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Entries for November 2009

November 30, 2009

The age of the Earth-1: The history of the search

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It has been awhile since I have made the regular readers of this blog suffer through a long multipart series exploring a particular question. But my post on the interconnectedness of scientific theories spurred me to thinking about finding a good example, and the age of the Earth popped into my head as almost perfect. This series will be interspersed with posts on other topics.

The process by which science came to be interconnected can be described as beginning with a transition from 'early modern science' (which I have chosen to date as beginning with Galileo around 1600 CE) to 'modern science', that started around 1800 as new disciplines like geology, chemistry, and biology started to become mature and independent, developing their own theories and research protocols. But starting around 1900 a new trend emerged, which I will call 'late modern science', in which these somewhat independently developing fields began, as they grew, to encroach on each other's territories, and the need to seek consistency among them became apparent. After some initial crises of incompatibility, by around 1930 the theories had started to mesh reasonably well.

The reason modern scientific theories, unlike those of the past, are so robust is that they are now part of an interconnected web of theories that span many disciplines that formerly were separate. The age when each sub-discipline in science could develop on its own with little reference to other sub-disciplines is over. Now they are all linked together with varying degrees of separation. In addition, there are also general, over-arching scientific principles (the laws of thermodynamics, the atomic theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity to name a few) that no one theory can ignore or unilaterally over-ride.

Hence any attempt to reject any one theory in that web and replace it with another without taking into account the impact of this move on other theories is doomed to fail. This is where creationists stumble badly. They tend to view scientific theories and facts as modular units in which any one they dislike or which obviously disagrees with the Bible or Koran or other religious text can be plucked out and replaced with one that is more congenial. Dislike evolution? Remove it from the scientific pantheon and put special creation in its place. Don't want to believe in an old Earth? No problem. Replace it with Ussher's calculation of 4004 BCE as the year of creation.

But hold on a minute there, my creationist friends. You are no longer living in the 17th century and so your freedom to pick and choose is long gone. Determining the age of the Earth is precisely one of those investigations that beautifully illustrate the interconnectedness of science and why efforts to change the scientific consensus in such an ad hoc manner are bound to fail. In fact, estimating the age of the Earth provides a beautiful example of how scientific theories have made the transition from early modern to modern to late modern, and this series of posts will illustrate that sequence.

In his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn pointed out the important role that scientific textbooks play in our understanding of science. They are usually re-written after each scientific revolution and in addition to elucidating how the latest theory works, their other purpose is to persuade the reader of the worthiness of the new theory, why it should be accepted as the right one and why the previous ones were wrong. So textbooks are also designed to serve at least partly a propaganda purpose. But in doing so, they necessarily distort scientific history. As part of this attempt at persuasion of the worthiness of the latest theory, textbooks often act as if the questions which the current theory addresses successfully are the ones that have always concerned (and baffled) scientists from the beginning of time, and then proceed to explain why each of the earlier theories failed to get the right answer before the current one came along and solved the problem. In reality, the questions that the new theory successfully deals with often came into sharp definition concurrently with the new theory.

This is the case with the age of the Earth. We have now pinned it down accurately (we think) to the current value of 4.55 billion years. This is quite a feat and reflects great credit on the current scientific theories that have converged on that number. We now think that the age of the Earth is such an obviously important question (after all, we have devoted enormous resources to pinning it down) that we cannot imagine that people were not always trying to figure it out. But in fact, the idea that the Earth has a definite age at all, let alone a number that can be actually measured scientifically, is a relatively new idea, that has been taken seriously only within the last 150 years or so.

For a long time in history, although most ancient religions had their cosmogonies, the idea of estimating the age of the Earth and giving it a definite number of years was not an important question. In the early days, it used to be that the age of formation of the Earth, of the universe, and the appearance of humans were not really distinguished but are thought to have all occurred in some distant, unspecified past, perhaps even infinitely far back.

The books, The Chronologers' Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth (1975) by Joe D. Burchfield examine some of those early beliefs. Very often they involved elaborate stories about how the universe came into being, such as an egg hatching and giving birth to the Sun, but no indication of when that happened or even if there was an actual starting time. Many of them had cyclical ideas of the universe in which it either oscillated or went through repeated creation and destruction events so that what we currently have is just the latest cycle but the process would have been continuing back into eternity. Hence fixing a creation date did not even make sense.

But things changed with the arrival of Christianity, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers' Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)

POST SCRIPT: Homeopathy explained!

I discussed homeopathy before but now a homeopathy 'expert', described as an eye doctor, tries to explain how it works, which consists of snowing her audience with scientific jargon. In the process she manages to mangle almost all of physics. Although what she says makes no sense at all, it is an illustrative example of how people will believe what they want to believe, especially if it is presented authoritatively by someone who seems to have some sort of credentials.

November 27, 2009

The evil of the consumer economy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00 am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy.

The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday." 2008 saw the tragic story of a Wal-Mart worker killed in Black Friday rush of shoppers who callously trampled over him in order to get to the bargains quickly

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a 'consumer economy', and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don't get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don't see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the 'end-timers', the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive "must have" items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we should use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: The weird speech of film supervillains

That Mitchell and Webb Look addresses something that always puzzled me, which is the oblique way that film supervillains speak.

November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving musings

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

(I am taking the day off for the holiday and reposting an item from Thanksgiving of last year. I would like to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving holiday.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn't repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War, declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick off for the shopping orgy, but not too close or people won't have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October (like it is in Canada), not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday's roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is just a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season" which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: When evil supervillains meet building safety codes

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.

November 25, 2009

Free will and the Jesus people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the manner of TV soap-opera introductions, we ended yesterday with my talking with three Jesus people, a middle-aged woman, a middle-aged man, and a younger man, who had just made the astounding claim that if god did something, anything, (like the mass murder by drowning of infants) it could not be evil by definition, even if that same act would be universally condemned if done by a human.

The middle-aged man and the young man then started to make a point about free will and original sin. You know, the story of how god created Adam and Eve to have an idyllic life in the perfect Garden of Eden. He also gave them free will but told them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But of course, they did, and that was the original sin. For that one sinful act, god has inflicted suffering on all the animals (including humans) for all of time. Seems a bit excessive, no? God seems to be the sort who holds a grudge for a l-o-o-o-n-g time, worse than any gangland boss.

This theory of original sin and free will is a big deal for Jesus people. They think it explains everything although in reality combining free will with belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent god creates insoluble logical contradictions. Religious people assert that God gave us free will, and the reason why there is sin and suffering is because people use their free will to do the wrong things. But they also say that we suffer because of Adam and Eve's original sin which has resulted in us being 'born in sin' (a truly weird idea) and thus cannot avoid sinning, which doesn't quite square with the idea of us sinning because we are abusing our free will.

This theory also does not explain the suffering caused by diseases and natural disasters unless you also assume that god is using those devices to punish the people who abuse their free will in order to sin. This is a tough argument to sell, especially in the case of sudden mass catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes that wipe out entire swathes of people, including infants who are hardly in a position to exercise their free will at all, let alone in malevolent ways.

The middle-aged guy created a hypothetical scenario by pointing to a man who was coming down the street. Suppose he suddenly decided to cut off my head. His point seemed to be that if the man did this, he would be using his free will for evil purposes and that was because of original sin.

But I decided to take that hypothetical in another direction. (Religious people can be easily led into logical contradictions because they think that they are being disloyal to god unless they assign every superlative power they can imagine to Big Daddy in the sky.)

If that guy beheaded me doesn't that meant that god wanted me to be beheaded? No.

But doesn't god know everything even before it happens? Yes.

So doesn't god know beforehand that this man plans to behead me? Yes.

Doesn't god have the power to stop him from beheading me? Yes.

So if god knows that I am going to be beheaded and has the power to stop it but does not do so, doesn't that mean that god wants me beheaded? No.

Why not? Because the murderer was using his free will for evil purposes because of original sin.

As you can see, religious people have a set cycle of arguments, and when logically cornered will simply hit the 'reset' button and start the cycle all over again, even if it makes no sense or has been refuted or even flatly contradicts what they said just moments before.

I must admit that I was having a lot of fun but unfortunately had to go for my class. But before I left, the man made his last pitch to save me from hell by listing all the sins that I need to avoid committing to save me from going to hell. Things like murder, stealing, lying, lust, …

Hold on there, I said, what's wrong with lust? Lust is great! You should try it. And with that last comment, I left.

It was a hilarious half-hour or so. Was I having fun at the Jesus people's expense by pointing out the absurdities that arise from their beliefs? Absolutely. I have said before, when I am talking about religion with people personally, I tend to be non-confrontational, gentle even. But when people stop me on the street to try and convert me by telling me that I am going to hell unless I worship their genocidal god who has these strange ideas about free will, then I think they have forfeited any right to gentle treatment because they have left the private sphere. They have signaled their readiness to take on the rough-and-tumble of public debate, and should not complain if their views are dissected.

The Jesus people's attempts to spread their vile message of self-loathing and fear must be combated vigorously. The only reason they have got away so far with spreading their silly message on public streets is because of the misguided 'respect for religion' trope that says that as long as people are talking about religion, the fact that what they are saying is utter claptrap should not be pointed out. So we have ignored them. We should instead take the chance to show them the consequences of their beliefs. It may not make them change their minds but it may make them less enthusiastic about spreading their message of fear and self-loathing to unwary and innocent people.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke tries to understand free will and original sin

November 24, 2009

The Jesus people's love affair with Hitler

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Continuing from yesterday's post, in trying to convince me of the existence of the afterlife, the woman who stopped me on the street outside my office suddenly brought up Hitler. Religious people love Hitler because they think he is a winning argument for them. They argue that he was an unbeliever and he did evil things hence unbelief leads to evil. Even if the two premises are true, the conclusion does not logically follow. But even the first premise is false since Hitler was born a Catholic, never renounced it, and even spoke many times in favor of god. In a speech delivered just a year before his death, Hitler says, "I may not be a light of the church, a pulpiteer, but deep down I am a pious man, and believe that whoever fights bravely in defense of the natural laws framed by God and never capitulates will never be deserted by the Lawgiver, but will, in the end, receive the blessings of Providence."

