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Posts Tagged ‘evolution’

I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.

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The Skeptical Nurse has spent much of the morning reacting to an idiot who she saw on the tellybox yesterday. Go find out why evolution is not impossible and ducks are awesome.

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It’s true. There’s been a big misunderstanding. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible aren’t anti-science at all. That’s just one of those vicious rumours spread by secularists who can’t even really tell you what science is.

The Bible isn’t against “established” science at all. That’s just an example of poor research. Creationists and evolutionists disagree about historical science – beliefs about the past – but not operational science – the kind that’s based on direct observation and has given us the modern technology we all enjoy.

Of course, this is complete tish and fipsy.

But one of the few things Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis understands about science is that it’s a valuable system of knowledge about the world, whose precepts are positive and desirable. He gets why it’s a useful thing to claim to support. Among the many things he doesn’t understand are the processes of observation and hypothesis testing that make up the bulk of important and useful scientific research.

The distinction he imagines between “operational science” and “historical science” is a notable example. He’s implying that only one kind of science is built on “direct observation” – the kind where you can see things as they happen, and whose theories provide a basis for all the technologies and developments we find useful. The other kind of science is the one about which creationists disagree with evolutionists, and whose only purpose is to indoctrinate children with “beliefs” about the past that are specifically constructed to undermine Christianity. This historical science can’t be based on direct observation, because everything it talks about is already in the past.

Here’s why this is crap:

Have you ever reached a solid conclusion about anything that happened in the past, but which you weren’t there to personally witness?

The answer is yes. Yes, you have. And if you give it even a few seconds’ thought, it’s not hard to see how our observations can directly inform us about the past.

Until fairly recently, I would sometimes come home and observe a foul-smelling pile of gloopy disgustment on the living room carpet, and would conclude from this that the cat had thrown up. I didn’t need to see it happen in order to be able to deduce this with considerable certainty. Further, entirely unnecessary research might have informed my idea of past events even further, by estimating a precise time at which he’d ejected his breakfast, or by figuring out exactly what Kirsty had fed him that morning which had disagreed with him, but this never struck me as a fruitful line of endeavour.

Another example: There’s a good chance that your parents have had sex. There’s also a good chance you’ve never directly observed this, and a much greater chance still that you haven’t seen the particular occasion in question. But there are some fairly clear facts about your origins available to you, despite a complete lack of witnesses. (It’s possible you were the result of some artificial fertilisation process, but there are still facts that can be ascertained or ruled out in this case.)

And perhaps the most obvious counterpoint to Ken Ham’s misunderstanding is also the most ironic. No Christian alive today has directly observed the creation of the world, or the life of Jesus. The only “direct observation” powering their belief in these things is that they read the Bible.

Ken Ham uses scare quotes when describing the “knowledge” about the past known as “historical science”, as if to imply that the lack of immediate, contemporaneous observation destroys any hope of acquiring actual knowledge. But this is thoroughly unimaginative. Many events of the past have left their mark on the world today, and sciences such as paleontology, cosmology, and geology are all about tracking down and examining those marks so as to build up a more detailed picture of what sort of Universe might have left them there. They make testable hypotheses about what future observations they expect to make, including suggestions as to what observations would falsify their theory if they ever occurred.

Of course historical scientists use direct observations to infer knowledge about the past. Creationists do a similar thing, but they stick to a single book of data as their only object of direct observation for everything they want to know, and refuse to subject it to any reasonable critical analysis. I’ll take the approach which actually looks at the world and updates its ideas accordingly.

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Chromosome fusion

I learned a fantastically cool thing about biology recently.

Just about everything living organism in the known universe has DNA in it, a sort of code made up of strings of tiny molecules. DNA forms into building blocks called genes, and it’s these genes which determine how the living organism in question – whether that’s a tulip, or a mosquito, or your mum – will be built.

(That’s not the fantastically cool thing. I mean, it is a fantastically cool thing, but I didn’t only just learn it.)

There are certain packets that this DNA comes bundled in, called chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes, which come in 23 pairs, each of which contains a whole bunch of different genes.

Other species can have wildly different numbers of chromosomes, usually varying from around a dozen to around a hundred. The number often doesn’t have much relation to what we might consider an organism’s complexity or evolutionary advancement; there’s a type of fern plant, for instance, which has over 1,200 of them.

Anyway, what’s interesting is that chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas all have 48 chromosomes (24 pairs), and this is a potential problem for the idea that humans and other animals share a common ancestor. The theory of evolution states that chimps are the closest living relatives to humans, and you’ve probably heard from various sources how we share around 96% of our DNA with them. So why is our chromosome number different?

