Sunday, July 29, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Monday, July 23, 2007
a few weeks ago, I caught a part of a PBS series talking about atheism and here's what I found when I googled:
"PBS TV Stations to Air Three-Part Documentary on Atheism"
The documentary, "Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief" travels through history and discusses the ever dwindling belief in the existence of God. I'm not sure which episode I watched, but they talked about how Newton's laws enabled people to look at the universe in a more physical and less mysterious/spiritual way. They had only gotten to around late 1700's by the end of the episode I watched, and I'm assuming they wouldn't disregard Darwin...
Anyway, I'm going to try to watch the whole thing. Most of the episodes can be found on YouTube...but they might be removed for copyright infringement...so try to watch 'em fast :)
YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Atheism%3A+A+Rough+History+of+Disbelief
In conclusion, I applaud PBS for attempting to broaden people's horizons and for offering a different side of the story.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
In this opinion article, Ben Bova sort of talks about humans and chimps and our relative dominance when it comes to intelligence, however, our intelligence has also produced a lot of social problems on the planet. And then he talks about if we have the 'wisdom' that it takes to solve these problems. In any case, it's a really short and sweet article. I think you guys will enjoy reading it.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
New York Times article about Islamic creationist:
Islamic Creationist and a Book Sent Round the World
This creationist does not try to claim that the earth is too young for evolution, rather, he claims that fossil evidence shows that old species are the same as modern ones, and therefore no evolution happened. He wrote a book explaining his creationist ideas. According to the article: "At 11 x 17 inches and 12 pounds, with a bright red cover and almost 800 glossy pages, most of them lavishly illustrated, “Atlas of Creation” is probably the largest and most beautiful creationist challenge yet to Darwin’s theory."
The author has mailed out many copies of the books to evolutionary biologists and French high schools and universities. He sent a copy to all the professors in Columbia University's medical school. What surprises people about the book is not the content but the fact that he must have spent millions of dollars on this enterprise, and he is giving the books away.
The second article was from the BBC:
Energy use 'drove human walking'
In a study, adult humans and adult chimps walked on treadmills, and the humans were more efficient walkers than chimps (with chimps on two legs or on four legs). Efficiency of walking is a possible reason for humans evolving to walk on two legs.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
What makes this article relevant to us is that M. avium in its original state is incapable of infecting other cells. Over time, M. avium has evolved by acquiring DNA from other sources. This additional DNA codes for proteins that M. avium can release into potential host cells. As a result, the bacterium is incorporated into the host cell, rather than being phagocytosed (ingested) by it.
Potentially, blocking the proteins that allow the bacterium to be ingested may prevent infection of AIDS patients, and prolong the lives of AIDS patients who otherwise might be killed by M. avium.
Some friends and I went to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park yesterday, and right now they have a special exhibit on carnivorous plants. Darwin would be so proud. If you've never been and you're in the area, you should definitely go. The place is amazing. They have a highland tropics room (one of only four or five in the US), that has GORGEOUS orchids (fourth pic). And after you visit the Conservatory, I recommend a ride on the carousel...it's the best part of the park :).
Hope everyone's having a more stress-free summer than I,
(honors theses are not for the faint of heart...),
Saturday, July 14, 2007
My parents just got their copy of Time today, and the cover article, Leveling the Praying Field is about how the Democratic frontrunners for president (Clinton, Obama, Edwards) all have embraced discussing their religious faith, and how this is one election in which Democrats may mobilize religion more effectively than Republicans.
While that probably is what needs to be done to win, I find it sad that religion is so important to many people in our nation that a candidate cannot hope to win the presidency unless he/she is a Christian.
Friday, July 13, 2007
NY Times, July 10, 2007
This article is just tangential related to evolution (see the first few lines of the article). But what struck me about it is how the author's writing style highlights an idea presented in A Flock of Dodos. The film suggested that scientists tend to be weaker communicators and basically less personable than creationists. This article in the NY Times is about water, H2O. However, the writing is done in such a way to be more like a story and less scientific. For example:
With their hydrogen bonds, water molecules become sticky, cohering as a liquid into droplets and rivulets and following each other around like a jiggling conga line.A jiggling conga line? Definitely not the scientific way of describing hydrogen bonds. However, this description and others in Angier's article are fun to read and more interesting than a chemistry textbook's description. I can see the arguments for and against toning down science to be more accessible to the layperson. But perhaps the creationists garner more support because their ideas are easier to grasp and their spokespeople are more approachable?
Another article of Angier's that I read a couple of months ago is:
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
An article that's been floating around for a while now...Here is my [very anthropocentric] way of looking at things:
basically this claim is really stupid. just because a creature has just as many genes as humans do, how does that intrinsically make them as complicated? How do these people define complexity in any case? if they define it purely in numbers of genes an organisms possess, then that's a really stupid way of looking at things because we gain nothing from that. and some plants often have more genes than a lot of animals and we might contend that the behaviors of animals are far more dynamic, exciting, and allows for more variety than those of plants.
what is the particular benefit of being complex, anyway? all of these articles that are making this claim about sea anemone's go in with the implicit assumption that complexity is a good thing, but i think of it as a rube goldberg machine... if the biological processes in sea anemones are just as complicated as they are in humans and they STILL are incapable of building cities or developing modern technology (all they do is eat and excrete and just chill, etc etc, right? we can replicate that with a fish), then i see no real benefit to added complexity. occam's razor, etc etc.
anyway hope everyone is doing well.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
I hope you're having a good summer! I actually got back from England last week. Some of my friends in London were talking about how amazing the festival in Edinburgh is! I have been doing some research and it sounds amazing! Apparently there are actually a group of festivals and according to the official website it draws in a ton of people! Here is one article that I found on the official "Fringe" website. The "Fringe" is what they call the whole giant festival. I;m so excited! There is also a way to order the official program of events on the official website.
Edinburgh's No. 1!03 May 2007
The Edinburgh Festival has been voted the number one tourist experience in the UK according to readers of the Rough Guide series.
The Edinburgh Festival tops the list of 25 tourist experiences in the UK and Ireland including activities like, surfing in Newquay, experiencing the Glastonbury Festival and hiking in Snowdonia.
The decision appears in the British edition of a series of International Rough Guides published today. The pocket-sized, magazine-style series of 25 guides has been produced to mark the 25th anniversary of Rough Guides.
Mark Ellingham, series editor and Rough Guides founder, said: “When we think of holidays, a lot of people immediately associate this with going abroad. But, believe it or not, you don’t actually have to jump on a plane to have an amazing time.”
