Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sarah Palin's Book a Flop?

Publisher Harpers is doing a dance. They've delayed the Kindle and other digital versions of Sarah Palin's biography, citing issues of "velocity" and "Christmas sales" and such as complicating the release schedule.

But the true story seems to be refreshingly simple: Nobody wants Palin's damned book! It's old news, a biography of a quitter, a political idiot who is far from the mainstream of America, and whose only real appeal was to those who put appearance before substance.

Sometimes the right thing happens in the end!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Malaysian Torture for DWM (Drinking While Muslim)

Another barbaric, ugly, inappropriate and cruel beating of a woman is about to be carried out in the name of Allah. Her crime? Drinking a beer and admitting she's a Muslim. The punishment? Caning – being beaten with six strokes of a rattan cane.

What's weirder, the law under which she was sentenced only applies to Muslims! In other words, just say your a Christian or Jew, and you can drink all the beer you like, but admit your a Muslim, and get the tar whipped out of you if you hoist a cold one.

I usually respect religions, even though I disagree pretty profoundly with their beliefs. But this sort of stuff makes me shake my head in disgust. It's inexcusable that in this century, there are religious police who have to arrest, humiliate, and abuse Muslims in order to make them follow Allah's laws.

The clerics who resort to this sort of barbarism aren't religious leaders of Islam. They're brutal dictators. A real Muslim leader wouldn't need to resort to violence to keep the faith.

Why aren't Muslims everywhere, especially here in the United States, raising their voices and marching in protest of this despicable deed?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Faith Based Medicine: A Tragic Story

My previous blog poked fun at faith-based medicine. Little did I know when I posted that light-hearted satire that today's blog would be a true-life tragedy.

An Australian couple let their baby die because of their "faith" in homeopathy. And worse, this wasn't some quick death due to fever, it was a terrible, lingering, painful death. Judge Johnson, who presided over the case, called it what it was: cruelty.

I believe it was the philosopher William James (no relation) who said that the strength of a person's beliefs is proportional to their investment in those beliefs. In this case, the father was Thomas Sam, a lecturer in homeopathy at a homeopathic college. "Professor" Sam's entire career and academic reputation rested on the foundation of his beliefs in the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. If he'd sent his baby to physicians who use proper, science-based medicine, he would have been admitting that his entire career was a sham.

Well, his career was a sham. The "professor" just didn't know it, and now his baby is dead, and he and his wife are in prison.

Homeopathy is a religion, nothing more, nothing less. It's based on a theory that is plainly wrong. Anyone with even a modest grasp of the basics of how the universe works can instantly see that homeopathy can't possibly work. There are only two ways one can accept homeopathy: Either through sheer ignorance, or through a deliberate rejection of logical thinking.

In Thomas Sam's case, we can't even give him credit for ignorance. He was a well-educated man who deliberately, callously, and selfishly put his career and reputation ahead of the life of his child. Six years in prison will never erase that baby's suffering nor bring it back to life.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Faith-Based Medicine: A bit of Humor

A little bit of fun today. What if you went to the Emergency Room, and all of the medicine was based on faith instead of science?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Anti-Atheist Bias at the Supreme Court

Could a US Supreme Court Justice actually believe that religious people have more rights than non-religious people? In an interview with Harmodia ("The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry"),
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia virtually confesses to bias against non-religious people.

Justice Scalia, who is sworn to uphold our Constitution, writes:
My court has a series of opinions that say that the Constitution requires neutrality on the part of the government, not just between denominations, not just between Protestants, Jews and Catholics, but neutrality between religion and non-religion. I do not believe that. That is not the American tradition.
Huh? Did I get that right? It seems like he's saying atheists and agnostics don't have the same rights as religious people. The Constitution "requires neutrality," but "I do not believe that." No matter how many times I read this quote, I can't find any other interpretation.

This is shameful. I can find no other words for it. At the start of the interview, Justice Scalia purports to be neutral, claiming that, "my religious views do not affect my opinions at all." But this falls flat once you read the rest of the interview.

