill that advocated the death penalty for blasphemy if anyone should deny divinity. Early drafts of the bill even included atheism as grounds for execution, although that was not included in the final law that was passed. But it gives us a sense of the degree of public opprobrium that one risked if one espoused any form of heterodoxy.

One can see the strong appeal of deism for freethinkers in those times. Deism allowed people to formally genuflect to god and maintain a stance of official belief in god while allowing the free reign of their intellect in all other matters, especially science, since in the deist framework god was never invoked to explain anything other than the original creation of the universe and its subsequent laws and maintained a strict hands-off policy after that. Since atheism could be grounds for persecution and punishment and even execution, it seems reasonable to suppose that many deists of those days may well have been closeted atheists.

The fact that many of the prominent leaders of the American revolution (such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, James Madison, and James Monroe) were deists and had no trouble advocating the constitutional separation of church and state makes sense in the light of this historical context. They were rebelling against the restrictive entanglements of religion with government back in England, while trying to be not too far ahead of their own populace in terms of religion. After all, there have always been influential religious zealots in America, some who even went to the extent of seeking out and executing witches, and it would not have been not politically expedient to disavow god altogether. Still, it is quite amazing how sophisticated in such matters the American political leadership of that time was, compared to the present day when leaders publicly express a bizarre belief that god is actually in personal contact with them, and some even do not accept the theory of evolution.

While Hobbes with his theory of monism laid the philosophical basis for modern atheism, Miller argues that he cannot be truly identified as the first atheist. Neither could philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who followed in Hobbes' footsteps. But both were definitely anti-religious and flirted publicly with atheism and it would not be surprising if they were privately so, since both dropped hints that they suspected that most people were a lot less pious than they publicly let on.

David Hume, writing in his The Natural History of Religion chapter XII (1757), suspected that there was a great deal of hypocritical piety among his contemporaries:

We may observe, that, notwithstanding the dogmatical, imperious style of all superstition, the conviction of the religionists, in all ages, is more affected than real, and scarcely ever approaches, in any degree, to that solid belief and persuasion, which governs us in the common affairs of life. Men dare not avow, even to their own hearts, the doubts which they entertain on such subjects: They make a merit of implicit faith; and disguise to themselves their real infidelity, by the strongest asseverations and most positive bigotry. But nature is too hard for all their endeavours, and suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows, that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.

One gets the impression that while the people of Hume's time may not have publicly expressed disbelief, there were a lot of knowing winks and nudges exchanged when public piety was encountered.

I think that Hume is describing many people today as well.

Next in this series: The first published atheist.

POST SCRIPT: After Fredo

The Department of Justice, like the IRS, can function effectively only if perceived as above partisan politics. This is because unlike most other government agencies, they can wield great power over individuals and so any action they take has to be seen as not serving a partisan agenda.

Alfredo Gonzales instigated and presided over the almost complete politicization of the Justice Department, making it serve as an extension of the White House, and his welcome departure is being accompanied by calls that he be replaced by someone who will restore some semblance of independence and integrity to that institution.

I am not sanguine that this will happen and am not sure why people have such high hopes. The Bush administration has had a consistent track record of appointing as partisan a political hack as they can get away with to all positions. Right now, the only constraint on its excesses is that the Democrats have to approve the nominee, but I fully expect that the nominee will be someone who they think they can just squeak by the approval process.

This is one of those predictions where I hope I am wrong.

August 28, 2007

Reflections on the working poor

(Text of the talk given by me to the first year class at the Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH on Friday, August 24, 2007 at 1:00 pm. The common reading for the incoming class was David Shipler's book The Working Poor: Invisible in America.)

Welcome to Case Western Reserve University! The people you will encounter here are very different from the people described in David Shipler's book The Working Poor: Invisible in America and I would like to address the question: what makes that difference?

Two answers are usually given. One is that we live in a meritocracy, and that we got where we are because of our own virtues, that we are smarter or worked harder or had a better attitude and work ethic than those who didn't make the cut. I am sure that everyone in this auditorium has been repeatedly told by their family and friends and teachers that they are good and smart, and it is tempting to believe it. What can be more gratifying than to be told that one's success is due to one's own ability and efforts? It makes it all seem so well deserved, that there is justice in the world.

Another answer is that luck plays an important role in educational success. I suspect that most of us were fortunate enough to be born into families that had most, if not all, of the following attributes: stable homes and families, good schools and teachers, safe environments, good health, and sufficient food and clothing. Others are not so fortunate and this negatively affects their performance in school.

But there is a third possibility that is not often discussed and that is that the educational system has been deliberately designed so that large numbers of people end up like the people in the book, people who not only have failed but more importantly have learned to think of themselves as failures.

This idea initially seems shocking. How can we want people to fail? Aren't our leaders always exhorting everyone to aim high and succeed in education? But let's travel back in time to the beginnings of widespread schooling in the US. In those early days, schooling was unplanned and focused more on meeting the needs of the learner and less on meeting the needs of the economy.

Recall that this was the time when the so-called robber barons were amassing huge personal wealth while the workers were having appalling working conditions. There was increasing concern that as the general public got more educated, more and more would realize and resent this unequal distribution of wealth.

This fear can be seen in an 1872 Bureau of Education document which speaks about the "problem of educational schooling", according to which, "inculcating knowledge" teaches workers to be able to "perceive and calculate their grievances," thus making them "more redoubtable foes" in labor struggles. (John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of US Education (2003) p. 153, now available online.)

This was followed by the report in 1888 that said, "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes." (Gatto, p. 153)

The rising expectations of the general public had to be dampened and this was done by creating an education system that would shift the focus away from learning and more towards meeting the needs of the economy. And the economy then, like now, does not need or want everyone to be well educated.

After all, think what would happen if everyone got a good education and college degrees? Where would we get enough people like those in the book, willing to work for low wages, often with little or no benefits, at places like Wal-Mart so that we can buy cheap goods? Or at McDonalds so that we get cheap hamburgers? Or as cleaning staff at restaurants and hotels so that we can eat out often? Or in the fields and sweatshops so that we can get cheap food and clothes? As the French philosopher Voltaire pointed out long ago: "The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor."

One of the most influential figures in shifting education to meet the needs of the work force was Ellwood P. Cubberley, who wrote in 1905 that schools were to be factories "in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products... manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry." (Gatto, footnote on page 39 in the online edition of the book.)

He also wrote: “We should give up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are equal and that our society is devoid of classes.”

The natural conclusion of this line of reasoning was spelled out in a speech that Woodrow Wilson gave in 1909, three years before he was elected President of the United States. He said: "[W]e want to do two things in modern society. We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." (The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 18, 1908-1909, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1974, p. 597.)

So a third possible answer to why all of us are different from the people described in Shipler's book is that the educational system is designed to make sure that only a small percentage (us) will succeed and a much larger percentage (like the people in the book) will fail.

But it is not enough to simply exclude people from success as they will resent it and rebel. After all, all people have had dreams of a good life. As Shipler writes on page 231: "Virtually all the youngsters I spoke with in poverty-ridden middle schools wanted to go on to college. . .Their ambitions spilled over the brims of their young lives." They dreamed of becoming doctors, lawyers, nurses, archeologists, and policemen. But those dreams have to be crushed to meet the needs of the economy. But crushing people's dreams carries risks.

The poet Langston Hughes warned what might happen in his poem A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up 

like a raisin in the sun? 

Or fester like a sore-- 

And then run? 

Does it stink like rotten meat? 

Or crust and sugar over-- 

like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In order to prevent people with crushed dreams from exploding, you have to make them resigned to their fate, to think it is their own fault, to consider themselves failures and unworthy. How do you do that? By making them repeatedly experience failure and discouragement so that by the time they reach high school or even middle school, their love for learning has been destroyed, they have been beaten down, their hopes and dreams crushed by being told repeatedly that they are lazy and no good, so that should not aim high and instead should they think of themselves as so worthless and invisible that it does not even matter if they show up for work or not.

And we have done that. Currently we have an educational system in which people do primarily blame themselves for failure. As Shipler writes in his preface: "Rarely are they infuriated by their conditions, and when their anger surfaces, it is often misdirected against their spouses, their children, or their co-workers. They do not usually blame their bosses, their government, their country, or the hierarchy of wealth, as they reasonably could. They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right."

So does this mean that everything that our proud parents and teachers have told us about how smart we are is false? No, that is still true. What is false is the widespread belief that all the other people are poor because they are intrinsically stupid or lazy or incompetent.

You are now in a place that values knowledge and inquiry and has the resources to satisfy your curiosity about almost anything. And all this knowledge is freely shared with you, limited only by your own desire to learn. But all that knowledge that you can gain should not to be used to distance yourself even further from those who have not been as fortunate as you, or to think of yourself as superior to them.

All this knowledge is given to you so that you can become a better steward of the planet, so that you will try and create the kind of world where more people, in fact all people, can live the same kind of life that you will lead.

POST SCRIPT: Bye, Bye, Fredo

Alberto Gonzales surely must rank as a front-runner for the worst Attorney General ever, despite strong competition from people like President Nixon's John Mitchell. In fact, the administration of George W. Bush has strong candidates for the worst ever nods in all the major categories: President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor.

Truly this is an administration that can only be described in superlatives.

August 27, 2007

The history of western atheism-1: The ancient origins

In the BBC4 TV program Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, host Jonathan Miller states flatly right at the beginning, "This series is about the disappearance of something – religious faith. . . The history of the growing conviction that god does not exist."

(The full three hour, three-part series can be seen starting at the beginning here. The price you pay for it being on YouTube is that each hour is chopped up into six ten-minute segments in order to meet the time restrictions. But the video and sound quality are excellent.)

Miller did a nice job of summarizing the rise and fall and rise again of freethinking. Strictly speaking, his is a survey of atheism just in the western world. In the eastern world of two millennia ago, the widespread acceptance of Confucianism, which placed very little emphasis on a god, and Buddhism, which required no belief in god, suggests that atheism was not perceived as negatively as in the west.

The Miller documentary is structured quite traditionally. It is long on voice-over narration by Miller as he walks through various imposing historical churches, museums, and other buildings and gazes upwards at portraits and statues of the people he is talking about, interspersed with interviews with scholars. It is Miller talking to the viewer in an informal, chatty way, interweaving the history of disbelief with his own journey to a comfortable atheism. But what it lacks in drama and glitz, it more than makes up in the low-key, understated charm that is characteristic of good BBC documentaries. The second and third hours are especially good as the pace picks up.