The Rough Guide said the Edinburgh Festival’s appeal lay in the range and volume of events and shows on offer to visitors of the city. From “risqué cabaret going on at one of the Fringe venues” to “shuffling up the Royal Mile to the nightly Military Tattoo.”
And whilst the guide claims you’ll need “the stamina of an ox, the appetite of a hippo and the nocturnal characteristics of an owl” it describes Edinburgh’s appeal as: ”Over half-a-dozen separate festivals taking place simultaneously, some 1500 different shows a day, across 200 different venues. Not to mention the street acts, the buskers, the bizarrely dressed leafleters and the simple fascination to be had just watching it all swirl around you.”
Here is the website:
Monday, July 9, 2007
By: Anne Stake
I have never been one of those people that Richard Dawkins would call a “true believer”, and I have never even considered myself religious at all. However, being brought up in our society, I haven’t been immune to religion’s great influence either. One consequence of this is that, I have never really openly voiced any opposition to religion in front of those who do believe. No matter how much I have discussed religion in a structured intellectual environment, when it has come to confronting and questioning people’s devotion, I have remained silently respectful. I have even found myself impressed by my religious friends who seem to have such strong faith. I have been one of the many people who sets religion on a moral high ground, believing myself to be acting correctly. However, after reading Richard Dawkins’ brilliantly argued book, “The God Delusion”, I realize the error behind our society’s “soft spot” for religious ideas. As Richard Dawkins asks, why should the “God hypothesis” be immune to the same scrutiny as any other explanation for our existence on earth? Indeed, I’m sure now that no matter how difficult it may be to question religious ideas, it doesn’t deserve any immunity from open questioning.
The phrase “God hypothesis” eliminates one of the key points in Richard Dawkins’ book. He treats God as a scientific hypothesis, and to me this only reaffirms his credibility as not only a scientist, but as a man worthy of addressing the delicate and controversial subject of religion. Rather than dismissing the existence of God outright, which would make him just as irrational as the religious enthusiasts, he treats it as another hypothesis and presents the evidence that would negate God’s existence. I found this method to be an ingenious way to bring the people on the fence about religion under his spell. After all, it’s not only Dawkins speaking, but scientific evidence itself. Another way Dawkins’ primes his more sensitive readers is by distinguishing between the types of Gods he is talking about. I particularly enjoyed the description of the “Einsteinian God” versus the all-knowing and rational creator of all. I and I presume the majority of his readers appreciated the precision and care he put into defining “God”, because it is true that many of us, including Einstein, think of “God” in our own ways, completely separate from the “God” of the Semitic religions and their derivatives.
As Dawkins proceeds to the meat of his arguments, his writing shows his insight and rationality of his convictions. His words not only express his passion, but also his honesty. When he writes about the views of NOMA, he shows how culturally engrained religion is in our society, that scientists must come up with the idea of NOMA, simply to avoid conflict and keep the funding rolling in. To me this is an example of the startlingly large influence that religion has in today’s world. In the United States, where we have an apparently “secular” society, religion plays a huge role in political agendas and in determining the outcome of our elections. Even in Great Britain, the deeply religious former Prime Minister Tony Blaire advocated a school that teaches new earth creationism and brainwashes its pupils by providing false information that only the scriptures can verify. The idea of “brainwashing” leads to another point that Dawkins makes about the persistence of religion today. Our society effectively labels children as part of a religion before they are able to develop the critical thinking skills necessary to decide for themselves. Dawkins classifies this as a form of mental child abuse, and I would agree.
In addition to presenting evidence and providing an enlightening discussion about the danger of religion, the question of why religion exists in the first place lingers beneath the surface. Dawkins brings it to light with his part evolutionary, part neurological hypotheses for the “roots of religion”. Belief in a God is not an isolated phenomenon, and it’s prevalence throughout human existence and in every corner of the world demands an explanation. One of the ideas I found interesting is that religion is a “by product” of the traits that helped survival by believing and following advice of the elders. As we have evolved, that neurological trait has persisted but cannot distinguish between the true and the false, the false being religious ideas.
However, even though Dawkins does assert that religious ideas are false, he doesn’t dismiss the study of religion. I remember a discussion in class and when I mentioned that I had taken a “comparative religion” class, I received raised eyebrows and a skeptical question about the type of school I attended. However, my comparative religions class was probably the most interesting class that I have ever taken. When I read Dawkins advocating such classes, my convictions were reaffirmed. In Dawkins view, and in mine, religions are important for children to study, so that children can determine for themselves what to believe. Religion is also important to study because of its role in literature as Dawkins points out. There is no denying that religion is an important aspect of culture, and when Dawkins acknowledges this, he honed in on my own conflict. As a person who loves traveling and learning about other cultures, part of me wants to respect cultural traditions and even let them persist even if they are incorrect. Dawkins even admits that he identifies with the conflict of the “liberals”. However, he also stresses the possibility of preserving a “treasured heritage” without blindly following beliefs.
I have heard arguments and read other influential scientists write about religion. When I read another brilliant book on the ideas of string theory, “The Elegant Universe”, I was somewhat surprised to find that the last chapter stresses the possibility of God. However, going back to Dawkins’ beginning, I don’t think the God in “The Elegant Universe” is the God of the scriptures, but rather more of a metaphorical God like Einstein’s. Dawkins quoted Einstein as saying, “I don’t try to imagine a personal God; it suffices to stand in awe at the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it”. It is possible to be spiritual and a believer without adhering to the irrationality and dangerous practices of the three primary religions. It is possible to be in awe, to live morally, to be happy and to be fulfilled without religion. That is the lasting message that Dawkins drives home, and that is the most important message for his readers. If we let ourselves or “free ourselves” from the cultural “burka” that imprisons us, it is possible to experience life more fully, to stand without constraint in the awe inspiring natural world and the marvels that science can “uncover”.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
by David Dobbs
New York Times, July 8, 2007
Wow, this is a really interesting article about Williams syndrome, social evolution, and social interactions. Williams syndrome is a genetic deletion that lead to cognitive deficits such as a lower IQ and a vague concept of space. But the most notable results are an "exuberant gregariousness and near-normal language skills." The article provides interesting examples of people with Williams.
Williams syndrome may give some insight into how humans are social beings. The author presents the Machiavellian-intelligence or social-brain theory which states that "we rise from a lineage in which both individual and group success hinge on balancing the need to work with others with the need to hold our own — or better — amid the nested groups and subgroups we are part of." In this theory, 15 to 20 million years ago, primates needed to migrate to new areas in order to obtain food. As a result, primates became larger and lived in larger groups. Living in groups then required cooperation and social balance.
The article is from the magazine section so it is a bit longer than most NY Times articles, but it is definitely worth the read! Hope your summer is going well!