The interview ends with these chilling words:
"G-d protects," [Charles de Gaulle] said, "little children, drunkards and the United States of America." I think it may be true. And the reason may be because we honor Him as a nation. We invoke Him in our country, our Presidents invoke Him, my court open its sessions with "G-d save the United States." Those things are not insignificant.
In other words a Supreme Court Justice of the United States actually believes that God personally intervenes, and monkeys with the laws of physics, in order to change the course of history itself, to favor the United States above all other nations on this Earth, because a few dozen men and women happen to invoke his name each day.

Of course, those millions of Muslims in the Middle East who invoke God's name much more fervently, five times per day, certainly don't deserve God's attention. They're not Christians like Justice Scalia, are they?

This is such egotistical arrogance it would be funny, if not for the fact that people like Justice Scalia run our country. This is the stuff that wars and genocide are made of. This is how, for example, the American People get infuriated when 3,000 citizens were murdered by terrorists on 9/11, but have no trouble with the fact that 150,000 Iraqi civilians were killed by American bombs.

It's sad that a man can hold such un-American, unconstitutional views, and still become a United States Supreme Court justice.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Does God have Genitalia?

I've always wondered: Does God have genitalia? Does He have a penis and scrotum and testicles? And if so, what the heck does He do with them?

I mean, if God has a penis, why?

Does He have a relationship with some goddess somewhere? Back in the good old days, like in Moses' time, the Jews were pagans (yes, they really did believe in many gods, in spite of what you were taught), and a lot of the Jews thought maybe God and Isis were hanging out together, and maybe even doing the dirty. But since the Abrahamic religions evolved the idea of monotheism, that means Isis and those other goddesses were just figments of everyone's imaginations, which sort of implies God really didn't have a girlfriend after all. And presumably, since God doesn't commit sins, and masturbation is a sin, that's out too. So a penis thing would be pretty useless.

And surely God doesn't need to take a leak, since He is God. I mean, he doesn't need to eat or drink, right? So there's nothing to pee either, so that doesn't explain why God has genitalia, if indeed He does. In fact, that kind of leads to more questions than answers, because if He doesn't eat, then why does He need a stomach, intestines, and all that other stuff inside?

But if God doesn't have a penis, scrotum, testicles and such, and maybe not even a stomach and intestines, then it's kind of odd to say we humans were made in His image, because we do have all that stuff in order to eat, drink and procreate. So maybe the Bible means "in his image" sort of like a snapshot or something, like, on the outside we'd say, "Hey, look, I look just like you, God!" but if a surgeon could get God on the operating table and take a look inside, he'd say, "Hey, this isn't right! This guy's got no stomach, or anything!"

I guess maybe that Genesis creation stuff is a myth or something. It sure can't be literally true, since you'd have to overlook an awful lot of crazy stuff to believe all of it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Slavery and Child Trafficking in Ireland?

What do President George H. W. Bush's chief legal counsel, a baby who was stolen from his mother and sold for profit, and a tormented gay man who suffered from depression and died of AIDS, have in common?

They're all the same man.

Few stories get me as angry as those about slavery and selling children for profit. And although today's story isn't as black and white as many such stories, the shocking part is that it took place in Ireland in the 1950's, and the perpetrators were Catholic Nuns. And in case you're thinking, "OK, just another another overblown exaggeration," think again.

Our story starts in 1952, when Philomena Lee, a young Irish lass of 18 years, became pregnant. Philomena's mother died when she was just six herself, and the nuns raised her. At age 18, she knew nothing of men and the facts of life, and became intimate with a handsome young man she met at the county fair. So far, an all-too-common story, yet hardly shocking.

But for young Philomena, the shame of her pregnancy was nothing compared to what came next. The Catholic Church was so powerful that the Irish government had abandoned its duty, and handed over responsibility – and unchecked legal authority – of all unwed mothers and their babies to the Church. The Catholic Church took full control of these young women, imprisoned them in nunneries, and managed to block all legal interference from the government.

The Church started running it as a money-making business, taking money from the government, while at the same time selling the babies for profit to wealthy Catholic couples in Great Britain and America, even against the mothers' direct objections and refusals.

