Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ministry Owns A Piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Ok, I am going to be blunt: this not something to is a historical travesty. I find it patently offensive that a bunch of bible-thumping morons actually own a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is morally wrong on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin.

First, Legacy Ministries International is not in the business of "educating the public on the history of the Bible" - it is interested in making sure that the public only hears the selected version of biblical history that a priori substantiates their particular theological perspective. I doubt there is anyone in their office with training in antiquities preservation or the legitimate credentials to evaluate the historical significance of whatever piece of the scrolls these intellectual midgets claim to have.

Second, the fact that Biblical Archaeology Review appears to be touting this as something of significance (private ownership of antiquities) suggests to me that Hershel Shanks cares little about archaeological preservation. Legacy Ministries apparently has been sending the word out that they want to buy antiquities for their museum. I would like to know how many of their bible "antiquities" were acquired through illegal or illegitimate means.

Third, I really despise private ownership of any kind of antiquity - historic, prehistoric, paleontological, anything. Private collectors, "amateur" archaeologists (there's no such thing - there are only professional archaeologists and looters) have contributed nothing to the advancement of our knowledge about the past, but they have contributed significantly to its destruction.

I once referred to the private sale of fossils by landowners as "paleontological prostitution"; I suppose that I can now consider Legacy Ministries to be promoting a biblical brothel...

If You Are Not Pro-Choice, At Least Read This

PZ is correct...

This has to be one of the more powerful reasons for being pro-choice...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Illuminati Not Such A Bad Idea...

Well, given the apparent global attempt to use religion as the source of all knowledge and return humanity to the dark ages, perhaps the formation of an Illuminati organization is not completely unwarranted...

I guess that, if religion and the religionists were to succeed in dominating human organization and society, the potential silver lining could be that such a science-deprived society might ultimately prove Eric Pianka correct...

By the way, it has been suggested that we change the name from LACOSI (Lassen County Society of the Illuminati) to LACIS (pronounced "lackies") - Lassen County Illuminati formal vote as yet, however...

Finally here is a message for the founding "LACIS" members:


Wells' Embryos: The Piltdown of Intelligent Design

As an instructor of undergraduates, I am concerned with providing them at least a basic understanding of evolutionary theory and human evolution. I also find myself concerned largely with correcting misinformation regarding both areas that they are likely to have received from their high school biology class (which typically either teaches nothing about the importance of evolution to biology), the media, or more frightfully, from their religious leaders. Further, if there is indeed a controversial issue, I do my best to highlight the nature of the controversy, provide at least a brief background on the data both "sides" may use, and also give them my two cents as to which position I favor because the evidence or arguments are better.

In this respect Intelligent Design really troubles me. We anthropologists have been trained to attempt looking at a situation from within the context of another culture, so it is almost reflexive on our part to view an issue through the lens of its advocates. When I ask myself, what is it that I am supposed to teach young people about evolution from the intelligent design perspective, I keep coming up blank. Consider, for example, Denyse O'Leary's recent comments (with Jonathan Wells' aid and comfort) on the issue of why textbooks have gone beyond the evidence for promoting Darwin's theory. Together she and Wells continue to beat the drum over the apparent use of Haeckel's embryos as a pillar of evolutionary theory that should not be taught.

So, using this issue as one example, if I am to properly teach students about evolutionary theory, I am supposed to stand up in class and point out that 1) similarities in the embryonic stage are critical evidence used to substantiate evolutionary; 2) these "similarities" actually don't exists; 3) textbooks continue to use Haeckel's drawings of embryos in error (meaning they continue to use embryo similarities as strong evidence - I might also be expected to say something about the devious nature of those promoting evolutionary theory); and 4) as a result of 1, 2 and 3, I should have them draw the conclusion that evolutionary theory is actually on pretty shaky ground.

And the evidence I am supposed to use for this is what? A mid 19th century quote from Charles Darwin, quotes from an out-dated 1975 biology textbook, and two out-of-context quotes from relatively recent textbooks? This is what I need to do to properly "teach the controversy" about intelligent design? This lesson plan will satisfy all of those who say intelligent design is not getting a fair assessment by those of us who teach classes on evolution?

And what about discussions I am NOT supposed to enter into while "teaching the controversy"?

Am I NOT supposed to discuss the fact that there are many similiarities in embryonic stages between species that certainly are explained better by evolutionary development, although not in the way that Haeckel and others first proposed, or the way in which Wells and O'Leary perceive them?

Am I NOT supposed to discuss that Darwin's proposal of natural selection was developed before Haeckel's suggestion of embryonic development recapitulating phylogeny?

Am I NOT supposed to discuss that the majority of recapitulationists Wells and O'Leary cite as evidence for biologists basing evolutionary theory on Haeckel actual condemned Haeckel's ideas?

Am I NOT supposed to discuss that modern textbooks use Haeckel only in a historical sense and that scientists consider Haeckel's ideas as obsolete (and should I NOT, in all fairness for "teaching the controversy" point out that Wells and O'Leary have borne "false witness" in this regard)?

Am I NOT supposed to discuss that Haeckel's embryos were never a critical "pillar" of evolutionary theory, were never used as an argument for Darwin's theory of natural selection, and that, when they are not taken out of context, modern biology texts actually discuss Haeckel's idea in the past tense?

Apparently, what I am NOT supposed to talk about is as critical to teaching intelligent design as what I AM supposed to talk about. I'm sorry, but there's nothing there to talk about. There's no controversy; no data in proper context; nothing but an interesting historical footnote that is certainly no "icon" of evolutionary theory.

If I am going to be justified in teaching Wells' version of Haeckel and the embryos, I would be equally justified in discussing our 21st century understanding of human evolution in the context of Piltdown...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Of Puppies, Christians and Evolutionists

Both PZ and Ed Brayton comment on the ridiculous and desperate attempt by Creation Worldview Ministries' Grady McMurtry to link the Virginia Tech horror with evolutionary science. Never mind that most high schools in this country don't adequately cover evolutionary theory; never mind that the Virginia Tech killer invoked Christian symbols in his recorded tirade, not evolutionary ones; and never mind that the Christian religion has a long and glorious history defining who is "human" on the basis of political's just all Charlie Darwin's fault.

It would take a creationist to make such a connection (between McMurty and Ken Ham using the VT massacre as an opportunity to swipe at evolutionary science, the absurdity of the creationist position just becomes more self evident. My previous post on the psychological underpinnings of creationist irrationality was inaptly named...we should consider creationism for what it really is: a mental disorder. As I've said before, Ken Ham's god needs more tragedies).

Both PZ and Ed point to McMurtry's invocation of drowning puppies as the mental vision of what evolutionary scientists are all about:

The creationist continues explaining his premise. "And so what happens? If we are nothing but thinking animals, [and] if you have excess people, then you can just put them in a bag, throw them in the river the way you would too many kittens or too many puppies."

I find it interesting that McMurtry uses puppies and kittens as a visual image. This device seems to have served the Church well over the years. I was recently re-reading Nigel Davies' book The Aztecs and came across following description of just how useful Christians have found puppies and kittens to be in their cause:

A continuous struggle was now to be fought: by 1531, Bishop Zumarraga was boasting that had destroyed 600 temples and 20,000 idols...