Some Catholic apologists like Dinesh D'Souza argue that Hitler was secretly an unbeliever who was cynically using religion just to gain support for his appalling policies. But all that shows is that believing Catholics and Lutherans were the ones who supported the Nazi program, hardly a recommendation for religion. Also, when you start appealing to secret motives, you are heading into dangerous ground. After all, using that kind of reasoning, I could argue that D'Souza is secretly an atheist who is deliberately using idiotic arguments as a subtle way of discrediting religion.

Anyway, back to my encounter with the Jesus woman, I was surprised by this development because Hitler, although he almost inevitably makes a cameo appearance in these discussions, is usually religious people's Hail Mary, the big gun, brought out at the very end when all else has failed. This seemed a little early in the game for him to make his dramatic entry. Also, haven’t these people heard of the decision rule arising from Godwin's Law?

So I asked, what about Hitler? She said that if there were no afterlife, then he would not get the punishment he deserved and surely that was wrong. I said that she was not making a case for the afterlife but was merely indulging in wishful thinking, hoping that there is an afterlife so that scores could be settled. But her introducing Hitler enabled me to ask her some questions.

Isn't a god who would condemn people to eternal torment doing something that was even worse than what Hitler did? God wasn't sending people to hell, they were going there because they had been given the gift of free will and they were choosing to reject god.

But doesn't god have the power to not send people to hell? Yes.

Then if they end up in hell, that must be because he wants them to go to hell, right? No.

How come? It is Satan who puts them there.

So is Satan more powerful than god? No.

Then why can't god overrule him? Because he is just. People go to hell because they have abused the gift of free will and rejected god.

But if he has given us the 'gift' of free will, why is he punishing us for using that gift in a way that he disapproves? Because he is just.

Doesn't seem like much of a 'gift', does it? What's the point in giving people free will and then threatening them with eternal damnation if they use that will to make decisions he doesn't like? Doesn't that destroy the purpose of giving free will? If we choose to do wrong, it is our own fault if we go to hell.

I decided to move on.

I asked the Jesus woman whether she believed that Noah's flood occurred. Yes.

In that flood, god deliberately murdered all but the eight people in Noah's family, including tiny infants. Wasn't that worse than anything Hitler had done? Didn't that make god the worst genocidal maniac in history? No.

Why not? Because all those people died because of their sins.

What about the infants? Doesn't it bother you that god murdered vast numbers of tiny newborn infants by drowning them? What had they done to deserve that awful fate?

At this point, she started making stuff up, the way that religious people do when they have no answer. They think they can get away with this because they assume that the person they are talking to does not know the Bible. The doctrine of original sin that says that even newborn babies are also sinners has always been a tough sell, even for the most ardent believers, and she did not even try to pull that one on me. She instead said that god had immediately gathered up in his arms all the babies who had died in the flood. It is a nice cozy image but irrelevant. A murderer who cuddles his victim immediately afterward is still a murderer, and even creepy to boot. It is also totally fictitious. I told her that the Bible said no such thing. As far as the Bible was concerned, in drowning babies god was carrying out his plan exactly as envisaged and I challenged her to show me where in the Bible it said that god had scooped up the drowned babies.

She was stumped and asked me to wait and went off to get reinforcements from the rest of her group and came back with a middle-aged guy and a younger man. But not only could they not back up her assertion of god's act by providing me with biblical verses (which I knew they couldn't) they had no better responses to the questions.

Is murdering a baby an evil act? Yes.

Is drowning huge numbers of babies evil? Yes.

Wouldn't a huge number of babies have drowned in the flood? Yes.

So why were they worshipping an evil, infant-murdering god? No, because if god does something, it cannot be evil.

This answer was so laughable that I let it go and decided to move on to another topic, which I will describe tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke tries to understand god's love and hell

November 23, 2009

Fun with the Jesus people

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Last Wednesday, we had on our campus at Case Western Reserve University the promised free distribution of Ray Comfort's printing of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, with an introduction by him containing his pathetic attempts at combating evolution.

The distribution seemed as if it was being done by community people and not by our own students. I did not get a copy myself but a number of people were gathered at the intersection just outside my office handing out religious tracts. I was stopped by a middle-aged woman who gave me a pamphlet and asked me if I believed in god. I said no. She asked me why not and I said that there was no reason to believe in god.

I asked her why she believed in god and she said that god spoke to her. I said, Really? You actually hear voices in your head? Yes, she said. I asked, What language does this voice speak and in what accent? She said English and added that god would speak to me in my own language and in my own accent. I said that I never heard such voices and that was why I did not believe but since she spoke to god, I asked her to ask god to tell her the serial number of the dollar bill in my wallet to convince me that the voice she heard really was god. She looked pained. That would be mocking god, she said. Why, I asked? It just would and she would not do that. I decided not to press her further on this point

(I have found that pointing out logical contradictions or circular arguments never convinces religious people immediately so once you have made your point, it is best to move on and not belabor it So why do I do bother arguing at all? I am a firm believer that religious beliefs change slowly as a result of people trying and failing, on their own, to reconcile the contradictory beliefs they are forced to hold. So what I do is plant as many seeds of doubt as I can and hope that at least one will take root and sprout and undermine the whole religious edifice.

The best way to do that is to not defend your lack of belief (because religious people don't really care what your reasons are and don't listen) but to pose questions to them exploring the logical consequences of their beliefs. Since they care what they think, it forces them to grapple with these issues. This method of posing questions and getting people to figure things out for themselves is known in education circles as 'inquiry-based instruction' and is widely used as an effective teaching technique, especially with science, where students often have deeply held, unconscious, and erroneous beliefs, just like religion.)

Anyway, back to my encounter with the religious person. She then asked me what I thought would happen to me if I died today. I told her that my usable organs would be harvested and then I would be cremated and that would be it. But what would happen to me after that, she asked? Nothing, I said, that was it. What about the afterlife, she asked. I told her I did not believe in it. She asked why not and I said that there was not a shred of evidence that there was an afterlife, just like she had not a shred of evidence for god, except for the voices in her head. She asked whether I wasn't scared of being wrong about god and going to hell and suffering torments for eternity. I said I was not worried at all.

I asked her if she had met and spoken to anyone who had died. She said no. So why do you believe in the afterlife? She said the Bible promised that there was one. I asked why I should believe that book more than any other book. She said that it was because it was the word of god. And why do you believe in god, I asked, because of the voices in your head? Yes, and also because the universe has obviously been designed by a god. I said that there were perfectly reasonable explanations of the universe that did not require a god but she was, of course, incredulous that such explanations were possible, and she brought out the usual chestnuts such as 'the miracle of childbirth' as evidence of god's necessity. I decided it was time to move on from that topic too.

I asked her if when Jesus rose from the dead, his physical body also rose. She said yes, of course, because the Bible says he ate fish with his disciples.

So where is his body now? Up in heaven, and she pointed up.

Really, up there? Yes, with Moses and Elijah and all those others who have joined god.

Their actual physical bodies are up in the sky? Yes.

So since they have physical bodies, they must eat and drink there, no? Yes.

So in heaven they have to grow food and cook just like here? Yes, they eat wonderful fruits and other foods.

So that means they go to the bathroom and so must also be having a sewage system in heaven? She looked pained again and said that she did not want to talk about such distasteful things.

But if the actual bodies have been resurrected, I said, then what about the decomposing bodies that we find in graves? She said that after we die, only our spiritual bodies go to heaven at first. It is only at the end of the world, with the rapture, that our physical bodies also rise from the graves (or wherever they are after all that time) and join up with our physical bodies. Since the end of the world has not occurred yet, this didn't square with what she had just told me about the physical Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and the others currently palling around in heaven in their physical bodies, but I let it go. Maybe they got there early using their frequent flyer miles or elite status or something.

Next: Hitler makes a cameo appearance.

POST SCRIPT: Some Grey Bloke is having trouble with the whole self-loathing thing

Commenter Ray Foulkes introduced me to some funny cartoon videos featuring a character known as 'Some Grey Bloke' that makes some of the points I have been making. Enjoy. And thanks, Ray!

November 20, 2009

Harun Yahya on evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I discussed the book The Creation of the Universe (2000) distributed under the name of Harun Yahya, which is the pseudonym of Adnan Oktar, a Muslim creationist based in Turkey. He has now put out an even more expensive 800-page glossy publication called Atlas of Creation (2006) that gives the creationist arguments against evolution. He has not deigned to send me a copy of it as yet, maybe because I am not on lists of biologist academics or I have dropped down in the rankings of worthy recipients. Darn!

They say politics make for strange bedfellows but so, apparently, does religion. Perhaps no group in America is as hostile to Islam as the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. But this group has also demonstrated that when it comes to advancing their cause, they are willing to forge alliances with almost anyone. We have seen them cavorting with right-wing Israeli politicians in supporting their appallingly repressive policies towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories because they think such policies advance the day of the glorious Rapture. Of course, on that day Jews and all the other infidels will be slaughtered in a bloody rampage by the forces of Melvin. Why would Melvin commit such mass murder? Because he loves us.

Now, adopting the old dictum of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", American Christians are also joining up with Oktar/Yahya to spread their anti-evolution message worldwide. Scholars have found that Muslim creationists are importing creationist ideas from America to foster their own anti-science extremism in the Islamic world

What is disturbing is that Muslim creationists are not only spreading anti-evolution thinking, but are using it to buttress a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism that sees the 'Christian' west as an enemy. This unholy alliance of supposedly holy groups is going to breed even more extremism.