And the profits didn't stop with the babies. Their mothers were kept in the convent as slaves, forced to work in gardens, kitchens, nurseries or light manufacturing, unless they or their families could buy their freedom at a cost £100, a substantial sum in those days which many couldn't afford. It was slavery, plain and simple.

Philomena's baby became Michael Hess, a chief architect of the Republican National Convention's election strategy, whose brilliant work ultimately won the presidency for George H.W. Bush (senior), and for which he was appointed Bush's chief legal counsel. But unfortunately for Michael, he was also a gay man in a political party that didn't put up with homosexuality. Mike ultimately got AIDS, and died.

But even more tragically, both Philomena and Michael were trying desperately to find each other, to reconnect. Each of them went to the convent, and begged to be introduced, mother and son. Michael probably passed within a few miles of his mother. Yet, the Catholic nuns inexplicably refused, in spite of the earnest appeals of everyone involved. Michael died without ever getting to see his mother again, and Philomena never got to see the man that her little boy had become after he was forcibly taken from her and sold.

My summary barely does justice to this appalling story. I hope you'll read the full story, beautifully and tragically written by Martin Sixsmith of The Guardian.

Those who would claim that without religion, there can be no morality (which is the Roman Catholic Church's official position), need only look at deeds such as these to see that even with religion, morality is difficult to find.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Is it OK for your Doctor to Proselytize?

When is it ok to use business to spread your religion? Is it OK for your butcher to recommend chapters of the Bible? For your mechanic to leave Jehovah's Witness literature around the waiting room and press one into your hands as you leave? Is it OK for your doctor to tell you that accepting Christ as your savior would help you heal?

This is not an academic question to a friend of mine. We were on the topic of religion and my upcoming book, and got to the Proselyzation Meme, which brought forth a story. She faced a series of reconstructive surgeries after an illness, and her HMO offered just one surgeon in that specialty. The good news was that her surgeon was one of the best, and did an excellent job. But ... the surgeon's waiting room was filled with religious books and magazines, she sold childrens' Bible stories in her lobby, and the same literature graced the examining rooms and the doctor's own office. Every time my friend was going through particularly difficult times, the doctor would remind her that Jesus could help, if she'd only let him into her heart.

I don't know about you, but in my book it is unethical for any doctor to mix religion and medicine, especially one in an HMO where the patient is "captive" and can't choose.

A butcher or mechanic? Sure. I can easily take my business elsewhere (or more likely, I'd continue to patronize them and offer them my views!), and as private citizens, they have a right to operate their businesses any way they like. But not doctors. Doctors are supposed to offer tolerance, impartiality, and acceptance of all lifestyles to their patients. When we visit, we have to know that we can talk about anything to our doctor without fear of judgement, condescension or disapproval.

What if, for example, a cheating spouse feared he/she had caught a sexually transmitted disease, and was afraid to ask an overtly proselytizing doctor to be tested, for fear of being judged? The consequences could be fatal to his/her marriage partner.

If Christians, or a member of any other faith, feel that saving my soul is so important that they must share and spread their beliefs, fine, that's their right. But, they shouldn't become doctors if they can't put their proselytizing aside during business hours. Being a doctor implies treating all of your patients impartially, sticking to medicine, and keeping your morals and beliefs to yourself. Opinions and advice should be strictly medical and psychological.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Achieving Immortality

I heard a wonderful quote today on National Public Radio:
It's been a privilege knowing you. I'll live on in your memory. It's the best kind of immortality.
– Fred Stocking
Professor Stocking passed away Wednesday, and was beautifully eulogized by a former student, Barbara Bradley Hagerty of National Public Radio, in her radio essay. If you have a minute, take the time to listen to her broadcast rather than reading it.

I usually find myself praising scientists, or the occasional philosopher, in this blog. Prof. Stocking was a man of literature, a Shakespearean expert, a man with rare skill with words, and a teacher of great repute. It's refreshing to be able to praise a man of letters.

If there's any sort of immortality to be had, it's not in a soul that lives on after death, but rather in the things we leave behind. Everything from a child that we raised, to the work we do, to a simple, pleasant memory left with a friend ... this is the only true immortality we can achieve. And it's an immortality worth having.