Biologists had to come up with an explanation. They guessed that, although our fairly recent common ancestor with the great apes had 24 chromosome pairs, two of those chromosomes must have fused together in the line of descent that led to modern humans, leaving just 23.

The thing that stops this from being just a desperate rationalisation to rescue a shaky theory plagued with inconsistencies, though, is a little thing we like to call science, bitches. Because they didn’t just assume that this fusing thing must have happened for the sake of preserving the theory. They went and checked. They looked for evidence.

They found it.

There are two chimpanzee chromosomes, 2A and 2B, which show clear indications of being equivalent to the two which merged in our own line of ancestry to form the human chromosome 2. The two chimp chromosomes look strikingly similar, when laid end to end, to the single human chromosome. You can see a sequence of “telomeres” in the middle of the human chromosome – those are the bits that normally come on the end of a chromosome to protect it from deteriorating, and they’ve ended up just where you’d expect if the ends of two chromosomes fused. The “centromeres” also line up perfectly – that’s the middle bit where the two copies of chromosome DNA join up.

As is observed on the Evolution Pages:

Not only is this strong evidence for a fusion event, but it is also strong evidence for common ancestry; in fact, it is hard to explain by any other mechanism.

Unless God is seriously messing with us, and going far out of his way to make it look like our genetic material is inextricably linked to that of other animals in the geologically recent past, this is one of the most profound and succinct demonstrations of the truth of evolution that I’ve met.

And remember, we might have found a conspicuous lack of these remnants of chromosome fusion. We honestly didn’t know if we were going to find what we were sure must be there, and if we didn’t, it was clear that the theory of common descent would have been in trouble. This prediction was made at a time when we had no data on whether this evolutionarily crucial evidence was actually present.

Good science often involves sticking your neck out, and accepting that there’s something wrong with your ideas if the proof you’re looking for isn’t where it should be. You don’t get that from proponents of creationism or intelligent design. There are numerous observed facts about the history of life for which they have to assume that God intervened in some way to arrange things just so – but it has to remain an assumption. They can’t then test their hypothesis by checking his day planner.

Anyway. I thought this was cool and I wanted to talk about it.

Also, Chromosome Fusion is what I’m going to call the microbiology-themed nightclub I’m opening.

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Hemant recently asked this on his blog, looking for suggestions of the kinds of things that every atheist should be aware of.

There are some good suggestions appearing in the comments thread there, but also some rather specific and niche ideas, and some weird tangents onto stuff like homeopathy. If the question was about what every skeptic should know, then I’d take a different approach, but here I’ll just throw out some ideas relating to atheism specifically.

1. If you’re an atheist, it doesn’t mean you need to do anything.

This is worth remembering. There are absolutely no obligations of any kind that come with not being convinced by arguments for God’s existence. There are no regular meetings you must attend. There are no leaders you must respect. There are no doctrines you must accept. Aside from unrelated things like the laws of wherever you live, you can be an atheist and get on with your life literally any way you choose, with no extra baggage.

You also don’t have to stop doing anything you want to. You’re welcome to celebrate Christmas, curse a deity when you bang your toe, and even go to church. Maybe you still like singing some of the songs. There’s no atheist council that will eject you from its ranks for that.

2. There are plenty of non-believers out there, even if they don’t call themselves atheists.

A poll a few years ago indicated that 91% of US citizens believe in “God or a higher power”. That might seem like a high number, but it means that nearly one in ten people don’t believe. (In the UK, it’s a third.) Not in a personal god, nor even in a vague, spiritual sense that there must be something out there.

A more recent Gallup poll has 14% of people answering “None” to the question of their religious preference. That’s one in seven. And that doesn’t include the “Other” or “Undesignated” answers. By any metric, non-believers outnumber Jews in America substantially.

Think about that the next time you’re in a crowded place with more than a few dozen people milling around. It may depend on exactly where you are, but there’s a good chance, statistically, that there’ll be a fair few atheists in the crowd.

Heck, don’t even go and find a crowd. Go online and find some of the many, many forums and communities and blogs where people are talking about this kind of thing. There’ll be a lot of divergent opinion (see point 1) and you won’t mesh well with every group out there, but there’s no shortage of potentially welcoming like-minded folk, all over the world.

3. Evolution is a fact.

I know I said I was going to stick to things directly related to godlessness, but this feels worth mentioning. There’s a good chance that one of the most common objections you’ll run into from religious people, in discussions about your atheism, will be about how there must be a God to have created everything in the world.

Theists will often bring up the existence of the Universe as a whole, rather than the variety of life for which biological evolution is responsible. But anyone who’s already arrived at atheism has probably figured out for themselves that asking how God came about, if everything that exists must have been created, is something to which no believer has yet come up with a satisfactory answer.