Monday, July 2, 2007
Cats Among Us
This New York Times editorial mentions how cat mitochondrial DNA has been used to determine the ancestry of domesticated cats. The results? Felis silvestris lybica, otherwise known as the Near Eastern wildcat, is the ancestor of all domesticated cats. Archaeological evidence indicates that domestication occurred in Cyprus around 9500 years ago, before cats lived in Egypt.
The editorial also states that, as any cat owner knows, the cats, not the humans, are in charge.
A day after posting that, I found another New York Times article, that describes the study on cat ancestry more in depth. All domestic cats are descended from 5 female Felis silvestris lybica who entered human villages and ate the rodents infesting granaries.
Here is a photo of a wildcat from the article:
Friday, June 29, 2007
First Bacterial Genome Transplantation Changes One Species To Another
This is pretty cool: researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute have transplanted the chromosome from one simple species of bacteria into another, successfully transforming the bacteria into the other species. They purposefully chose species (Mycoplasma capricolum and Mycoplasma mycoides) that have very small genomes, and marked the genome of M. mycoides so that bacteria with its chromosome turned blue. This allowed them to identify colonies of M. capricolum that successfully transformed into M. mycoides.
The photograph shows colonies of transformed bacteria.
This article (about the same experiment) says that only 1 of every 150,000 cells is successfully transformed, so this is still a very inefficient process.
From a Few Genes, Life's Myriad Shapes
Darwin Still Rules, but Some Biologists Dream of a Paradigm Shift
Fast-Reproducing Microbes Provide a Window on Natural Selection
Friday, June 22, 2007
Hey Kids, I just read a supercool book called Primates and Philosophers, How Morality Evolved by Frans de Waal, a world-famous primatologist at Emory. One of the big beefs that everyone has with evolution (especially evolution of man) is that it has a dog eat dog mentality, that there is only thin veneer of morality that masks our evil, selfish biological instincts. This theory which de Waal attacks, called unsurprisingly the veneer theory, was at the root of the Scopes trial (Bryan disliked evolution ONLY on the grounds that seemed to discard "weaker" members of society) and has been further criticized by people saying that Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene equates evolutionary behavior with selfish behavior according to anthropocentric morality (which Dawkins vehemently denies). De Waal takes the cool position that the emotions of sympathy and compassion and consequently outpourings of philanthropy are actually part of our biology because such phenomena are commonly seen in many other primates. Of course our capacity to deal with philanthropy is much more sophisticated than a bonobo. It is reassuring that one does not need to resort to mysticism to explain morals and such.
By the way, that's Jane Goodall, the only primatologist more famous than de Waal.
I hope everyone's summer is going swell. I read this article and thought it was pretty interesting, because with global warming, in general the articles spell a future of doom for our planet. The article talks about how icebergs breaking off of ice shelves (due to a warming earth) are becoming hotspots of ocean life. The icebergs hold terrestrial material that they release as they float out to sea and melt. The icebergs have a "halo" of increased numbers of plankton, krill, and seabirds for up to a radius of 5 miles. An important consequence of this increased biological activity is that the icebergs may act as carbon sinks, pulling excess carbon down into the deep sea, helping stem global warming. I think it's interesting how our earth reacts to stresses we put on it, and that things don't always have the same consequences as we might predict. It's a somewhat encouraging piece of news--that the earth is still able to compensate for the strains we put on it, in unpredictable ways. It's also a reminder that we can't ever really exactly predict the effect our actions are going to have on the environment. Not that global warming doesn't or won't have consequences, but it reminds me to take it with a grain of salt when someone says that we're all going to be underwater in 20 years.
"Galapagos May Get 'In Danger' Listing"
June 22, 2007, New York Times
In 1978, the Galapagos gained World Heritage status from UNESCO. Now, Ecuador has requested that these famous islands be added to the list of sites "in danger." The Galapagos are Ecuador's most popular tourist attraction and are at risk due to its fragile ecosystem. There are 830 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 31 of which are "in danger" due to tourism, natural disasters, pillaging, and/or pollution. The World Heritage committee will be discussing Ecudor's requests and other issues such as the effect of climate change on heritage sites at a meeting that begins this Saturday in New Zealand.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
It seems that another creation group, Creation Ministries International (CMI), based in Australia, has a magazine called Creation. Answers in Genesis (AiG) (the group that opened the museum in May) also has a magazine, known as Answers. CMI has sued AiG on the grounds that AiG has been stealing subscribers from Creation by claiming that it is no longer available. Ken Ham, AiG president, was quoted as saying "All I'll tell you is those allegations are totally preposterous and untrue. The Bible tells you not to have a lawsuit against your brother, so you can see who's obeying the Bible and who's not."
Part of the problem is that Ham is too focused on his own power, and wants to run AiG in his own way. Members of CMI recognized that a focus on Ham could harm their cause, and suggested a restructuring of the organization that would give him less power. Ham of course would not accept that. He also needed to raise money for the museum, and acquired more power for that. His actions did not make CMI any more appreciative of AiG, and the result is this lawsuit.
Hopefully this lawsuit will decrease the credibility of creationists.
Saturday, June 16, 2007
I found this article in the Science section of the New York Times. A fossil has been discovered in Inner Mongolia (northern China) that seems to have been a 25 foot long, 3000 pound birdlike dinosaur. This fossil is surprising because the widely held theory is that dinosaurs became smaller as they became more birdlike, and this fossil contradicts that. Researchers think it is a completely different genus and species from all other known dinosaur species, giving it the name Gigantoraptor erlianensis. It shows how little we really know about dinosaur diversity.
The photograph shows a model of Gigantoraptor's head.
Friday, June 15, 2007
I found the following article on the BBC. It is about bids for UNESCO World Heritage status, but it also mentions in passing the fact that Downe House has been taken off of the UK's nomination roster because of questions about its "oustanding universal value." The UK government said that it was going to resubmit Downe House in 2009 because the UNESCO council fails to recognise (yes, British spelling) the site's significance. On a brighter note, they are going to do something about the increased tourism and thus environmental impact on the Galapagos.
Monday, June 11, 2007
by Amy Harmon
New York Times
A mutation similar to the one that makes some whippets faster also exists in humans: a sliver of genetic code that regulates muscle development, is missing.
“It would be extremely interesting to do tests on the track finalists at the Olympics,” said Elaine Ostrander, the scientist at the National Institutes of Health who discovered that the fastest whippets had a single defective copy of the myostatin gene, while “bullies” had two.