...That there should be no relapse on the part of the Indian converts, it was essential to instil a healthy terror of hellfire...To illustrate the torments of the damned, Fray Luis Caldera was obliged to adopt unorthodox methods: he arranged a kind of oven; dogs and cats were thrown into the fire, and their cries of pain vividly demonstrated the horrors awaiting those Indians who ignored the friars' teaching. The latter were so successful as to create a kind of religious fanaticism among certain of their flock...

Small canids and felids CAN come in handy for demonstrating a Christian worldview apparently...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Lassen County Society of the Illuminati

Well, I'm finding myself in somewhat of a dilemma. I had previously (and somewhat offhandedly) mentioned the potential formation of a Lassen County chapter of the Illuminati after visiting the new Thai restaurant in nearby Janesville with some friends. Well, you would be amazed at the sudden deluge of emails and phone calls I've received expressing interest in participating in such a group (although in all seriousness, I wonder if this has more to do with making sure the new Thai place stays in business to facilitate the welcomed break in the standardized cuisine here...). This means I probably have to take this a bit more seriously than I had originally intended...

Well, first, let me suggest a formal name for the group: Lassen County Society of the Illuminati...LACOSI for short - turns out "LaCoSi" also happens to be the elemental designation of a Pauli paramagnet (whatever the hell that is - but it at least has a specific connection with science!).

I also went back to Dan Brown's Angels & Demons novel to refresh my memory on the definition and nature of the Illuminati (from where I derived the term). Let's just say the definition was more on target than I originally contemplated:

"So who were the Illuminati?" Kohler demanded.
Yes, Langdon thought, who indeed? He began his tale.

"Since the beginning of history," Langdon explained, "a deep rift has existed between science and religion. Outspoken scientists like Copernicus - "
"Were murdered," Kohler interjected. "Murdered by the church for revealing scientific truths. Religion has always persecuted science."
"Yes. But in the 1500s, a group of men in Rome fought back against the church. Some of Italy's most enlightened men - physicists, mathematicians, astronomers - began meeting secretly to share their concerns about the church's inaccurate teachings. They feared that the church's monopoly on 'truth' threatened academic enlightenment around the world. They founded the world's first scientific think tank, calling themselves 'the enlightened ones.' "
"The Illuminati."
"Yes," Langdon said. "Europe's most learned minds...dedicated to the quest for scientific truth."

Well,so far so good...

...."Unfortunately," Langdon added, "the unification of science and religion was not what the church wanted."
"Of course not," Kohler interrupted. "The union would have nullified the church's claim as the sole vessel through which man could understand God."

Again, no's the kicker:

..."But aren't scientists today a bit less defensive about the church?"
Kohler grunted in disgust. "Why should we be? The church may not be burning scientists at the stake anymore, but if you think they've released their reign over science, ask yourself why half the schools in your country are not allowed to teach evolution. Ask yourself why the U.S. Christian Coalition is the most influential lobby against scientific progress in the world. The battle between science and religion is still raging, Mr. Langdon. It has moved from the battlefields to the boardrooms, but it is still raging."

Perhaps there is a need for a new Illuminati afterall...

Does Lassen County Still Think Doolittle Was A Better Choice Than Brown?

Well, in case the rest of my Lassen County brethren have not heard the news, let me just point out...

The Virginia home of our intellectually vacuous congressman, John Doolittle and his wife was raided by the FBI earlier this week, apparently as a result of the investigation of the Doolittle's relationship with Jack Abramoff;

Then, less than a week later....

Doolittle resigns his post on the Appropriations Committee:

Less than a week after the FBI raided the Northern Virginia home of his wife, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) gave up his coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee yesterday amid concerns that he had used that post to advance the interests of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and other allies.

I am interested in two questions:

1) How do those who voted for Doolittle justify their view that this country needs leaders of higher moral integrity, presumably a role filled only by those with a Christian perspective?;


2) Are these stories going to make it into the Lassen County Times?

Abnormal Interests Back Online

Abnormal Interests is back up...yeah!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Creationist Irrationality Fronts For A Psychological Need

The ultimate origins of the stubborn resistance to science and reason by creationists (and I'm including IDists in this) has always baffled me. It is certainly not that science has offered them justification for their viewpoint. Any appeal to "science" on the part of a creationist is simply an effort to find legitimacy on the world stage. This strategy itself seems odd as the only real defense of a creationist worldview is simply "I believe it" (I have always maintained that personal belief is not subject to critique, in the sense that if I believe something to be true without appeal to reason, logic or any other materialistic aspect of the world, then by definition it cannot be countered by appeals to reason, logic, etc. Pure belief for the individual; but by the same token, all belief is equivalent - if I don't believe in Hell, then for all practical purposes in my life, there is no Hell; the same applies to someone who believes Hell is an actual place where a God of eternal love will send good, moral people to a life of eternal damnation for nothing more than not attending church on Sunday...(ok, I broke the rule by appealing to a god who actually judges in the real world sense, but you get the picture). Of course whether a philosophy of pure belief is a good strategy for coping in the real world is another question entirely). When creationists appeal to "science" as providing evidence of their worldview, we all know that they must distort science, falsify data and ignore contradictory evidence in order to do so. But the appeal to appear "scientific" also undermines their concept of belief and sends the clear signal to the rest of the world that, deep down, they don't believe their position either. They want creationism to be true, but they cannot escape the need to anchor their belief in a real world that can be seen, touched, measured and explained. They want the details of a materialist world to confirm their religious worldview...but a religious worldview only works if you ignore the details.

So I have always wondered if there wasn't some deeper, psychological need simply expressing itself as a creationist worldview. And it turns out that maybe there is. Psychotherapist Peter Michaelson suggests there are psychological issues at work with creationists that may better explain their irrationality with regard to reason and logic:

The danger of creationism, Hedges writes [referring to author Chris Hedges], “is that, like the pseudo-science of Nazi eugenics, it allows facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology.”...The doctrine of eugenics was a self-defeating coping strategy that arose following the German people’s collapse into self-doubt, despair, and even self-hatred after their humbling defeat in World War I and their country’s subsequent hyper-inflation and economic depression.

I find the concept of creationism as a "self-defeating coping strategy" quite accurate; even more so the connection between creationist ideology and despair. Read creationist literature and arguments they present as "scientific" and their position comes across as born of a desperation to vindicate their own worldview and convince as many as possible of the "correctness" of their view. I have always had the impression that the real motivation behind proselytizing is to achieve a sense of "safety in numbers" - the more people who feel the way I do, the more correct my position is (which is why many Christians offer poll numbers as a kind of evidence their belief is the correct one).

Michaelson continues...

Creationism, which identifies humanity as a master species in God’s image, is also a coping strategy for a poor sense of self. The doctrine contends that human beings are special creations of God who have miraculously bypassed the evolutionary process that shapes all life forms. People embrace this belief as truth because doing so is emotionally satisfying: This belief elevates them in their own eyes. It’s really not about God at all. In a process that is mostly unconscious, these individuals are desperate to feel recognized and validated by something bigger and better than them. God just happens to do the trick. This desperation for recognition arises out of their underdeveloped sense of self. Even their great hunger for salvation is a craving for rescue from such an impoverished experience of self.

Again, a point that makes sense when you look at the extraordinary lengths creationists go through to paint anyone who differs from their beliefs as having a meaningless life. Creationists claim their views make life meaningful, but what that's only because they lack the self-esteem to find meaning and purpose in anything else. Of course, in the creationist psyche those of us who see evolution as valid must be living lives devoid of meaning - it can be no other way or what's the point of creationism? (Interestingly, when I raised the idea that without religion your life is meaningless with my kids, they looked at me like I had just lost all sense of reason - we evolutionist have no problem finding meaning, purposefulness and wonder without religion - and the creationists are afraid of that).