Islamic creationists differ from Christian creationists in that they are not committed to a young Earth idea. They are willing to accept that the Earth has existed for billions of years. Their range of anti-science views go from demanding that all living species were special creations of god to one in which all species except humans have evolved. But they all denounce the theory of evolution by natural selection as not only wrong but as an idea that has had evil consequences.

As I said in the previous post, Oktar/Yahya's book The Creation of the Universe (2000) deals mostly with the origins of the physical universe but he has an appendix titled The Evolution Deceit that rehashes the old, familiar, and discredited creationist arguments against evolution.

He says that there must be a creator since all the things that we see could not have occurred by 'coincidence' (which is the word he uses for chance), thus ignoring the fact that natural selection is anything but chance but is a highly directed process. He calculates the odds that the base sequences in amino acids and proteins could have occurred by pure chance and writes out the result with a huge number of zeros.

He then reproduces the same bizarre argument about hybrids as Christian creationists, saying that evolution requires a "a bird popped all of a sudden out of a reptile egg" and "the existence of half-bird/half-reptile or half-fish/half-reptile freaks". Since none of these have been found, evolution must be false (p. 180). He also has the same mistaken idea that a 'transitional' form means something less than perfect, saying "Every living species appears instantaneously and in its current form, perfect and complete, in the fossil record." (p. 184)

Oktar/Yahya has had a love-hate relationship with the intelligent design creationism movement. In his 2000 book, he speaks favorably about ID because they are against evolution. But in a more recent press release, he denounced intelligent design as "another of Satan's distractions", since they did not explicitly acknowledge that Allah is the creator of all things but instead spoke vaguely of a 'designer' or some kind of 'force'. Oktar/Yahya has no patience for such wishy-washy euphemisms.

However, ever since the 2005 Dover, PA trial shattered the ID façade that theirs was not a religious theory, intelligent design creationists have been more open about the fact that their secretive designer is none other than (drum roll, please) Melvin. So now Oktar/Yahya seems to be willing to join up with them again.

The Discovery Institute, backers of the intelligent design version of creationism, have seemingly joined forces with Oktar/Yahya, thus finally shedding all pretenses that what they were advocating was a purely scientific idea.

So the Christian and Muslim creationists are joining forces against evolution. But it is only a matter of time before these two groups turn against each other because, after all, Islam and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible belief systems. They each think their own god is the true one and their own book is the one true revelation. They cannot both be right. Allah and Melvin cannot co-exist.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on Harun Yahya

Dawkins gives a talk to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain where he exposes the shallowness of Oktar/Yahya's book against evolution. Dawkins speaks for 16 minutes and then takes questions from the audience.

Unfortunately, the video does not show some of the images Dawkins projects on the screen that illustrate the ludicrousness of Oktar/Yahya's claims, but you can see a few of them here.

November 19, 2009

Islamic creationism and Harun Yahya

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Some readers may have heard of Harun Yahya, the pseudonym of Adnan Oktar, a creationist in the Islamic world who is based in Turkey, who uses as arguments against evolution the same absence of bizarre hybrids as Duane Gish and Kirk Cameroon, although he differs from them in that he is an old-Earth creationist.

Oktar/Yahya seems to have, like his American creationist counterparts, rich backers who are willing to stay in the background and shell out huge sums of money to advance their beliefs. In Oktar/Yahya's case it has enabled him to create a large cult-like organization. He has been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for running a criminal organization. He is awaiting the outcome of his final appeal to the Turkish Supreme Court.

Among other things, he produces and widely distributes free lavishly colored books under his name that propagate the same kinds of creationist ideas that Christian creationists have. Some time ago I too unexpectedly received in the mail such an unsolicited book The Creation of the Universe (2000). This book deals mainly with the physical universe. Like with Ray Comfort's introduction to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, I decided to take one for the team and read and summarize Oktar/Yahya's ideas for the benefit of the blog's readers.

The book starts out in the introduction by attacking the principle of materialism, that matter and the natural laws are all that exist. He has to do this because all religious people know that since there is no evidence for the existence of god, unless they are able to postulate the existence of mysterious, nonmaterial entities that can act in the universe in unpredictable and undetectable ways, they are lost. Oktar/Yahya simply asserts that the materialistic view has been defeated, throwing in some quotes from the Koran because we all know that no arguments are more powerful than quotes from ancient texts of dubious origins.

The entire book repeats over and over again the same old tired 'anthropic principle' argument, that the properties of the universe are so finely tuned to create the conditions for humans to exist that they must have been designed. The name 'anthropic principle' seems to me to be too high falutin' for such a childish argument. A more accurate label would be the 'Goldilocks principle' because according to them every thing in the universe is not too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, too big or too small, but is just right for us humans. Hence it could only have been created by Allah/Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Krishna/_____ (fill in the blank).

As I have pointed out before, the fatal weakness of the Goldilocks principle is why his god goes to all this trouble over such minute details. If god is so powerful, he could create humans to live under any conditions, such as on a planet as hot as Mercury or as cold as Jupiter or without water or oxygen or even food. He could make us able to live in a vacuum.

The book consists of each chapter taking one feature of the universe and arguing that if its particular properties had been slightly different, the universe and life could not exist. Hence god exists. That's the book's argument in its entirety.

He also sprinkles verses from the Koran to claim that it predicted scientific discoveries. (Jesus and Mo has a wonderful cartoon on such Koranic 'predictions'.) He quotes from religious scientists and also quote-mines famous scientists shamelessly, using the anthropomorphic language that some are wont to use, to argue that they too at least implicitly believe in Allah's role in creation.

He argues that chance or Allah are the only two options. He repeatedly 'calculates' the probability that some specific feature could have occurred by pure chance and finds that it is one-in-a-huge-number and thus highly unlikely. He likes to write out these huge numbers in large font in decimal form (sometimes in reverse white lettering on black background) for dramatic effect, with the result that there are an awful lot of zeros in his book: page 39 has 123 zeros, page 108 has 25 zeros, and page 198 has a whopping 950 zeros.

In chapter 1 he says that the Big Bang proves that god exists because it implies a beginning and a beginning must have a creator. Who was the creator? Allah, of course. And not only that, the Koran actually predicted it, when it says "He (Allah) is the Originator of the heavens and the earth." What more proof do you need than that that the Koran is of divine origin and that Allah exists and created the universe? But he goes on to give more.

In chapter 2, he argues that the physical constants are just the right size to support the existence of the universe. Hence Allah exists.

What if (chapter 3) atoms were not electrically neutral (as they are now) but were positively charged? Why, everything would fly apart and life would be impossible! So the fact that atoms are neutral is proof that Allah exists. Man, that Allah really thinks of everything.

In chapter 4, he hauls out the second law of thermodynamics and argues that the "order of the universe is the most overwhelming proof of the existence of a superior consciousness." Hence Allah exists.

Another example (chapter 5) is that it is only because the Earth is at exactly the right distance from the Sun that it has temperatures that can support life as we know it. If it had been a little closer, it would have been too hot. If it had been a little further, it would have been too cold. Coincidence? I think not. Hence Allah exists.

Chapter 6 makes the case that the wavelengths of the spectrum of light that reaches the surface of the Earth lie in just the right range to support the chemical processes on which life depends, like photosynthesis, and that none of it is 'wasted'. What are the odds of that happening by chance? Lots of zeros, baby. Hence Allah exists.

Another example (chapter 7) is that that of water expanding upon freezing and thus ice rising to the top. If that had not been the case, oceans and lakes would freeze solid and kill all life. But luckily for us, there was someone (guess who) who knew exactly what properties water needed to have and ensured that it did.

The electronic structure of carbon is such that it can form covalent bonds (chapter 8). This is so crucial to life that if it could not do so, we could not have carbon-based life forms. Hence Allah must have created this particular electronic structure and hence he exists, yes indeedy!

So that's pretty much the book. I bet you can't wait to read it for yourself.

What does Oktar/Yahya say about evolution? I'll look at that in the next post. But here's a hint: "I do not like it, Sam-I-Am."

POST SCRIPT: Primatologist Jane Goodall on The Daily Show

A sweet, gentle interview with a sweet, gentle person. Really, there's no other way to describe it.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jane Goodall
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

November 18, 2009

Transitional forms

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I said that one thing that keeps creationists from 'seeing' the truth of evolution is that their teleological viewpoint makes them think that species in their current form are the aim of creation. If that is the case, why would god bother making anything else? Hence ancestral forms of current species that are unlike anything that currently exist simply have no place in their model.

Another mental block that prevents them from seeing transitional forms for what they are also arises due to this teleological viewpoint. Here they are misled by the very word 'transitional', which suggests something less that perfect and on the way to perfection.

In an online debate with Eugenie Scott, the head of the National Center for Science Education, Ray Comfort makes the following jaw-dropping statement where he illustrates this misconception by pointing to what he thinks is the weakness of the theory of evolution:

Nothing we have in creation is half evolved. The cow has a working udder to make drinkable milk. The bee has working apparatus to make edible honey. We don't find a half-evolved cow or bee. None of the 1.4 million species on the Earth has half an eye. All have the necessary functioning equipment, from the brain, to the teeth, to the eye, to limbs, to reproductive necessities. Everything that we see in creation is in full working order—from the sun, to the mixture of the air, to the seasons, to fruit trees and vegetables, to the animal kingdom—from the tiny ant right up to the massive elephant.

But not only do we see this mature completion in creation; we see it displayed in the fossil record. It reveals that each animal was complete.

I went to the Smithsonian to see the fossils galore, and they were there—millions of fossils that were evidence of special creation. The Smithsonian didn't have any transitional fossils that proved evolution (staunch believers claim that they have them, but not on display). I also visited the evolution museum in Paris (Grande Galerie de L'Evolution). I took a camera crew, and we spent an hour looking for the evolution exhibit. It didn't have one. All it had were millions of fossils of fully formed animals that God created (my italics).