“But we wouldn’t know what to do with the information,” Ms. Ostrander said. “Are we going to segregate the athletes who have the mutation to run separately?” For the moment, it is whippet owners who find themselves on the edge of that particular bioethical frontier.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
While taking a study break, I came across this article:
"Chimps Spread the News"
by Nikhil Swaminathan
Scientific American, June 7, 2007
A new study has been done that shows that chimps teach new customs to fellow chimps. A group of primatologists (cool word) trained eight chimps from different communities to use novel devices to obtain fruit. When these chimps were returned to their original communities and had access to the devices, they taught their fellow chimps the skill. The study also observed that chimps from neighboring communities would watch the chimps using the device and then pick up on the skill as well. As stated in the article, "These observations show 'that chimpanzees can sustain cultures that are made up of several traditions'." This is pretty neat because before this study, there was no evidence that chimps, our closest relatives, could spread learned behavior. Okay, back to studying!
Saturday, June 9, 2007
Here it is: www.creationmuseum.org.
It says very prominently next to the logo "Prepare to believe."
The about page says (scroll to the bottom):
"The Bible speaks for itself at the Creation Museum. We’ve just paved the way to a greater understanding of the tenets of creation and redemption. Our exhibit halls are gilded with truth, our gardens teem with the visible signs of life."
The brochure (downloadable from the about page) also makes some interesting statements, my favorite of which was "There will be those who sneer, but some will be challenged to think, and still others may come to believe" (last page of brochure). Maybe if the definition of think has been change to "to brainwash". The brochure ends with this statement: "It is a valuable, unprecedented resource for information and education, enabling us to always be ready to give an answer (a reasoned, logical defense) for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15)." Again, I think they have changed some definitions, namely the definitions of reasoned and logical.
In both quotes, boldfaced/italicized emphases are mine. Perhaps I am biasing the reader? No more so than is the museum. Though it does make me prouder to be related to chimpanzees than to be related to creationist humans.
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Does religion transcend politics???
WASHINGTON - In a rare public discussion of her husband's infidelity,
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton said
Monday that she probably could not have gotten through her marital
troubles without relying on her faith in God
Clinton stood by her actions in the aftermath of former President
Clinton's admission that he had an affair, including presumably her
decision to stay in the marriage.
"I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the
courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of
what the world thought," Clinton said during a forum where the three
leading Democratic presidential candidates talked about faith and values.
"I'm not sure I would have gotten through it without my faith," she said
in response to a question about how she dealt with the infidelity.
The forum, sponsored by the liberal Sojourners/Call to Renewal evangelical
organization, provided an uncommon glimpse into the most personal beliefs
of Clinton and rivals John Edwards and Barack Obama (news, bio,
voting record). The three candidates were invited by Sojourners founder
Jim Wallis; most of the other Democratic candidates appeared on CNN later
Monday to discuss their faith.
The most intimate question came about the Clintons' relationship, one of
the world's most debated marriages but one that the husband and wife
rarely speak openly about.
Clinton said she's "been tested in ways that are both publicly known and
those that are not so well known or not known at all." She said it's those
times when her personal faith and the prayers of others sustain her.
"At those moments in time when you are tested, it is absolutely essential
that you be grounded in your faith," she said.
Edwards revealed that he prays - and sins - every day. The crowd gasped
loudly when moderator Soledad O'Brien asked Edwards to name the biggest
sin he ever committed, and he won their applause when he said he would
have a hard time naming one thing.
"I sin every single day," said Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential
nominee. "We are all sinners and we all fall short."
Edwards, wearing a purple tie to match Sojourners' signature color,
promoted himself as the candidate most committed to the group's mission of
fighting poverty. He said he doesn't feel his belief in evolution is
inconsistent with his belief in Christ and he doesn't personally feel gays
should be married, although as president he wouldn't impose his belief
system on the rest of the country.
"I have a deep and abiding love for my Lord, Jesus Christ," Edwards said,
but he said the United States shouldn't be called a Christian nation.
He said he has been going to church since he was a child and was baptized
as a teen. He said he strayed from his faith as an adult and it came
"roaring back" when his teenage son died in 1996.
"It was the Lord that got me through that," Edwards said, along with both
of his wife's cancer diagnoses.
Clinton acknowledged that talking about her religious beliefs doesn't come
naturally to her.
"I take my faith very seriously and very personally," she said. "And I
come from a tradition that is perhaps a little too suspicious of people
who wear their faith on their sleeves."
Each candidate was given 15 minutes to appear before the packed auditorium
at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium and a live audience on
CNN. They were questioned by O'Brien and by church leaders across the
Obama's appearance focused more on policy than the personal. Asked whether
he agreed with President Bush's portrayal of the current global
struggles in terms of good verses evil, Obama said there is a risk in
viewing the world in such terms.
He said he believes that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the
result of evil. But he said that the United States' treatment of prisoners
at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay is unjust.
"The danger of using good verses evil in the context of war is that it may
lead us to be not as critical as we should about our own actions," Obama
said to applause.
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Here it is:
What I Think About Evolution
By Sam Brownback
In our sound-bite political culture, it is unrealistic to expect that every complicated issue will be addressed with the nuance or subtlety it deserves. So I suppose I should not have been surprised earlier this month when, during the first Republican presidential debate, the candidates on stage were asked to raise their hands if they did not “believe” in evolution. As one of those who raised his hand, I think it would be helpful to discuss the issue in a bit more detail and with the seriousness it demands.
The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.
The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.
People of faith should be rational, using the gift of reason that God has given us. At the same time, reason itself cannot answer every question. Faith seeks to purify reason so that we might be able to see more clearly, not less. Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.
The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
There is no one single theory of evolution, as proponents of punctuated equilibrium and classical Darwinism continue to feud today. Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.
The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.
Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves. There are aspects of evolutionary biology that reveal a great deal about the nature of the world, like the small changes that take place within a species. Yet I believe, as do many biologists and people of faith, that the process of creation — and indeed life today — is sustained by the hand of God in a manner known fully only to him. It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.
Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well. The fundamental question for me is how these theories affect our understanding of the human person.
The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.
Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.
Monday, June 4, 2007
So, there was a veritable treasure trove of new species discovered recently in Suriname! The coolest of which was a florescent purple and black frog (atelopus), and 12 different species of dung beetles (Darwin would be tickled pink). Two dozen new species were discovered in all in Eastern Suriname, a South American country. The exploratory expedition was funded by two Surinamese mining companies. Eighty percent of Suriname is covered by rain forest, and there are lots of valuable mineral deposits, including gold. As you can see...the article was quite brief...but you can find it here. It was from CNN.