As if to emphasize my point:

People with a poor sense of self often compensate by convincing themselves that they are superior. This is the mechanism of narcissists, who also have an exceedingly weak sense of self. The doctrine of eugenics, too, was a statement of superiority, induced by self-doubt and self-loathing. Creationists are also eager for some means by which to feel superior. They can feel superior by believing they’re specially chosen by God. They can also convince themselves they are morally superior by condemning the beliefs and actions of humanists, secularists, and liberals....Yet they’re fighting not so much for a specific belief system but to avoid a kind of metaphysical meltdown. Without special standing in God’s eyes, it feels to them they’ll be nothing but pinpricks of consciousness lost in space—without a direction, or a home, or meaning, or substance.

The really unfortunate thing is that creationism has set up a facade of meaning that is inexorably crumbling at its edge and they will have no where to turn when it completely implodes:

As more people are enlisted into their belief system, the safer they feel. But the world is changing rapidly. Reality has no use for doctrine or ideology. Science and sophisticated knowledge, along with intelligent and articulate people, are pressing in from all sides. Creationists know at some instinctive level that time is running out. Hence, the more desperate they are—and the more irrational—as they cling to the old.

Ken Ham is the epitome of this irrationality. Anyone who clings to the very primitive belief that tyrannosaurs were once vegetarians because he believes an Iron Age text to be the word of god lacks a credible grip on reality. The fact that a lot of people will follow him down that road and eagerly accept Ham's fictitious view of the real world leads me to think Dawkins and Harris are collectively on to something: at a certain level faith is both delusional and dangerous.

And I don't think Michaelson is suggesting (a la Harris) that faith is inherently bad. It's more that creationists simply lack both an intellectual and emotional maturity that they really need to be weaned from:

Making the transition from faith in dogma to belief in the enduring value of one’s own self need not cause more grief than parting with a baby blanket. Mainly, we have to be prepared to examine our beliefs and not become identified with them. It helps to be on the lookout for important knowledge and to believe in our own capacity to figure out the essential things of life as well as anyone else.

Michaelson concludes:

Meanwhile, the debate with creationists needs to be expanded on our terms. Their emotionally held positions, developed out of inner weakness, can’t be taken at face value. As we see the roots of their delusion, our insightful responses will hasten, mercifully, their abandonment of that losing cause.

(Hat tip to Buckdog...)

Fashion Statement

Ok, I just got on the list for mine....

Lassen County Illuminati

Enjoyed a wonderful evening at the new Thai restaurant in nearby Janesville (yes, we have a Thai restaurant in the back country of northeastern California!)...I only hope it survives the monolithic cuisine culture here in the northstate (look, I like steak, potatoes and burritos as much as the next person, just not every damn day!).

We met some good friends there and talked about Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and how good science education (and a longing for economic justice) led some of us out of the darkness. As we were leaving I offhandedly suggested we just had the first meeting of the Lassen County Atheist Society...laughter and talk of secret codes and handshakes followed.

But later I got to thinking about Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, and the whole secret society of the Illuminati, guardians of science during a period when reason was considered heresy - an age to which, my friend suggests, America is quickly returning. If she is correct, then what we really need is the Lassen County Society of the Illuminati...


More Evidence Of A Genetic Component To Religion?

Well, the religious are not going to like this...another study suggesting that "religiousness" seems to have a genetic component that predisposes some towards it. Studies of twins suggests the following:

According to study author Laura Koenig, the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of the behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. “This study shows that religiousness occurs with these behaviors also because there are genes that predispose them to it.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

Some Final Reflections on the Blog Against Theocracy

Ed Brayton, displaying his typically insightful take on all things complicated in their nature but simplistically illuminated through repetitive blogging, cautions all of us against too broadly generalizing the nature of our cultural adversaries’ positions by labeling them “theocratic”. Lest we make the term “theocracy” meaninglessly vague and reduced to a simplistic sticker, the purpose of which is nothing more than to identify those with whom we disagree (much like “conservative” and “liberal” today - words I find currently to be the most useless in the English language), we must restrain ourselves from painting with too broad a brush. Ed’s warning should not be taken lightly. Language serves a purpose: a precise purpose. As one who understands the nature of often minute distinctions in academic verbiage that can convey significant differences in meaning, I find myself sympathetic to Ed’s argument. I certainly find myself guilty of over-generalizing the use of common terms such as “Christian”, without reflecting on the often significant distinctions simplistically summarized within those definitions.

Yet, clearly those of us who so enthusiastically participated in the “Blog Against Theocracy” are deeply concerned about something that has motivated us to draw cultural lines in the sand. Academic distinctions are important: they serve to clarify the specific nature of our differences. But there is also a continuum of ideas and positions, blurred at the margins. Combine that with the human propensity to classify things and ideas, and the result is often the promotion of broad brush definitions that fail to capture the vital minutiae necessary for a reasoned evaluation of the topic (just look at Uncommon Descent or Reasonable Kansans for examples). Brayton has argued that it is technically not an established theocracy that we are all “blogging against” and that not all who advocate biblical ideals are advancing theocratic proposals. In this I would agree. Clearly that is not what many of us are intending to say with the word “theocracy”. Brayton’s distinction between “theocrat” and “accomodationist” is an important one, but the two are part of a continuum - and if the “Blog Against Theocracy” may have missed the mark somewhat in its title, its authors absolutely understood which continuum was being targeted.

Organization of the “Blog Against Theocracy” to coincide with the three holy days of Easter certainly appears to be an affront to those who hold these days sacred and some voiced outrage at the event. Yet I can think of no more appropriate time to voice alternative opinions than during such a sacred event. For while most Christians identify Easter as a life-renewing event and celebrate it as a spiritual awakening and opportunity for the unification of all believers, it also draws to the surface, in a way that no other Christian ritual does, the total array of Christian thought many of us often find illogical, frequently unsubstantiated by historical and scientific evidence, and yet is taken as incontrovertible truth. It is the political legitimization of this “truth” that a lot of us (including, I might add, a significant portion who would call themselves Christian) find disturbing, even threatening. It is the potential for theocracy that we blog against. Ultimately, this potential has its roots in all religions. And the battle must be fought at the nexus between religious expression and the public sphere, where the possibility for theocracy begins with political acknowledgement (accommodation?), followed by public policy development , and becomes theocracy with the formulation of law based predominately or completely on a religiously-derived foundation.

