Archive for October, 2008

Evolution, huh? Then where’s my crocoduck?

It’s absurd to suggest that primary school children should get any kind of sex education. Kids shouldn’t be watching porn until they’re old enough to find it for themselves on the internet.

Any psychics in the audience, please raise my hand.

Sometimes it’s really hard to argue properly against someone, especially when they’re making a lot of sense and presenting lots of supportive facts, and even more so if you yourself happen to be full of shit. But the great thing about logical fallacies is that you can quite merrily argue against someone else, someone with a much less defensible position, and still claim a victory.

Sounds so much easier than actually responding to your opponent’s points with sincerity and understanding, doesn’t it? Particularly when the someone else you’re arguing against doesn’t even exist, and is a mere hypothetical construct entirely conjured up by yourself, for the sole purpose of smacking them down and calling your real opponent a failure.

A straw man is just such a construct. Pretend that your opponent’s position is something different from what it actually is, and explain why they’re wrong for believing something that they don’t really believe.

It’s a popular one with creationists who misunderstand (willfully or otherwise) the claims of evolutionary science, and assert that the lack of any dogs seen giving birth to cats undermines anything Darwin might ever have written. (Actually, evolution doesn’t predict this should happen; in fact there’s nothing in the entire field of biology which could possibly explain something so bizarre.)

And it’s something which skeptics need to be careful of when questioning people’s unlikely-sounding claims about, say, paranormal abilities. Maybe it does seem strange how few psychics have ever won the lottery, but it could be that we’re just misunderstanding the nature of the claim, in the same way the creationists are.

This is why Randi is always so painstakingly scrupulous about getting a detailed description of exactly what an applicant says they can do, and under what conditions, before testing them for the Million Dollar Challenge – to paraphrase one of his own examples, it’s no use trying to prove that someone isn’t really a musician by sitting them down at a piano and demanding some Beethoven, if they claim to be a flautist.

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This is another updated and altered version of something I wrote a while ago. It was initially kicked off by a creationist article, where some guy boringly repeats yet again the tedious fallacy that evolutionary processes can be equated with moral decisions.

If you are an “evolutionist” – which I think means, if you are persuaded by the evidence that replication with random variation in a competitive environment is the most likely explanation for the observable variety of living organisms in the world – then, apparently, it necessarily follows that those creatures which are “fitter” than their rivals in some evolutionary sense are also morally “better”, and biology is the only thing that can give us any ideas of moral “goodness”.

This is what’s technically known as “retarculous fuckwittery”.

The idea of evolution is pretty scary to some people, so closely associated as it is with a meaningless, godless worldview. The idea that an entirely natural process could be how the entire human race came about, that we weren’t created specifically by any god and really aren’t all that special in the grand scheme of things, has a lot of big implications, which can be a lot to take in if it’s not an idea you’re used to. The fallacy known as the “argument from final consequences” will get its own entry in the Skeptictionary in time, but it’s clear why so many would feel compelled to reject evolution on the basis of the unthinkable things which seem to result from it.

But science is about studying the way the world works, identifying things that happen, and examining the question of how they happen. It’s about facts. Evolution is a fact. It’s not like we haven’t observed it taking place quite a bit. And even if for some reason you don’t buy that idea, you can at least grasp that the theory is a description of what scientists believe happens.

Which has bugger all to do with what may or may not be good.

It entirely misunderstands science to claim that, because research has been done and the world seems to work a certain way, our sense of morality should be blindly and arbitrarily defined by the principles that scientists “hold dear”. It’s like expecting that anyone who accepts the theory of gravity will spend their time frantically nailing everything to the floor, to stop objects from blasphemously moving upwards.

The fact is, there’s this thing called down, which is where stuff tends to fall. That’s just how the universe works. Any moral decisions are an irrelevancy in noticing this trend. It’s not that they shouldn’t go up, by any moral or ethical mandate, but the application of a downward gravitational force is just what happens.