This is a perfect example of creationists not 'seeing' the evidence for evolution that the rest of us see. It reveals the creationist teleological belief that everything we have now is in its final form and is functioning as designed. The very use of the phrase 'half evolved' reveals the deep misconceptions originating from a teleological viewpoint, because that phrase is meaningless unless one sees current species as being in their final, perfectly functioning forms.

In this view, a 'transitional' form must be something less than perfectly functioning. What Comfort thinks evolution predicts is that transitional forms should consist of animals malformed in weird ways, like cows with udders that do not produce milk or bees that have not figured out yet how to make honey or human beings with only one leg. This displays a staggering ignorance of the most basic elements of how evolution works. But because Comfort has a teleological view that starts from the end, he cannot see that all of us, even though we are fully functioning and adapted to our present environment, are also at the same time transitional forms even though we don't know how we will evolve in the future.

Evolution tells us what we evolved from, not what we are evolving to. Every species that lives now or has ever lived is both 'fully evolved' (in that it is the result of successful adaptations to its past environments) and a transitional form (in that it will evolve in the future as a result of new environmental pressures). There is no such thing as being 'fully evolved' in the Comfort sense of having reached unchanging perfection.

There are only three reasons I can think of for people making the kinds of extraordinary statements that Comfort makes above.

One is, of course, outright stupidity, coupled with ignorance. One should never rule that out.

Another reason is dishonesty, in that they know they are spreading falsehoods about what evolution is but think that saving souls for Jesus compensates for lying to them. One cannot rule that out either. The ranks of religious liars and charlatans are legion.

The third and most charitable explanation, which is what I am suggesting in this series of posts, is that that they simply haven't been able to make the Gestalt-type switch from the old teleological and Platonic worldview to the modern scientific one. While scientists can look at living organisms and fossils and see them as both fully functioning and transitional, creationists can see only a 'fully evolved' object. This is an almost perfect example of what happens when you cannot make the Gestalt switch to see two images while viewing a single object. While scientists can look at the image below and see both a duck and a rabbit, for creationists the duck is still only a duck, and as a consequence, the two pointy-things on the left can only be its bill.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

It is quite sad.

POST SCRIPT: Here's a 'fully evolved' ape

From the BBC comedy show Not the Nine O'Clock News.

November 17, 2009

Why creationists do not 'see' evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because of course there are huge numbers of such fossils. The evidence is incontrovertible. In fact, every living or fossilized organism can also be considered a transitional form, since change is constant. It should also be borne in mind that Darwin arrived at his theory without having the wealth of fossils that are now available, basing his arguments largely on biogeography, the similarities in body patterns of animals, embryology, and the existence of vestigial organs. Nowadays, the fossils that keep being found and the relationships that have been discovered between the DNA molecules of species have sealed the case for evolution.

Fossils are extra evidence and the case for evolution would be strong even without them. So why do creationists keep harping on transitional fossils? One reason is because they think that that is their strongest point. They also know that fossils seem more persuasive to the general public because we can actually see them with the naked eye.

But it may be that they are possessed of a deep misconception (like those involving electric current) about how evolution works that prevents them from actually 'seeing' the evidence the way that scientists see it. Changing that deep misconception requires a Gestalt-type switch but may prove as hard as getting people to understand that electric current flows in closed loops and is not used up.

A few weeks ago, I had quite a bit of fun with Ray Comfort's banana argument and with Kirk Cameron's belief that a transitional fossil is a weird hybrid between two existing species, the latter giving as an example an animal with the head of a crocodile and the body of a duck, which he cleverly calls a 'crocoduck'. But it appears that I was wrong in crediting him with originating this inspired piece of idiocy. It apparently goes back much further to at least Duane Gish, one of the founders of 'modern creationism' (now there's an oxymoron for you). Biologist Jerry Coyne says he heard Gish give a talk where he showed a cartoon of what he expected a transitional form between a fish and a mammal to look like. It consisted of an animal whose front half was a cow and rear half was a fish. (Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution is True, 2009, p. 47.) Gish's message, like Kirk Cameron's, is "Ha! Ha! These wacky evolutionists may be willing believe such crazy things but we are too smart for that."

In this case, I think that these religious people have a wrong point of view of species that dooms them from the start. Like the pre-Galilean theorists of motion who thought that the end point of motion was what was important, or that of Platonic idealists who focused on the essential unchanging nature of things, they too make the mistake of starting from the end point.

In the case of biology, this translates into a teleological view that sees all the current species as the end point, the convergence if you will, of a grand plan. Hence the word 'transitional' does not mean to them an ancestor of a current species that looks different from anything that we currently see, because such things are inconceivable in their teleological model which sees everything as purpose-driven. For them, such an organism would be unnecessary, not serving any purpose. As long as they have a teleological view of the world with its current life forms being representatives of a Platonic ideal, the very word 'evolution' will mean something very different to them from what it means to the rest of us.

So what can a transitional form mean to people with that view? The only transitional forms that they can conceive of are the curious hybrids they keep coming up with, like the crocoduck and the cow-fish. Unfortunately, as I said yesterday, even some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like), reinforce this misconception by suggesting that evolution consists of transitions between forms that currently exist.

When these creationists claim there is lack of fossil evidence of transitional forms, they mean the absence of fossils of these bizarre hybrids. It is clear that people like Gish, Comfort, and Cameron are 'seeing' the theory of evolution in a very different way from the way that scientists see it, and this explains why they will keep coming up with theories so outlandish that we are often at a loss to know how to even start to refute them.

Until they make that Gestalt switch and see evolution and transitional forms the way that scientists see it, they are hopelessly lost. The duck, for them, will remain a duck.

Another obstacle to creationists 'seeing' evolution will be discussed in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Science vs. religion debate

Thanks to Machines Like Us, you can see the entire recent debate between Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett on the one hand versus Dinesh D'Souza (Roman Catholic), Shmuley Boteach (Orthodox Jewish rabbi), and Robert Wright (whom I have labeled as a religious atheist) on the other. It was held at the La Ciudad de las Ideas in Mexico.

November 16, 2009

The power of subconscious theories

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The existence and history of religion tells us that people are willing to believe things for which there is no evidence and that they will fight to hold on to them even in the face of overwhelming evidence and arguments to the contrary. But when those beliefs collapse, as they sometimes do, the switch to disbelief can often be quite sudden. I know that in my case, I had been struggling (unsuccessfully) to reconcile my scientific ideas with that of a god for some time. The realization that everything made a lot more sense if there was no god hit me like a Gestalt switch.

One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because it is so palpably wrong and the fossil evidence is so strong. So where does this weird idea come from? And why does it persist?

As much of research in science education has shown, robust misconceptions are often not simply bits of false knowledge (like thinking that Portland is the capital of the state of Maine) that can be easily corrected, but instead are the manifestations of elaborate theories that emerge from a deeply rooted but fundamentally flawed premise. As long as that flawed premise remains intact and unexamined, the misconceptions that flow from it will reappear even if countered in specific cases.

I have seen this phenomenon in my own teaching of electricity to people without a science background. One of the strong misconceptions that people have about electric current is that it emerges from a source (a battery or an electrical outlet), flows through the wire, and is then 'used up' by the radio or light or whatever device it is connected to. They also think that a battery always supplies the same amount of current. Based on this model of electricity, they will then make wrong predictions about how current will flow in more complicated circuits, say by connecting two or more devices to the same source of current.

In actuality, current is never used up. It just flows around in a circuit. Current flows out of one end of the battery (or other source), goes through one wire to the device, passes through the device, and then flows back through another wire into the other end of the battery. The amount of current flowing out of the battery at one end is exactly equal to the amount of current flowing into it at the other end. But it is extraordinarily hard to persuade novice learners of this model, even when they want to learn about electricity and have no reasons to resist it. After all, the Bible does not say anything about electricity. When I tell them how current really behaves, they believe me because I am an authority figure. But yet the misconceptions persist.

If you teach the right model of current to people and then ask them a direct question about how current flows, they will give back the right answer. But when they are asked something indirect, like giving them a circuit and asking them to predict how current will flow, very often they will come up with an answer that is at variance with how it really will behave. If you trace the reasoning of the wrong answer back to its source, you will find that it arises from their original misconception of current being used up and the battery producing a fixed amount of current, even though they consciously thought they had rejected that old way of thinking. When you point this out, they will think that this time they have definitely overcome the misconception. But when they are given a yet more complicated circuit, very often they will make a wrong prediction again, based on the same underlying misconception.

It is only after it has been repeatedly pointed out to them the important role that their basic deep misconception plays in their surface thinking that they switch to seeing the current flowing in a circuit. Once they make that switch in their basic misconception, there is no going back. They cannot imagine that they could have ever thought otherwise.

The reason this particular misconception about current is so deeply held is because people have constructed it on their own. Most of them are not even aware that they have this underlying theory of electricity because they have not consciously thought about it. The theory is built intuitively. Nobody taught it to them, they just 'picked it up' because it makes sense. After all, they know that appliances have a power cord that must be connected to an electrical supply system in order to work. They know that electrical devices 'use up' power because batteries eventually die. The power cord looks like a single tube, like a garden hose, and thus electricity seems like it can flow only in one direction. All these things make sense by assuming their simple model. Most people do not look more closely and wonder why the plug has two prongs and they do not break open the wires or their devices and find that there are incoming and outgoing pathways for the current.

The theories that people intuitively create for themselves are the hardest to refute because they are buried deeply in their thinking and are not consciously articulated by them. The consequences of these misconceptions are often erroneous but if we only correct the consequences without understanding and addressing the source, then we will find that same misconception rearing its head each time a novel situation is encountered.

The misconceptions about how evolution works are of the same kind. They are created deep in the minds of people at an early age, often by well meaning, science-supporting adults who tell their children that 'we evolved from monkeys' and by some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like).