Brayton was not the only individual voicing concerns about the use of terminology during the “Blog Against Theocracy”. DakotaVoice complained that last weekend’s effort to highlight the danger of an American theocracy targeted a non-phenomenon. In a series of posts offered during Blog Against Theocracy campaign, Dakota Voice (perhaps the only blogging voice against the effort) suggested those of us who participated “…haven't the slightest idea of what a theocracy is, nor why America isn't a theocracy and is in no danger of becoming a theocracy”. In essence then, like Brayton, DakotaVoice emphasized concern with using “theocracy” to paint a false impression of the issue at hand. Yet, unlike Brayton’s thorough and reasoned discussion, in DakotaVoice’s posts we find the very foundations of what spawned the “Blog Against Theocracy”. DakotaVoice clearly follows religious conviction in defining cells as the equivalent of a child and would encourage the government to criminalize reproductive choice at the earliest stages - of course this is a philosophical debate but one clearly guided by a religious view - if this viewpoint is eventually encapsulated in law, does it not have the current potential to be theocratic in origin? DakotaVoice also clearly thinks that not only beginning of life decisions should be subject to religious outlook, but also end of life decisions as well. His view of how the rest of us should make choices is derived exclusively from his religious viewpoint - one that he seems to feel the government should subsidize. DakotaVoice argues that a creationist viewpoint is not theocratic, yet no forms of creationism are derived from scientific evidence, they are religious viewpoints. His post on this subject was filled with the same false analogies and distortions of data that many of us argue against daily, yet he fully expects that the public school system teach this viewpoint. Apparently when the method of science weeds out inviable religious alternatives because they fail miserably to explain the evidence at hand, the government should step in and correct the situation. So, legislating equal time for creationist views is not on the road to theocracy?

Of course the largest issue with DakotaVoice appears to be that opposition to Christianity is occurring at all. The most imminent potential "theocratic" danger that he and others pose, is to suggest that questioning the historical and scientific foundations of Christianity is itself inhibiting his free expression of religion. I believe DakotaVoice and others want a country in which Christianity cannot be questioned publicly - and if we're not there yet, the last seven years have put us squarely on the path toward it.

So, I would agree with both Brayton and DakotaVoice in that the technical definition of theocracy has not been met. But the potential for it remains (and by the way, I think Brayton understands this in a way DakotaVoice does not). This is not to say that the religious should not be able to voice their opinions or display their faith - this has never been the issue. If religion is going to be the foundation for developing public policy or law that will restrict or limit my ability to determine my own spiritual and moral path, then the foundations of that religion should be questioned and seriously debated…without its proponents being allowed to cower behind the excuse of “offending my religious viewpoint”. Religions of all stripes must be given no quarter in the public arena.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kennedy Talk Identifies Danger of Teaching Creationism

An absolutely wonderful commentary on the dangers of a science education advancing creationism. Stanford President Emeritus Donald Kennedy addressed this issue during an April 4 lecture delivered to a packed house in Cubberley Auditorium. The talk, "Teaching Science: How, What and Who Decides?" was part of the Cubberley Lecture series sponsored by the School of Education to encourage dialogue about current affairs.

The opening sentence strikes at the heart of the issue:

High school students who are taught creationism instead of evolutionary theory lack the critical thinking skills that are necessary for college...

The report is so full of dead-on-target assessments of the nature of creationism/intelligent design and its detrimental impact to education that I should simply cut and paste the entire article here. Instead, here are some examples:

"What the creationist alternative does to students is to intercept and deaden curiosity," he said. "If relationships or correlations can be simply allocated to the cleverness of a designer, there's very little incentive to think up an experiment or undertake an analysis."

In reference to the recent suit against the UC system by several Christian schools, Kennedy suggests the following regarding the Christian schools' current textbooks:

Kennedy said that the textbooks use "ridicule and inappropriately drawn metaphors" concerning evolution to discourage students from formulating independent opinions. "Even with respect to the hypothesis that dominates them—namely, that biological complexity and organic diversity are the result of special creation—critical thinking is absent," he added.

At the root of the problem, Kennedy said, is a failure to attract and retain qualified teachers. To illustrate this point, he told the audience, "There is a rather sad, old joke that asks, 'What is the first name of the average high school physics teacher in Texas?' The answer is 'Coach.'"

I would suggest further that part of the problem is that teachers (particularly science teachers) need to be supported by professional scientists in their communities: those at universities, colleges, government agencies, etc. Particularly in small rural communities where teachers are often derided by community members as second class citizens and expected to teach the dominant cultural viewpoint, it is important for other science professionals to provide assistance.

Pope Calls Intelligent Design's Bluff

If someone who regularly posts on Uncommon Descent were to suggest that the sun was shining, the first action I would recommend is to run outside and look up...

Lee Bowman posts comments on an article discussing Pope Benedict's recent "clarifications" regarding his views on evolution and creation. The IDists are clearly upset about the Pope's latest statements, but they've gotten so used to spinning negative statements about evolution (and faking outside support for intelligent design) that their automated responses to evolution news are simply Pavlovian in nature. Bowman begins with the following quote from the article:

“Paris - Pope Benedict, elaborating his views on evolution for the first time as Pontiff, says science has narrowed the way life’s origins are understood and Christians should take a broader approach to the question.

The Pope also says the Darwinist theory of evolution is not completely provable because mutations over hundreds of thousands of years cannot be reproduced in a laboratory… ”

...then discusses some historical points of interest about evolution, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's statements, Ken Miller and Francis Ayala's request that the Church clarify its position, yada, yada...

Then Bowman summarizes with this:

According to an AP report, the Pope addressed the issue to a general audience in Rome on 11/9/05. He stated that the universe was made as an “intelligent project”, and criticized those who say that it is without direction or order.

Someone please tell me that Uncommon Descent isn't actually trying to spin the Pope's latest comments into an endorsement of intelligent design. Here are some more tidbits from the article conveniently left out by Bowman:

But Benedict, whose remarks were published on Wednesday in Germany in the book Schoepfung und Evolution (Creation and Evolution), praised scientific progress and did not endorse creationist or "intelligent design" views about life's origins.

Ok, everybody, say it together...did not endorse creationist or "intelligent design" views...

In the book, Benedict defended what is known as "theistic evolution," the view held by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches that God created life through evolution and religion and science need not clash over this.

"I would not depend on faith alone to explain the whole picture,"

Whoa! Hold the phone! Is actually suggesting that there is something beyond faith?...something reasoned?....something logical?....something materialistic?

He also denied using a "God-of-the-gaps" argument that sees divine intervention whenever science cannot explain something.

"It's not as if I wanted to stuff the dear God into these gaps - he is too great to fit into such gaps," he said in the book that publisher Sankt Ulrich Verlag in Augsburg said would later be translated into other languages.

Ken Miller laid a knock-out blow to Dembski and Behe and the Pope just counted to ten! The premise of intelligent design is dependent upon actual science being unable to explain that a designer can be "logically" inferred.

Ok, I'm not defending the Pope's entire statement (at least as currently reported). I actually find agreement with readers' comments at Uncommon Descent on thing: it's a religious figure making the proclamation, so who the hell really cares? The Pope is not a scientist and completely reiterated the same backward understanding of scientific proof, mutation, selection and random chance that almost every local preacher and conservative radio talk show host parrots to uncritically thinking sheep across this nation on a daily basis.

Still, the ID community can't be happy...and I'm going to go drink a beer!

Blogging Update

As usual I'm a bit late in updating, but I finally got around to adding some regularly visited blogs that haven't made it to my link list until now. Most notably I want to mention Tim at Remote Central (who I have visited regularly for some time, but failed to give him the "link credit" he so richly deserves) and Alun Salt's Archaeoastronomy blog - again, someone I should have formally linked to eons ago...

And then there's Blue Gal, who has become somewhat of a blogging "spiritual conscience" for me (although she probably doesn't know it yet...).

Four Stone Hearth Edition Up At Remote Central

The new Four Stone Hearth edition is up and running...hosted by Tim Jones at Remote Central. Check out some great posts on anthropology...