Those who believe in God look for their immortality in the afterlife. In many ways, their lives here on Earth are almost irrelevant – many Christians even believe that accepting Christ as their savior is really the only thing that matters here on this Earth. All the deeds, good or bad, that they do here on Earth are essentially for nothing in the end. That's always struck me as a deeply flawed way to lead your life.

But even for those believers who have a more whole-life, "karmic" understanding of goodness and sin, who believe that it's the overall balance of their goodness that matters, their lives here on Earth are just a blip in the cosmic time scale of eternity. What happens here is over in an instant, compared to the billions of years immortality they believe will follow.

Not so for the non-believer. As Professor Fred Stocking so clearly put it, all we'll leave behind, our only immortality, is memories, which are only as good as we are. Life to the non-believer is far more precious than it could ever be to a theist, because when you're gone, that's it. If you don't leave any memories behind, then you're truly dead.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Darwin: The American Boogy Monster

As a follow-up to yesterday's blog ("Education, the Enemy of Religion?"), I found a story in USA Today that would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Creation, a new British film about Darwin's life, has been sold to distributors in virtually every country in the world ... except the United States. Here, in one of the most technologically-advanced countries in the world, Christians are afraid of the truth.

This is not some flaky television show, or a blatantly anti-Christian propaganda piece. It is a top-notch story of the personal struggles of a scientist. Reuters calls it "one of the best delineations of intellectual and emotional struggle seen on film in many a year." It stars Paul Bettany as Darwin, and the wonderful (and Oscar-winning) actress Jennifer Connelly, who is Bettany's wife in real life, too.

In other words, it is a biography that should find a ready market in America, and would find a market if it was about any important scientist in history except Darwin. This is so ironic, that "father" of Evolution Science, arguably the most important, best-proved theory in the history of science, is the only one who is vilified by the religious right.

The only reason Evolution Science is singled out and rejected by religious people is because it disagrees with some ancient oral histories, stories that were finally written down by Jewish scholars 2,500 years ago, and declared "the word of God" by a self-appointed committee of rabbis around 2,300 years ago.

I sincerely hope that Creation eventually finds a market here in America. I know I'll watch it if it does.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Education: The Enemy of Religion?

Why do so many conservative Christians, Jews and Muslims insist on home schooling or private schools for their children?

They often mask their educational choices under the guise of "better schools," but most are up front about the real reason: Public schools teach science, evolution, and secular morality, which they view as directly opposed to their religions. A widely-believed rumor says that 80% of children who attend public schools will abandon the faith of their parents.

I don't get this. Truth should not be fragile.

If you believe something, if you are utterly convinced of its truth, then you shouldn't be afraid of knowledge. You should be willing to open your mind to all ideas, to learn about all viewpoints, to expand your knowledge. You should embrace the wonders of the world, and learn how your religion fits into the amazing, complex world that God created.

And, of course, you should want the same for your children!

Shunning education is an admission that your religion can't withstand scrutiny. If learning simple, well-established facts about science and nature is a threat to your beliefs, then you don't really believe, do you? How strong is your faith if you have to protect it from exposure to facts?

Children are very malleable, their minds can absorb vast quantities of information when they're young, and evolution has equipped them with a strong desire to do so. That's what makes us humans different from the rest of the animals: That we pass most of our knowledge from generation to generation via memes (cultural knowledge) rather than genes (instinct).

Deeply religious people have incorporated this very knowledge into their own culture. They know that their beliefs are fragile and vulnerable, that science has made fantastic progress while their religions have retained their ancient, mythical explanations of the world's origins. They know, in their hearts, that evolution science makes much more sense than creationism.

That's why, when someone tells me that their child is being home schooled because of their religion, what I really hear is their fear of the truth.

VPRO Darwin: Bringing the Wonder of Darwin to Children

Seeing is believing, and now there's VPRO Beagle, a wonderful new project to help educate our youth by recreating Darwin's amazing voyage, only this time with modern technology to document it in real time.

Decades ago, my own understanding of evolution was revolutionized when PBS broadcast an amazing recreation of Darwin's journey. I got to see Darwin's discoveries "first hand," through his own eyes.