The existence of complexity in life is a more pressing concern, which a lot of religious folk herald as proof of deliberate intent and a divine plan. The fact that we have a scientific model, painstakingly constructed and refined over decades, and which is about as solid as any other single aspect of human understanding, is something every atheist would do well to understand. And it’s not “just” a theory.

Well, that’s a start, anyway. I was tempted to do another bit on “A lot of religious people really don’t understand what atheism is”, but that’s something else that most atheists will find out pretty quickly without needing to be told. Anything important you think I’ve missed?

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PZ Myers recently gave some sensitive, measured, and wise advice to a young religious girl.

This maniac must be stopped.

That might be going a bit far, but Ken Ham’s not happy with him. Ken is a prominent creationist, and blogged about a nine-year-old girl called Emma, who’d got in touch with Ken to tell him about a conversation she’d had.

Ken advises people, when confronted by cocky scientists or arrogant atheists who claim to know what happened millions or billions of years in the past, to ask if they were there to see it happen. Like the formation of moon rock, or the evolution of life. Did anyone see it happening?

PZ explained to Emma – in the kind and reasonable tones of, basically, a well-meaning teacher speaking to a child – why this isn’t really such a good question to ask. Questions in general are good, and he gave her kudos for speaking up, but asking whether a scientist was around to watch moon rock being formed several billion years ago probably won’t teach you very much. Obviously she wasn’t there.

But the scientists aren’t saying “I know this is how this moon rock formed billions of years ago because I was there to see it happen”. Even creationists don’t think scientists are that crazy. But then where did these scientists get their crazy ideas from?

Well, how about asking them that? When they make some declaration about evolution or ancient moon rock, ask them something you actually don’t know the answer to: How do you know? Now that is almost always a good question to ask.

To see why, imagine the situations were reversed, and a scientist was asking someone like Emma about Jesus. Emma could probably tell them quite fluently what she knows about God sending his son to Earth to save mankind. If the scientist then asked, “Were you there?”, what would Emma say to that?

She wasn’t there when Jesus lived, obviously. But she’s never claimed to be, and it would be a bit of a dead-end question. Whereas, if the scientists asked how Emma knows any of this stuff about Jesus, then she can point to the Bible where it’s all laid out. And now we’d be getting somewhere; now both parties have a better understanding of where the other is coming from.

PZ’s hypothetical open letter was thorough and well targeted. He also specifically stated that he had no intention of trying to send it to a child he doesn’t know who had solicited no such correspondence.

Ken Ham got to hear about PZ’s response, though, and by the time it reached his ears second- or third-hand and became further mangled by his own dissonance-laden brain, the headline became: ATHEISTS ATTACK.

First of all, if you can find anything in PZ’s post that can be called an attack against this kid, then maybe you can next turn your supernatural detective skills to the task of finding the Higgs boson and save CERN some trouble.

Secondly, the agglomeration of deliberate wilful ignorance in Ken Ham’s follow-up post is staggering. He doesn’t link to PZ’s post, and doesn’t seem to have read it. The word “apparently” features multiple times, and it’s clear from his mischaracterisation that he either hasn’t bothered to read it and thus has no idea what he’s talking about, or he’s an outright liar.

Emma’s mother fares no better. Judging by the words Ken quotes, she’s quite bewildered as to why so much anger and energy is being put into calling her foolish and “attacking the enemy”. By atheists who would very happily and gently explain everything that puzzles her, if she simply cared to read anything other than the Bible. But no.

Sigh.

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Teachers use Education on America!

It’s not very effective…

(That was an attempt at a Pokémon meme reference. It might not make any sense.)

Anyway, the loveliest girl of all the lovely girls in America, as verified by SCIENCE, believes that evolution should be taught in schools.

Yay, I guess? I mean, she’s right on that one narrow point, but it’s not like her opinion should particularly matter.

That’s not to disparage her as a woman or as a beauty contest winner, by any means. I dare say most people’s opinions on most things shouldn’t particularly matter, including a great deal of my own.

JT Eberhard finds listening to these contestants’ opinions almost unbearably painful, and it’s hard to disagree. But it’s not something we ought to see as damning of women or attractive people. The parade of ignorance on display here is probably a fair cross-section of American culture. Hell, the fact that not a single one of the 51 women went on a tirade about their Muslim president trying to implement an atheist communist Nazi military state probably puts them some way ahead of the curve.

What I’m most prompted to wonder is why so much attention is still paid to this bizarrely outdated spectator sport, in which the highest criteria for praise, apparently, are to look very traditionally and conservatively and unimaginatively attractive, and to express some opinions so bland as to be utterly inoffensive to anyone. Why is that what we want to encourage other humans to try and do, and reward them for it?

I think the way we ogle and objectify women really needs to move with the times.

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