Also, there is an article in this week's Economist about the new creationist museum in Kentucky that we've been talking about throughout the quarter-- not sure if anyone posted about this specific article yet, but it's available here. And a photo:
by Mark Pagel
June 4, 2007, Scientific American
Among approximately 5000 mammals, humans are the only ones that are "effectively naked." There are three main theories for why humans lack body hair.
1. Aquatic ape hypothesis: Six to eight million years ago, humans may have led a partially aquatic lifestyle due to searching for food in shallow water. Fur is not a good insulator in water and thus humans lost the body hair and evolved higher levels of body fat. At this moment, there is no paleontological evidence backing the theory.
2. When humans began to live in the hot climate of the savannah, body hair would lead to overheating. In order to adapt to this climate, humans evolved to no longer have the body hair. While this adaptation is great during the day, during the cool night, humans would have lost body heat.
3. The newest of the theories suggest that humans lost the fur in order to reduce the number of parasites, such as ticks, lice, and biting flies. Fur is a perfect home for these parasites that carry diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, West Nile, and Lyme disease. Since humans had the ability to construct shelter and make clothing, losing the fur would not have been deterimental.
Pagel and his colleague developed the last theory. However, there is a contradiction in his argument. Pagel says that the temperature control theory is flawed because without the hair, humans would not have temperature protection to cold. In his own theory of parasite reduction, he states that cold is not an issue because humans had shelter and clothing.
The lack of body hair may have then been maintained by sexual selection. Clean skin may have indicated good health, and which may be why women are normally more attracted to men with less body hair and take the efforts to remove body hair.
Like with most biological questions, I would say that the answer to this question resides not just in one of these theories, but through a combination of all three (or more).
Sunday, June 3, 2007
The Creationist Museum that I wrote about in one of my previous new and hot postings finally opened last week on May 29 in Pittsburg PA. Apparently on Opening day there were lines and lines of people from all over the country waiting to see the museum’s impressive 27 million dollar exhibits. Mark Looy, a spokesperson for the museum said that on opening day, the museum hosted over 4,000 people. In addition to the curious people in line to see the museum, there were also protesters who attended the “Rally for Reason”. An airplane also circled overhead streaming the banner, “Thou Shalt not Lie”.
This is yet another example of the conflict between creationists and evolutionists happening right now. I still find it almost unfathomable that people in our country actually believe the content of the museum. For example, one exhibit near the life size Noah’s Ark depicts the failures of man. The caption reads, "Before man's fall, all animals were vegetarians. In a very good creation, no animal would die, so there were no carnivores." Other exhibits show humans and dinosaurs coexisting.
People who attended the exhibit, both skeptics and creationists agree that the exhibits are impressive. One article I read in the Cincinnati Enquirer says, “The museum, with its roaring Utah raptor and impressive computer-generated images of what Noah's Ark might have looked like plying the waves of a Great Flood, has a polish and professionalism of exhibits that would make documentary-makers, many museums and theme parks drool.” In fact, the museum is very oriented towards children. It presents them with a fantasyland, and at the same time frames all their information as the scientific mainstream.
All of this corresponds directly to the “fall of civilization” that Sam Harris warns about in his “Letter to a Christian Nation”. All of the impressionable children that visit the museum may leave with skewed perceptions of the world. One professor, Lawrence Krauss who attended the opening said, "Watching the people, and going through it, it's really sad, because you get the impression that a person who didn't know any better would come out of that really thinking science supported something, and also that science sets out to deceive.” I agree with him, and the protesters. The ways that the museum sets up dioramas and “factual” exhibits that don’t correspond to the scientific view of the world is very disheartening. When the U.S. is already so far behind other developed nations in terms of its acceptance of evolution, this is exactly what we don’t need for progress. The interesting articles that I read in the New York Times and The Cincinnati Enquirer can be found here:
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Remember the Republican Debate and the three candidates who rose their hands when asked if they did not believe in evolution? Well, this is an editorial written for the New York Times by Sam Brownback, one of the three. He writes that he believes in microevolution but that he does not accept the deterministic view that no intelligent presence was involved in creating life (I think someone posted something about one of the three saying something like this after the debate, but I couldn't find it).
Brownback seems to endorse the NOMA argument that we discussed last night- he thinks that "the scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths." It seems that he thinks that science answers questions like why does this work the way it does, and why are there all these similarities between species, etc, but he also insists upon asking the question "why are we here?". He claims that because the questions are different, both are important, and says, "Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose." By stating this, he acknowledges that he thinks humans have a special place in the world, a belief that he expresses later by saying, "I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose."
He also states that he thinks that some aspects of evolutionary theory are true, but that he rejects the ones that interfere with the "truth" of the creation of man. While claiming to be reasonable and accepting of science, he clearly does not realize that rejecting a theory because it does not fit in with an unproven ideology is unscientific.
While he tries his best to come across as rational, I am by no means convinced. Probably the main point of the editorial is that he is saying what he thinks he needs to say to get the votes of the people: he needs to appear rational enough for secularists but religious enough for the religious right. And, as we discussed last night, trying to assign meaning and purpose to life tacitly gives credence to religion. I do not know if he claims to need meaning in order to placate the religious right or if he actually does feel a need to find the meaning of life. To me, his seems to be a sadly human-centric view of the universe.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Check out this article from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Even though my last post was about animal sexuality, I just couldn't pass this one up (let's chalk this up to the "If it ain't broke..." philosophy).
A recent study by the London Zoological Society shows that female cheetahs in Tanzania are far more promiscuous than previously thought. It turns out that in a sample of 47 litter where there were multiple cubs, only 57% were all from the same father, leaving a whopping 43% of cheetah cubs familys with mixed siblings. The study took 9 years and 171 faeces (yes, I'm using the British spelling) samples to reveal that mommy cheetahs were not so chaste. This may even be an underestimate since "Cheetah cubs suffer high mortality on the first few weeks so it was difficult to get samples from all of them" according to Zoological Society scientist Gotelli in a BBC interview.
Why is this occurring? The best thoughts on this tie directly back to our good friend Darwin. Mating with many different males increases genetic diversity and thus ensures that if one of the cubs is not well adapted to his environment, then another of her cubs will be and can pass on her genes. Because cheetahs are endangered, this is considered a good thing because it cuts down on the possibility of inbreeding.
Zooming the scope from micro to macro, this also may be a good thing due to the psychology of cheetahs. Male lions and leopards are commonly known to kill off babies in the pride that are not related to them in order to ensure that their own genes get passed along. This is not seen in cheetahs probably because the males have a difficult time telling which cubs are theirs and which are not. This increases the number of cheetahs, which is important now that they are becoming rarer and rarer.