And another thing about how the universe works, is that when there is replication among a population of entities, mutations in replication that cause variation among them, and differential fitness providing competitive pressures based on specific attributes of those entities, there will happen to occur processes of Darwinian natural selection. It’s just what happens.

Morality is a whole different study. Encouraging something not entirely in line with these Darwinian principles is no more immoral than doing star jumps and yelling “Suck it, Newton!” And doctors who acknowledge evolution, which is what that original Answers in Genesis article was about, aren’t “working against the driving force of nature”. They’re dealing with the Shit that proverbially Happens, and trying to make things better. Not more natural, not more in line with the laws of thermodynamics – those can look after themselves. Just more appropriate, and more desirable, based on things like compassion and humanity. Scientists can hold those dear, too.

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It’s hard to start writing an overview to evolution without feeling that everything I’m saying is either already established to the point of tedium, or blindingly obvious – but, given how little some people seem to know about it, I suppose I shouldn’t presume too much about what’s obvious or what “everybody” already knows.

This is a summary of my understanding of the subject, but it’s an understanding gleaned somewhat incidentally, by casually reading various books and blogs, some more academic than others. I’m not really an academic myself, and certainly not in the field of biology. In this piece and its future sub-articles I’m trying to recount things as best I can in my own terms, but you may find plenty of useful corrections and clarifications elsewhere: Wikipedia’s entry on evolution and the links cited, The TalkOrigins Archive, and the writings of any number of people smarter than me, might be a good place to start. I’m very much a layman at this, which will be obvious from my general avoidance of any kind of terminology (and of factual accuracy too, most likely).

Evolution, of the contentious biological variety, basically has three fundamental aspects you need to understand.

1. A population of replicators

I don’t know whether Stargate SG-1 fans are ever likely to form a large part of my reader-base, but don’t worry about the replicators. Sci-fi villains aside, this just refers to some entity which can produce copies of itself, with no particular desire to deconstruct every particle of matter in the universe to do so.

A bacterium will split apart to produce two identical bacteria, which will in turn both split and reproduce, rather slower than you’ve probably seen in those rather eerie microscope videos. Plants produce seeds, which produce more plants. A chicken lays an egg, out of which hatches another chicken. And people do all manner of freaky things, some of which result in creating more people. There are replicators all over the place.

2. A source of variation among the replicators

Nothing’s going to evolve if every new generation is exactly like the last. There needs to be something to cause slightly different copies to be made, at least some of the time. In creatures that sexually reproduce, a random selection of genes is inherited from each parent, which contributes to things getting mixed up – so, I have my dad’s eyebrows and occasionally abrasive laugh, but not his snoring; I have my mum’s long arms, but not her tolerance of high temperatures; I have myopia from both of them, but my militantly atheistic streak came out of nowhere. (Or something. Genetically speaking, this might be a really bad example, but hopefully you see what I mean.)

Also, stuff can come along and randomly throw a spanner in the works, mutating an offspring’s DNA so that it turns out different from that of its parent or parents – stuff like radiation, or viruses, or just errors in the DNA copying itself, when a carbon atom doesn’t quite behave itself or a protein doesn’t bother to proofread its work.

My technical ignorance is dazzling even myself here. Suffice it to say that some organisms of any species will be harder, better, faster, stronger, or whateverer, than their fellows, simply by virtue of not being entirely identical in every way. This happens, and is necessary for the process of evolution by Darwinian natural selection to take place. There’s one more thing we need, though.

3. Competition among the varying replicators

You’re also not going to see much evolving going on if every creature, and their children, and their children’s children, has all the space to run around and play and frolic that they could want, and all the food they can eat, and all the mating opportunities they have the energy for. It’s a jungle out there, in the scary place we call nature, and not everyone’s going to make it. Only a few of any population of organisms are likely to make it over all of life’s hurdles, keeping sufficiently warm and sheltered and nourished and healthy to get as far as passing on any of their genetic material; many more will become an evolutionary dead-end, also known as “lunch”.