I still remember one episode vividly: Darwin encountered fossilized seashells at 4,000 meters altitude while crossing South-American mountains on horseback. Shortly after he returned to the Beagle, a huge earthquake struck the region. Over the next few days, watching the tides, Darwin and the ship's crew realize the shoreline had risen a full meter higher – the mussels, barnacles and sea life that marked the high-water line were all dying. The mystery of why seashells were on mountain tops suddenly became obvious: Darwin actually witnessed that very mountain rising from the sea.

Education and knowledge are the enemies of creationism. No single project can cure the current state of mis-education in the USA, but I hope that projects like VPRO Beagle and others, each in its own way, can push back the darkness a bit.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering 9/11: If Atheists Ran the World

Three thousand innocent people would still be alive today if Osama bin Laden were an atheist. He wouldn't have started a terrorist network that flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center, because atheists know that we only get one chance on this beautiful Earth, and the waste of even one human life is tragic.

If President Bush had been an atheist, 150,000 innocent civilians (mostly women and children in Iraq) who were killed by American bombs would instead be alive today. Bush wouldn't have responded to bin Laden's attack with irrational, hate-laced retribution, fueled by the "Jericho Complex" that says it's OK to murder innocent civilians, "men and women, young and old, including the oxen, the sheep, and the donkeys, slaughtering them all." (Joshua 6)

If American society was non-Christian and non-religious, we would not have put up with Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld's immoral, holier-than-thou war against innocent Muslims in Iraq who never did anything to us. The majority of Americans would have quickly realized what the atheist minority saw all along, that it was all about oil and money, and that the Christianity-versus-Islam flames that were fanned by the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvirate was nothing more than cynical manipulation of public opinion by evil men to achieve political/economic gain.

If the American Congress was full of elected atheist congressmen and senators, they would have quickly seen through the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld smokescreen. Instead of prayers on the Capitol steps, they would have worked with our military experts to devise a sensible, restrained campaign to root out the terrorists without killing ten times more civilians than terrorists.

Unlike some atheists, I don't blame all the world's evils on religion. Most wars, including Afghanistan and Iraq, are about money and power. But religion is used as a tool of war; without it, most wars couldn't be fought in the first place, because people would come to their senses and realize that we're all just humans, stuck here on this Earth together, and that life is too precious to waste.

The 9/11 attacks, and everything that followed, simply wouldn't have happened without religion to fuel the hatred on all sides.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

50 New Species: The Biblical Nightmare

The exciting discovery of "lost worlds," people and places never before seen by Westerners, used to be commonplace during the colonial era as European powers tried to claim the whole world. But the days when scientists and explorers would regularly discover whole new ecosystems and amazing new species are long gone ... or are they?

An amazing discovery of fifty new species in a volcano in Papua New Guinea brought back a little bit of that excitement this week. A BBC film crew returned with fascinating pictures of a giant woolly rat as big as a cat, a frog with fangs, three new kinds of new fish, and even a new bat.

Some of the best, and most instructive, ecosystem on the planet are small, isolated islands, such the Galapagos that were famously studied by Darwin. Such islands were "seeded" by a few species that blew in, flew in, or floated in long ago. These species then evolved independently of their continental brethren, largely undisturbed by new arrivals and interbreeding, and provided a natural "experiment" that proved and illustrated the principles of evolution.

But it doesn't take an island to make this happen – anything that isolates an ecosystem can have the same effect. One of my favorite examples is the Rocky Mountain peaks of Northern New Mexico. Some of these mountains reach over 4,000 meters, and support a rich diversity of plants, trees, and animals. But these species, highly adapted to the thin air and bitter winters, can't cross the dry, hot, lower-altitude deserts that separate the mountain peaks. Each mountain range becomes a virtual island, an isolated ecosystem, and there is often significant genetic drift between the plants and animals on adjacent mountains that are only a few dozen kilometers apart.

The volcano in Paupua New Guinea proved to be just such a system: steep, tall walls isolated the caldera from the outside world, allowing the species inside to evolve independently.