I'll have to be honest that another reason that this caught my attention was the fact that this article was about promiscuous cheetahs. My first reaction, upon reading the article, was envisioning a group of cheetahs on stage with Jerry Springer waiting anxiously for paternity tests and fighting over who fathered whom with a weeping girlfriend cheetah. Of course, I returned from my amused wanderings, and then wondered why I was trying to apply human morality and ethics to a group of cheetahs. Cheetahs breed in this manner due completely to the science natural selection without any regard for the beliefs and whims of any person (or deity for that matter!).
I'm reminded of the Darwin's comment on the problem of the ichneumon wasp which puzzled religious scholars, pre and post Darwin. The ichneumon wasp lays its eggs in moth larvae which, when hatched, will eat the wasp from the inside out, saving all the vital organs for last so as to keep the larvae as fresh as possible but incidentally inflicting the maximum amount of pain possible on the larva. In contrast to happy stories about God creating humans and puppies (or nice dinosaurs) to live in peace, this unfortunate example clearly does not tell the glory of God as the Psalms proclaim. Darwin had the following to say about it:
"I am bewildered… I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. Or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed."
-Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, 1960
So before we start attacking nature with our own morals, let's remember that the universe doesn't revolve around us and our silly conventions. Rock on, promiscuous cheetahs.
“Predatory Hypoplectrus fish were observed tracking other non-predatory fish species with similar color patterns to surprise their prey, which are usually not afraid of non-predatory fish species. They were also observed mating with partners with similar color patterns. Having identified behaviours that segregate the fish into groups and small but statistically significant genetic differentiation, the researchers concluded that each of the
13 color morphs of hamlet fish classifies as an incipient species.”
The reasons for this color-specific behavior are yet unknown, but Dr. Frederic Guichard, an assistant professor at McGill, claimed in the article that this showed a new possible means of speciation based not on physical mechanisms (like Darwin’s finches) but on rare behavior.
The other article discussed the link between the evolution of trichromatic vision (the ability to distinguish between red, green, and blue) and the development of primates with red skin and hair. Originally this ability was used to forage for ripe fruit and young foliage. However, by careful study of a phylogenic tree that tracked and linked this evolutionary ability to sexual selection.
“They found that the species that could discern red and orange hues were more likely to develop red and orange skin and hair, as well as highly social habits that make it easier to visually compare mates. In fact, the more social the trichromats are, the more red coloring they show.”
I found these two random articles pretty cool because they demonstrate two of the main points that keep coming up in class: First, the more that we understand about the development of traits and species, the more links that we find to Darwin’s theories of natural and sexual selection. Second, they remind readers that evolution is an constant, ongoing process. Here are the links to the two articles on coral reef fish and trichromatic vision.
Everyone who's owned a pet knows that animals have personalities. When I read this I thought
about cats and dogs, but the article says that personalities have been identified in over 60 species, including fish, insects, and mollusks. Scientists are looking into how these personalities might have evolved. The article says that in many cases, personalities are shaped by how much an animal has to lose (in terms of reproduction), and the more an animal has to lose, the more cautious it will tend to be over time and in many situations. The scientists present two observations: variations among personalities are often structured around willingness to take risks, and secondly, individuals often have to choose between reproducing now or later. (Reproduction now diminishes resources for future reproduction.) The researches came up with a mathematical model of how this decision creates populations where some choose to reproduce later, while others choose to reproduce now. Those who choose to reproduce later are less risky in their activities, whereas those tho reproduce now are willing to take more risks. This could be an explanation as to why different individual animals display different personalities.
Also here is my book review of Gould's Rocks of Ages. Just be glad I read it so you didn't have to!
While I find some of his more extreme statements objectionable, Harris presents the crux of his arguments in a clear and understandable format of letter addressed to Christians. His discussion of the perverted Christian view of morality in relation to modern issues of abortion, stem cell research and sexually transmitted diseases shows how important it is to change the conception of what is most important in our world. If morality is the alleviation of human suffering, Harris argues, then Christians have a skewed vision of right and wrong. Harris also addresses the conflict between creationism and evolution. His exasperation at the creationists who discount the obvious scientific evidence of evolution shows how the eternal conflict between religion and science remains to be reconciled. Sam Harris’ letter outlines the most relevant problems in the United States today and in the end shows how important it is for us to try to change our ignorance before it is too late.
I decided to do a little research on Behe, who's listed as a senior fellow on the Discovery Institute Website. It says that "Behe's current research involves delineation of design and natural selection in protein structures," which basically means that Behe has been doing whatever he can to show that proteins could not have evolved.
One of the peer reviewed articles in favor of design on the DI website was wirten by Behe in the journal Protein Science in 2004. It was called "Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues," with the conclusion that the mutations required for evolution to produce functioning proteins are so improbable that proteins could have not evolved. This was an irreducible complexity argument without the use of the word irreducible complexity.
This article was pretty controversial; in an editorial in Protein Science, the editor concludes:
"Prof. Lynch’s approach of testing the problem raised by Drs. Behe and Snoke within the modern framework of evolutionary biology represents the desirable scientific approach (Lynch 2005, this issue; Behe and Snoke 2005, this issue). As Bruce Alberts wrote in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Feb. 12, 2005): "In evolution, as in all areas of science, our knowledge is incomplete. But the entire success of the scientific enterprise has depended on an insistence that these gaps be filled by natural explanations, logically derived from confirmable evidence."
I guess this is true; this may be part of the desirable scientific approach because other scientists pretty much killed Behe's claim. Still, I think Dawkins has a better point in "The God Delusion:" Behe has devoted his career to developing confusing propaganda rather than finding truth.
My friend Casper turned me on to yet another episode in this saga.
Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s
Theory Can Change the Way We Think
About Our Lives
by David Sloan Wilson
Delacorte Press: 2007. 400 pp. $24
It is reviewed in NATURE|Vol 447|31 May 2007
More summer reading???
Interesting Plane Experience and Sam Harris's Life
So, I was sitting on the airplane reading “Letter to a Christian Nation” and the person next to me kept glancing over. Finally, the person spoke up and asked me if I liked the book and that in their opinion that Sam Harris is a “complete psycho”. I told him that I was reading the book to gain a broader perspective on the debate between creationism and evolution in the United States today, and that I don’t agree with every claim that Harris makes. The man next to me wasn’t too happy even being near close to the book, though and looked pretty uncomfortable. I can see how Harris generates extreme reactions because his writing is also extreme. I was really interested in finding out more about the man, Sam Harris, and how he came to develop such extreme opposition to all religion. The Washington Post Published an interesting article in the wake of an evening debate between Harris and a former priest at the New York Public Library. And in the long article there are brief biographical segments that I found quite intriguing.