Once these misconceptions about evolution take root at an early age by a process of intuitive thinking, they become, just like the false electricity models, hard to dislodge in adulthood even by confronting people with the most clear reasoning.

As Jonathan Swift said, "You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place."

Next: The role that deep misconceptions play in evolution

POST SCRIPT: How not to stalk off an interview

It is not uncommon for guests on TV or radio to get miffed about something, throw a fit, and stalk off the set. Some may even do it deliberately as a strategy, knowing it will get them publicity. But it sometimes doesn't work out well, with some forgetting to take off either the earpiece or the mike and getting yanked, resulting in a less-than-impressive exit.

But the award for the worst interview termination must surely go to Carrie Prejean. Remember her? Here are some keywords to jog your memory: Miss California who was stripped of her title, supporter of 'opposite marriage', breast implants, topless photos, Donald Trump, lawsuit against Miss USA pageant, sex video.

While on a tour promoting her book, she was irked by a question posed by Larry King of all people, who is notorious for his softball questions. So she removes her mike but instead of then walking off the set, she just sits there, talks to someone off-camera, and smiles at the camera as if she was competing in a pageant, leaving King baffled as to what is going on. Watch.

November 13, 2009

The key steps in adopting evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Making a Gestalt-type switch is often aided by nudges from outside sources, and in the case of evolution, two such factors came into play: the age of the Earth and concerns about the effects of human population growth.

Darwin was fortunate that he lived in a time when advances in knowledge in other areas, such as the idea of uniformitarianism in geology, were coming along at the same time that he was pondering all the things he was observing on his voyage on the Beagle. The first edition of the first volume of Charles Lyell's highly influential book The Principles of Geology was published in 1830 and was given to Darwin to read on his voyage on the Beagle that began in 1831. Its argument that small changes (such as erosion) can accumulate over long periods of time to produce major geological features such as mountains and gorges had an impact on him.

By measuring the rates of erosion and sedimentation that were occurring in his own time and calculating how long it would take at that rate to produce the existing rivers and canyons, Lyell concluded that the Earth must be hundreds of millions of years old. Furthermore, Lyell's books discussed some of the fossil evidence that existed at that time because he used them as aids in arriving at the ages of rocks, although Lyell himself believed in special creation.

The fact that the Earth was now possibly hundreds of millions of years old, rather than merely thousands, created an intellectual environment that was more open to acceptance of the idea that new species can gradually evolve from old ones, because that needed long time spans too.

Darwin (and also Wallace) had a Gestalt-type switch when he was struggling to find the mechanism that causes species to evolve in a way that seemed to indicate directionality. The trigger was Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that argued that populations would grow exponentially, except for the fact that they encounter limited resources that restricts growth because of starvation and premature death. This gave Darwin the idea that natural selection could serve as the mechanism he was looking for. In The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (Nora Barlow (ed), 1958, page 120), he describes his epiphany in ways that suggest a Gestalt-type switch:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work. (my italics)

Darwin and Wallace saw that if there are variations, then it makes sense that some variations are more likely to survive to adulthood and produce more offspring than others. If this advantageous property is heritable and passed on to its offspring then, over time, that particular variation will dominate the population. And by a very long series of such small changes, new species would emerge.

Once Darwin saw the world in this new way, there was no going back. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I have argued that the kinds of switches in viewing the world that Darwin and Wallace experienced are like Gestalt switches in perception. When one changes one's perspective, suddenly things fall into place and new patterns emerge. What seemed inexplicable, mysterious, and even impossible before suddenly seems clear and even obvious. And once the new way of seeing things is pointed out to others, they immediately see it as obvious too. As Thomas Huxley said after learning how the theory of evolution worked, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!" As a result, the new view spreads like wildfire.

But even when told what to look for, not everyone makes the switch. There are some people who never see the new pattern, either because of a rigidity of attitude or, as we will see in the next posting in the case of evolution, because they do not want to see the new pattern because they cannot bear to give up the old one. For them the duck remains a duck and they never see a rabbit.

Next: The mental block of creationists

POST SCRIPT: Well, that didn't take long!

On Tuesday, I wrote about the atheist billboard campaign in Ohio, putting up three billboards near Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Some godly people in the Cincinnati area have already taken offense and threatened violence, requiring the billboard to be moved to another location.

See here for more details.

November 12, 2009

Gestalt switches in evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

After Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859, large numbers of people were convinced in a very short time by his arguments, although full acceptance of the mechanism of natural selection took longer. But the idea of evolution had been in the air for some time. Why didn't people before him see what Darwin and his co-discoverer Alfred Russell Wallace saw, since they had access to much of the same evidence that he had?

A possible reason is because the theory of evolution also required a Gestalt-type switch. People had been viewing the world through a prism of Platonic ideal forms. In the Platonic view, real objects are approximations to their ideal forms and it is only the ideal forms that matter and from which we get true information. So for example, for any triangle that we draw on paper, the angles will not add up to exactly 180 degrees because of the inevitable imperfections of our drawing and the inaccuracies of our measuring instruments. But the angles of all ideal triangles (that we can only conceive of in our minds) will always add up to 180 degrees, and it is the properties of that ideal form that is important to understand, not our real-life approximations.

While this way of looking at things is perfectly suited for mathematics, it leads people hopelessly astray when applied to biology. In the case of biological organisms, the Platonic model translates into thinking of each species as having an ideal form and of real organisms as just approximations that can and do deviate from the ideal in unimportant ways. So real chickens, with all their variety, are just imperfect manifestations of the ideal, perfect chicken that we can only conceive of in our minds. It is this perfect chicken that we need to study to understand what makes a chicken a chicken, the essence of chickenhood.

But the problem is that the ideal perfect chicken will necessarily always remains the same and cannot evolve into anything else, just like a triangle will not become a square nor will the sum of its angles slowly change with time. Platonic thinking rules out change but is perfectly consistent with the idea of a god creating every species as perfect unchangeable beings and part of a grand plan.

Darwin and Wallace both realized that it is the real forms of organisms that are important, not its idealized version, and furthermore that there are no ideal forms in biology. There is no idealized chicken. The variations found in real chickens, rather than being a nuisance detracting from our understanding of the ideal chicken, actually contain the key to understanding the nature of chickens and how they and other things can change. This shift in perception made the variations in a species central to our understanding, and not peripheral.

The likely reason that Darwin and Wallace may have been able to make the switch is because they spent some time traveling to other parts of the world and saw much more of the variety of life than those who stayed pretty much in one locality. Darwin's voyage on the Beagle confronted him with so much new information about the diversity of life in so many new locations that it forced him into new ways of thinking. Alfred Russell Wallace also had his epiphany while travelling through Asia collecting biological specimens that were exotic and new to him.

Once Darwin and Wallace had made this switch, things started falling into place. They realized that if one adds up these small variations cumulatively over a long time, then even though each one is so small that it cannot be observed with the naked eye or even in one's lifetime, it can add up to huge changes, resulting in the emergence of new species, something that was ruled out by Platonic thinking.

Two things stood in the way of making such an idea workable. It seemed to require an inordinate amount of time, much longer than people at that time thought the Earth had existed, and it lacked a plausible mechanism for species change. An obvious objection to their model that they needed to find an answer for was why should the variations in organisms cumulatively add up to result in large changes? Why could they not simply vary randomly leaving, on average, no net change?

This is where other factors can play a role in making a Gestalt switch in perception.

Next: The key steps in 'seeing' evolution

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart parodies Glenn Beck

This clip has been all over the political blogs but it is well worth seeing. Utterly hilarious.

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November 11, 2009

Perception changes in physics

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In an earlier post, I suggested (following Thomas Kuhn) that Gestalt-type switches can play an important role in the creation and adoption of new theories in science. Today I want to look at specific examples of such changes.

Take the case of a simple pendulum, made by hanging a small weight from a fixed point by a string and setting it in motion by pulling it back and releasing it. What had been observed from time immemorial is the weight swinging back and forth with decreasing amplitude before finally coming to rest at the lowest point in its trajectory. People used to interpret this motion as the pendulum weight, when released, 'seeking' (to use anthropomorphic language) to get to its final resting place at the lowest point in its trajectory, but initially overshooting the mark, trying again to get to the lowest point, overshooting again by a smaller amount, and so on, until it finally reaches its destination and stays there.

Viewed this way what the pendulum is 'trying' to do is to come to rest at the bottom but is prevented from doing so by overshooting it due to its motion. Hence the time taken from the instant of release to the final resting point would be the significant thing to measure to see if there are any patterns in this data. But we now know that the time taken to reach the lowest point in its trajectory is not a useful parameter and this is why this approach did not lead to any interesting results.

It took a Galileo to observe the same pendulum motion as everyone else but see it in a different way. He saw the fundamental aspect as an oscillation. In that view, what the pendulum is 'trying' to do is keep oscillating forever with the same amplitude but other factors prevent it from doing so, bringing it to rest. In this view, it makes sense to measure the period of oscillation (i.e. the time taken to go through one cycle) and this data does yield useful patterns, such as that the period is independent of the weight or the amplitude of motion (within certain limits), but does depend in a precise way on the length of the string.

The point is that how one views a phenomenon will determine what one chooses to measure. And what one measures determines what one will discover.

In the case of theories of motion in a straight line, the ancient Greeks saw the motion of bodies as headed towards something. In such a view, the key distance is the distance of the object from its final destination. It was only the reversal of worldview that saw the distance and elapsed time of the object from its starting point as the parameters worth measuring that yielded useful patterns of relationships that eventually culminated in Newton's laws of motion.

Once someone had made this Gestalt-type switch and were able to articulate the new view to others, others quickly started seeing the same thing. What had been seen as a duck was now a rabbit, what was as two faces was now a vase. But not everyone will see the world in the new way. Those who are strongly wedded to the old way of looking at the world will resist making the switch. It may not be that they see the duck and are consciously rejecting it in favor of the rabbit. It may actually be that they do not even 'see' the duck. For them, the rabbit remains a rabbit and never becomes a duck.

