Archive for March, 2007

Books and other things

March 30, 2007

This is more of a note to myself, a public commitment as it were. I’m shortly going to be posting a review of Sean B. Carroll’s “The Making of the Fittest”. I also intend to post my thoughts about Bart D. Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus”, although I haven’t quite finished that one. Finally, I may post a review of AG Cairns-Smith’s “Seven Clues to the Origins of Life”. I haven’t decided on that one yet.

I’m also hoping to do a little investigation and post some thoughts about the process by which genetic information can be increased. There’s been a lot of discussion of this lately around the place, so I thought I’d try to get a better grip on it myself. It’s quite an interesting topic to learn about. I often find writing about something helps me to understand it better.

Advertisements

Life, the universe and everything

March 24, 2007

Welcome back to the ongoing discussion between Rob Vitaro (a devout Christian) and little old atheistic me. You can read Rob’s latest response here. As the exchange has gone on, I’ve come to like Rob. I no longer think he’s a nutball (even though I think he liked the term). It seems, however, that we might have covered all the ground that’s worth covering. So this could be the last post in the thread. Who knows? If there’s things left that need saying, I’m sure they’ll be said.

Anyway, on with the show.

Rob starts out by honoring my request to take another shot at answering a question I’d posed. I asked him to think about the role that the accident of his birth played in determining the faith he grew up in.

Does John Doe in Iran have a greater chance of being a Muslim than a Christian? Absolutely. Does John Doe believe he follows the truth? Absolutely. But is it the TRUTH? NO. And I also say that had I been raised Muslim (not only would I not be me), I’d also believe that I was following the truth, but I’d be wrong. How can I say that? Because only one religion (or atheism) can be right, and I (back to Rob the Christian) believe I found the right one. The right One found me, actually.

This is a much more satisfying response. While I’m certainly glad he came closer to answering the question, I find the answer he gave simply astonishing. He can very clearly picture how “Rob the Muslim” would be just as devout in his beliefs as Rob the Christian. He can understand that Rob the Muslim would claim to be in possession of divine truth. He can understand that RTM would claim RTC was mistaken. Rob the Christian can understand that his religion is an accident of his birth (with some caveats about divine plans and what-not). Rob can understand all these things but to him they reinforce rather than weaken his faith. I figure this is because Rob believes he’s blessed to have landed in the “one true religion”. To me that just seems like arrogance (of which I’ve been accused many times myself, generally with good reason). I basically interpret Rob’s claims to be some version of: “I understand that everyone else’s beliefs are just as deep and sacred to them as mine are to me. I understand that most other religions disagree with the core claims of my faith. The bit you’re not understanding, darwinator, is that they’re all wrong and I’m right“. Kudos to Rob for engaging in the mental exercise this time. It was obviously unlikely that he would acknowledge my points (and that’s fair enough) but he challenged himself intellectually and that’s to be admired.

Now Rob gets me all riled up by comparing my concept of evolution to some sort of religious faith. Grrrr.

I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but I find it incredibly interesting that the parts I emphasized in the quote above were words chosen by darwinator himself. The only time I’ve ever heard creative (root word create) being used to describe evolution was in describing theistic evolution. Whether darwinator intends this or not, or whether he realizes it or not, he is attributing god-like qualities, or at the very least intelligence, to evolution – which is supposed to be a process. You’d think otherwise from his own words.

This is almost guaranteed to get a reaction from someone who understands evolution. Implying that my position on evolution takes the form of a religious belief is very easy to interpret as an insult. Rob expressly states that he’s not trying to be a jerk. He’s an honest guy, I’ll take him at his word. That being said, it’s hard to know how respond given that Rob avowedly “doesn’t care” about the evolutionary history of mankind on Earth. He knows that god did it and that’s enough for him.

I stand by everything I wrote about evolution and, to clarify, I’ll rephrase a little. Evolution created every form of life we see (and many we can’t see) on this planet. If that’s not creativity, I don’t know what is. I could certainly say “as a result of the process of evolution taking place every form …”, however, it’s easier just to say “Evolution created”. As for intelligence, I don’t personally describe evolution as intelligent, but it’s not hard to formulate definitions of intelligence that do encompass evolution (anything involving problem solving usually does the trick).