Apparently, Sam Harris went to Stanford as an English major, but then dropped out of college, after having a life changing experience after experimenting with MDMA, or ecstasy. He said, “I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.” Harris began to Study Buddhism and Meditation and traveled to Nepal and India. While, there he spent years at a time in seclusion and meditation, like the Buddha himself. He also read hundreds of books on religion. In other words, Harris was as deeply spiritual as one could possibly be, but not necessarily religious. He re-enrolled in Stanford in 1997 to complete a degree in philosophy. During his second phase at Stanford he began writing a lot, leading to his book, “The End of Faith”.
Knowing more about Sam Harris and his background definitely gives Harris more credibility in my mind. He never discounted religion from the start; in fact he became seriously engaged in religious experiences. I still don’t personally agree with all that he says, but knowing a bit more about how Harris came to the conclusions that he did puts his letter in context.
The article also quotes a retired Stanford Professor of religious studies. I found it interesting in light of the opposing view of another Stanford Professor of theoretical physics, Leonard Susskind, whose praise is quoted on the back cover of Harris’s “Letter”.
The Article: “Atheist Evangelist” by: David Segal The Washington Post, October 26, 2006
It can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/25/AR2006102501998.html
Dolphin Braininess due to Social Life.
Is Our Style of Language in Our Genes?
Ok, so the first article is really straightforward. It talks about how two studies have been published in the last month or two with somewhat similar conclusions. Both studies contend that a good explanation has been found for the reason why dolphins are so smart. We all know that dolphins are probably among the most intelligent species on earth. They behave in a very intelligent manner and they are easily trained, in addition to the fact that they have one of the greatest brain-to-body-mass ratios out of all the organisms on earth. Anyways, both studies suggest that this over-sized brain is at least partially due to the intellectual demands of living in a highly social society. Anyway, I'm not too sure how the studies themselves were actually conducted, however the two articles did state that they are two alterative theories for the evolution of large brains in cetaceans: 1.) their ancestors' re-migration from land to sea; 2.) their brain's use of echolocation. The other two explanations are sort of brushed off.
I think the second article is really interesting. Long story short, there are two genes that are associated with brain development, ASPM and Microcephalin. These two genes are of particular interest because both have changed very recently in terms of human history. ASPM most recently changed approximately 5800 years ago (a blink of an eye in geologic time), and microcephalin most recently changed about 37000 years ago. In any case, the researchers at the University of Edinburgh divided up some of the major languages on the planet into two categories: tonal languages are like Chinese that use pitch changes to convey meanings of words, and non-tonal languages like English that don't.
The overall trend that the researchers found after removing biases due to geography and such was that people who spoke tonal languages LACKED the most recent mutations in ASPM and microcephalin, whereas people who speak non-tonal languages do possess the most recent versions of these two genes. So depending on how confident we are in these conclusions, this is definitely evidence to the assertion that languages is hard-coded into our genes. Which I think is kinda cool. Because I think there's a few things that we can infer from that. For example, languages definitely evolve very quickly in today's society, so is that indicative of how quickly evolution in progressing as well? That's probably something interesting to think about.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
The scientists had four experimental groups: one exposed to a constantly acidic environment, one to a constantly basic environment, one to a randomly fluctuating environment, and one to an environment that changed from acidic to basic every 24 hours. Each group was left in its experimental environment for 1000 generations and then tested in acidic and basic environments. The researchers found that the groups placed in a constant environment survived well in the environment they had been exposed to, while the groups placed in fluctuating environments performed well in both acidic and basic environments. As the article states, this demonstrated that the "jack-of-all-trades" can be the master of some as well.
While this is only one study that can be done using E.coli as a model, it opens the door to many other new studies of how rapidly evolving populations can quickly adapt to new environments. Exciting stuff!
Read the article here.
(The paper isn't published yet.)
I began this book with high expectations because of what others had said about it and also because of its general popularity. Maybe it is because my expectations were too high, but I was quite disappointed in the overall argument provided. Overall, I think Dawkins, in the process of trying to get his point across, undermined some of his arguments along the way.
Speaking as someone who comes from a non-religious background and whose belief in God is fickle at best, but who also does not consider herself an atheist, this book did not further persuade me to become more or less of an atheist. And nor did Dawkins’s argument persuade me in the non-existence of a supernatural being that has the potential to control all aspects of the world. In fact, I am perhaps even more inclined to give a little to the religious faction in that after reading The God Delusion, the one conclusion that I am thoroughly convinced of is that there is absolutely no way to scientifically prove the God Hypothesis, as Dawkins successfully hammered through in just the second chapter. I believe that this argument, presented at the very beginning (although I concede that it was necessary to do so) made me very skeptical as I read further.
Also, just to play devil’s advocate (no pun intended), Dawkins’s presentation about how scientists and other higher educated people are more likely to be non-religious can be undermined by the idea of self-preservation. The belief in an omniscient/omnipotent God renders scientific work useless. If every time an enigma about the natural world comes up and science cannot explain it, then religion would automatically say that this enigma is how it is because God decided to create it that way. And thus, problem solved, and no further experiments would be needed. Thus in a completely religious world, there would be no need for science, and scientists would have no purpose. Therefore, I argue that scientists are less religious not because they know better, but because they cannot be religious in order to preserve their purpose and distinction in society.
However, one argument that Dawkins brings up that I think is valid to consider when debating the existence of a supernatural God and the validity of religion is the question of “Who created God?” To me, the answer is obvious: Man did. [Sidenote: this is a quaint contradiction to the religious belief that God created Man.] Following on Dawkins’s train of thought, if God is the most perfect perfect being, then whoever created him must also be near perfection, a state which definitely does not describe Man, as both sides would agree. The idea of a God created by Man would not hold up in religion and thus the idea of God falls.
On the other hand, Dawkins does bring up a good point that in order for a God to create such complexity in the world, God himself would have to be extraordinarily complex. However, this argument does not prove the non-existence of God, as Dawkins tries to use it as evidence for his case because it only works against the postulation that God is a being. But what if God is a process or a means? What then? Does God, the process have to be extremely complex? Darwin’s theory of evolution is a great example where the means of complexity is very simple. Natural selection is so simple that it is intuitive.
In conclusion, Dawkins’s The God Delusion was a disappointment for me, but it did get me thinking on the creation vs. evolution debate and has allowed me to form my own opinions based on my personal experiences. The book provides some thought-provoking arguments but the arguments were not strong enough to persuade me on either position.