Miller points out that many of the early Greeks philosophers were freethinkers, highly skeptical of the idea of a god. It is interesting that in those very early days, the Greeks had a much more sophisticated view of god and religion than we have even now, and the program provides many wonderful quotes about religion and god as evidence.

Epicurus (341-271 BCE) posed the essential and, to my mind, the ultimate contradiction that believers in god face: How to explain the existence of evil.

Is god willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is god both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him god?

These questions are usually avoided by religious people by invoking ignorance, the 'mysterious ways clause', that says that god has reasons for allowing evil to occur which we are unable to comprehend, although it is not clear how they know that god does not want them to understand. But as the French philosopher Voltaire once said, "The truths of religion are never so well understood as by those who have lost the power of reasoning."

Lucretius (circa 99-55 BCE) proposed a theory of the origins of religion and articulates an early formulation of naturalism: "Fear is the mother of all gods. Nature does all things spontaneously by herself without their meddling."

Cicero (106-43 BCE) points out that it is obvious that there is no god and that much public piety is hypocritical and based on fear. "In this subject of the nature of the gods, the first question is do the gods exist or do they not? It is difficult, you will say, to deny that they exist. I would agree, if we were arguing the matter in a public assembly. But in a private discussion of this kind, it is perfectly easy to do so."

Seneca (circa 4 BCE-65 CE) argues that belief in god is a fraud perpetrated on the public in order to sustain a ruling class: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful."

It is interesting that even though the climate for freethinking was better in the time of the early Greeks, Cicero's quote illustrates that people who were skeptical about the existence of god still had to be discreet for fear of repercussions, something that has continued to this day, explaining why so many atheists still are fearful about proclaiming their disbelief publicly.

The conversion to Christianity by the Roman Emperor Constantine (280-337 CE) led to the rise of Christianity being the favored religion of the Roman Empire and the beneficiary of state patronage. It also resulted in forcing freethinkers to lay low in society, and the suppression of those early Greek writings that supported atheism. Heretics were persecuted and this practice became institutionalized with the various forms of the Inquisition by the church beginning around the 12th century. Recall that most 'heretics' were not atheists, but religious people who had views different from that of Catholic orthodoxy. This effectively led to the forcing of specific religious beliefs on people, requiring public affirmations of religious orthodoxy, a practice that has remained in force to this day as we see with politicians routinely spouting pieties.

The arrival of the renaissance around 1500 CE signaled a new time. The birth of the new sciences with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton was coupled with the rise of Arab scholars who had preserved and now resurrected those early Greek skeptical writings. All this led to a flowering of new kinds of thinking. But those early days of modern science did not by themselves lead to a rise of disbelief or atheism. After all, those well-known scientists were all pious people, not skeptics. They simply felt that it was inconceivable that science would reveal anything that was incompatible with god's work in the world so they did not seem to suffer any personal anxieties of disbelief about where their research would lead. They felt that any seeming contradiction between scientific knowledge and the Bible had to be due to a misinterpretation of the Bible. So they were far more sophisticated than current day Biblical literalists who lay the blame for the same conflicts at the feet of faulty science, not religious texts.

When Galileo was asked by the church to explain the conflict between his views and the Bible, he said, quite reasonably, that the church had no choice but to agree with whatever knowledge science was producing. He said it would be "a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something that it was made a sin to believe." (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, 1999, p. 26) Of course, the Catholic Church did not heed his views, putting him under house arrest, and it is amazing that it was only as late as 1984 that they officially apologized for their treatment of him.

So even during the period called the 'enlightenment' (roughly 1500-1800 CE), there continued to be a climate where freethinking was discouraged, with severe penalties for blasphemy. The Inquisition was also gaining strength around this time, forcing freethinkers to suppress public disavowals of god or even of Christian orthodoxy. In this climate, the re-emergence of skeptical beliefs necessarily had to be very cautious and incremental.

Next in this series: The beginnings of modern atheism.

POST SCRIPT: Question: What is a non sequitur?

Miss Teen USA 2007 finalist provides an illustration.

August 24, 2007

The journey to atheism

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from August 8, 2005, edited and updated.)

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

The Roberts quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no real grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship of god to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. People can be urged to accept things on the basis of faith as if it were virtuous to do so.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is very likely that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy since childhood. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize that my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

Another benefit of not believing is that one could be more consistent in how one interpreted events. For example, religious survivors of some calamity are often quick to claim that god must have saved them from harm while refusing to acknowledge that, by that logic, god must have wanted all the others to perish. The media reinforces this kind of silly thinking. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewered how the media quickly jumped on the "It's a miracle!" bandwagon to "explain" the lack of any fatalities when an Air France plane crashed in Toronto in 2005. There was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation for this, which was the calmness and competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the "miracle" theme.

As Stewart said: "The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew's satanic competence."

There was a time when I too would have credited god for saving the people in the plane crash while not laying the blame on him for people who died in other plane crashes. Now those kinds of contradictions are glaringly obvious.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? What seems clear to me is that the standard answers provided by religion that satisfied me once will not satisfy me anymore. I have a much higher standard of evidence. But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence.

August 23, 2007

Waiting for the Rapture

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from May 9, 2005, edited and updated.)

I am a huge fan of the English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially of his Jeeves and Wooster books. The plots are pretty much the same in all the Jeeves stories but the smoothness of Wodehouse's writing, his superb comic touch, and his brilliant choice of words make him a joy to read. Even though I have read all of the Jeeves books many times and know all the plots, they still have the ability to make me laugh out loud.

In a typical Jeeves story, the hapless Bertie Wooster is invariably at some point trapped in a fast moving series of events that swirl around him and are beyond his control, pulling him in all directions, none of them promising good outcomes for him, before Jeeves ingeniously rescues him and provides happy endings all around. But often, when the chaos is at its height and Bertie feels completely overwhelmed, he would say that he "felt like he was living in the Book of Revelations."

If you read the Book of Revelations (the last book of the Biblical New Testament, also called "The Revelation of John") you will see what Bertie means. It is for the most part a bizarre series of visions involving strange animals, angels, stars crashing into the ground, the sun getting eaten up, fires, plagues, and mass killings that would delight special effects creators, if it were ever to be made into a film.

When I was studying to become a lay preacher in the Methodist church, we pretty much gave this weird book a miss, treating it as one might a dotty uncle who has to be invited to every family function, but whom you hope will not make a scene and wish no one would notice and ask about him. We studied mainly the Gospels that focused on the life and teaching of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, some of the letters by Paul, some of the Old Testament prophets, church and biblical history, and theology. We pretty much ignored the Book of Revelations. It was just too far out there.

So it is somewhat amazing to me that it is this book that is driving much of the new militant Christianity, while the Gospels and the actual teachings of Jesus have faded into the background. And the idea that seems to have gripped the imagination of many such Christians in the US is that of the Rapture, associated with the second coming of Jesus which signals the end of the world.

Much of the basic beliefs about the coming of the Rapture come from the letters written by Paul to various communities, but the full apocalyptic vision of the Rapture is found in Revelations. This book is the source of much cryptic language and symbolism that enables people to look for clues as to when the Rapture will occur, what are the signs of its imminence, and how to identify the good and bad people. Like the writings of Nostradamus, the "predictions" are vague enough to allow for endless speculations and to "explain" anything. It also has enough numbers to keep numerologists busy for millennia trying to interpret their meanings. The numbers six, seven, and twelve seem to have special significance.

(Incidentally, there is a huge internet industry dealing with the Rapture and speculations about it are rampant. One such set of speculations deals with the identity of the "Antichrist" (who seizes power for a short time after the Rapture before being vanquished), and nominees for that post include Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. See also the Rapture Index which calculates (along the lines of the Dow Jones Index) a number to give a measure of how close we are to the Rapture. Currently the number stands at 161. This is below the 2001 peak of 182 but any number above 145 falls into the highest category, labeled as "fasten your seat belts," meaning that the signs are favorable for the Rapture happening any time.)

As far as I can tell, popular belief about the Rapture (as opposed to serious theology about it) is that it is associated with the second coming of Jesus and marks the moment when true believers in Christ (both dead and living), will be taken up to heaven to join him. It will be a sudden event, occurring without warning. People who are saved (and whose names have been "recorded" from the beginning of time) will be taken up instantaneously and disappear, leaving just their clothes behind. So if you happen to be with a group of people and several of them suddenly vanish from your sight, leaving their clothes and shoes in a little pile on the ground, that means the Rapture has occurred and that you, personally, have not made the cut.

Up to this point, since I have a live-and-let-live philosophy, the Rapture sounds fine. If true believers are taken away to lead blissful lives somewhere other than the Earth, leaving the rest of us behind, I have no problem with that. I wish them all happiness in their eternal life as the rest of us somehow muddle through on this Earth without them. Actually, life on Earth might actually be a whole lot better without out all these Rapturites around waiting impatiently for the end times. Clearly there will be some temporary disruptions in life as new people will have to be found to do the jobs that those Raptured away used to do, but these do not seem to be insurmountable problems since some estimates put the number of people who will be Raptured as low as 144,000 (another number that appears in Revelations).

But that is not apparently how it works. Those left behind are not also left alone, unfortunately. We are not to be kept busy merely distributing all the clothes left behind to various Goodwill stores. Instead we are to be victims of a massive and gruesome slaughter, with huge rivers of blood flowing everywhere, before everything comes to an end. The book of Revelations speaks of the flowing blood rising to the height of a horse's bridle for a radius of 200 miles. (Since I enjoy mathematical estimation problems, I briefly toyed with the idea of estimating how many corpses it would take to create this much blood, but simply could not muster the enthusiasm for this straightforward but macabre task. But it would make for a nifty little homework problem in those religious schools that teach about the Rapture seriously.)

It is hard to estimate how many people take this idea of the Rapture seriously but given the numbers claimed by the Dominionist movement (around 30 million) it could be quite large. The twelve sequential novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (which weave a fictional tale around the Rapture) claim a combined readership of 42 million. Of course, many in that number will be repeat buyers of the series and not all may be believers in the underlying message, but the numbers are still impressive. (Note that LaHaye is a co-founder with the late Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and works at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia.)

I haven't actually read the Left Behind books myself or seen the film based on them (with all the books that I would really like to read, I just can't see myself reading a million words of Rapture-based fiction), but Gene Lyons has a highly entertaining review of all the books and their message in the November 2004 issue of Harper's Magazine. He says that the "books portray Midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus' allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed "World Potentate," who looks "not unlike a younger Robert Redford" and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism."