Friday, April 06, 2007

My Alma Mater Strikes Against Intelligent Design

My Alma mater, UC Davis, seems to be figuring prominently in the blogosphere today with regard to events and discussions relevant to criticisms of intelligent design and creationism. First, Afarensis gives us another follow up on Sal Cordova's ridiculously premature mental spewage regarding the "new" reconstruction of the 1470 skull by citing none other than my undergraduate advisor at Davis, Henry McHenry:

And Henry McHenry, an anthropology professor at University of California, Davis, said Bromage faced some sharp questioning from colleagues when he first presented his findings at a symposium on human evolution in South Africa last year.

"I am a bit skeptical that Tim's version is all that much superior and that the original reconstructions violated principles of craniofacial development," said McHenry.

On another front, Ken Miller gave what was apparently a fantastic talk on the UC Davis campus this week. Miller clearly has a sense of humor too (you have to when dealing with the perpetually angry Dembski and Behe). I missed his appearance on the Colbert Report, but the article has him quoted as saying:

"I have a higher opinion of God than the people who favor intelligent design," he said. "This is a guy who was so clever that he set a process in motion that gave rise to everything on this planet, and you, and me, and maybe even Bill O'Reilly."


Miller's Finding Darwin's God, is on my reading list for my Anthropology 1 class; those students who have chosen to read Miller for their book review project have always had positive responses and a deeper appreciation for what science and evolution are truly about. It usually (and in a positive way) shatters the creationist propaganda they've grown up with.

Blog Against Theocracy - First Submission

As I mentioned, the Blog Against Theocracy is going full tilt this weekend (I'm feeling for Blue Gal...she seems to be inundated with blog posts contributing to this effort and I'm about to add to her workload...). Already the "offended" have come forth crying foul and indicting this as an attack on Christianity:

And then there's the blogswarm over this "Blog Against Theocracy" idiocy, which boils down to an attack on any public expression of Christianity (something protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) under the guise of opposing something that doesn't exist in the US and no Christian I'm aware of is advocating: theocracy.

Here's the common, and misguided, argument presented by most outspoken Christian fundamentalists: if you openly criticize, critically evaluate or question anything about Christianity then you are infringing on the right of Christians to publicly express their views. No one with any intellectual, ethical or constituional credibility is arguing that Christians should not be allowed to express their views openly (ok, there are certainly a few at the outer margins, but let's not use the tail of the distribution to characterize the entire curve). What many of us are arguing is that if you feel you have a constitutional right to publicly parade your views in front of the rest of us, then we're going to publicly point out why those views might be in error historically, logically, scientifically, philosophically, etc. If you are going to seriously argue that religious views (specifically "Christian" views - I'm sure the whiner above won't mind if Buddhism, Islam or Paganism are being questioned) should be allowed free reign in society without any "response" by those who don't hold those same views, then you are definately on the slippery slope toward theocracy.

As for this country not being a theocracy....well, perhaps not yet. But clearly many of us feel political forces are moving in that direction and it's time to seriously consider if this is the trajectory we want this country to take. Not a theocracy?...consider the ID proponents who are trying to legislate intelligent design creationism into the classroom; or the YEC creationists supplanting actual science with mythology; how about the anti-choice proponents attempting to legislate the religious view that five cells is equivalent to the six-year old riding his bike down the street; consider the number of evangelical Christians who want us to remain in Iraq largely to bring about biblical Armageddon; how about our tax money going to fund "faith based" initiatives and private schools?; how about the large number of Christian dominionists who are actively engaged in getting the government to follow biblical principles?

There has clearly been a concerted effort to make government at all levels be more supportive of Christian values (note that the arguments are not generally about making government more religious; they're about making it more "Christian" - by contrast, most of us "blogging against theocracy" want to maintain a clearly (and actively) secular government with little or no religious influence in terms of policy or law. Religions are based on personal belief supported by flawed or falsified history and science. They have no business running governments (and have always fostered rebellion when they did).

Speaking of flawed history, I'm going to cheat a bit on this first "Blog Against Theocracy" and re-post a previous entry on the Da Vinci Code. Yes, I know the book probably erred in its specifics and that some of the presentations could be questioned. However, I just started going through the Discovery Channel's The Da Vinci Files series and there a lot of questions regarding the nature of Jesus Christ, the rise of Christianity, the errors, additions and re-writes in the Bible, and the suppression of "heretical" voices that makes me wonder how active the Church has been in silencing alternative views.

This post highlights the incredible hypocrisy often displayed by Christians when they dismiss readers as "historically illiterate" when they read Dan Brown's books, but fail to question the same public's "scientific illiteracy" when it comes to reading popular books by Behe, Dembski and Wells on Intelligent Design. So, from the March 2006 Northstate Science files:

How Ironic - Da Vinci Code Readers are Considered "Historically Illiterate"

While searching the blogosphere yesterday for comments on biblical archaeology, I ran across Chris Heard’s site Higgaion and its link to a Catholic Online article regarding the Da Vinci Code. The article (dated 24 February) interviews apologist Mark Shea who, with theology professor Ted Sri, have co-authored The Da Vinci Deception, supposedly “a guide that reveals the fact and fiction behind “The Da Vinci Code””. I will try to write more on the issue of The Da Vinci Code itself later. However, what immediately struck me in the article was the notion of Christians asserting arguments against The Da Vinci Code because it creates a cultural phenomenon out of inaccurate historical information, juxtaposed with scientists’ assertions that Intelligent Design is creating a cultural phenomenon out of inaccurate biological information.

The irony here is just too good to pass up.

The article begins by asking Shea what compelled he and Sri to write the book:

The short answer is that tens of millions of people have read "The Da Vinci Code" and many have had their faith in Christ and the Catholic Church shaken. This blasphemous book has become a major cultural phenomenon, largely by attacking the very person and mission of Jesus Christ. It must be addressed.

Just out of curiosity, how many millions have read Philip Johnson’s books such as Darwin on Trial, or William Dembski’s No Free Lunch? How many millions cite Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution as containing factual information about evolution? Shea is concerned that millions of Christians have read The Da Vinci Code without critically thinking about it – but would he stop to consider how many Christians bother to critically think about Icons of Evolution? Further, Shea thinks the historical inaccuracies need to be addressed – good for him; he’s found areas of disagreement and should offer a response. When evolutionary biologists confront the biological inaccuracies of Wells, Dembski or Johnson, what happens? They’re accused of being “dogmatic Darwinists”. Is Shea, therefore, to be considered a “dogmatic Christian”?

Shea then discusses the concept that popular works like The Da Vinci Code really become a source of “pseudo-knowledge” that, in essence, replaces critical thought and the hard work of historical investigation:

The longer answer is that "The Da Vinci Code" has become the source for what I call "pseudo-knowledge" about the Christian faith. Pseudo-knowledge is that stuff "everybody knows," such as the "fact" that Humphrey Bogart said "Play it again, Sam" -- except he didn't. Pseudo-knowledge doesn't matter much when the issue is the script of "Casablanca."

Are the popular works of Wells, Behe, Johnson, Dembski anything other than the “pseudo-knowledge” of which Shea speaks? Dembski himself has stated that he sees Intelligent Design as a popular movement and prefers to "disseminate his views in non-peer-reviewed media". None of the intelligent design proponents have offered testable hypotheses or original scientific work on their ideas but instead continue to prop up vague "controversies" in evolution that lack supporting evidence. The effort is clearly aimed less at doing the hard and dirty work of science than at popularizing "psuedo-knowledge"for broad acceptance. Principle among this genre of explanation for the diversity of life on earth has been Behe’s concept of “irreducible complexity”, which now functions as a concept “everybody knows” (particularly Christian apologists looking for shortcuts to God); this despite continued biological work “reducing” irreducible complexity to observations easily explained through natural selection. Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City (see yesterday’s post) speaks with authority to his followers that ‘the empirical data supports the principle of “irreducible complexity”’, when the empirical data actually show the contrary. He has clearly not bothered to read the works of established scientists in evolutionary biology, preferring instead to peddle “pseudo-knowledge” because it fits better with a pre-conceived worldview.