In the actual case of the rabbit and the duck image, it has been my experience everyone sees both shapes within moments of it being pointed out to them, although there are small differences in the time taken for the realization to hit. But there are other examples of switches where people struggle for a long time. (These are taken from this site where you can see even more examples.)

A popular one that some have a hard time seeing is the one below. People initially tend to see either one image or the other but not both. Once they have locked onto one image, they find it hard to switch until they are told what to look for and specific features are pointed out.

youngoldwoman.gif

The next one is even harder. It is not two images but requires one to see a single image instead of seemingly randomly scattered blobs. I initially could not see anything. Even after I was told what to look for, I still did not see it for some time until it suddenly 'appeared'. Now that I have seen it, it seems obvious.

dalmation.jpg

In both cases, most people do not see the picture on their own but need someone else to point out to them what they should be seeing before they suddenly see it for themselves. This was the particular genius of people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and (as I shall argue in the next post) Darwin. They looked at the same world that others did but saw it in a new way. And they were able to persuade others to see what they saw.

Next: Gestalt switches in evolution

POST SCRIPT: Buster Keaton film shorts

One of the funniest comics of the silent era was Buster Keaton. The Cleveland Cinematheque will show a series of his short films on Friday, November 13 at 7:30 pm. The films will be introduced by Robert Spadoni, professor of film studies at Case Western Reserve University. Accompanying the films will be live music, with pianist Shuai Bertalan-Wang playing the ragtime music of Scott Joplin.

For more details on location, admission prices, etc. see here. There is also a Facebook page about it.

November 10, 2009

Atheist billboard campaign comes to Ohio

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

The North East Ohio Coalition of Reason (NEO-CoR), affiliated with the nationwide United Coalition of Reason (United COR), announced that the first billboards promoting atheism in Ohio have gone up as of today.

In our region it will be on I-480.

NightSmall.jpg

Many of the NEO-CoR's members involved in this project come from the Cleveland Freethinkers and the Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio (CFINO).

Similar billboards will appear in Columbus and Cincinatti.

Religious people tend to get in a real lather about public statements of disbelief, even though religious messages are all over the place. When a similar campaign by the Big Apple COR put ads on New York city subways that said, "A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?", Sean Hannity said that people would be outraged if Christians put up religious signs in subways.

But as Think Progress pointed out, such religious signs are in fact commonplace. All that Hannity's statement shows is that he must never take the subway.

Fred Edwords, former communications director of the American Humanists Association (AHA) and now head of United COR, appeared on Bill O'Reilly's show in November of last year because of another ad campaign on buses in Washington DC that said "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake" that O'Reilly saw (of course) as part of the war on Christmas.

(Speaking of the War on Christmas, where has the time gone? Here it is November again already, and I haven't made any preparations whatsoever for this year's war against the godly. Tsk, tsk, shame on me. All you warriors out there, remember that you have only 45 days left to ruin Christmas for everyone by wishing people "Season's Greetings" or, if you are feeling really mean spirited, "Happy Holidays.")

In Des Moines, Iowa, an atheist ad campaign that merely said "Don’t believe in God? You are not alone" was deemed to be too offensive and removed from buses. The governor of the state Chet Culver was "disturbed" by the ads, the poor baby.

One bus driver in Des Moines even refused to drive a bus that carried the ad, saying that the message was against her Christian faith. That is truly pathetic.

The Arizona COR has a nice video explaining what this movement is all about and the benefits of reason over faith.

I am curious to see what the reaction to the billboards will be in Ohio, which is quite a religious part of the country.

POST SCRIPT: The indefensible history of the Catholic church

The BBC sponsored a debate on the proposition "The Catholic church is a force for good in the world". Speaking in favor was John Onaiyekan, an Archbishop from Nigeria, and Ann Widdecombe, a British MP who used to be an Episcopalian but became a Catholic when her former church began ordaining women priests. Speaking against were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.

It was a rout. Hitchens and Fry utterly trounced their opponents. This is not just my opinion. Even the Catholic columnist for the Guardian newspaper said so, but the voting of the audience was the most decisive:

Before the debate: In favor 678, against 1102, undecided 346
After the debate: In favor 268, against 1876, undecided 34

Over 400 initial supporters of the proposition actually switched to the opposite side, which was an unprecedented swing in the history of these debates.

You can see the debate below.

November 09, 2009

Gestalt switches in science

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

In the history of science, we have often seen a theory being accepted and used over a long period and then replaced with a new one, with the transition occurring over a relatively short time. Sometimes the new theory is fairly simple and we marvel as to why people did not think of it before. For example, the Copernican heliocentric model is not a complicated idea when compared to the previous geocentric model. Similarly Newtonian mechanics can be formulated in terms of laws that are very simple mathematically and easy to understand. The essential ideas of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection can also be stated in a few simple sentences.

All three of these major new theories are of the kind that, if we had lived in the times when their inventors articulated them, we would have reacted exactly like T. H. Huxley, an early convert to Darwin's theory of evolution, who once he understood how natural selection worked, said "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

So why did it take so long for people like Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin to come along with these new ideas? After all, the ancient Greek and Arab and Chinese civilizations were scientifically advanced. Why did it take over a millenium for us to develop modern science, which can arguably said to begin with Galileo?

This is the topic of study of historians and philosophers of science and they have come up with many factors to explain this phenomenon.

One explanation is, of course, the appearance of new evidence and data. If the new evidence is hard to reconcile under the old paradigmatic theory and causes serious problems for it, that can create an openness to new ideas and trigger the search for new theories. People try to see things in new ways.

Then there are the influences of developments in other areas. Advances in technology often lead to new data that were inaccessible before. The invention of telescopes, for example, allowed for the detection by Galileo of the moons orbiting Jupiter and dealt a serious blow to the geocentric model that said that every celestial body orbited the Earth. It became clear that other celestial objects could be the center of an orbit and thus the heliocentric idea became less outlandish.

Similarly, changes in the political, social, and intellectual climate may makes communities more open to ideas that were unthinkable before. The period we know as the Enlightenment was more open to new ideas and less wedded to religious dogma. Societies that are repressive in general are unlikely to be sources of great new intellectual discoveries.

One has also to take into account individual genius to create the new theory, though the way they contributed is often misunderstood. These geniuses often did not come up with completely new ideas but were able to recognize that the same buzz swirling around them as around others actually fit into a new pattern. Once they articulated that new pattern, others could almost immediately identify it as the right way to see things. But what enabled the pioneers to make that particular leap that eluded others who had access to the same ideas and knowledge?

Thomas Kuhn has argued, especially in his classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that what happened with these people is similar to the phenomenon known as the Gestalt switch, familiar to all of us in those visual puzzles where we can look at a single image and see it switching between a duck and a rabbit, or between a vase and two people facing each other.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion.jpg

Two faces and a vase.jpg

What happens with some scientific revolutions is that what everyone sees as a duck, one person suddenly sees as a rabbit. When they point out to others the new way of seeing the world, the reaction of others is similar to the reaction you get from people who initially saw only the duck (say) but now almost immediately see the rabbit. After the revelation, it is hard for people to imagine how they could not have seen it before because it seems so obvious.

Next: Specific examples of Gestalt-like switches in science

POST SCRIPT: Radio interview about my book

On Tuesday, November 10, I will be interviewed on the Cleveland NPR affiliate station WCPN 90.3 from 9:00-10:00 am on its program The Sound of Ideas. This was rescheduled from last Thursday.

The topic will be my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom. You can listen online live on its webcast or listen to the podcast after the show.

It is a call-in show: local 216-578-0903 or toll-free 866-578-0903.

That same evening at 7:00 pm I will be speaking to the Center for Inquiry–Northeast Ohio in the second floor reading room of the Maple Heights library 5225 Library Lane, Maple Heights, OH 44137-1291. The event is open and free.

November 06, 2009

Ray Comfort's shamelessness

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

You may recall the series of posts where I critiqued Ray Comfort's introduction to his reissue of Charles Darwin's classic work On the Origin of Species (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). I said that the first part consisted of a brief biography followed by a timeline of Darwin's life. These sections seemed straightforward and so I did not say anything, apart from making fun of him for using the euphemism "went to meet his Maker" instead of the simpler "died". (The original document disappeared for a while and has reappeared in a slightly revised form. One of the changes is that "went to meet his Maker" has now been replaced by "died". I don't think my comments had anything to do with it.)

It was only the rest of the introduction, dealing with his laughably inane arguments against evolution and his final come-to-Jesus plea that I strongly critiqued. At that time, I thought that Comfort was merely ignorant and stupid, which are no crimes, but I now realize that he is also willfully deceptive and totally shameless. Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, called him out on the fact that his reissue left out four chapters of Darwin's book: chapter 9 where Darwin looks at transitional fossils, chapters 11 and 12 where he examines the powerful arguments from biogeography which he found so persuasive, and chapter 13 where he examines the morphological arguments (i.e., arguments based on the similarities in body structures of organisms). In response, instead of squirming with embarrassment at being caught, Comfort merely says that the second printing would contain the missing chapters, as if this were some minor issue and not a gross attempt at deception.

But the horrors do not end there. It now emerges that the reason his brief biography of Darwin was so inoffensive was that most of the words were not his own. Comfort seems to have cut and pasted large chunks of it from a handout prepared for Darwin Day by biologist Dr. Stan Guffey at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville without any attribution whatsoever. And even the timeline that followed the biography was lifted in its entirety from a press release from Britain's Natural History Museum, with only a footnote as to the source, rather than accompanied by the customary statement or other indication (such as indented text or quotation marks) that it was being used verbatim.