The sins for which people are fingered to be slaughtered at the end of the world are sexual sins (fornication, homosexuality) or those of apostasy and blasphemy. Once again, it seems as if the only sins that these kinds of Christians care about are those involving sex and violations of religious orthodoxy. Swindling retirees out of their life savings, depriving people of health care, making people work in sweatshops, stealing from old and poor people whatever they have, cheating on your taxes, beating your spouse and children, being abusive to ones employees, seemingly are not things which automatically disqualify you from being taken up at the Rapture, but take one wrong step on sexual and doctrinal issues and you are toast (literally).

Interestingly though, Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed says that the particular form of the apocalyptic vision that seems so appealing to many American Christians these days was originated quite recently, by a nineteenth century Scottish evangelist named John Darby and owes its origins to turmoil over Darwinism. Lyons says that "Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby's dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational - almost science-like – a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s."

So we return once again with Darwin and evolution in the cross hairs of the evangelical movement. It is interesting to me how these two strands of human thought (science and religion) keep butting up against each other. Rossing's thesis sheds some more light on why evolutionary theory seems to be such a burr under the saddle for evangelical Christians, driving them to furious opposition in ways that other scientific beliefs do not.

August 22, 2007

What makes us change our minds?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from March 28, 2005, edited and updated.)

In an earlier post, I described the three kinds of challenges teachers face. Today I want to discuss how teachers might deal with each case.

On the surface, it might seem that the first kind of challenge (where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don't have strong feelings about it either way) is the easiest one. After all, if students have no strong beliefs or prior knowledge about what is being taught, then they should be able to accept the new knowledge more easily.

That is true, but the ease of acceptance also has its downside. The very act of not caring means that the new knowledge goes in easily but is also liable to be forgotten easily once the course is over. In other words, it might have little lasting impact. Since the student has little prior knowledge in that area, there is little in the brain to anchor the new knowledge to. And if the student does not care about it one way or the other, then no effort will be made by the student to really connect to the material. So the student might learn this material by mostly memorizing it, reproduce it on the exams, and forget it a few weeks later.

The research on the brain indicates that lasting learning occurs when students tie new knowledge to things they already know, when they integrate it with existing material. So teachers of even highly technical topics need to find ways to connect it with students' prior knowledge. They have to know their students, what interests them, what concerns them, what they care about. This is why good teachers tie their material in some way to stories or topics that students know and care about or may be in the news or to controversies. Such strategies tap into the existing knowledge structures in the brain (the neural networks) and connect the new material to them, so that it is more likely to 'stick.'

The second kind of challenge is where students' life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. A teacher who does not take these existing beliefs into account when designing teaching strategies is likely to be wasting her time. Because these beliefs are so strongly, but unconsciously held, they are not easily dislodged or modified.

The task for the teacher in this case is to make students aware of their existing knowledge structures and the implications of them for understanding situations. A teacher needs to create situations (say experiments or cases) and encourage students to explore the consequences of the their prior beliefs and see what happens when they are confronted by these new experiences. This has to be done repeatedly in newer and more enriched contexts so that students realize for themselves the existence and inadequacy of their prior knowledge structures and become more accepting of the new knowledge structures and theories.

In the third case, students are consciously rejecting the new ideas because they are aware that it conflicts with views they value more (for whatever reason). This is the situation with those religious people who reject evolutionary ideas because they conflict with their religious beliefs. In such cases, there is no point trying to force or browbeat them into accepting the new ideas.

Does this mean that such people's ideas never change? Obviously not. People do change their views on matters that they may have once thought were rock-solid. In my own case, I know that I now believe things that are diametrically opposed to things that I once thought were true, and I am sure that my experience is very common.

But the interesting thing is that although I know that my views have changed, I cannot tell you when they changed or why they changed. It is not as if there was an epiphany where you slap your forehead and exclaim "How could I have been so stupid? Of course I was wrong and the new view is right!" Rather, the process seems more like being on an ocean liner that is turning around. The process is so gentle that you are not aware that it is even happening, but at some point you realize that you are facing in a different direction. There may be a moment of realization that you now believe something that you did not before, but that moment is just an explicit acknowledgment of something that that you had already tacitly accepted.

What started the process of change could be one of many factors – something you read, a news item, a discussion with a friend, some major public event – whose implications you may not be immediately aware of. But over time these little things lodge in your mind, and as your mind tries to integrate them into a coherent framework, your views start to shift. For me personally, I enjoy discussions of deep ideas with people I like and respect. Even if they do not have any expertise in this area, discussions with such people tend to clarify one's ideas.

I can see that process happening to me right now with the ideas about the brain. I used to think that the brain was quite plastic, that any of us could be anything given the right environment. I am not so sure now. The work of Chomsky on linguistics, the research on how people learn, and other bits and pieces of knowledge I have read have persuaded me that it is not at all clear that the perfectly-plastic-brain idea can be sustained. It seems reasonable that some structures of the brain, especially the basic ones that enable it to interpret the input from the five senses, and perhaps even learn language, must be pre-existing.

But I am not completely convinced of the socio-biological views of people like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker who seem to argue that much of our brains, attitudes, and values are biologically determined by evolutionary adaptation. I am also not convinced of the value of much of popular gender-related differences, such as that men are better than women at math or that women are more nurturing than men. That seems to me to be a little too pat. I am always a little skeptical of attempts to show that the status quo is 'natural' since that has historically been used to justify inequality and oppression.

But the works of cognitive scientists are interesting and I can see my views on how the brain works changing slowly. One sign of this is my desire to read widely on the subject.

So I am currently in limbo as regards the nature of the brain, mulling things over. At some point I might arrive at some kind of unified and coherent belief structure. And after I do so, I may well wonder if I ever believed anything else. Such are the tricks the brain can play on you, to make you think that what you currently believe is what is correct and what you always believed.

POST SCRIPT: The Church of the Wholly Undecided

Les Barker has a funny poem about agnosticism.

August 21, 2007

The purpose of teaching

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from March 24, 2005, edited and updated.)

I have been teaching for many years and encountered many wonderful students. I remember in particular two students who were in my modern physics courses that dealt with quantum mechanics, relativity, and cosmology.

Doug was an excellent student, demonstrating a wonderful understanding of all the topics we discussed in class. But across the top of his almost perfect final examination paper, I was amused to see that he had written, "I still don't believe in relativity!"

The other student was Jamal and he is not as direct as Doug. He came into my office a few years after the course was over (and just before he was about to graduate) to say goodbye. We chatted awhile, I wished him well, and then as he was about to leave he turned to me and said hesitantly in his characteristically shy way: "Do you remember that stuff you taught us about how the universe originated in the Big Bang about 15 billion years ago? Well, I don't really believe all that." After a pause he went on, "It kind of conflicts with my religious beliefs." He looked apprehensively at me, perhaps to see if I might be offended or angry or think less of him. But I simply smiled and let it pass. It did not bother me at all.

Why was I not upset that these two students had, after having two semester-long courses with me, still not accepted the fundamental ideas that I had been teaching? The answer is simple. The goal of my teaching is not to change what my students believe. It is to have them understand what practitioners in the field believe. And those are two very different teaching goals.

As I said, I have taught for many years. And it seems to me that teachers encounter three kinds of situations with students.

One is where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don't have strong feelings about it either way. This is usually the case with technical or highly specialized areas (such as learning the symptoms of some rare disease or applying the laws of quantum mechanics to the hydrogen atom). In such cases, students have little trouble accepting what is taught.

The second type of situation is where students' life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. The physics education literature is full of examples that our life experiences conspire to create in people an Aristotelian understanding of mechanics. This makes it hard for them to accept Newtonian mechanics. Note that this difficulty exists even though the students have no particular attachment to Aristotle's views on mechanics and may not have the faintest idea what they are. Overcoming this kind of implicit belief structure is not easy. Doug was an example of someone who had got over the first hurdle from Aristotelian to Newtonian mechanics, but was finding the next transition to Einsteinian relativistic ideas much harder to swallow.

The third kind of situation is where the student has strong and explicit beliefs about something. These kinds of beliefs, as in the case of Jamal, come from religion or politics or parents or other major influences in their lives. You cannot force such students to change their views and any instructor who tries to do so is foolish. If students think that you are trying to force them to a particular point of view, they are very good at telling you what they think you want to hear, while retaining their beliefs. In fact, trying to force or bully students to accept your point of view, apart from being highly unethical teaching practice, is a sure way of reinforcing the strength of their original views.

So Doug's and Jamal's rejection of my ideas did not bother me and I was actually pleased that they felt comfortable telling me so. They had every right to believe whatever they wanted to believe. But what I had a right to expect was that they had understood what I was trying to teach and could use those ideas to make arguments within those frameworks.

For example, if I had given an exam problem that required that the student demonstrate his understanding of relativistic physics to solve, and Doug had refused to answer the question because he did not believe in relativity or had answered it using his own private theories of physics, I would have had to mark him down.

Similarly, if I had asked Jamal to calculate the age of the universe using the cosmological theories we had discussed in class, and he had instead said that the universe was 6,000 years old because that is what the Bible said, then I would have to mark him down too. He is free to believe what he wants, but the point of the course is to learn how the physics community interprets the world, and be able to use that information.

Understanding this distinction is important because of the periodic appearance of demagogues who try to frighten people by asserting that colleges are indoctrinating students to think in a particular way. Such people seem to assume that students are like sheep who can be induced to believe almost anything the instructor wants them to and thus require legal protection. Anyone who has taught for any length of time and has listened closely to students will know that this is ridiculous. It is not that students are not influenced by teaching and do not change their minds but that the process is far more complex and subtle than it is usually portrayed, as I will discuss in the next posting.

My own advice to students is to listen carefully and courteously to what knowledgeable people have to say, learn what the community of scholars thinks about an issue, and be able to understand and use that information when necessary. Weigh the arguments for and against any issue but ultimately stand up for what you believe and even more importantly know why you believe it. Don't ever feel forced to accept something just because some 'expert' or other authority figure (teacher, preacher, parent, political leader, pundit, or media talking head) tells you it is true. Believe things only when it makes sense to you and you are good and ready for it.

August 20, 2007

"I know this is politically incorrect but . . ."

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some early ones. Today's one is from August 14, 2006, edited and updated.)

One of the advantages of being older is that sometimes you can personally witness how language evolves and changes, and how words and phrases undergo changes and sometimes outright reversals of meaning.

One of the interesting evolutions is that of the phrase "politically correct." It was originally used as a kind of scornful in-joke within Marxist political groups to sneer at those members who seemed to have an excessive concern with political orthodoxy and who seemed to be more preoccupied with vocabulary than with the substance of arguments and actions.

Later it became used as a weapon against those who were trying to make language more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using "disabled" instead of "crippled" or "mentally ill" instead of "crazy," or "hearing impaired" instead of "deaf" and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme, or just wanted to use words the way they always had, disparaged those efforts as trying to be "politically correct."