The response will no doubt be that Dan Brown is not a historian or theologian, and therefore does not possess the scholarly credentials necessary to speak with authority on the subject. Therefore, good Christians should not take his views seriously. Perhaps not. But that begs a question: how seriously should Christians consider the views of “scientists” on the Dissent From Darwin list? A recent New York Times article established something evolutionary biologists have been saying for some time: the list is irrelevant. Only a quarter of the scientist signatories are from biology and few of those conduct any research at all on the question of life’s origins and diversity. The remaining scientists are largely chemists, engineers and physicists. Dan Brown is certainly no less qualified to speak with authority on history and theology than are engineers and chemists qualified to speak on matters of evolutionary biology. What goes around, comes around boys and girls!

Shea is very concerned about the impact the The Da Vinci Code novel (and upcoming movie) will have on the general audience. More to the point, he is concerned that Brown’s audience lacks the necessary intellect to critically evaluate the book’s historical claims:

In May, it will appear as a major film and will acquire even more unquestioned authority among millions of historically and theologically illiterate viewers -- unless Christians state the facts and help viewers recognize just how badly they've been had.

Historically and theologically illiterate viewers...How ultimately ironic. What about the scientific literacy required to critically evaluate proposals such as Intelligent Design? Just how scientifically literate are the 90% of the American population who supposedly buy into Intelligent Design? How scientifically literate are the kids Ken Ham preys upon with his historically incorrect bible propaganda? Can the majority of Carl Baugh’s viewers think critically about his claims? Mark Shea is absolutely correct to be concerned about the historical and theological illiteracy of the audience – just as evolutionary biologists are justified in being concerned about the same audience's scientific literacy. The fact is that most Americans have lost the ability to think critically, preferring instead to take the FOX thirty second sound bite as gospel because it’s easier. But my bet is that Shea and other apologists will not accept the distinction. Critical thinking is necessary only when the sacred cows of Christian theology are being slain; it’s not necessary if evolution is the target.

Finally, there’s this gem:

The problem is the average reader does not know "The Da Vinci Code" actually makes you more stupid about art, history, theology and comparative religion.

Yep, just like reading Icons of Evolution makes the average reader more stupid about biology, paleontology and the history of biological thought. Wouldn’t Mark Shea and Catholic Online agree?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Divine Love's Cocktail Party

While pulling that last post together regarding the Blog Against Theocracy, I also read through Blue Gal's latest post addressed to all the non-believers who are planning to take part in this weekend's blog swarm. It got me thinking...

So often I talk or email with fellow lefties who have just had it with the religious right to the point that they can't stand Christianity or even religion in general. It's as if there is such a slippery slope in their minds between any admission of faith and total fundamentalism that it's just not worth it to go down that path. No religion is better than any religion, because in the end we all become Pat Robertson or Al Qaeda.

Ok, that's pretty much me. Conservative evangelicals and conservatives within my own Catholic clan largely started telling me a few years ago, "its our way or the highway"...fine, I chose to take the highway. I decided I would rather not sacrifice logic and reason for religious dogma. Evolution was never a problem in my church until members started worrying more about being conservative than being Catholic. That and some economic hypocrisy on the part of our priestly elite and it was enough to push me out the door...

I'm actually quite sympathetic to those lefties who think they hate Christianity. Funny thing is when you engage these lefties in conversation, a great many of them think Jesus was a cool guy, and some actually revere him. Even those who reject Christianity outright are not nearly so angry as they let on.

Yep, I actually happen to think the historical figure of Jesus was an interesting person (even with the understanding that a lot of the New Testament was written to make him appear more than he was). I actually find the Bible much more fascinating now that I'm not obliged to read it as a theological treatise and can appreciate it as the historical text it is (complete with all the errors, re-writes, biases and outright falsehoods that go into any humanly produced manuscript). And why is it that all of us who don't buy into Christian theology are the ones perceived of as "angry"? If we're angry, it's because we know Christianity has had to distort and outright lie about history and science in order to validate their views before a generally ignorant public.

Let me point something out here, again. Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to a tree by the political and religious CONSERVATIVES of his day because they mistakenly thought they had power and that he threatened that power. ANY Christian, myself included, who thinks they would have rescued Jesus from the cross, that certainly WE wouldn't have gone along with Pilate and Judas and abandoned him like Peter, are just kidding themselves.

Boy, got that right. It was becoming very difficult for me during my last days as a Catholic to logically distinguish between priests/bishops and the Pharisees...hard to tell the two groups apart.

It's that the religious right/Republican Party has so often set the discourse that "God/Jesus equals us" that some of us lefties tend to believe that. Rejecting hate speech, intolerance, and fundamentalism becomes rejecting all religion.

Again, that's me. I know there are the Jim Wallis's, the John Shelby Spongs, hell, even the Henry Neufelds, and Christopher Heards out there, all of whom (often) make me wonder just a little bit about the nature of my spiritual search. But then there's those loud-mouthed, obnoxious fundamentalists who keep taking center stage and I'm forced to pull out Dawkins and Harris again...

And then finally, a little hope:

And if I believe (and I struggle to, at least) that God is Love and that God loves his creation, I think smart, funny, gifted non-believing bloggers have one of the better tables at Divine Love's cocktail party. You certainly do at mine.

Here's the deal about Christians, though. We're not all Pat Robertson, and I refuse to allow the Religious Right to define what Christianity is, for me, or for my readership.

Amen, sister. If I'm wrong, then I'll be happy to toast to my error at Divine Love's cocktail party!

Blog Against Theocracy This Weekend

I'll be following Hot Cup of Joe and plan to participate in the upcoming Blog Against Theocracy this weekend (April 6-8). Like Carl, I don't know what my meager contribution will be, but I've got a couple of things in mind. Note that although it is going to be perceived as anti-religious, it's really about reminding those who think their religious beliefs supercede all others that this country was founded on principles of religious freedom...and whether or not you think the constitution actually addresses "separation of church and state", there can be no doubt that religious freedom (including the freedom to be non-religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever) is seriously at risk without that separation.

From Blue Gal, here are some of the general guidelines:

The idea is to post at least once from Friday to Sunday Easter Weekend, April 6-8.

The post will be against theocracy, in favor of our Constitutional guarantee of separation of church and state. But there are a LOT of issues tied to this, as is pointed out in the First Freedom First website:
No religious discrimination.
PRO End-of-Life Care (no more Terri Schiavo travesties)
Reproductive health decisions made by individuals, not religious "majorities"
Democracy not Theocracy
Academic Integrity (like, a rock is as old as it is, not as old as the Bible says)
Sound Science (good bye so-called "intelligent" design)
Respect for ALL families (based on love, not sexual orientation. Hellooooo.)
And finally,The right to worship, OR NOT.