This has got to be a Biblical literalist's nightmare.
The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.
— The Reverend Jerry Falwell
How does the good Reverend Falwell explain this new discovery? Did Noah go to Papua New Guinea, climb the volcano, scale the cliffs, and grab two of each of these fifty new species (plus many others that the BBC probably didn't discover), carry them back to the arc, and then after the flood, return them to the volcano?

It seems unlikely.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Evolution's Big Mystery: In the Beginning (part 3)

Where did evolution start? Where did that first tiny self-replicating particle come from? This is the third in a three-part blog (see part 1 and part 2).

One of the oft-used arguments against evolution is that, even if the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, there wasn't enough time for life to start, much less to evolve to its present state. But most people who assert this have no idea what 4.5 billion really means.

Here's a fact: If you had a billion dollars on the day Jesus was born, and you spent $1000 every day since then, you'd still have $266,000,000 left today.

Most people understand that Jesus was born a long time ago, but somehow the idea of "two thousand years" is not that different in their minds from "four billion years." But the idea of spending $1000 each day for two thousand years, and still not getting to one billion puts it into perspective. Four billion years is two million times longer than the time since Jesus was born.

And that's the problem with understanding evolution: Most people just can't grasp the scale, not even within a factor of ten or a hundred, of what "four billion" means.

Innumeracy, our inability to truly grasp large numbers, is a surprisingly high barrier to widespread acceptance of evolution. The evolution of the human mind did not include any necessity for understanding concepts like thousand, million, or billion. Even scientists, engineers and economists who work with these terms daily only understand them in the abstract mathematical sense, not in an intuitive way.

But it's even worse than that, because the human mind is also innumerate when it comes to sizes. When we think of evolution, we thing of animals, plants, maybe insects and fish, and finally down to the scale of bacteria. But most people have no idea just how small a bacterium is compared to the plants and animals they see every day.

A single bacterium from the gut of an elephant is (very roughly) 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1018) times smaller than the elephant. Consider the population of Earth at six billion people: If each person were the size of a bacterium, it would take over 1.6 million Earths for the people to equal one elephant. To a bacterium, a small pond of muddy water is a virtual universe, one that could hold billions, trillions and more, bacteria. Most people can't grasp just how many billions of cubic meters of rock, water, beach sand, and other places exist here on Earth where life might have originated.

Compared to the human lifespan, or even all of human history, the dimensions of both time and space available to evolution on Earth are unimaginably large. This is what "innumeracy" means: We're not capable of understanding these numbers intuitively, It's our intuition that gives us common sense, yet anyone who applies common sense to the timescales of evolution simply comes up with the wrong answer.

We started this series of blogs with the question, Where did evolution all start? I've attempted to answer this with three points: First, just because we don't have a final answer to any scientific question doesn't mean we won't someday, and falling back to magical explanations is wrong. Second, a lot of good science has shown that there are possible answers to the origin of life. And third, common sense leads many people astray when evaluating the evidence, because the timescale and physical dimensions in which life originated are beyond human intuition.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Evolution's Big Mystery: In the Beginning (part 2)

Where did evolution start? Where did that first tiny self-replicating particle come from? This is the biggest remaining question of evolution, the one creationists still like to claim is the fatal flaw of Darwin's theory. (This is part 2 of a three-part blog; you can read part 1 here.)

What do we actually know about the very beginnings of life?

Creationists start this question from a false premise. It's an exact analogy with their classic, "You can't prove God doesn't exist!" That is, they start by asserting that some magical fact is true, and then challenge you to prove them wrong. Since there can't be any evidence one way or the other (it's magic, after all), they cry, "Aha! See, I'm right!"

With the origins-of-life question, creationists' position amounts to the same assertion: They claim that God created life, and then challenge science to prove them wrong. But that's backwards. Anyone who claims they know how life started, including creationists, shares the same burden of proof!