The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying "I know this is politically incorrect but...." and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition.

So you can now find people saying "I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps women are inferior to men at mathematics and science" or "I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps poor people are poor because they are stupid" or "I know this is politically incorrect but perhaps blacks are less capable than whites at academics." The opening preamble is not only designed to make such statements acceptable, the speaker can even claim the mantle of being daring and brave, an outspoken and even heroic bearer of unpopular or unpalatable truths.

Take for example, a blurb by intelligent design creationist Jonathan Wells for his own book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. The cover of the book says: "Darwin is an emperor who has no clothes— but it takes a brave man to say so. Jonathan Wells, a microbiologist with two Ph.D.s (from Berkeley and Yale), is that brave man." There have been similar books that try this same linguistic maneuver, such as The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming (and Environmentalism).

Brandishing the label of being 'politically incorrect' as a form of argument is silly, as is invoking the fact that one has a doctorate. It is actually a sign of weakness, indicating that one's arguments cannot stand on their own. For example, physicists assume that all electrons are identical. We don't really know this for a fact, since it is impossible to compare all electrons. The statement "all electrons are identical" is a kind of default position and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, does not need to be supported by positive evidence. The assertion that "some electrons are heavier than others" is going to be dismissed in the absence of supporting evidence. Simply saying " I know this is not politically correct but I believe some electrons are heavier than others and I have a PhD" does not make it any more credible. It merely makes you look pompous and self-aggrandizing.

Sentiments that would normally would be considered discriminatory, biased, and outright offensive if uttered without any supporting evidence are now protected from criticism by this preamble. It is then the person who challenges this view who is put on the defensive, as if he or she was some prig who unthinkingly spouts an orthodox view.

Fintan O'Toole of The Irish Times (May 5, 1994) noted this trend early and pithily said:

We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, "I know this is not politically correct but . . ." in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness......... Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.

Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination - everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don't even have to say what's on your mind.

Even marketers are cashing in on this anti-PC fad, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Here's a tip. Anyone who feels the need to invoke the "politically incorrect" trope as an indicator of his or her valor is probably trying to hide the weaknesses in their argument.

POST SCRIPT: Comparing the candidates

How do the presidential candidates compare when it comes to where they stand on the left-right and authoritarian-libertarian continua?

You can see for yourself, based on their positions on a range of issues.

I found it interesting (but not surprising) that every candidate of both parties (except for Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike gravel) ended up in the right-wing /authoritarian quadrant.

You can also answer the questions yourself and compare yourself to them. My scores put me in the deep southwest part in the left-libertarian quadrant, more so than Kucinich and Gravel.

These kinds of things are fun but should not be considered a serious analysis of political philosophies.

August 17, 2007

What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. I will begin posting new entries again, on August 27, 2007. Until then, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today's one is from March 18, 2005, edited and updated.)

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the 'materialism' that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with 'naturalism' and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only. (Emphasis added)

Simpson was by not an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is more properly called 'methodological naturalism', to be contrasted with 'philosophical naturalism.'

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder. You can systematically investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say: "The noise in the next room is caused by god throwing stuff around." In general, people don't invoke god to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, not because other scientists are all atheists determined to stamp out any form of religion but because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of god's workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said "Well, looks like god is behind this one. Let's give up and move on to something else" then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by IDC advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when IDC advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical (or ontological) naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have god in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist, and as I alluded to earlier, there is little evidence that Gaylord Simpson was a philosophical naturalist although he definitely was a methodological naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don't really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community. It just does not matter.

But what the IDC advocates want, according to their stated goal of "If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings" is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the IDC religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, IDC advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the scientific clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is not a good idea.

August 16, 2007

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today's one is from March 16, 2005, edited and updated.)

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).

But if you want to blame materialism for society's ills, you have to go farther back than that, at least as far as Copernicus, and possibly earlier. For example, as stated by Thomas S. Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution (p.2)

[Copernicus'] planetary theory and his associated conception of a sun-centered universe were instrumental in the transition from medieval to modern Western society, because they seemed to affect man's relation to the universe and God…Men who believed that their terrestrial home was only a planet circulating blindly about one of an infinity of stars evaluated their place in the cosmic scheme quite differently than had their predecessors who saw the earth as the unique and focal center of God's creation. The Copernican Revolution was therefore also part of the transition in Western man's sense of values.

Copernicus was central to the development of Western civilization, as were Galileo, Kepler, and Newton after him. All of them sought to explain how the world works in materialistic ways. So if you want to pin the blame for society's ills on those who were influential in promoting materialistic ways of understanding the world, then you cannot pin the blame on Johnny-come-latelies like Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

But intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates do not go after these earlier giants of scientific materialism who justifiably occupy honored places in our history. To do so would be to be immediately labeled as crack-pots, on a par with flat-Earthers, UFO believers, and spoon benders. So they try to peel Darwin, Marx and Freud away from this distinguished line of scientists and treat them as if they started a parallel line of dubious thought, distinct from that of mainstream science.

But that argument just does not make sense. One may argue whether Marxism or Freudian psychoanalysis is scientific, but there is no controversy at all within the scientific community as to whether Darwin's ideas belong firmly in the scientific tradition. Darwin rightly takes his place among the giants of science and drew his materialist inspiration from the scientists who came before him.

The fact that all these scientists sought to explain the world in materialistic ways does not mean that they did not believe in God. For example, it is well known that Newton did believe in a God. He believed that the working of the solar system had a beauty that indicated the existence of God. But that did not stop him from pursuing the laws of motion and gravity that provided a completely material explanation for planetary motions. The residual features that his theories did not explain (such as the stability of the system) and which he ascribed to God were explained later by materialistic means using his own laws, after his death.

The same is true now. What IDC advocates don't seem to grasp is that pursuing materialistic explanations for phenomena does not pose a problem for scientists who are also religious. Surveys conducted in 1996 and 1998 found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement "a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man … to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." Despite the explosive growth in science this century, this figure of 40% has remained stable since previous surveys done in 1914 and 1933. (Source: Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, Scientists are still keeping the faith, Nature, vol. 386, April 1997, page 435.) The figure would undoubtedly be much higher if belief in a non-personal God (some sort of prime mover who acted only through natural laws) were included as well.

So why is it that scientists who are also religious have no trouble with materialism? Stay tuned…

POST SCRIPT: Working on high tension lines

We are all told to keep very clear of the high-tension wires that carry huge amounts of current at very high voltages across the country. But how are those wires checked and repaired? This video shows how they do it. It is quite amazing. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.)

August 15, 2007

What do creationist/ID advocates want-I?

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today's one is from February 24, 2005, edited and updated.)

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin's ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called 'intelligent design creationism' (or IDC) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a 'designer' for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged 'irreducible complexity' that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.

So where does IDC fit into this attack on evolution? Its role is explicitly outlined in the document that has been labeled the 'Wedge Strategy' or the 'Wedge Document' put out in 1999 by the Center for Science & Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded 'think-tank' that funds and supports the work of intelligent design creationists.

In the document it becomes clear that IDC is seen as kind of the shock troops that establish the beachhead on the fields of science, prior to the rest of the creationist army coming behind and occupying the entire landscape.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.

A little later in the document one comes across the "Governing Goals" of the movement, which are:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So there you have it. In a nutshell, the argument is:

  1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God's image.
  2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
  3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
  4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
  5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

This is a pretty sweeping line of reasoning. Such broad-brush analyses of society are inherently suspect since the way societies function and form is highly complex and claiming all the good for one belief structure and all the bad for the opposing side is to oversimplify on a massive scale.

I discussed in the previous posting some of the problems with this kind of reasoning.

But what is clear is that the ultimate goal of this movement is to eliminate 'scientific materialism' and bring back God into all areas of life. Getting IDC into the science curriculum is just the first step, hence the name 'wedge' strategy.

This is the first of a series on this topic. I will look more closely into what 'scientific materialism' is and the implications of this strategy in future postings.

POST SCRIPT: Misheard lyrics

Ever wondered who the people are in first line of the Rolling Stones's Street Fighting Man when they sing "Everywhere I hear the sound of Martin, John, and Leroy"? Or what the Beach Boys meant when they start their song Help Me Rhonda with "Since you put me down, there's been owls sleeping in my bed"?

Those are just two of the vast number of lyrics that people think they hear when they listen to these songs. Now there is a website called Misheard Lyrics that tells you what the actual words are.

Although I think that Lulu singing "I'm a shy girl" still makes more sense than the actual "I'm a tiger."

August 14, 2007

Evolution and moral decay

(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today's one is from February 24, 2005, edited and updated.)

In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so distressing. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.

While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God's image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant about trying to have evolution not taught in schools or undermining its credibility by inserting fake cautions about it. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.

I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don't try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.

So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be anti-science.

It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Other won't. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in learning a theory that one does not personally believe in? For example, I have learned enough about the theory of dark matter to appreciate what it is all about, even though I am skeptical as to whether it is the correct theory to explain the anomalous velocity distributions of the stars in the spiral galaxies. It is not at all uncommon for scientists to learn in great detail about theories they disagree with. In fact, it is essential to do so if they are to develop newer and better theories to replace the ones they dislike,

But my conversations with the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people revealed that they have a much darker view of what evolution implies, and it is this that leads them to oppose any attempts to teaching it. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.

Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. They see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God's special creation and that this inevitably leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.

They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards means that there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context. They see this as a repugnant moral relativism.

So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen as a fight for America's very soul and this explains the passion that is expended by them against what, to the rest of us, might seem to be just another topic in the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce IDC as merely an "alternative theory" to it is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.

While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels, I was impressed with the sincerity of many (though not all) of the people at the IDC meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the IDC movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader agenda and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if IDC was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (This is the so-called 'wedge strategy' to be discussed later.)

The battle over IDC is not just a fight over the science curriculum. It is a proxy for a much broader battle for the soul of America.

POST SCRIPT: Chris Rock

Chris Rock back in 2004 had some insightful observations on politics and the war, again illustrating how comedians directly speak their minds, while the Very Serious Pundits obfuscate. Caution: Rock uses strong language. (Thanks to This Modern World.)

August 13, 2007

Can we ever be certain about scientific theories?

(I am taking some time off from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today's one is from February 17, 2005.)

A commenter to a previous posting raised an interesting perspective that requires a fresh posting, because it reflects a commonly held view about how the validity of scientific theories get established.

The commenter says:

A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe.