Whether darwinator intends this or not, or whether he realizes it or not, he is attributing god-like qualities, or at the very least intelligence, to evolution

I disagree. I can see what Rob’s saying here but I think he’s projecting. The process of evolution has, as its output, many varied forms of life. To me, that’s creativity. The generation of countless novel, beautiful and functional organisms is creativity in its purest form. If I believed that god did the creating then I don’t think Rob would have a problem with my use of “creativity”. Is it somehow different for a process? Just because the process wasn’t directed by an intelligence doesn’t (to me) mean the process wasn’t a creative force. As for the emphasis Rob put on my statement that “everything has a purpose”, he’s once again implying beliefs that I don’t hold. The “everything has a purpose” comment is true and simply explained; Traits that aren’t under selection pressure will atrophy. When humanity’s ancestors gained trichromatic vision (to give one example), their sense of smell deteriorated. This phenomenon is usually summarized “use it or lose it”. The net result is that any biological attribute without a purpose will, over time, be lost. The only things you’re left with have a purpose. No higher power. No ghost in the machine. A simple process with amazingly complex and elegant outcomes.

darwinator may be surprised to know that I’m not a young-earth creationist, an old-earth creationist, or an evolutionist – I’m an “I really don’t care-ist!” That’s right, I really don’t care! All I know is that God did it; how He did it doesn’t matter at all to me.

This quote saddened me. I’ll come back to it later with an offer to Rob. For now I’ll just say that if I did believe in god, evolution would be almost the first thing I’d point to as evidence of his greatness. Sure the scale of the universe impresses me but the power of evolution might impress me even more. That’s one of the reasons I get angry at creationists (I work with a guy who literally believes the talking snake / Garden of Eden story. Yes, literally), they miss out on crediting god with creating the most amazing, flexible, creative and adaptable system that we’re ever likely to discover. If god did want to fill the Earth with life, DNA would an awesome way to do it. The Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, says it better than I ever could:

God has given creation a real independence and the miraculous fact is that working in relation to this independent life God has, as it were, woven creation from the bottom upwards: with matter giving rise to life and life giving rise to conscious reflective existence in the likes of you and me. The fact that the universe probably began about 12 billion years ago with life beginning to evolve about 3 billion years ago simply underlines the extraordinary detailed, persistent, patience of the divine creator spirit.

Then Rob’s post heats up a little as we enter “meaning of life” territory.

Well, what is the meaning of life for you, darwinator; what’s the purpose?

To be brutally honest Rob, I don’t have any answers that would be satisfying to you. I’ve taken my best shot at explaining my thoughts on it, but rehashing those reasons won’t help. I will point out to the logician in you that asking what the meaning of life is implies that life has some hidden meaning that we could figure out if only we’d squint at it in just the right way. The only “meaning” I care about is the stuff I outlined to you earlier. Family and friends. I’d really love to get into a deeper discussion of this with you, but this exchange probably isn’t the place. I had some interesting personal revelations on meaning very recently and I’m still sorting through them. I’ll write about them when I sort them out.

If we simply cease to exist when we die, why would it matter if we lived our 80+ years or even 10 years for that matter? If we don’t exist anymore, it’s not like we can remember “living the only life we had.” What does it matter if I have relationships if they end when I’m gone?

In the terms you’re talking about Rob, you’re right. None of those things “matter”. I don’t know how to respond here other than to quietly indicate a twinge of sadness. It just seems a little depressing to me that the only way your life gains meaning is through the supernatural.

The other thing to keep in mind is that religious beliefs (throughout human history) have all evolved to include an afterlife. There’s a reason that’s true. It’s because people are afraid to stop existing. That makes it pretty easy to sell eternal life to people. In fact, it might be the perfect product; you never have to actually produce it.

How about this one: Why do we (and other animals) have a self-preservation instinct?