To judge how blatant is Comfort's appropriation of Guffey's work, I reproduce Guffey's text in its entirety below, with the bold portion being exactly the same words that appeared in Comfort's introduction. As for the rest, Comfort has paraphrased Guffey's text. The length of 'Comfort's biography' (I put ironic quotes since he cannot claim credit for it) is almost the same as Guffey's, so you can see how similar the two documents must be. (Comfort spells Guffey's "Downe" as "Down" and I have ignored that difference.)

Charles Robert Darwin was born February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His family was of the newly emerged, newly wealthy, provincial professional class. Early in his youth he demonstrated predilections for hunting, natural history, and scientific experimentation. In 1825, after public school education, he enrolled at Edinburgh University. His intention was to follow his father in the practice of medicine, but he soon found such studies rather distasteful.

Two years later Darwin enrolled at Christ's College, Cambridge to study theology—a subject which he didn't enjoy either, with the intention of a career in the Church of England. As at Edinburgh, he often neglected his studies. In spite of this, he managed to pass his examinations in 1831 and left Cambridge.

While pondering his future and whiling away the time hunting and exploring local natural history and geology, he was presented with an opportunity that would change the course of his life. John Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge, had recommended him for a position on a British Navy survey vessel. The HMS Beagle was outfitting to sail on a two year coastal survey expedition to South America, and her captain was anxious to have a naturalist and gentleman companion on board. The voyage ended up lasting [nearly] five years, during which time Darwin was able to explore extensively in South America and numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean, including the Galapagos.

On returning to England in 1836, Darwin set to work examining and disseminating the extensive collection of natural history specimens acquired during the voyage. He quickly established a reputation as an accomplished naturalist on the London scene. In 1839 he married Emma Wedgwood, and saw his journal of the voyage of the Beagle published. In 1842 he and Emma moved to Downe house, Kent where Emma would bear 10 children and she and he would live for the rest of their lives.

Shortly after his return England Darwin had begun the first of his “species transmutation” notebooks. On his great adventure as the Beagle's naturalist Darwin had noted and begun to ponder certain aspects of the morphology and biogeography of the many species of plants and animals that he had observed. In particular, he had begun to explore the possibility, and eventually concluded, that species exhibited varying degrees of similarity because they are to varying degrees related. It appears that by 1838 his concept of descent with modification by the mechanism of natural selection was largely formed. And then he mostly, but not entirely, abandoned the enterprise for the time being.

However, in 1858 Darwin learned that a naturalist working in south Asia, Alfred Russell Wallace, was developing ideas about the evolution of species similar to his own. At the urging of friends he prepared a brief paper which was read before the Royal Society along with the paper Wallace had written. He then published in 1859 On the Origin of Species, which he considered an abstract of a larger future work.

During the remainder of his life Darwin continued his research, publishing three additional books on explicitly evolutionary topics, and other books on topics including climbing plants, insect-orchid mutualisms, and earthworms. The gentle and unassuming Charles Darwin, loving and devoted spouse and parent, dedicated scholar, intellectual giant, died at Downe House on April 19, 1882 with his wife Emma by his side.

In his previous efforts to discuss evolution, Ray Comfort has shown that he is ignorant and stupid and a spreader of misery and fear. In this latest episode, this alleged man of god shows that he is totally shameless. Does he not realize that this kind of behavior discredits the very god that he wants to praise?

In the link to his introduction given above, Comfort also supposedly has the full text of On the Origin of Species. No one should trust Comfort to have reproduced it faithfully. He has shown that he is willing to modify that text to serve his purposes. If anyone is interested in reading Darwin's classic works which are all available freely online, I suggest that you go to a trustworthy source.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the vacuity of TV punditry

This was broadcast on election night Tuesday before the results were out.

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November 05, 2009

Introducing the 'Unapologetic Atheist'

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

The term 'new atheists' has been used to describe those people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens who have called for an end to the undue deference paid to religious beliefs and have a leveled a broadside attack on all religious beliefs, not just those of so-called fundamentalists. They (and I) argue that statements of religious beliefs should be treated like any other propositions and subject to the same level of scrutiny. The fact that such beliefs are deeply held by many people is no reason for giving them a pass, any more than we would give a pass to beliefs about astrology or homeopathy or crystal-ball gazing or any other evidence-free superstition.

But the label 'new atheism' does not sit well with some 'new atheists' because it is seen as inaccurate. After all, there is nothing really new in the arguments of the new atheism, except in so far as new science is making the god hypothesis increasingly superfluous. And many of the 'new atheists' have been atheists for almost all their adult lives and are not recent disbelievers.

In a previous post titled Being a new atheist means not saying you're sorry, I said that what really distinguishes the so-called 'new atheists' from other atheists (such as those who are labeled accommodationists) is that the new atheists do not feel the need to feel sorry about their unbelief, as if it were something they should not have or would prefer not to have. The expected behavior of atheists seems to be that they should go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of "I hate to say this but I don't believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize." This is an absurd expectation.

In a comment to that post, 'Wonderist' made the excellent suggestion that instead of the term 'new atheist', we should use the term 'unapologetic atheist', and that what we advocate is 'unapologetics' to counter the 'apologetics' of religious believers. In further comments to that same post, he says that looking around the web, the term 'new atheist' originally had a somewhat neutral meaning but later began to be applied by accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse in a negative way by implying that it carried with it all the old stereotypes of atheists being arrogant, rude, uncivil, etc.

Wonderist's idea makes a lot of logical sense but I am not certain that this term will catch on. For starters, it will have to be picked up by more prominent people and repeated in more prominent media to gain traction. Wonderist says in his comments that he has made a start in this direction by triggering discussions elsewhere on various sites and the feedback seems to have been positive so far.

Simply from a marketing standpoint, there is some advantage to staying with the word 'new'. The word new has very positive connotations, despite its vagueness and inaccuracy. It is short and snappy. 'Unapologetic' is undoubtedly more accurate but it has two major disadvantages: it is six syllables long, and is defined negatively, as not something else or opposite to something else. These may or may not be fatal flaws to its final adoption. As I value accuracy more than marketing, I am going to start using the label 'unapologetic atheist' unless 'new atheist' is required by the context.

There are many ways that this could go. Control over the meaning of the term 'new atheists' may be taken over by those to whom the term is applied and branded positively, the way that the gay community took the formerly pejorative word 'queer' and are starting to make it their own. The word 'feminist' is currently undergoing a similar struggle for meaning with feminists trying to retain the positive meaning of the word from those who are trying to make it into a negative stereotype.

The ownership of 'new atheist' is up for grabs. While advocating for the label of 'unapologetic', I think we should not cede control of the term 'new atheist' to those who want to use it pejoratively. We should use it positively and proudly and make people realize that it in this context, new is just a synonym for unapologetic.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on how Fox 'News' works

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November 04, 2009

Why Ussher's calculations undermine the credibility of the Bible

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

Bishop James Ussher actually did quite an impressive feat of calculation, careful and thorough, to arrive at his creation date of 4004 BCE. Once he had got the year of creation fixed, Ussher was able to provide precise dates for other key events in the Bible:

2348 BC - Noah's Flood
1921 BC - God's call to Abraham
1491 BC - The Exodus from Egypt
1012 BC - Founding of the Temple in Jerusalem
586 BC - Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity

Although creationists take Ussher's work as correct, this causes problems for them. For example, since Noah's flood in 2348 BCE supposedly wiped out everything (except those living things that could swim or float or were saved in the Ark), according to Biblical literalists, all history must be compressed within the last 4,500 years, even less time than the commonly used figure of 6,000 years.

Since there is convincing evidence that agriculture began around 10,000 years ago and that Egyptians have records of kings dating back to around 3,000 BCE, that already contradicts Ussher's chronology. There is also evidence that Egyptian cultures (and even the pyramids) existed further back than 4,500 years ago, before the flood. There are even trees whose root systems date back to nearly 10,000 years. But if you are determined to believe that the Bible is literally true, you can always make up something to overcome any problem.

More sophisticated religious believers tend to treat as myth the pre-Abraham story and thus discount the idea of a 6,000 year old Earth. They are quite comfortable with a 4.7 billion year old Earth and the evolution of life. But they tend to think that the post-Abrahamic story is largely true, just embellished with some miracles that can be explained away.

But we should only take seriously those things for which there is independent evidence, such as alternative source material establishing dates and events and people, or archeological discoveries of artifacts that can be scientifically dated that can provide corroborating evidence. Almost none of these things exist for almost everything in the Old Testament. In fact, the more science uncovers things, the less credible ancient Bible history gets.

The fact that we now know that Ussher's result has no relationship to reality should not take away from his accomplishment. So why did I state earlier that Ussher's calculations, which are taken as strictly true by so many Christians now, is actually evidence in favor of treating the Bible as fiction?

The point is that even for someone like Ussher who undoubtedly believed that the Bible was literally true, the earliest event that he could historically verify and date from other sources was the death of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BCE. This means that even a true believer could not independently verify the historicity of any earlier event. The events in the Bible pretty much end around 425 BCE, which is when the last book of the Old Testament was written by the minor prophet Malachi. So the whole text is pretty much useless except as fiction, except for the interval of about 150 years from about 575 BCE to 425 BCE, when it might have been recording contemporaneous events.

It is easy to overlook how quickly events fade into myth if not recorded contemporaneously by multiple independent sources. I recently read T. H. White's The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlin, which recount the story of Camelot, with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, the Holy Grail, the works. The books were fun to read. I had always assumed that the Camelot story was entirely fiction but discovered that scholars still debate its historicity, with some thinking that elements of this story are true and that someone like King Arthur actually existed around the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Other scholars think that the Arthur legend was created as a romantic and fanciful tale centuries later.

You would think that we would know with some confidence who the kings of England were during that period and could say definitively whether King Arthur existed or not. But we can't. What we know is mixture of fact and legend, which are hard to disentangle.