I would like to address just two points: What does it mean to "test" a theory? And can scientists ever "verify" a theory and "be certain" about it?

Verificationism as a concept to validate scientific theories has been tried and found to be wanting. The problem is that any non-trivial theory generates an infinite number of predictions. All the predictions cannot be exhaustively verified. Only a sample of the possible predictions can be tested and there is no universal yardstick that can be used to measure when a theory has been verified. It is a matter of consensus judgment on the part of scientists as to when a theory becomes an accepted one, and this is done on a case-by-case basis by the practitioners in that field or sub-field.

This means, however, that people who are opposed to a theory can always point to at least one particular result that has not been directly observed and claim that the theory has not been 'verified' or 'proven.' This is the strategy adopted by ID supporters to attack evolutionary theory. But using this kind of reasoning will result in every single theory in science being denied scientific status.

Theories do get tested. Testing a theory has been a cornerstone of science practice ever since Galileo but it means different things depending on whether you are talking about an experimental science like electrochemistry and condensed matter physics, or a historical science like cosmology, evolution, geology, and astronomy.

Any scientific theory is always more than an explanation of prior events. It also must necessarily predict new observations and it is these predictions that are used to test theories. In the case of experimental sciences, laboratory experiments can be performed under controlled conditions in order to generate new data that can be compared with predictions or used to infer new theories.

In the case of historical sciences, however, observations are used to unearth data that are pre-existing but as yet unknown. Hence the 'predictions' may be more appropriately called 'retrodictions' (or sometimes 'postdictions'), in that they predict that you will find things that already exist. For example, in cosmology the retrodictions were the existence of a cosmic microwave background radiation of a certain temperature, the relative abundances of light nuclei, and so forth. The discovery of the planet Neptune was considered a successful 'prediction' of Newtonian theory, although Neptune had presumably always been there.

The testing of a historical science is analogous is to that of the investigation of a crime where the detective says things like "If the criminal went through the woods, then we should be able to see footprints." This kind of evidence is also historical but is as powerful as those of futuristic predictions, so historical sciences are not necessarily at a lower level of credibility than experimental sciences.

Theories in cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolution are all tested in this way. As Ernst Mayr (who died a few days ago at the age of 100) said in What Evolution Is (2001): "Evolution as a whole, and the explanation of particular evolutionary events, must be inferred from observations. Such inferences must be tested again and again against new observations, and the original inference is either falsified or considerably strengthened when confirmed by all of these tests. However, most inferences made by evolutionists have by now been tested successfully so often that they are accepted as certainties." (emphasis added).

In saying that most inferences are 'accepted as certainties', Mayr is exaggerating a little. Ever since the turn of the 20th century, it has been accepted that scientific knowledge is fallible and that absolute certainty cannot be achieved. But scientists do achieve a remarkable consensus on deciding at any given time what theoretical frameworks they have confidence in and will be used to guide future research. Such frameworks have been given the name 'paradigms' by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

When scientists say they 'believe' in evolution (or the Big Bang), the word is being used in quite a different way from that used in religion. It is used as shorthand to say that they have confidence that the underlying mechanism of the theory has been well tested by seeing where its predictions lead. It is definitely not "merely a theory and a model" if by the word 'merely' the commenter implies a theory that is unsupported or untested.

So yes, evolution, like all the other major scientific paradigms, both historical and experimental, has been well tested.

POST SCRIPT: Dick Cheney in 1994

It turns out that many of the arguments made by those opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq were anticipated by (of all people) Dick Cheney in 1994. Who knew?

Thanks to This Modern World

August 10, 2007

Evolution-21: Why evolution speeds up with time

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

One of interesting things about evolution is that it seems to be speeding up with time. Earth was formed about 4.7 billion years ago and it took about a billion years for the first single-celled life to appear about 3.5 billion years ago. It then took another 2.5 billion years for the first multi-cellular life form (like sponges) to appear. So everything else, all the insects, animals, and birds, came into being within the last one billion years or so.

One reason that things seem to be speeding up is that once complex organisms appeared, selection advantages increased due to more sophisticated competition among them. For example, when you have a predator-prey relationship, the prey species will have a huge selection advantage for those qualities that enable it to elude the predator (such as the ability to run faster or climb quicker or hide better or hear and smell better) while the predator will also have a huge selection advantage for those features that make it better able to capture prey (run faster, jump higher, and more acute vision, hearing and smell.) It is like an arms race. Two nations that are locked in a battle for supremacy are more likely to rapidly develop sophisticated weaponry than a nation without enemies.

Such factors, along with things like sexual selection, speed up the evolutionary process considerably, by increasing the selection advantage.

But new discoveries keep coming in and just this year, researchers have found that bacteria and viruses are also speeding up the process of evolution. Scientists at Rice University report that "the speed of evolution has increased over time because bacteria and viruses constantly exchange transposable chunks of DNA between species, thus making it possible for life forms to evolve faster than they would if they relied only on sexual selection or random genetic mutations." Theories like this support suggestions that there is a selection advantage for those organisms that are more adaptable to change. In other words, evolution favors those organisms that evolve more readily, leading to ever-increasing rates of change.

In fact, the problem with the evolution of species is not (as some religious people would have you believe) whether it occurs at all but that it is impossible to stop it from occurring. Almost invariably, when some members of a species get isolated from the rest for whatever reason, they begin to diverge. This is why the isolation of islands makes them excellent breeding grounds for new species. All the islands smaller than New Guinea account for one-thirtieth of land surface but contain about one-sixth of the total number of known species (Almost Like a Whale, Steve Jones, p. 345). In the Caribbean, for example, different lizards have different kinds of legs suitable for the kinds of vegetation that they climb on. In 1977, when lizards from one island were moved to another that had no lizards and only plants with thin twigs, within ten years their legs had evolved to meet the needs of the new vegetation by becoming stubby (Jones, p. 96).

But Darwin also proposed that one did not need actual physical separation like islands for speciation to occur. Diversity could arise within the same geographical area as organisms adapted to fit different niches in the same environment. Just yesterday it was reported that new evidence suggests that the two species homo habilis and homo erectus lived side by side at the same time, challenging the earlier idea that there was a linear progression from homo habilis to homo erectus to us, homo sapiens. The news report of the findings says that "The fact that the two hominid species lived together in the same lake basin for so long and remained separate species, Meave Leakey said in a statement from Nairobi, “suggests that they had their own ecological niche, thus avoiding direct competition.” "

Zoos face this problem with trying to preserve rare species. Although the zoos are trying to preserve the animals that are being lost in the wild, the very fact that zoo animals breed within a small group paradoxically causes them to actually accelerate their evolution into new forms. (Jones, p. 47)

As a result of all these factors favoring evolution, "Over the past five hundred million years, through all its ecological alarms and excursions, new kinds appeared at an almost constant rate. A survey of tens of thousands of marine animals over that time gives a rate of four hundred and fifty new species a year." (Jones, p. 231)

This is the last post in this series on evolution. To be frank, I had not expected it to be this long when I started but the breadth and scope of the subject just kept drawing me in deeper. While I will definitely return to this topic many times (because it is inexhaustible and new and interesting discoveries keep popping up), the planned and sequential nature of these posts will cease. My goal was to move the discussion of the theory of evolution away from a high level of generality and show that evolution is not just a good idea but that, like quantum mechanics and relativity, it is a theory that has been developed in great detail and its ramifications explored using a wide array of scientific tools.

The mathematics of evolution has played an important role in substantiating its claims and advancing our understanding of how it works. Charles Darwin would have found this highly amusing because he had great difficulty with mathematics as a student, struggling with even elementary algebra. Because of the complexity of biological systems, the probabilistic nature of the processes, and the interplay of organisms with other organisms and the environment in general, modern biological calculations use advanced mathematics, computer simulations, and game theoretical techniques in addition to the more conventional differential equations. There is even a new game by the creators of the Sims series that enables you to manipulate the conditions of evolution and see what happens. You can "determine the evolution of a species, from an amoeba to an inter-stellar race."

This is how science works and how we build up knowledge. People with different skills and expertise bring them to bear on complex problems, publish so that it can be checked by others, and over time we create reliable knowledge. This does not mean that scientific knowledge is infallible by any means. It is not uncommon for people to find that new data or a different set of assumptions lead to quite different results, and so scientists continually probe for weaknesses.

But such revisions and critiques are of a very different class from those of people who reject scientific ideas as absurd simply because it conflicts with their intuitions or because they seem unimaginable, without looking into the details. Such people are doing the same thing as those who reject quantum mechanics and special relativity because the results seem so weird to them.

POST SCRIPT: Pampered elites

Jason Jones of The Daily Show has a very funny piece on how the very rich in this country don't want to allow even the slightest thing to disturb their lives. People like the Kennedys, who vociferously support environmental causes everywhere else, turn against eco-friendly projects when those might have an infinitesimal impact on their own neighborhoods.

August 09, 2007

Petitions and politics in science

In a recent discussion on a listserv for physics teachers, someone strongly recommended the book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science by Tom Bethell, saying that it exposed how mainstream science was suppressing some ideas for non-science reasons, in particular how the great weaknesses of evolutionary theory were being hidden.

I had not read this book myself but these kinds of arguments are familiar to me and Bethell had written an article describing his own book. It struck me as extraordinarily shallow, rehashing arguments that have long been discredited, and invoking misleading (and old) chestnuts about evolution occurring only by chance, and missing transitional forms, etc. In fact, he seemed to have drawn his arguments against evolution from the playbook of the intelligent design creationists, in particular Jonathan Wells' book Icons of Evolution.

He even made the argument that the only thing that has been seen is 'microevolution' (small changes within species) and not macroevolution (change from one species to another). But the distinction drawn between micro- and macroevolution is untenable, since it has long been realized that there is a large overlap between varieties within species and between species as a whole, making the drawing of such distinctions difficult. Darwin himself pointed this out in his On the Origin of Species (chapter II), where he emphasized how difficult it was for even experts to classify whether animals were varieties within a single species or different species.

It is amazing that in this day and age people like Bethell still bring up Haeckel's embryos. Modern biologists don't take Haeckel's misleading sketches seriously anymore since his theory was discredited more than a hundred years ago and only intelligent design creationists (IDC) keep bringing it up repeatedly to argue that scientists falsify things in order to buttress the case for evolution. In the documentary A Flock of Dodos IDC advocate John Calvert talks about how biology textbooks use Haeckel's figures to mislead children but when asked to show this, thumbs through some textbooks and cannot find any examples. He had simply accepted this folklore uncritically. What use Haeckel has now is purely pedagogical.