This one’s easy. When you stack up a bunch of different lifeforms and set them competing against each other, the ones with well developed self-preservation instincts preserve themselves. The more successfully they do that, the more offspring (on average) they’ll have. Self preservation instincts are the rule throughout nature, not the exception.

You seem to like to think about mind-blowing things like the vast universe, so try this one: imagine NOT existing. I find it impossible to do. I’m willing to bet you can’t do it either. Even if you think of it like sleep, your imagination starts to think about waking up.

Aw, c’mon Rob. Give me a little credit here. You really think I’ve done all this reading and thinking and never once tried imagining what will happen when I die? Shame on you 😉 Yes, I can imagine it (to my own satisfaction) but that’s not interesting. Even if I couldn’t imagine it that wouldn’t tell us anything useful about the existence of an afterlife. People can’t properly imagine the scale of the universe, that doesn’t lead me to doubt its existence. People have problems with the concept that light is simultaneously both particles and waves. That doesn’t make it any less true.

I’m not saying this is proof, but I submit to you the reason why we can’t imagine not existing is because we were never meant to cease existing

You’re right, it’s nothing like proof of an afterlife. It’s not proof of anything other than the fact that humans find it hard to conceptualize a state of non-existence. Your logic is equivalent to observing that it’s impossible to imagine your non-existence in the time before your birth and thus concluding that you must have always existed. Sure, it’s possible to make that claim. It’s still nonsense though.

It’s why every religion believes that something happens after death. There is an awareness in the human spirit that knows that this isn’t all there is. THAT is what gives me hope, to know that I will be able to continue my relationships with my loved ones. Life doesn’t end!

Every religion believes that something happens after death because people don’t like the idea of dying. Most people are pretty much against death. Especially their own. The reason all religions have the idea of an afterlife is because an afterlife is a very attractive concept. Religions that incorporate that meme are inherently more successful than ones that don’t. That’s actually pretty easy to prove to yourself. Picture Christianity without the benefits of eternal life and observe how much less appealing it is. I’ve probably mentioned Dennett before in our exchanges, but his book “Breaking the Spell” covers this sort of thing in great detail. A tiring read, but worth the effort. There is no more powerful way to control people than claim you have some influence over their access to an afterlife.

Then we head off into some uncharted territory and I’d like to slow down a little. Some of Rob’s statements bear discussion in a little more detail than usual. Rob, you invoked the “jerk protection card” a little earlier. I’ll do the same here. I’m not trying to be a jerk in the following discussion . I implore you to consider this discussion as openly as you can, because it is at the heart of our incompatible outlooks.

darwinator, I’m inclined to believe that no amount of “evidence” will convince you, because you will never get the kind of evidence you seek. God doesn’t need to prove to you that He exists.

Sure. That’s one possible explanation; god doesn’t provide miracles upon request. I understand that. It is certainly easy to come up with convincing reasons why god won’t clearly reveal his presence. That being said, the simplest, most obvious explanation is that god just doesn’t exist. There’s a short story by Carl Sagan called The Dragon In My Garage that explains how our discussion of “evidence” looks to me. It looks exactly like the dragon in Sagan’s garage.

Who are you to say to God that what He has deemed adequate isn’t sufficient for your standard?

Who are you Rob, to doubt the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? His noodly appendage has touched more people in the last few years than the holy spirit has in centuries. The point is that it’s easy to suppose imaginary entities and then claim that there’s evidence to support the supposition. It’s just fairly obviously not convincing. To highlight such thinking is the purpose of the FSM. It’s also exactly what Sagan is talking about in the dragon story.

He has already given plenty of proof for thousands of years; it’s your own fault (and dare I say arrogance) if that’s not enough for you.

I’m entitled to set my own standards for evidence. Plenty of proof for thousands of years? Give me a single example. Just one convincing example of “proof” over the last two thousand years and I’ll let your comment slide. There isn’t a single claim you’ll present that, if presented by an adherent of another religion, you wouldn’t dismiss with a condescending snort. I’m not saying you don’t believe the things you see as proof. Of course you do. They just aren’t proof. Maybe you’ve heard of Sathya Sai Baba? He has been involved in many verified miracles as you can see from the link. Sai Baba has millions of believers. I’m sure once you’ve read about the miracles and seen the photographic evidence, you’ll be convinced too.

