Saturday, July 14, 2007

Religious Democrats - Lauren

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

Science writing (Julie)

Small, Yes, but Mighty: The Molecule Called Water

by Natalie Angier

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:

Sleek, Fast and Focused: The Cells That Make Dad Dad

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sea Anemone Genome nearly as complex as human genome - Alex S.

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

Festival! (Anne)

Hey Guys,
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!
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

Dawkins Filling the Gap
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

The Gregarious Brain (Julie)

"The Gregarious Brain"
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!