The Haeckel case is analogous to someone finding that the Bohr model of the atom is still being taught in middle school science textbooks, "discovering" that Bohr's model violates Maxwell's laws of electromagnetism, and thus concluding that quantum mechanics is wrong and that children are being misled into accepting it. Quantum mechanics has come a long way since the Bohr atom and does not depend on it, just like evolutionary biology and Haeckel's embryos. To keep bringing it up is a sign of desperation

Bethell's argument about the fact that no one has seen half-bats and that therefore step-by-step evolution could not have occurred, reminds me of those people who say that it is absurd that an electron can go through two slits or that twins age differently based on their speeds. After all, has anyone actually SEEN an electron go through two slits? Has anyone actually SEEN twins age differently? If we haven't seen such things directly, they must not occur, right? I have described earlier how incomplete the fossil record is, because fossilization is extremely unlikely, and how arguments that depend on the existence of gaps in the fossil record can never be satisfied because new gaps can always be created.

As I have said in this series on evolution, to really appreciate the theory one has to get beyond the simple minded rhetoric of the kind that Bethell indulges in and look at the underlying details and the mathematics. The question of whether evolution is a "fact" is a red herring. "Theory" and "fact" are fluid terms in science. What is true is that the fully developed theory of evolution, known as the neo-Darwinian synthesis, is the most productive and useful theory in biology today, and forms the basis of almost all research in that field.

People who dislike the theory of evolution often point to the petition that the Discovery Institute (DI), the main driver of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC), put out signed by 700 people that says: "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged." Such people cite this as evidence that the theory is weak and then ask: "Why are so many scientists jumping off the evolution band wagon?"

But scientists are taught to be skeptical and to examine carefully the evidence for any theory. And if a theory (like evolution) challenges their religious beliefs, they are likely to be even more skeptical of it. That is a natural human tendency. It does not take any effort for a mathematician or physicist or philosopher to say she is skeptical of evolution, just as it does not cost any biologist anything to say that he is skeptical of the big-bang. After all, in each case, they are not personally working with that theory and are unlikely to know anything about it in any detail and thus can let other factors have a greater influence. As of the time when there were 400 people who had signed on, about 80% were not even biologists. (The story of one religious scientist who signed on to the Discovery Institute statement and only later realized what was going on can be read here.)

Another problem with the petition wording is that although Darwin proposed the mutation and natural selection mechanism, developments since then have added other mechanisms such as gene flow and genetic drift, so even a biologist who sees no problem with evolution would agree that mutation and natural selection alone are not sufficient.

I personally am skeptical of ANY theory in ANY field as being the last word (or the 'truth') on the subject because the history of science teaches us that scientific theories have always been provisional. So for me the DI statement itself is nothing more than a platitude. The fundamental issue is whether the biological community feels that evolution is in a crisis, and as far as I am aware, the biological science community does not think so and continues to use that theory as the foundation for their work. So these kinds of statements are just meaningless. When biologists start using alternative theories to generate predictions and start getting positive results, then we can take those other theories seriously.

It is important to realize that despite so many years of pushing intelligent design creationism, the people at the Discovery Institute have not been able to generate even one prediction, let alone do any experiments to investigate their theory. What they are doing is not science, it is lobbying and public relations.

Statements like the ones put out by the Discovery Institute on evolution are, however, useful as indicators of what people desire or yearn for.

For example, I am skeptical of the idea of dark matter as the explanation for the anomalous velocity distribution of stars on the arms of spiral galaxies. Why? Mostly for aesthetic reasons. It seems a bit contrived to me and the idea of huge amounts of matter surrounding us that we cannot detect reminds me uncomfortably of the arguments for the ether before Einstein's theory showed that the ether was a redundant concept.

I am hoping that a nicer theory than dark matter comes along and I know I am not alone in feeling this way and that other card-carrying physicists share my view. So if someone handed me a petition saying that I was skeptical of the theory of dark matter and would like the evidence for it to be examined carefully, that statement's content would not be objectionable to me. I would totally agree.

But I would not sign because it is pointless. I have not done any real work to support my misgivings. I have not developed an alternative theory, generated hypotheses, made predictions, or explained any existing data. Physicists who actually work on the spiral galaxy problem (even if they were completely outnumbered by the people who sign a petition dismissing dark matter theory) would be perfectly justified in ignoring me and any other physicists who sign such a petition in the absence of any substantive counter-theory.

What the DI petition on evolution tells us is that there are about 700 people who wish and hope that a theory more congenial to them than evolution comes along. That's fair enough but hardly major news. They have every right to feel that way and to say so. But it is by no means a measure of the merits of the theory, however many people sign on to it, and it is dishonest of the Discovery Institute to make such a claim.

Bethell's thesis that the scientific community is conspiring to suppress the truth about the weaknesses of evolution is silly. Given that the US has high levels of religiosity and public skepticism about evolution and widespread unease that evolution is undermining religious beliefs, any scientist who found good evidence for special creation would be deluged with funding from both government and private sources and receive high visibility and acclaim. Furthermore, such a discovery would open up vast new areas of research. In such a climate, why would any scientist not publish findings that provided evidence for special creation?

People like Bethell are trying to achieve by public relations what they cannot do using science. They are not the first to try to do this and will not be the last. But they will fail, just like their predecessors.

POST SCRIPT: The insanity of the employer-based health care system

This question posed at a Democratic presidential candidates forum illustrates perfectly why we need a single-payer, universal health care system.

August 08, 2007

Evolution-20: How selection advantage arises in evolution

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

In the mathematics of evolutionary change, the selection advantage is a key mathematical quantity that determines the rate at which a favorable mutation spreads through the population. The selection advantage is a quantification of the net result of advantages that a variety of a species gains by virtue of its fertility and fecundity and longevity. As we saw before, even a small selection advantage can lead to rapid spread of the mutation.

One of the interesting things that occurs is that since the entire organism is subjected to the same environment, a selection advantage for one feature can act simultaneously on many different features and can lead to a group of changes that might seem on the surface to be unrelated. Thus one can have many simultaneous changes in an organism, a process known as coherence.

Jerry Coyne (a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago) describes how this works.

Coherence is precisely the product of natural selection working with mutation. Yes, mutations are random in the sense I have described, but to say that an evolutionary step taken by an organism is unconnected to its predecessor completely ignores the fact that during evolution organisms are adapting to something in their environment, and that this adaptation can involve a coherent, coordinated response of many features. Consider the evolution of whales from terrestrial animals, now documented by a superb fossil record. The fossils show a wolf-like creature gradually becoming aquatic, with the hind limbs being reduced and finally lost, the forelimbs transformed into flippers, and the nostrils gradually moving atop the head to form the blowhole. How can anyone say that these changes (which of course look planned at the end) are unconnected or incoherent? They represent a case of natural selection eventually turning a land animal into a well-adapted aquatic one.

In Almost Like a Whale (p. 36), Steve Jones says that when some wolves were domesticated to become companions to humans and became the dogs we now have, its other features also changed, although these were not deliberately sought for.

Its ears, once pricked, are floppy, and the sounds of the world dulled. Its sharp eyes are blurred by a fringe of hair and can no longer stare an opponent into submission. The lupine tail, an expression of rage or delight, is in many breeds so curled as to bear no message at all. Most pets cannot even raise their hackles in anger as their hair is too long. All this comes from an unconscious preference by man for an animal that knows its place.

What was once done without thought has been echoed by science. In the 1950 Russia, silver foxes were farmed for fur. They were savage, suspicious and liable to die from anxiety. On a certain collective, in an attempt to improve matters, only those willing to accept human company were chosen as parents. Within twenty years and a mere ten thousand foxes, the farmers saw a great shift in their charges. The ranch was filled with well-behaved animals that looked more like dogs, with lowered tails and drooping ears. Many had piebald coats, quite unlike their unrestrained kin, and the females reproduced – like dogs – twice rather than once each year. To breed for tameness was enough to make the change. The other characteristics followed.

There are other factors that increase the selection advantage and thus speed up evolution considerably. The powerful driver that is sexual selection in the wild (usually females selecting males for mating based on certain qualities) prevents random mating and can result in generating significant selection advantages, and is believed to be the source of the exotic and elaborate plumage and songs of some male birds and the gaudiness of flowers (Jones p. 102). Animals tend to prefer to mate with others that either look like themselves or with those animals that look like the ones that raised them, if they had foster mothers (Jones p. 49). Darwin himself first emphasized the importance of sexual selection (On the Origin of Species, 1859, p. 87).

All kinds of factors can come into play that result in one variety of a species separating from the rest, and evolving into a new species as a result. As Jones says (p. 231):

Species are divided from each other in many ways – by space, by time, by mating preference, by the inability to fertilize an egg or produce healthy young, or by the sterility of offspring. The hurdles at which the sexual athletes fail are as varied as life itself. Those involved may never meet, or may mate at their own special time or season. Males and females of different kinds may choose not to pair, or may – with more or less enthusiasm – mate but fail to make a fertile egg. The geographical checks can be as narrow as the few inches between different orchids upon which certain bees feed or as wide as the ocean that separates American and European species of gull. When it comes to time, some flies mate in the morning and some in the evening and some crickets in the spring and others in the autumn; but two kinds of cicadas in North America emerge and mate every thirteen or seventeen years. The difference ensures that they almost never get together (in spite of a certain confusion every couple of centuries).

Colour, song, scent and more all play a part in settling who is, and who is not acceptable.

As soon as one group within a species separates out from the rest and breeds within itself in a new environment, differences get accentuated leading to the eventual formation of new species with new characteristics. But some aspects of the environment (like gravity) are the same everywhere on the Earth and have remained unchanged for a long time. For example, the radiation from the Sun has not changed, and the visible spectrum of light that reaches the surface of the Earth is pretty much the same everywhere on the Earth and has been stable for a long time. Hence it should not surprise us that the ability to see has a huge selection advantage and has evolved independently over 40 times in evolutionary history, although the resulting eyes differ in detail.

Thus if we could run the evolutionary clock all over again, while some things will be quite different, certain features like the eye are likely to recur in some form simply because the environment that makes them advantageous is stable and unchanged by the life forms that happen to come into being. Such a process is called convergent evolution.

All these things constitute evidence that evolution, far from being purely random, is a strongly constrained and law-like process.

POST SCRIPT: Religion as divider

In the film Deconstructing Harry Woody Allen discusses the role that religion plays in creating us-them distinctions.

August 07, 2007

Fun and games in the world of religion

Nation magazine journalist Max Blumenthal has developed a nice little niche in political guerilla video journalism, going to right wing meetings and asking participants awkward questions. Although he is soft-spoken, always polite, and has the credentials to attend, he usually ends up getting thrown out by the organizers.