And then we cross a line.

the blind are seeing for the first time, actual limbs are growing back on people who lost them, the dead are living again. Just because it’s not happening to you or in your backyard doesn’t mean it’s not happening, that it’s not real, or that HE isn’t real.

Actual limbs are growing back on people who lost them? Rob, you don’t actually believe this do you? Now, out of respect for our discussion, just pause for a minute. I understand that you want this to be true. I get that. Really I do. I just need to know that you’re able to separate the things you’d like to be true from the things that actually are true. You’re smart enough to see through this. I have to believe that this is just wishful thinking. Rob, no limbs have regenerated. Hasn’t happened. Won’t ever happen through prayer. Medical research might get there eventually, but that’s the only way it’s going to happen. These miracles you speak of are in the same realm as psychics and ESP. Sure, people can claim all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. However, if there was a psychic out there worth their salt, you don’t think they’d have claimed the million dollar prize? When claims of miraculous occurrences are investigated rigorously, they will always, without exception, be shown to be without basis. Or have a natural explanation. Always.

The West sees these kind of miracles too, but only occasionally. Many have tried to figure out why this is. My own theory is that we don’t need to believe for these miracles. We have our science and medicine, but the 3rd world does not; faith is all they have, so they get the miracles. That’s just a theory, though.

I think you must know that’s not true. In most third world nations, education isn’t easy to come by. Throughout history, when people don’t have scientific explanations for observed phenomena, they attribute it to the supernatural. I think the imbalance between miracle rates in third and first world nations is a lot simpler than divine preference. It’s education.

And then it ends.

I actually found writing this sad. Two intelligent people unable to reach common ground because of very strong convictions, each thinking the other to be totally wrong (or crazy).

I’m also a little sad. I certainly understand Rob’s sentiments here. I no longer think he’s crazy. I think he has (probably not consciously) allowed what he wants to be true to affect what he believes is true. It’s hard for me to begrudge him a little wishful thinking. Death is a scary concept. Ceasing to exist is an even scarier concept. Rob’s certainly not the only who has ever sought solace in belief.

As we near the end of our exchange, Rob’s reflections prompt me to consider what I’d hoped to achieve. This blog of mine is really what I claim it to be. It’s my Cathartic Relief. It’s me yelling into (what I thought) was a void. I didn’t expect to hear echoes, let alone someone shouting back. Once the exchange was underway, I honestly would have liked to have had an impact on Rob. I’m not sure I did, but I would have liked to.

I mentioned earlier that I’d like to make an offer to Rob. Think of it as a peace offering. Or maybe a way to keep the conversation going a little longer. Or a chance for each of us to affect the other in some small way. I’ve come to accept that I won’t be able to change Rob’s views of religion. I understand that. However, I might be able to open his eyes to an aspect of our world that he hasn’t seen much of. So here’s my offer. I’ll read any book Rob recommends and write about it here. I’d like him to choose one that he thinks might open my eyes to the world of faith that I’m missing out on. I’d like him to read Sean B. Carroll’s Making of the Fittest and write about his reactions. I honestly don’t care if he attributes everything to god, I’d just count this whole exchange a success if I was able to both teach and learn something. So how about it Rob? Is it worth your time to read a couple hundred pages about DNA in return for me reading a book that might save my soul?

If this is the last post in this exchange, I wish you well Rob. It’s been … interesting 😉

Holy Crap

March 19, 2007

I was watching one of Ricky Gervais’ stand up bits on YouTube earlier. It’s hilarious. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Anyway, this particular piece was based on the Bible. Rick runs through some of the creation story in his inimitable style. It got me to thinking about the creation story and some questions starting kicking around in my head. So I headed on over to check out Genesis from the King James Bible at bartleby.com.