But it’s not a total crapshoot which organisms are lucky enough to get lucky, so that their genetic information gets another shot at doing it all over again. There are some variations that provide a definite advantage over other creatures. My shag-carpet eyebrows might not be of any particular advantage to me, but a cheetah (or a gazelle) could certainly benefit hugely from happening to have just slightly stronger leg muscles than its equally hungry (or edible) friends.

Or some birds might happen to have slightly differently shaped beaks, which turn out to be more suitable for acquiring whatever food is available to them; or some butterflies might randomly have a pattern of colour on their wings which makes them look a bit scary and possibly dangerous, to the kind of thing that might normally want to eat a less dangerous looking butterfly; or some line of apes might find that their DNA has provided them with slightly bigger skulls than before, and room for slightly bigger brains, with neurons connected slightly differently, which gives them abilities that make them more effective predators and survivors than the other apes. Whatever the scenario, some of the variations that arise will make particular creatures better suited to their environment; those creatures will have a better chance of passing on exactly those traits to their offspring, which means more and more instances of those traits will be seen.

That’s the bare bones of it. Organisms that are better equipped to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes are, tautologically, more likely to pass on to their offspring the very genes that made them so well equipped. All other things being equal, certain randomly varying traits will turn out to be more advantageous than others in any particular population, and those traits will become more prevalent over an increasing number of generations. The Theory of Evolution is a model that describes how these processes account for the entire variety of life observed on the planet, including all human life, down from those very first amino acids, or whatever exactly kicked it all off.

This merits a huge number of subcategories and more specific discussions, some of which I hope to get around to writing sometime before the eventual heat death of the universe. This is just a useful starting point.

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Tarvu tarvooti

Oh, what a fool I’ve been.

I thought science and reason were all I needed to live by, and thought I was happy in my godless existence, but finally I’ve discovered the wonderful truth of Tarvu. At last my life has the mdfitty numnum I never knew it was missing. Tarvuism is such a glorious thing to be a part of, and it’s SO easy to JOIN.


Yes, I’m still planning on posting something properly soon. Just readjusting to having a job with a horrible commute that leaves me drained and lazy.

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Of little consequence

See, I said I wasn’t going to post every day any more, and look, I was totally slack yesterday and posted not a damn thing. Screw you, internets, and your fascist “one post a day” rule guideline for successful blogging. I don’t need your advice, or your custom, or your fancy internet popularity with more than 20 pageviews a day. Pah.

Anyway, I’ve got a job again, more thrilling temp work in lovely Croydon. So now I have a headache and no energy to do anything useful. The Skeptictionary will progress at its own rate though; next up is an intro post on evolution, from which many more specific articles will hopefully stem. I might even do some research for some of them. Anything’s possible.

Well, maybe not quite anything. Trying to cure homosexuality’s still pretty retarded.

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There are people who claim that every word of their particular edition and translation of the Bible is absolutely true, and thank Jesus daily for the mysterious and divine processes through which everyone who disagrees with them about anything is totally wrong. A lot of them won’t even qualify the word “true” with more than the scantest of ifs and buts, either. Some will attempt to compromise more than others, by talking about allegory and metaphor, but all that usually focuses on the trippy stuff near the beginning. And the really trippy stuff at the end. Okay, and some of the freakier shit in the middle.

People still want to be able to call the creation story “true”, even though it places the age of the Earth at around six thousand years, and some things (eg. pretty much all the matter in the Universe) seem to have been around for longer than that. There are dozens of related topics here, and I will try and expand on all of this in future essays, rather than being outright dismissive and leaving it at that. You’ll see the Skeptictionary list on the right being updated with new stuff when I figure out what direction to take things next. Comment with ideas if you want to nudge me along.

This, and this article which details some of my initial thoughts on Biblical literalism, are adapted for the Skeptictionary from some earlier stuff.