So take your pick and write your post(s). Really, the wider variety of topics makes it all the more interesting. I can't wait to read what Pharyngula has to say about sound science, or what some of you will have to say about reproductive choice as it relates to church/state separation, or how a religionist blogger feels about their own freedom to worship and how that is compromised by state sponsored religion. (That's my topic, fwiw.)

Christians As Conservationists: Another Round

In her March 20 editorial in the Lassen County Times, Managing Editor Barbara France discusses the concept of being “environmentally conscious”. She seems to, in part, be responding to a blog entry claiming that “…those who are Christians cannot be environmentalists because they want to protect (dominate it) the earth”, and that further this blogger said “…recycling is pretty much all Christians can do”. I don’t know this for a fact, but I am pretty sure the blogger to whom she was referring was me; I’ve written a couple of pieces regarding Christians and conservation here and here. And as usual, there seems to be some significant misunderstanding of my intended point. Are recycling, conserving water, planting trees and changing to energy efficient light bulbs activities that help protect our environment? Absolutely…no one would suggest otherwise, and the fact that many Christian organizations are urging their members to participate in such activities is certainly cause for hope. I applaud those organizations and individuals that take such a stand and encourage them to continue the effort.

But that was never my criticism.

My take on the issue is simply this: 1) “environmental conservation” encompasses problems far beyond recycling and switching to energy efficient light bulbs; 2) major environmental issues are all underwritten by evolutionary science, such as ecology and population biology (yes, even forest management is guided by evolutionary principles, although you’ll rarely see “Darwin” mentioned in papers on natural resource management); 3) such science is rejected by most Christians, largely for one of two reasons: it either conflicts with Scripture (or more precisely, their particular interpretation of it) and/or it conflicts with their ability to accumulate wealth and prosperity with unregulated abandon; and 4) while many Christians proclaim themselves conservationists by virtue of their recycling habits, they are also responsible for maintaining social and political policies (through their voting efforts) that are having an increasingly deleterious effect on the world’s environments. I began my series of posts on this issue by citing from an article by David Orr (2005a) and I can be no more eloquent than Orr in summarizing the problem:

"More specifically, right-wing evangelicals have been placed in positions of authority throughout the federal government, including departments and agencies that administer federal lands and environmental laws, and they have not been shy in amending scientific reports in ways more agreeable to doctrine. Many professional environmental scientists and highly competent career civil servants have been fired or forced into early retirement, replaced by others with apocalyptic religious views and open hostility to laws and regulations aimed to protect the environment. By all evidence, the Bush administration intends to eliminate inconvenient regulatory barriers to resource extraction, pollution, and the preservation of species…” (Orr 2005a:290-91).

While many Christians may be good at recycling (again, a good thing!), there is a significant and crucial tension between the larger Christian worldview and major issues of environmental protection today. As I responded to a commenter on a previous post:

My argument was not to deny that these [recycling, etc] help but to suggest the following: 1)these are not the primary environmental problems this world faces - loss of habitat, species extinction, uncontrolled development, global warming, dependence on fossil fuels, an assault on public lands, uncontrolled population growth - these are but a few; 2) these larger and more ominous problems have a scientific basis, rooted in evolutionary theory, that the Christian Right constantly works to undermine, discredit or lie about; as Orr points out, Christians are unwilling to accept these larger problems in part because they are unwilling to sacrifice financial gain to achieve conservation goals ("too much regulation" ! is the excuse you hear constantly); 3)I would further argue, as Orr mentions but doesn't emphasize, that the Christian disrespect for science that doesn't agree with their worldview is also at the heart of why they dismiss larger problems affecting humanity. I'm sorry, Jen, but there is a major line to be drawn between true conservationism and some Christians throwing cans into the recycling bin and calling it good (not much difference between that attitude and simply waiting around for the Rapture).

Are most Christians willing to support environmental regulation that might limit growth and development or at least demand that such development occurs in an environmentally friendly manner? Or do they thing there is too much government regulation? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Are most Christians willing to pay higher taxes to support land management and park agencies that help protect large swaths of habitat for conservation purposes as public enjoyment? Or do they think those lazy government employees make too much already and public lands should be open for as much development as possible since that’s the proper capitalist way? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Are most Christians willing to accept that natural, materialist processes occur in nature (species loss affecting the broader environment for example) and can be effectively managed by specialists with the proper scientific background? Or is all creation simply fixed by the Creator with nothing that humans can do to change it until the Rapture? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Do most Christians believe that habitat preservation is more important than economic growth? Or is it simply our God-given right to turn as much land into business complexes as we possibly can? This is an environmental conservation issue…

Do most Christians believe that humans can actually make this planet inhabitable by their economic actions, or does it simply not matter because in the end God will take all the believers in the Rapture? This is an environmental conservation issue…

How about this?....Do most Christians believe that human population growth is a serious issue, has deleterious effects on resource use, can lead to famine, disease and war, and that population control efforts are a responsibility we have to the human species? Or is “every sperm sacred”? This is a major environmental conservation issue…

So, does all this mean that Christians (even evangelical Christians) can’t be good conservationists? Again, Orr says it best:

Are the positions of conservative biologists and evangelicals hard and fixed? Could one be a right-wing evangelical, for example, and a good conservation biologist? Having known a few, the answer is yes. But reconciling religious doctrine at the extreme with the goals of conservation requires heroic intellectual acrobatics. (Orr 2005a: 291).

In all this I have painted Christians with a broad brush. I understand the significant variation in Christian belief that exists, but I do this on purpose. By far, it is right-wing evangelical conservative Christians who have a national voice and are intending to speak not only for every other Christian sect (as well as non-Christians) and moderate/liberal Christians don’t seem to be having much of a say. Many of the respondents to Orr complained of the same thing – how can you condemn all of us when many are actively engaged in conservation efforts? I’ll leave you with Orr’s response in a second article:

And, yes, I do believe conservative evangelicals are “complicit” in “eviscerating environmental statutes, treaties, and policies,”as Van Dyke says. Although I did not put it quite that bluntly, I will accept his wording.

Finally, it is one thing to boldly exercise oneself to joust with me, living humbly at the outer margin of respectability and influence in the pages of a scientific journal with relatively few readers and limited public visibility. It would be quite another to engage as energetically with, say, Jerry Falwell and his followers,or Pat Robertson and his, or the millions of subscribers to James Dobson’s network, or Rick Scarborough, or all those within the Christian Coalition, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or James Kennedy and the Dominionists who intend a right-wing evangelical takeover of the U.S. government “whatever the cost” (Moser 2005). Or those further out still, the rabid followers of the end times, and all those merchants of fear and divine vengeance frothing on “Christian” radio across the heartland. And, if unbeknownst to me, that dialog has begun, let me inquire in the spirit of constructive Christian engagement, how is it going? Are you making headway? Are they listening?

Moser, B. 2005. The crusaders. Rolling Stone (April).

Van Dyke, F. (2005) Between heaven and earth: evangelical engagement in conservation. Conservation Biology 19 (6): 1693-96.

Orr, D. W. (2005a) Armageddon versus extinction. Conservation Biology 19(2): 290-92.