Holy crap. What a complete and utter load of rubbish. I couldn’t even get through Genesis before my head started to hurt with the inconsistencies.

The first one concerns god lying through his teeth to Adam and Eve. I’d reckon most people would consider lying a sin. In fact, a religious friend of mine once told me that it is impossible for god to lie. My friend should, perhaps, read the bible.

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Keep this in mind; God has explicitly said to man “do not eat the fruit from the tree in the middle. If you do, you will die”.

God goes on to create Eve from Adam’s rib (unnecessarily complicated but I guess that’s his prerogative). Eve winds up bumping into a talking snake (yes, you read that right, the snake talks). The snake convinces Eve to eat from the forbidden tree. Eve does so. She also gets Adam in on the action and he eats from the tree too. Now, having foolishly trusted god, I expected Adam and Eve to begin having convulsions from the deadly poison coursing through their veins. My trust in god was apparently misplaced. Adam and Eve are fine. They don’t die. That leaves us with the inescapable fact that god lied to them. It was the snake that told them the truth. So god’s first interaction with humanity is to create them and then start lying to them. So much for god not being able to lie, eh? A little bit of sinning from the big man. Nice 🙂

Okay, so god’s a liar.

The next thing I realized was that if you’re a devout Christian, you should be naked right now. That’s right, get your gear off. God created Adam and Eve naked. They only became embarrassed about their nakedness when they ate the forbidden fruit. Let’s spend a little time considering this situation and see where it leads us, shall we?

It is either immoral to run around naked or it’s not. If it is immoral to be naked in public, then god committed an immoral act by creating naked people. It does, however, seem pretty unlikely that god is immoral. For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that god is morally sound. This lets us conclude that there’s nothing inherently immoral about public nakedness. God wouldn’t have created naked humans if hanging around without clothes is immoral. We can further conclude that the knowledge garnered from gobbling forbidden fruit is flawed in a major way. Eating the fruit made us embarrassed by nudity. The truly devout Christian will understand that god intended for us to be naked. We insult god every day we cover the beauty of his creation. That’s right ladies, unfurl god’s creations. Guys, don’t sweat it so much. If you want to remain covered, I won’t complain.

So god’s a liar and everyone needs to get their clothes off.

Then we come to the brilliant story of Cain and Abel. I’d heard these names before. I knew the basics of the story and lacked the details. Apparently the Bible also lacks the details. The story just isn’t all that detailed. Let me summarize for you.

  • Adam and Eve have two boys Cain and Abel
  • The boys attempt to curry god’s favor with offerings; Cain brings produce, Abel brings lamb cutlets
  • God loves Abel’s lamb and doesn’t like Cain’s potatoes
  • Cain is really, really pissed off at this
  • Cain kills Abel
  • God gets pretty pissed at Cain

That’s the story in a nutshell. At this point however, something weird jumped out at me:

And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch.

Okay … do you see the problem? God created Adam and Eve who, together, had two sons: Cain and Abel. So where did Cain’s wife come from? I googled this terribly confusing situation and found this crazy ass explanation. The summary of that article is that Cain’s wife must have been a daughter of Adam and Eve. Yes. That’s right. We hit the incest jackpot in the first few pages of the bible. Sweet.

So, to recap; god’s a liar, Christians need to be naked and Adam & Eve had a bunch of kids who all ran around fucking each other.

At this point I gave up. Four chapters of this rubbish is enough. I’m sitting here shaking my head, incredulous that anyone could believe this crap. How can people actually believe that this crap, this holy crap, is a good explanation for anything?

The Evolution Project

March 5, 2007

A very large percentage of the people living in America (I believe it’s about 53%) do not “believe” in evolution. That’s very frustrating to me. I can’t think of any other piece of knowledge I’ve acquired that rocked my world like understanding the laws of evolution did. Well, maybe when I discovered that girls were not just for throwing things at. I guess that rocked my world too. Anyway, evolution is such a mind blowingly powerful concept that it irks me to see how widely misunderstood it is. I chose the word misunderstood quite carefully there because I have to believe that the only way you can reject evolution as an explanation is if you don’t understand it.