His latest visit was to the annual meeting of CUFI (Christians United For Israel) where he manages to get highly amusing but also disturbing and creepy footage. The CUFI is one of those rapture-ready groups that believe the second coming is due any day now and are strong supporters of Israel, even though they think that non-Christians have to convert on rapture day or be slaughtered. This group gets a lot of money from the true believers, enabling its leader John Hagee to live in lavish style. The group is also supported by some Jewish organizations like the Israel lobby group AIPAC. The former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold and Senator Joseph Liberman also attended the meeting, with the latter receiving a very warm welcome and reciprocating during his speech by comparing Hagee to Moses. (Of course, since there is good reason to think that Moses never existed, I am not sure of the value of this comparison but I am sure it was meant as a compliment.) It looks like these right-wing Jewish groups seem to be willing to overlook the CUFI's nasty expectations for Jews because the CUFI supports the most extreme and reactionary policies of the Israeli government and settler groups. What seems to bind these extremists together is their hatred of Muslims.

Meanwhile, some time ago I linked to a video of protestors (see the post script) shouting during the opening prayer in the US Senate when a Hindu was invited to do the honors. The reason protestors gave for choosing the Hindu day for protesting is because Hinduism is polytheistic.

But actually, Hinduism is monotheistic and the other deities that one finds in that religion are the manifestations of the one god. You would think that Christians would understand this because their religion is very similar. The doctrine of the Trinity says the same thing: that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are also manifestations of god, and that all three should be worshipped equally.

So on the basis of their criticism of Hinduism, Christianity is also polytheistic and therefore, at the very least, in violation of the first of the ten commandments.

The doctrine of the Trinity has always been a nightmare for theologians, tying them up in knots trying to explain the mathematical impossibility of 1=3. I remember in my religion classes in school and later in theology classes for my ordination as a lay preacher, discussing this question and the clergymen never really being ably to answer it, except for saying it was one of the great mysteries of the church that could be understood only through the eyes of faith, thus conveniently taking a weakness and making it your fault. If you couldn't understand, it was because you did not have enough faith.

I wonder what would happen if someone sued, not to get rid of 'In God We Trust' on the currency or 'Under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, but to replace them with 'In Gods We Trust' and 'Under Gods', since the existing formulation excludes two of the three members of the Trinity.

If someone sues on these grounds, perhaps we could settle this thorny issue of what the Trinity means once and for all, with the US Supreme Court making a ruling on whether there is only one Christian god or three.

Now that would be a court case worth following.

August 06, 2007

Evolution-19: The Boeing 747 in the junkyard

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

As I have emphasized repeatedly in this series, the hardest thing to appreciate about evolution is how a cumulative sequence of very tiny changes can lead to big changes. The problem is that our senses can only detect gross differences between organisms and our minds can only comprehend short time scales and to appreciate evolution requires us to overcome those limitations. This is why skeptics need to actually study the details and convince themselves that it works.

I have the same problems when it comes to teaching modern physics topics like quantum mechanics or special relativity. Our senses and intuition have evolved to enable us to deal with objects that are on a human (or 'classical') size scale and traveling at speeds that are not too great. But the effects of quantum mechanics only become manifest when describing the very small, subatomic level of particles that we cannot see, and there our intuition completely breaks down. Similarly, the effects of special relativity become manifest only for objects traveling close to the speed of light, which we do not encounter in everyday life and again our intuition is incapable of dealing with it. So when physicists talk about a single electron simultaneously traveling by many different paths from a single initial starting point to a final point, or twins aging at different rates depending on their speed of travel, these ideas initially seem preposterous.

When teaching these subjects, I warn my students that their intuition is quite likely to lead them astray, that what their gut feelings tell them is reasonable or unreasonable is undependable, and that they have to constantly check those intuitive reactions by doing calculations to convince themselves that these counter-intuitive results drop out naturally from a coherent theory

The same thing is true for evolution. Mutations are too small to be visible and time scales are too long to comprehend, so one should not depend upon what seems reasonable to make judgments. Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works 1997, p. 163) points out that: "A hypothetical mouse subjected to a selection pressure so weak that it cannot be measured could nonetheless evolve to the size of an elephant in only twelve thousand generations." This is quite an amazing result. It is not at all intuitive and is hard to convince oneself that this could be possible unless one does the calculations, or trusts those who do the calculations.

But people who want to throw doubt on evolution exploit this breakdown of intuition by making statements of broad generality. For example, one often hears that the evolution of life as described by natural selection is as likely as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and spontaneously assembling a Boeing 747 airplane. This analogy was initially proposed by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in his 1983 book The Intelligent Universe. Hoyle and his co-worker Chandra Wickremasinghe used this example to support their alternative theory of panspermia, that life originated elsewhere in the universe and arrived on Earth from outer space via meteors.

Neither Hoyle nor Wickremasinghe are creationists and have their own reasons to want to discredit natural selection, but intelligent design creationists seized on this vivid image of the 747 in the junkyard and exploit it heavily in their anti-Darwin crusade, and Wickremasinghe has even appeared as a witness for them at some court trials.

To counter this analogy, one needs to look at exactly what natural selection says and compare it with what its opponents portray it as. Jerry Coyne (a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago) in a devastating review of intelligent design creationist Michael Behe's new book gives a nice example using the familiar example of throwing dice.

Take for example, some adaptation of a gene that, starting from the original organism, requires twenty mutations at twenty different locations for the desirable new feature of the organism to appear, with the mutations occurring in a specific order so that each mutation confers a slight selection advantage to the organism. Suppose that the random mutations are represented by the throw of a die and the required mutation at a particular site occurs when you throw a six. This means that it will take an average of six throws for the first mutation to occur. Recall that evolution is a step-by-step process that builds on past successes and I have already described how even a slight selection advantage is sufficient for a single mutation to become universal in the population, so this mutation will be stable. It will then take another six throws for the second advantageous mutation to occur, and so on, so that it will take an average of 120 throws for all twenty mutations to occur. If the dice is thrown at the rate of one a second, that means it will take about two minutes for all twenty mutation to have gone into effect.

What the Boeing 747 analogy does is to assume that you have twenty dice and throw them all at once and that all twenty must come up six simultaneously for the new feature to appear. The odds against this are astronomically high. At the same rate of one toss per second, this would take more than one hundred million years. As Coyne says, "This sequential way of getting twenty sixes is infinitely faster than Behe's method. And this is the way natural selection and mutation really work, not by the ludicrous scenario presented by Behe."

Arguing by analogy and example is often necessary when trying to explain esoteric points, but is also tricky and has to be done with care. No analogy is a perfect replica of the actual process and you have to make sure that the analogy you select corresponds accurately to the phenomenon being analogized as far as the crucial elements are concerned. In the case of evolution, the key point to bear in mind is that a sequential series of changes, each of which is beneficial and stable, takes much less time (i.e. is far more likely) to occur than for them to occur simultaneously. This is why intelligent design creationists try to desperately find examples of systems that (they argue) could not have occurred by sequential changes. But they have failed.

POST SCRIPT: If FDR had been like George Bush. . .

Jacob Sager Weinstein says that he "got tired of right-wingers saying, "If the media had been as hard on FDR as they are on Bush, we'd have lost World War II." So I started wondering. . . What if FDR had run his war like GWB?"

Here is the video that resulted from his musings.

August 03, 2007

Evolution-18: Missing links

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

About ten years ago, a group of engineering students came into my office. They were taking part in a scavenger hunt during Engineers Week and the one item that was very hard for them to find was a 'slide rule'. They had little idea of what it was and no idea how it worked or what one even looked like but they knew it was old technology and they figured that I was old enough to possibly own one.

They were partly right. I had once owned a slide rule as a physics undergraduate in Sri Lanka but unfortunately did not have mine anymore.

For those not familiar with slide rules, the standard type looks like a ruler with another sliding ruler attached, and you use it to do complicated calculations. It was the precursor to the handheld calculator but with the arrival of cheap electronic versions of the latter, the slide rule went extinct. I actually owned a more unusual type of slide rule that was cylindrical rather than linear and was like a collapsible telescope. It had the advantage that it was small enough to carry around in your pocket, and being able to whip out a slide rule when the occasion demanded defined the nerds of that time.

The difficulty that the engineering students had in getting hold of a slide rule is due to the fact that when a new technology comes along, the old technology is superceded and devices built using it become extinct because no more units get produced and the old units get thrown away and end up in landfills. As another example of this phenomenon, at Case we have a state of the art Freedman Center where you can take information stored in any form (say phonograph records of any vintage, old 8mm home movies, etc.) and convert to digital formats. The one old format they cannot currently convert is videotapes made using the Betamax format and this is because they simply cannot get hold of any working Betamax players anywhere anymore. It has gone extinct. (If anyone has an unused but working Betamax player they would like to donate to the Freedman Center, they would be happy to take it off your hands.)

Like slide rules and Betamaxes, you would be hard pressed now to find many things that were mass-produced even just a decade or two ago. Apart from those in the collections of museums and idiosyncratic collectors, most other artifacts have disappeared forever.

Imagine an extraterrestrial archeologist visiting the Earth and seeing an electronic calculator. Even if he looks around fairly carefully, he would likely not find slide rules or indeed any earlier versions of such devices and conclude, erroneously, that Earthlings are brilliant designers who went straight from nothing to a fairly sophisticated calculator in one jump.

The analogy with missing links in evolution is obvious. This difficulty of finding well-preserved specimens of old things is even worse with the fossil record in evolution. As an organism evolves to a newer form, the old versions rapidly disappear and become extinct. As Steve Jones points out (Almost Like a Whale, 1999, p. 161), "When we see any structure highly perfected for any particular habit, as the wings and birds for flight, we should bear in mind that animals displaying early transitional grades of the structure will seldom continue to exist to the present day, for they will have been supplanted by the very process of natural selection."