Historical fact fades into myth as we go back in time, much more rapidly than we imagine, except for those rare civilizations that kept careful records which were not destroyed by wars and other calamities. By even as late as 1,000 CE, things start to get highly murky. So to take the events in the Old Testament, which occurred about 1,000 BCE and earlier and are uncorroborated, as actual history is to stretch credulity. This is why we need the kinds of corroborating evidence that only modern science can provide, using multiple sources, archeology, and all the tools of radiometry that are now available.

The Old Testament should be treated as literature composed by many authors over a long period and designed to serve varying purposes over time. It is definitely not history. If we cannot believe the stories that a mighty and famous king like Arthur ever existed, why should we believe stories of kings David and Solomon who existed 1500 years before Arthur and for whom there is little or no supporting evidence?

POST SCRIPT: Radio interview about my book

UPDATE: I have been bumped to accommodate the big serial killer story so will not be on the radio tomorrow after all. Will let you know the rescheduled date.

On Thursday, November 5, I will be interviewed on the Cleveland NPR affiliate station WCPN 90.3 from 9:00-10:00 am on its program The Sound of Ideas. The topic will be my latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom. You can listen online live on its webcast or listen to the podcast after the show.

You can all in during the program: Local 216-578-0903 or toll-free 866-578-0903.

November 03, 2009

Ussher's calculation methods

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

Bishop James Ussher arrived at his creation year of 4004 BCE by going backwards, starting by first fixing the date of the earliest event in the Bible that could be corroborated with other historical sources. This occurred after the capture and taking into exile of king Jehoiachin of Judah by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE. The death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BCE (the date of which was known from other sources) is reported in the Bible to have coincided with the 37th year of exile of Jehoiachin, as stated in the Bible in 2 Kings 25:27. (Note that the dates are sometimes off by a year or two because of the differences in the calendars in use at that time.)

From that fixed reference point he worked backwards using the Bible alone, first by adding up the years that the successive kings ruled the divided kingdoms, the southern one of Judah and the northern one of Israel, and then going further back using the famous 'begats' in the Bible which gives a genealogy that goes back to Adam. For example, Genesis 5 gives the chronology from Adam to Noah, and then after a lot of stuff about the flood, Genesis 11 gives the genealogy from Noah to Abraham.

It is interesting that in addition to saying how long each person lived, it gives the crucial information as to the age of the person when his eldest son was born, without which Ussher's calculation cannot be done. I am intrigued as to why the authors of the Bible put in that gratuitous piece of extra information, which is not an obvious thing to do, unless they wanted to create a timeline.

It is interesting that from Adam to Abraham, there is an unbroken line of males. The youngest age at which any of them had their first son was 65 but Noah is the clear record holder for the oldest father, his oldest son being born when he was 500! The oldest man ever was Methuselah who lived to the age of 969, though he had his first son when he was a mere child of 187. Oddly enough, after Noah, although the men still lived for hundreds of years, the age at which they became fathers for the first time drops suddenly to the early thirties, until it gets to the father of Abraham who was 70.

Although the genealogies say that sons and daughters were born, only males are named. As far as I can tell, after Eve, all the women who are born are nameless until we get to Sarah, Abraham's wife, about 1,800 years later.

Ussher's choice of the Hebrew Bible to obtain his chronology may have been influenced by the fact that this particular Bible gives a nice round date of 4000 BCE for the year of creation. The then current belief was that the world would last only 6,000 years, this being the interpretation of the six days of creation in Genesis combined with the statement in Psalms 90: 4 that "For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night" and the New Testament statement (2 Peter 3:8) that "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." Thus according to his chronology, Jesus was born 4,000 years after the creation and the world would end in 2,000 CE (also called the Anno Domini or AD calendar), which provided a nice symmetry, no doubt showing that god was a careful planner.

However, that rounding of dates had to be adjusted because the creator of the CE calendar had made a mistake. When corrected, it was noted that King Herod had begun his reign in 37 BCE and died in 4 BCE, so Jesus had to have been born sometime during that period because the New Testament says Jesus was born during Herod's reign. Ussher fixed Jesus's birth year as 4 BCE and this required the shifting of all the dates by 4 years, moving the year of creation to 4004 BCE.

Wikipedia has an summary of how Ussher managed to pin point the very day when god created the world.

The season in which Creation occurred was the subject of considerable theological debate in Ussher's time. Many scholars proposed it had taken place in the spring, the start of the Babylonian, Chaldean and other cultures' chronologies. Others, including Ussher, thought it more likely that it had occurred in the autumn, largely because that season marked the beginning of the Jewish year.

Ussher further narrowed down the date by using the Jewish calendar to establish Creation as beginning on a Sunday near the autumnal equinox. The day of the week was a backward calculation from the six days of creation with God resting on the seventh, which in the Jewish tradition is Saturday — hence Creation began on a Sunday. The astronomical tables that Ussher probably used were Kepler's Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables, 1627). Using them, he would have concluded that the equinox occurred on Tuesday October 25, only one day earlier than the traditional day of its creation, on the fourth day of Creation week, Wednesday, along with the Sun, Moon, and stars (Genesis 1:16). Modern equations place the autumnal equinox of 4004 BC on Sunday October 23.

Ussher stated his time of Creation (nightfall preceding October 23) on the first page of Annales in Latin and on the first page of its English translation Annals of the World (1658).

You can read the first page of his book (a revised edition with the English updated to be easily intelligible to the modern reader) here. Sometimes one hears that he fixed the time of creation as 9:00 am but that claim was made by someone else before Ussher and has been mistakenly attributed to him.

I have to admit that I kind of like Ussher's calculations. The fact that it is totally wrong and that to take it seriously now is to live in an alternative reality does not diminish his achievement.

POST SCRIPT: How to choose your religion

Looking for a religion but not sure which to pick from the wide variety of choices? GrrlScientist has put together a nifty little flowchart to help you out. (via Pharyngula)

November 02, 2009

Bishop Ussher's calculations

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

Long time readers of this blog may recall a series that I did that dealt with the Bible as history. I argued that there was little or no evidence to support any of the major events described in the Bible. While Biblical literalists believe that everything in the Bible is true as both history and science, other Christians and Jews are willing to concede that the story of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and Noah's flood are fictional, merely creation myths generated by the authors of the Bible who were trying to make sense of the world without the insights and knowledge that modern science provides.

But what even the latter group of Christians and Jews may not realize is that the later stories in the Bible of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the slavery of the Jews in Egypt, Moses, the exodus, the kings David and Solomon, and so on are completely fictitious also, or at best legends woven around minor events that became part of the folklore.

The most likely emergence of the Jewish people in the region is not by a dramatic escape from Egypt but that they emerged from a small polytheistic indigenous grouping that lived in the region we now call the Middle East that separated itself from the others because of dietary and other restrictions that prevented intermingling. They stumbled upon their monotheistic religion because one of their leaders (King Josiah, who ruled from 641-609 BCE) found it useful as a political strategy to eliminate rival kings and their supporters by claiming that they deserved to die because there was only one true god (his, of course) and they were worshipping the false ones.

There seems to be little controversy about these facts amongst archeologists and Biblical scholars other than those religiously committed to supporting the historical accuracy of the Bible. I have no doubt that many religious leaders and theologians know all this too but do not publicize it for obvious reasons. It is to the advantage of institutionalized religions to preserve the fiction that their religious texts like the Bible actually are records of ancient history although anything written in it that refers to events prior to 600 BCE is best considered as fiction.

Support for the view that the history in the Bible is almost entirely spurious comes, oddly enough, from Bishop James Ussher of Ireland. Almost everyone has heard of his famous calculations for the age of the Earth that fixed the date of creation as the night before October 23, 4004 BCE. Annotated editions of the King James Bible once included this date and as a result Biblical literalists take it very seriously since they believe that anything in the Bible must be true. But if you look at how Ussher did his calculations, it becomes clear that this date has no objective basis and that no rational person should take it seriously.

Because the idea that the world was created in 4004 BCE is now considered patently absurd, people not familiar with how Ussher did his work may be tempted to dismiss him as some kind of religious nut who used some weird form of numerology for arriving at his date of creation. But Ussher (1581-1656) was by no means just another religious believer simply making things up to support his beliefs. He was a serious scholar indulging in what was, at the time, considered a reasonable scholarly activity. He was trying to do an honest-to-goodness calculation of the age of creation using what information he had. Other eminent scholars such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) were doing similar calculations around that time, all arriving at dates of creation that differed from his by less than 100 years, lending credibility to his work.

The date of creation that Ussher arrived at was not obviously preposterous given the state of knowledge at the time. After all, the idea of the heliocentric universe began gaining ground only around 1543 with the publication of Copernicus' work. The idea of the universe being a small and young place was commonplace and not unreasonable. The immensity of space and the immensity of time that the universe has been around are ideas that boggle the mind even now, so one can imagine that they would have been inconceivable to people then.

Like almost all the people of Ussher's time who lived in Christian countries, scientists and non-scientists alike, they believed the Bible to be literally true and saw the purpose of other fields of scholarship as serving, among other things, to flesh out the Biblical narrative and filling in the details so as to achieve consistency between the Bible and other new emerging sources of knowledge that we now call science. The idea that they could contradict each other was not seriously considered.

Next: So how did Ussher, like the others, arrive at so precise an estimate for the age of the Earth?

POST SCRIPT: Secularism on the upswing?

Christopher Hitches on what he has learned debating religious believers around the world:

Thanks to the foolishness of the "intelligent design" faction, which has tried with ignominious un-success to smuggle the teaching of creationism into our schools under a name that is plainly stupid rather than intelligent, and thanks to the ceaseless preaching of hatred and violence against our society by the fanatics of another faith, as well as other related behavior, such as the mad attempt by messianic Jews to steal the land of other people, the secular movement in the United States is acquiring a confidence that it has not known in years, while many of those who put their faith in revelation and prophecy and prayer are feeling the need to give an account of themselves. This is a wholly good development, and it is part of the pluralism and polycentrism that distinguish the sort of society that we have to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.