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Judas’ death

This is the topic that originally prompted me to expound on some general ideas about how Biblical literalism tends to go, and some of the problems with it. I’m not going to bring any pesky “evidence” or inconvenient “facts” into things here. I just have an observation about the way people often attempt to reconcile the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

Using the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible edition, Matthew 27:5 reads: “And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

And Acts 1:18 reads: “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

Ew. They encourage kids to read this stuff, you know. Both of these passages are about the death of Judas, the guy who took the “thirty pieces of silver” idiom way too literally when he betrayed Jesus. He then went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father the bloodline of Leonardo da Vinci, establish at least eight secret societies which would rule the world two thousand years later, and hide the Holy Grail in Castle Anthrax. (I think it was something like that, anyway. I may have dropped some acid when I watched the Da Vinci Code movie. Good times.)

There would seem to be some problems for the literalists here, inasmuch as reality is ever a problem for these people. The first one says he hanged himself, and the second… I dunno, maybe he tripped and fell on something pointy. Obvious contradiction, no?

Well, not necessarily. The standard justification, for protecting people’s minds against the horrifying notion that the Bible might be wrong about something, is to contrive a death scene which, in however roundabout a way, satisfies both of the descriptions given. Judas hanged himself, he died, the decomposition process caused his body to become bloated and corpulent, the rope around his neck frayed and snapped, and he fell to the ground and his guts burst open. Don’t think it couldn’t happen, people. (Seriously, I don’t know much about what would happen to a human body post-mortem in a situation like that, but this sounds plausible enough to me.)

It could even be argued that Matthew never actually claims that Judas died as a result of the hanging – maybe his first attempt failed, so he went and threw himself over a cliff, which could have counted for “falling headlong”, I guess. Either way, it all adds up. Praise the Lord, thank-yoo Jay-sus.

Except… not really. That’s some non-trivial verbal gymnastics we’ve had to go through to make this idea work. The scenarios that we’ve come up with to explain it, while plausible, are both significantly different from what’s actually described in either passage alone. If you only read Matthew, it makes it seem very straightforward: he hanged, he died, no gushing of bowels necessary. But looking only at Acts would lead you to a whole nother picture of what happened to him, leaving out any kind of noose system entirely, and giving Judas some kind of scary Jon Hurt moment, or perhaps just sudden, fatal, explosive diarrhoea.

It seems that we’re being given unhelpfully contradictory clues scattered throughout the complete text, and are left with the challenge of fitting the pieces together ourselves into some sort of coherent structure, requiring an excessively generous dose of deductive logic to do so. It might not be irreconcilable, but it doesn’t help your case when you need to work from the assumption that everything you’re reading is true, and then make stuff up to keep this assumption feasible.

Damn near anything could probably be worked into a coherent scenario with enough mangling of the text, if you’re willing to do some heavy-duty text-mangling to keep your belief system safe. If there was an additional mention of the event somewhere in Luke, say, which described Judas as being burned alive in a giant Wicker Man, then I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, would be claiming that this was a reference to some specific funereal tradition of the time, and that the word “alive” refers to the idea of the soul remaining in the body until this ritual releases it. Or possibly even something more plausible than the first crazy shit that sprung to my mind. If John claimed that Judas was eaten by velociraptors, then I would totally become a Christian and make this the basis of my entire belief system, and I would concoct as elaborate an explanatory scenario as was necessary to convince myself of its truth.

But if you’re going to think like this, then there’s nothing that could possibly prove you wrong, or undermine your position in any way, however much it supports an alternative explanation to the one you favour. And thinking as inflexibly as this is never good, because on the off-chance that you are wrong to begin with, you’re screwed. Even if you decide that you’re not going to see anything in the Bible as an internal contradiction, however contradictory, then passages like the above certainly shouldn’t lead you to the idea that it supports itself. The convoluted explanation for how Judas died isn’t backed up anywhere else, by any description that directly suggests that that’s what happened, let alone by anything actually credible. Even if you choose not to see it as an inconsistency, something requiring such lateral-thinking problem-solving as this ought to raise a red flag or two, and make you wonder whether there’s enough of a reason outside of this passage to take the contrived work-around seriously.

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