"The exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt has many items to show a grasp of the depths of world poverty and ingenious ways to attack it. They include a 20-gallon rolling drum for transporting water, above."
“Design That Solves Problems for World’s Poor” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/science/29cheap.html?ref=science
This article doesn’t relate directly to Darwin, but we’ve talked several times about attempts to right past wrongs, like using technology to counter the global warming that is resulting from technology. I also think it’s just a really good idea. This article describes the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum that honors inventors who design products to help the poorest in the world. It is housed in Carnegie’s mansion, which is fitting, as Carnegie himself thought that everyone wealthy had a duty use his money for the greater good. He believed that wealth would be most useful concentrated in the hands of a few, who would then become patrons of the arts and sciences, promoting a level of civilization that he did not believe possible without a wealth disparity. He himself founded libraries all across the country, and managed to give away almost all of his money before he died (for more of his philosophy, see “The Gospel of Wealth” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1889carnegie.html). Since there is such an enormous disparity between the industrialized world and the developing world, I’m sure Carnegie would have approved of using the amassed resources to improve others’ lives. I found it interesting that, after globalization has allowed developed countries to exploit the resources of the rest of the world, we are now trying to use globalization to make the situation more tenable.
"Two days after the flyby, New Horizons took a picture of this alignment of two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa. The blue plume on top of Io, left, is dust particles arising from an eruption of the volcano Tvashtar."
“Jupiter Gets Its Close-Up” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/08/science/space/08plan.html?ex=1180584000&en=bd5a5970cc36b077&ei=5070
This article was really exciting, and it also reminded me of the first major undermining of humanity’s special place in the world: the heliocentric model. When Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres in 1543, the book (describing a heliocentric system) went largely ignored. Galileo first brought the heliocentric model to the public consciousness (and therefore the Church’s) with a series of discoveries he published in 1610 in The Sidereal Messenger. One of the most disturbing observations he made was that Jupiter has four moons (it actually has four moons and dozens of smaller ones he could not see with his telescope). That knowledge significantly undermined the argument that Earth was special and deserved to be in the center of the universe—who were those moons shining for? If Earth wasn’t the only planet with a moon, maybe it wasn't so special. Just under four hundred years later, we’re not only able to see all of Jupiter’s moons, but we can send missions there (and beyond) to take photographs. Galileo might have been unsurprised to hear that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons he observed, is incredibly active, but I bet this photo of a volcanic eruption would have significantly unsettled his contemporaries. It’s a remarkable photo. He might have been a bit sad, though, that we’re still having debates about whether literal interpretations of the Bible should be taken over empirical evidence…
Here is my review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I initially tried to publish it on Amazon, but it was over the word count so it didn’t appear, and now Amazon won’t let me publish this (shorter) version because it thinks I already have reviewed that book. So I’ve posted it here, sorry.
The God Delusion
This book succeeded in its stated goal of convincing me to accept my atheism. In the first chapter, Dawkins presents a scale of 1 through 7 on the question of the existence of God. I could only agree with 6; like Dawkins, I would respond, “Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there’” (51). While I found Dawkins’ style belligerent (for a mild example, a letter from the president of a historical society “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind…every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice” (16-17)), I had difficulty finding holes in his arguments. However, his arguments raised tough questions, and I did not agree with all of his responses.
For instance, he firmly believes it is child abuse to deny a child the right to think critically, but instead to teach unquestioning faith in authority. I also believe in and value critical thinking above all others. For science, it would be horrible to believe in unexplainable mysteries and accept things unquestioningly. A group of people taught to obey authority figures could be led to commit atrocities. At the same time, I am not so sure that our empirical mindset is unquestioningly better. Dawkins makes a good point that few people raised in a well-educated, open-minded society would choose to live like the Amish, or in Saudi Arabia. Yet the Amish or Saudis who would choose to live in our society would necessarily have already accepted our paradigm- within their own, they would not want to, just as within the standards of our society, we would not want to live in theirs. That does not make us objectively “right.”
Dawkins wants the child to choose. I don’t know how that could be achieved- either he/she would learn to believe in science (empiricism, evidence), and therefore not believe Scripture, or learn to believe that truth is found in authority (sacred books), and therefore be unconvinced by empirical evidence. I believe it is better for people to think critically and question authority, but I don’t know if that is objectively true- how could I prove it- so how could I force everyone else to accept my source of truth?
Dawkins makes the optimistic assertion that there is no separate realm for faith because, ultimately, everything is a scientific question that could be solved by science. There is no room for God- the gaps in science are being filled, and the theologians’ desire to leave some questions unanswered is detrimental and hopeless. I agree, but I don’t believe that science can answer everything. Natural selection and a scientific origin of life do not and cannot give any ultimate meaning to life. I think there is none, but that answer is beyond the scope of science. I cannot think of a feasible experiment to demonstrate whether life has any meaning, even though it is a yes or no question. Dawkins finds meaning in that we are lucky to be here, but that is just his opinion. I agree that theologians have no monopoly on answers to those sorts of questions, but they do have special knowledge of particular answers, and if people want to find the answers in one specific book, it is reasonable that they would turn to those most learned in such matters. Probably, anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s, but since I can’t determine an experiment to determine which answer is scientifically true, I would not prevent anyone from seeking an explanation based on ancient documents that have withstood the test of time. I don’t agree that everything can be answered by science, or that there is no room left for God, despite my personal opinion.
I found Dawkins’ explanation of morality unsatisfying. He explained how morality would have been evolutionarily useful, and I agree. Christians certainly act no more “Christian” than atheists, and many horrible things have been done in the name of religion (though I don’t agree with him that the world would have been much better off without it- I think religion has been an excuse for, not the cause of, wars). However, he gave no reason for why we should still act morally, even though it was once evolutionarily advantageous and we still feel the urge to do so. He makes fun of people for fearing atheism because they don’t think people would act morally without feeling supervised. To me, that is not the question he should have addressed: removing any idea of ultimate meaning or purpose, what is the value of a human life? How does one find meaning in helping others, if humanity is just the current end product of an amoral process? For me, the danger in this mechanistic view of the universe lies not in its removal of a mind-reading punisher, but rather in the meaninglessness of it all. That we are the way we are because of impersonal mechanisms like natural selection is remarkable, but it does not make my life or my actions meaningful, as I would feel if I could believe we had been put here for a purpose. Dawkins finds science an inspiration, but that is his personal opinion. In The God Delusion, his advocacy of fearless critical thinking about every topic left me searching for a meaning of life that would stand up to such scrutiny, and his inspiration by science did not sway me. His book allowed me to say that I am an atheist, but I understand why the religious might want to protect their children from such doubts, however cowardly that may seem.