Orr, D. W. (2005b) A Response. Conservation Biology 19(6): 1697-98.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Warren/Harris Debate: Some Thoughts

Sam Harris debates Rick Warren in the April 9 issue of Newsweek, which can be read here. I think Harris pretty handily wins the debate. While he will not convince the "believer" (nothing of any empirical nature ever would), he sufficiently counters Warren's arguments to the extent that non-believers will have no reason to change their minds and those sitting on the theological fence will have much to ponder. However, perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that Harris doesn't win the argument so much as Warren loses it. The very notion that Harris (and Dawkins, PZ and others) are becoming more open in their challenge to religious presuppositions is a triumph of immeasurable proportions. And Warren and others can't actually get a mental grasp around the idea that their positions rely solely on faith; when they move beyond the realm of an untestable faith and enter the arena of logic, reason and empirical evidence, their staunch defense devolves into meaningless platitudes, false assumptions and fabricated data. They want to justify their faith with empirical evidence, yet in attempting to do so they both fail miserably in the effort and compromise their only argument: faith itself.

Warren notes that one of the greatest evidences of God for him is answered prayer. I hear this a lot from people. Good fortune, near brushes with catastrophe, recovery from serious sickness are all frequently attributed to God's intervention. Harris slays this fantasy with ease that Warren and others are unaccustomed to hearing:

Let me respond to this notion of answered prayer, because this is a classic sampling error, to use a statistical phrase. We know that human beings have a terrible sense of probability. There are many things we believe that confirm our prejudices about the world, and we believe this only by noticing the confirmations, and not keeping track of the disconfirmations.

I have had the same situation in my own family: two tragedies, one in which an individual survived a near-death experience and another in which the individual did not survive. Survival of the first individual is attributed to a miracle and intervention by a loving God among the faithful in my family. The death of the second is attributed to...well, it's just one of those "God works in mysterious ways" sort of things. This has never been a satisfactory answer to me; if the survival of the first is attributable to God, then how does one explain the death of the second? "God works in myserious ways" is an intellectual cop-out - it serves only to rationalize the first within a presumption of the divine while allowing the second to be conveniently dismissed without having to face the implications for God's behavior. Of course Rick Warren has an answer for these sorts of events:

God sometimes says yes, God sometimes says no and God sometimes says wait.

There are other words for Warren's "explanation" of God's behavior that come to mind: randomness, contingency, chance. Everything that Darwin suggested about nature's processes is encapsulated in Warren's words. Once again, simple materialistic explanations have greater explanatory power than omnipotence. If God is really an option for explaining day-to-day events, then I see only three possibilities for adequately explaining my own experiences with human tragedy:

1) God is a sadistic bastard who deserves absolutely no reverence of any sort;

2) God exists, but is no more than a distance observer and does not actively intervene in natural events;

3) God doesn't actually exist;

There is, of course, much more to the Harris/Warren debate. But in the end, Warren can only the claim the usual "rolling of the dice" argument for the existence of God:

When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.

Actually, I think if Warren is right then God has a hell of a lot of explaining to do....

Of Homind Facial Reconstructions, Transitional Fossils, and Lazy Creationists

As I would have expected, Afarensis comes up with the details into Sal Cordova's paleoanthropological buffoonery regarding Tim Bromage's reconstruction of Richard Leakey's 1470 skull. Afarensis initially provides his usual flare for finding the raw data here (including Bromage's poster in a readable size - I couldn't find one the night before). But he doesn't stop there. Afarensis comes back with a more complete assessment of the struggle Leakey and others went through trying to initially reconstruct the skull and properly assails Cordova's and Wells' biased and absolutely false assessment that Leakey purposefully faked the reconstruction. (Readers of Uncommon Descent should learn to read the entire text before penning the incredibly naive statements I see there - they should also stop dredging up arguments that were put to rest long before any of them were actually born: Oxnard and Piltdown, for example). Afarensis then nails the coffin lid shut with a post on Hawk's comments regarding the new reconstruction.

No need to re-invent the wheel here, but I want to emphasize a couple of themes running through these posts that the creationists never accept. First, Hawks' comments clearly show that both Afarensis and I were correct in our initial assessments of Bromage's reconstruction - it might be true, but let's see the actual data first. On the other hand (but meeting expectations) the ID crowd willingly followed the scienfically ignorant media lemmings in their rush to condemn paleoanthropology. Turns out, the Bromage reconstruction is not as flawless as the ID crowd would have hoped. It seems the media showed the reconstructed version of the skull at a different angle than Leakey's reconstruction, making it appear to have a much greater (hence, ape-like) slope. When oriented correctly, the slope is somewhat greater, but not sufficiently so to warrant an accusation of fraud on the part of paleoanthropologists. Clearly, reconstructing skulls is difficult work and if Bromage's reconstruction is affirmed by further studies (note to the ID crowd: we do that in actual science) it will demonstrate only one thing to me: that Leakey, without the aid of computerized reconstruction methods, 30+ years ago, pretty much nailed the reconstruction. (Now, if I were to employ the standard "scientific" approach common among the ID folks in its mirror opposite, I would immediately issue a media release stating that the media clearly faked the angle to make the skull appear more apelike because they are, of course, biased against evolution and clearly favor Christian worldviews...I would further claim that the IDists are violating my free speech rights by arguing against my position...and then sniffle with bag of Kleenex in hand as I point out that the "establishment" is just against me and my followers).

There is another thing Hawks points out that was bothering me as well: calculation of 1470's brain size. The ID groupies couldn't help but point out the media reports suggesting that 1470's skull size was smaller with the reconstruction, but that didn't quite mesh, particularly since the whole cranial vault was recovered. Hawks confirmed my own unease regarding the "new" brain size estimation:

There is a lot of talk about the brain size of the specimen. I don't have any details of the presentation, and it is possible that Bromage was incorrectly quoted. Here is what the article says:

The new reconstruction suggests H. rudolfensis' jaw jutted out much farther than previously thought. The researchers say the cranial capacity of a hominid can be estimated based on the angle of the jaw's slope and they have downsized KNM-ER 1470's cranial capacity from 752 cubic centimeters to about 526 cc. (Humans have an average cranial capacity of about 1,300 cc.)

That, of course, is utter nonsense. Ralph Holloway produced an endocast, the joins between the fragments are good, and the volume of 752 cc was measured by water displacement. Why in the world would you estimate brain size from the face when you have a perfectly good vault? It has to be a misquote. [emphasis mine].

Seems the ID proclamation that 1470's brain size is smaller than previously thought is well...(par for the course!) error.

Secondly, the very fact that Cordova et al. are so hinging their hopes on a slight change in the angle of the face here, a drop in a few cc's there, and the addition of a minor sagittal crest here and there is due to the 800 pound gorilla that they won't acknowledge standing in the ID/Creationist reading room: these fossils are ALL transitional. We have an extremely difficult time calling one Homo and another Australopithecus, or one Homo erectus and another Homo rudolfensis, precisely because they all share characteristics with each other and none clearly stands out anatomically as separate from the others. Creationists will focus on the ape-like characteristics of one fossil so they can comfortably call it an ape, while completely ignoring its human characteristics. None are distinctly ONLY ape or distinctly ONLY human. And the problem gets more complex every year as more and more hominid fossils are uncovered. I tell my Anthropology 1 students when it comes to reviewing each of the fossil hominids available that they have more to memorize than last year's class (and next year's class will have more to memorize than they do now!).

Finally, Duane's comment on Afarensis' first post cuts to the chase and gets at the heart of why creationists like Sal, Davescot, Casey Luskin and their demi-gods Behe, Dembski and Wells have such a problem with paleoanthropology:

What gets me is that the creationists do absolutely no work. But when there is a suggestion by real scientists that previous work might be in error they jump all over it.

Pretty much describes creationism to a "T"....