Even when it comes to fossils, since fossilization occurs only under very special conditions of organism and soil and climate, most of these dead organisms disappear forever and thus it is hard to find a continuous record of evolution. Even if a fossil is formed, the Earth itself is a dynamic system, with its crusts moving over each other, erosion, sedimentation, glacier movement, and even the rise and fall of mountains and oceans, all of which can destroy or bury or hide any fossils unfortunate enough to be in the way. As a result, "We continually overrate the perfection of the geological record and falsely infer, because certain genera or families have not been found beneath a certain stage, that they did not exist before that stage." (Jones, p. 269) "The Cambrian Explosion [beginning about 545 million years ago], so called, is a failure of the geological record rather than of the Darwinian machine. Its radical new groups reflect not a set of exceptional events but something more banal: the first appearance of animals with parts capable of preservation. Before then, there were soft creatures that decayed as soon as they died. Why shells appeared all of a sudden is not certain." (Jones, p. 274)

The rarity of fossilization can be seen by the fate of the passenger pigeon. Estimates put the number of them at over nine billion alive during the time of the Mayflower, more than the total of all the birds in the US today. They were still flourishing in the US as late as the times of the Civil War but the species went extinct in 1914 and not a single fossilized specimen has ever been found. If not for the existence of written records about this bird, we would not have known it even existed. (Jones, p. 266)

What gets preserved as fossils tend to be big and hard things like dinosaurs and mammoths, just like it is easier to find earlier versions of cars and ships than of slide rules. But thanks to the new techniques of DNA mapping, we do not have to depend exclusively on fossils to learn about how our ancestors evolved and diverged. DNA can interpolate the gaps in the record much better than even fossils can.

POST SCRIPT: Family Guy's Stewie and Brian go to Iraq

August 02, 2007

US military bases abroad: A case study of Vicenza, Italy

In an earlier post, I highlighted Chalmers Johnson's article that described the US global military empire that is sustained by a vast network of bases around the world, more than most Americans perhaps realize. The huge bases being currently constructed in Iraq should be viewed as the extension of this plan and creating such bases could well have been the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq. This becomes more plausible since the various 'official' justifications (weapons of mass destruction, war on terror, spreading democracy) have been shown to be untenable.

Periodically, one hears of rumblings of discontent among the local population living near these US bases and demands for their removal. When this happens in countries whose governments are friendly with the US, such as in Europe, the reaction here is often one of indignation at those ungrateful people who are biting the hand that protects them.

A fascinating and detailed case study of one particular American military base is that in the town of Vincenza, Italy where in February 2007 somewhere between 70,000 and 150,000 people demonstrated against the expansion and extension of the US base in their city. The kinds of problems such bases create and the hostility they generate can be found in this article (and which has been highlighted here) by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case Western Reserve University, who happens to have family connections in that town that take him there regularly.

Iversen emphasizes the deep and long-standing connections between Vincenza, a "world renowned city of art and architecture," that influenced US government buildings through the fact that its native son architect Andrea Palladia's work was the inspiration for many US government buildings including the Capitol dome, the White House, and Monticello. Perhaps because of these connections "Vicenza is thought by many Italians to be the most pro-American of Italian cities" and hence bitter protests over the US plans to expand its military base there cannot be dismissed as reflexive anti-Americanism.

Iversen says the extent of the public opposition was quite severe:

As for public opinion, local polls showed that 61% of the residents were against it, while a whopping 85% were in favor of settling the matter through a popular referendum. The City Council, surrounded by "unprecedented security", had 20 representatives speak for the "yeas" and 20 speak for the "nays", and then they voted first to reject the idea of a referendum and then to approve the expansion. The final tally for the project-vote was strictly along party lines, with 21 "yeas" (right coalition), 17 "nays" (left coalition), 2 abstentions, and 1 missing in action. The vote to reject holding a referendum was even closer, winning by only a margin of 1. After the vote, the previous mayor of Vicenza for 15 years, Achille Variati, is reported in the local paper to have said about the council's decisions, "No, they cannot decide the future of Vicenza themselves. I will work to bring about the referendum."

The main problem was that the plans for expansion did not take into account the already existing problems of congestion and pollution in the town and would actually aggravate them.

They would also inherit a new US air base that is a mere 25-minute leisurely walk from the Basilica Palladiana, which sits in the heart of the city.
. . .
Expanding the airport here, then, would be far worse than building a major military airbase one and half miles from the most historic piece of real estate in the US. As such it represents a serious callousness on the part of the US to local conditions and thus to justice itself.

As is usually the case, discussions over the decision to expand the US base is being done without consultation with the local populace or taking its interests into account, and involved heavy-handed arm-twisting by the US.

There was, however, one major problem with the discussions and agreement - the governments of Berlusconi, [center-right mayor] Hüllweck and the US had done all of the negotiating behind closed doors, thus keeping the people of Vicenza, including members of the city council, completely in the dark about it.
. . .
In fact, several months later Prodi's Foreign Minister, Massimo D'Alema, would say that "Revoking the authorization would have been a hostile act on our part against the United States." This clearly demonstrates that the US government was leaning hard on Prodi's government and telling them that if they did not allow the base expansion, the US government would put Italy on a list of uncooperative or even "hostile" countries. This "all or nothing" approach to the relationship by the US, which amounts to extortion, is hardly what one would expect of a just and fair ally.

Iversen points out that such bases, contrary to conventional wisdom, are not an unmitigated economic boon to the local area.

Most Americans might be surprised to learn that Italian tax payers actually cover a significant share of American bases on their soil (this is called Host-Nation Support [pdf], see also here). While the exact stipulations of who pays what for each specific project are mostly kept hidden per the stipulations of the post-WWII treaty, in Italy it is widely believed that Italian tax-payers are required to pick up just over 40% of the tab, in addition to the large sums for the enormous amounts of water and electricity. This doesn't cover time of war, when America often asks Host Nations to kick in even more ad hoc support, so a new base may also entangle Italy in paying greater costs for future conflicts. Any suggestion, therefore that somehow the Italians or the other nations where we have bases are "freeloaders" is terribly misguided. They help pay for a significant chunk of our bases on their soil. In addition, few Vicentini think that America's help during WWII, as much as it is appreciated, obliges them to build yet another base in their overcrowded and beautiful back yard. Most are tired of America always expecting another pay back and treating them as their eternal client state.

And always in the background is the fact that the disastrous Iraq war and other actions by the US has squandered any goodwill on the part of people around the world towards US government policies. Iversen continues:

There is no doubt that in Italy and most of the world there is a widespread and growing conviction that Bush's America is no longer the same America that reluctantly fought to end a horrific war sixty years ago; rather, she is going out of her way to pick unnecessary fights, thus displaying obvious signs of fascist, militaristic and imperial behavior herself - things the Italians have quite a bit of experience with, can easily recognize, and for which they now have a term that recalls the Fascismo of yester-year: Bushismo. It also hasn't helped that the Bush administration has thumbed its nose at the UN, IAEA, the Kyoto Protocols, the Geneva Conventions, Habeas Corpus, and is responsible for Abu Gharib, Guantanamo, the recent probable involvement of CIA agents in an illegal case of extraordinary rendition in Milan, and that the US military cleared of all wrongdoing the American soldiers who in Iraq killed an Italian Secret Service agent named Nicola Calipari while he was rescuing an Italian journalist. Naturally the Italian public would prefer the US to change its policies and behavior, but if the US doesn't, even traditionally pro-American cities like Vicenza would rather risk future Vandals, Visigoths and Huns rather than be complicit enablers of US imperial hubris by hosting another American base.

Iversen has written a wonderful article. You should read the full thing.

POST SCRIPT: Hubris

It is great fun talking to classics scholars. They are a font of interesting information about the ancient origins of words and ideas, and Iversen's article had an interesting digression on the origins of the word 'hubris.'

The noun hybris is derived from the Greek preposition hyper meaning "above" (which is cognate with the Latin preposition super from which is derived the Latin noun superbia). Hubris to the ancient Greek, however, was not just a matter of "pride", as the word is usually poorly translated in English. Hubris was the condition of having a haughtiness so high that it led to a feeling of impunity, which in turn led to a wanton act of violence. That is why the Athenians prosecuted crimes such as rape under the rubric of hybris. For the Greeks, then, the pride of hubris was one that produced a wanton act of violence that caused great ruin, even death (which is why hubris was later listed amongst the Seven Deadly Sins). That death, however, was not limited to the victim, as any one who has read Greek literature can tell you, but the ruin of hubris eventually doubled back upon the perpetrator's own head.

While many people have used the word hubris to describe the Bush administration, Iversen's clarification of its full meaning makes that description even more apt.

August 01, 2007

Evolution-17: How species diverge

(Please see here for previous posts in this series.)

When my daughter was quite young, about five or so, the question of where people came from came up in a mealtime conversation. Naturally we told her that human beings had evolved from ancestors who were monkey-like and then became human-like. She sat there for a while silently digesting this interesting bit of new information and mulling it over in her mind. It seemed clear that she was not at all disgusted or even bothered by the thought that we were related to the monkey family. That kind of revulsion seems to be something that has to be acquired, often nurtured by religions.

But something was bothering her and she finally articulated it, asking "But when that happened, wouldn't the mother monkey notice that her child looked different?"

She had hit upon an issue that many skeptics of evolution raise. They argue that there is a contradiction if we assume that we had evolved from an ancestor species that was so different from us that we could not interbreed with that species. Surely, the argument goes, doesn't evolution imply that if species A slowly evolves into species B, then there must be a time when the parent is of species A while the child is of species B? Isn't it a ridiculous notion for parent and child to belong to different species?

The answer is that it is perfectly possible that as we go from generation to generation, for each child to be the same species as the parent, while of a different species from a distant ancestor. In fact, we have living examples of such a phenomena,

In The Ancestor's Take (p. 302), Richard Dawkins uses the example of the ring speciation of the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull to illustrate how this happens. In Britain, these two kinds of birds don't hybridize even though they meet and even breed alongside one another in mixed colonies. Thus they are considered different species. But he goes on to say:

If you follow the population of herring gulls westward to North America, then on around the world across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact. The 'herring gulls', as you move around the pole, gradually become less and less like herring gulls and more and more like lesser black-backed gulls, until it turns out that our Western European lesser black-backed gulls actually are the other end of a ring-shaped continuum which started with herring gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their immediate neighbors in the ring to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, and the ring bites itself in the tail. The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull in Europe never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way around the other side of the world.

Dawkins gives a similar example of this kind of ring speciation with salamanders in the Central Valley of California, which is ringed by mountains. If you start with salamanders at one end of the valley and proceed clockwise around the mountain range to the opposite side of the valley, the salamanders change slowly, at each stage being able to interbreed with the neighbors. The same thing is true when you go counterclockwise from the same starting point. But when you arrive at the opposite point of the valley where the two chains of evolution arrived at by going in different senses meet, you find they are now two different species.

The herring gulls and salamanders are the examples separated in space (which we can directly see now) of the same argument separated in time (which we can only infer) that says that as descendants are produced, they form a continuum. Each generation, while differing slightly, can interbreed with its previous generation, but over a long enough period of time, the two end points of the continuum need not be able to interbreed.

Thus it is possible for one species to evolve into another and for an organism to be intermediate between two species.

POST SCRIPT: Family Guy on why Congress voted for the Iraq war