Certainly among people I’ve spoken to personally, there’s some gaps in what people know about evolution. Now, people don’t say “Hey, I don’t believe in evolution because I’m ignorant”. Obviously at the top of the list of things that ignorant people don’t know is the very fact of their ignorance. What they say in practice when denying evolution is one of two things. They either object to the evolutionary connection between man and monkeys or they invoke creationism to explain biodiversity.

So, this has bugged me for a while. It’s hard to elaborate exactly why it bothers me, but it does. It might be the fact that the President of the USA can spout rubbish like:

Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about.

That bugs me. There is no debate. You have scientists on one side with a theory that completely explains the observed fact of evolution. On the other side you have half baked nonsense. You can’t teach this rubbish in science class because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, it’s not freaking science!

So rather than just railing against the stupidity of Intelligent Design (Creationism in a cheap tuxedo), I wondered what could actually be done about it. My immediate reaction when people don’t understand something is simply that they haven’t been taught about it, or didn’t understand the teaching they received. So this quite conveniently allows me to dovetail two ideas I’m passionate about; Evolution and Education.

The three requirements for evolution to occur are replication, mutation and selection. I think the selection part of the equation is very conceptually easy for people to understand. The biggest, strongest, fastest, fittest, etc. creature survives. Creatures that have a survival advantage are more likely to reproduce than creatures without the advantage (those without it are more likely to get killed). Replication and mutation require knowledge of some genetics. So I’ve been wondering whether there’s an elegant way to teach these concepts. The idea has percolating around in the darker recesses of my mind for a while. Then, recently, I saw an article about a Russian project to domesticate the Silver Fox. The article struck a chord with me and a few days later The Evolution Project was born.

I haven’t clarified all the details yet, but I have a basic skeleton for the concept. I’m sure smarter people than me can fill in the gaps. The main thrust of the idea is for kids to see evolution in action.

The project’s aim is to induce evolution. The goal is evolution on a macro scale, also known as speciation. We start out with a population of mice. These mice are tagged (RFID?) and have their details recorded in web accessible database. Once all the details are recorded, the mice are allowed to breed. It is important for record keeping purposes that males be separated from breeding age females so that lineage can be reliably tracked. The males are only in the proximity of the females specifically for reproductive purposes. It will also be important that only one male is placed with a given group of females until the females give birth. This way the paternity of all offspring can be guaranteed.

The project will specify some criteria to use for selecting which animals to use for breeding. My suggestion would be some combination of size, fertility and intelligence. So for every generation of offspring, the kids involved in the project will measure and test the mice with regard to the desired criteria. The data will be entered into the national database and the best specimens will be selected as the parents of the next generation. There may be some necessity for breeding stock to be moved around the country to keep the population robust. The mice may also be transported to make an ideal match between individuals from different locations.

This simplified version of the project will be enough for kids to get an understanding of the mechanics of heredity. There are some enhancements that I think would make the project more exciting and fruitful, but they introduce complexity and a need for outside assistance.

The main enhancement I thought of was to get someone like J. Craig Venter involved. I don’t know too much about Craig, but I do know that genomes are his thing. I was thinking that with Venter’s organization helping out, the kids could organize DNA samples of their mice and have the lab process these samples. Hopefully the lab could give the kids an “difference value” for each mouse. The DV would be an indication of how difference each individual mouse’s genome is from the population average. That would allow the kids to select for maximum difference and hopefully migrate the experimental population’s gene pool away from the original as quickly as possible. My knowledge is a little lacking here, I don’t know if this is achievable. I also don’t know what sort of impact the DV would have on the animal husbandry process. Maybe continually selecting for DV would lead to a population riddled with infirmities. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Storing the information obtained from the DNA samples has another, less obvious benefit. The DNA samples could be correlated with the data about the observed traits of the mice they came from. This would result a large collection of DNA samples with descriptions about the physical traits that resulted from the DNA. Seemingly this data could be mined to learn more about how DNA affects physical traits.

That’s all for now, I’ll revise this as I think of more things to add.