I thought this blog was going to require a huge amount of research, but thanks to the power of collaborative editing, also known as Wikipedia, I discovered not only was all the information readily available, but the breadth and depth of the research into the origins of life is breathtaking. Here is the main article:
I was struck by the variety of proposals. Everything from the classic "primordial soup" proposed clear back in 1924, to this sample of modern theories:
  • Deep sea vents. These volcanic vents spew nutrient-rich superheated water full of reactive chemicals. "Extremophiles" live there, bacteria and such that thrive in 300-degree water!
  • Deep underground. Scientists were amazed to discover bacteria living two miles underground in microscopic fissures in the rocks. Heat, minerals, and organic matter are abundant, and scientists have proposed chemistry that could have created life.
  • The radioactive-beach theory. Billions of years ago the moon was much closer and tides were much stronger than today. Uranium particles and other radioactive material, more prevalent back then, could have been concentrated at the high-water mark, leading to enough radioactivity to trigger chemical reactions that don't occur under normal conditions.
These, and many other fascinating theories are covered in depth in the Wikipedia article.

What's amazing to me is not how little we know, but how much we know. Investigating an event that happened 3.8 billion years ago is an very hard task, and even if we find plausible answers, we can never be sure we're right since we weren't actually there to watch it happen. But there is a lot of really good science that has been done, and some very exciting answers that are emerging.

Getting back to our friendly creationists: If we're comparing apples to apples, what sort of evidence have they provided for their magical (i.e. God) theory of the origins of life? Have they done experiments? Found evidence? Presented peer-reviewed publications subject to scrutiny and debate?

Of course not. All they've done is to assert, with no justification, that their magical explanation of how life started is the prove-me-wrong default answer. They're trying to claim that, because their answer was around long before science, that it's the "king of the hill" that we have to knock down.

Scientists dismissed that specious argument long ago, but unfortunately it still permeates the debate.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why Didn't I Think of This??

Damn! This is such a great idea, why didn't I think of it? It's post-rapture pet care, from Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA! Imagine you're a good Christian who will be called to Jesus at the Rapture. Who's going to take care of your pets? The Atheists, of course! For a fee, that is...

Evolution's Big Mystery: In the Beginning...

The other day, a close friend of mine asked me the hardest question of evolution: "Where did it all start?" She, like many others, accepts the overwhelming evidence that evolution is real, and the beauty and explanatory power of the theory. "But," she asks, "where did the first itsy-bitsy teensey-tinesey particle that started it all come from?"

This is really the "final frontier" of evolution: How did that first self-replicating molecule, protein, creature — whatever it was — come into existence in the first place? We understand virtually every aspect of evolution, from the high-level theory right down to the molecular mechanics of mutation. But we don't know where it all started. Or do we?

There are really three separate parts to the answer, which I'll call: 1) God in the gaps; 2) What we actually know; and 3) Innumeracy. So let's get started!

God in the Gaps

The "God in the Gaps" argument asks: Just because we don't yet understand something, does that mean it's magical?
To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.
— Isaac Asimov
"God in the Gaps" is a phrase that describes what's happened to God with the rise of science. Long ago, pretty much everything was a mystery, and God was seen as the reason and motivating force behind everything. A baby's conception, a bird's ability to fly, the regularity of the moon and stars, were all simply due to God's guiding hand.

As science started to learn more and more, God's active participation became less necessary. Science started demystifying vast bodies of knowledge, leaving only occasional gaps where God's magic was still needed. As science advanced even more, the gaps became smaller and smaller, squeezing the need for God to just the farthest reaches of time and space. God used to have to guide the planets and stars daily, but science pushed Him back to the Big Bang. God used to have to cause a miracle for every birth, but now we know how sperm and ova work so only the unquantifiable "soul" is left to God. And so forth. As science progresses, the gaps get smaller, and God gets squeezed even more.

Let's now go back to our original question: Where did evolution start?

It's been less than 100 years since serious research on the biochemistry of life's beginnings started in earnest. Darwin published Origin of the Species just 150 years ago, and since then science has filled in vast swaths of knowledge, leaving very few "gaps" indeed.

Just because a few of those gaps are still with us is no reason to give up and resort to magical explanations. The answer is, we don't know yet what that first molecule was that started it all. But that doesn't mean we won't know some day.

There are unanswered questions about evolution, but that doesn't make it false. It means that there is still room for some great scientific work.

Next: Part 2, What we actually know