Evolution and Entropy, Pharyngula Style

November 11, 2008

A quick update:

The second law of thermodynamics is frequently brought up as a problem for evolution by Creationists who aren’t very intelligent. It’s an easy myth to debunk, but someone has gone one step further and actually attempted to do the math on entropy’s effects on evolution (or evolution’s effects on entropy, I guess). Head on over to Pharyngula for some (mostly) non-technical commentary.


If I Believed in God

November 6, 2008

(I’ve been quiet on the blog front for a while now, mainly because I have an insane number of essays to write for college. On top of that, I’ve been continuously ill for going on two weeks now – I’m coughing my lungs up as a I type. There’s plenty I want to write on, but unfortunately it will have to wait for a while.)

Theists frequently assume that belief in God will inevitably lead to belief in a particular religion. (Very often it’s their religion.) why they assume this is beyond me, since believing in God as a philosophical proposition certainly does not automatically lead one to believe that, say, Jesus Christ died and came back to life. I’ve had many people attempt to convert me in my time, and they frequently begin with one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God as laid out by Aquinas (the ‘five ways’), or some modern variation thereof. What they fail to realise is that convincing me or any other atheist of the existnce of an unmoved mover or an uncaused cause is not the same thing as convincing us that the Bible is true or that a whole host of associated supernatural entities exist. With that in mind, I give you a brief, hypothetical look at how belief in God would change my opinion on other, related matters.

If I believed in God:

I would not believe in the divinity of Jesus, Mohammad, Noah, or any other figure from a sacred text. There is no reason to assume that because some sort of god exists, the various stories and myths found within any particular holy book must therefore be true.

I would still accept the theory of evolution, unless the argument which convinced me of the existence of God was based upon said theory being flawed or otherwise completely unable to explain the diversity of life. (Note that such an argument would have to do two things for this scenario to come about: convince me that God exists and convince me that evolution does not occur; the latter does not necessarily imply the former.)

I would still accept that the universe is billions of years old and that the Earth most likely came to be through entirely naturalistic forces, unless the argument which lead me to believe in God was based upon the age of the universe or the Earth being wrong. (This one carries the same warning as above.)

I would still not believe in the soul or that humanity is inherently ‘unique’, unless the argument which convinced me of God’s existence was based upon proving that this is the case.

I would still not believe in any sort of afterlife.

I would still believe that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are concepts created entirely by humans, and that they are inherently subjective.

I would probably not ascribe to God some of the traditional ‘divine attributes’ (personhood, perfect goodness, simplicity etc.) popularised by Aquinas and others, although this of course would depend on the kind of argument that would convince me of God’s existence in the first place.

I would almost certainly need some sort of scientific backing for a belief in God. In other words, I am more likely to be swayed by a teleological or cosmological type argument than an ontological one.

I would still not hold my beliefs (religious or otherwise) dogmatically, and would be perfectly willing to revise my belief in God if I discovered new evidence that contradicted it.

In short, my life really wouldn’t change all that much.


Expelled – Revised Edition

November 4, 2008

It may not have come through well in my review, but Expelled is so chock full of lies that correcting them all would be a truly herculean feat.

Or so I thought. A few dedicated enthusiasts have decided to create ‘lie-correcting’ subtitles that you can superimpose over Stein’s misinformation-spewing mug. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I imagine it makes the movie a lot more bearable.


Theistic Evolutionism – Questions

October 18, 2008

A few days ago I wrote about what I see as some of the fundamental similarities between holocaust denial and Creationism, without mentioning the one area in which they differ completely: the Bible. Although White Nationalists and others who hold strongly racist views can be astoundingly dogmatic at times, they don’t claim to have in their possession the revealed truth of God. (Actually, some of them do, claiming that either Norse pagan religions or Christianity are explicitly racist in nature. I’m ignoring them because they’re just too crazy to consider.)

I bring this up not to address an oversight on my part, but to ask a few questions of so-called ‘theistic evolutionists’ – theists who have the good sense to accept evolution and not pretend that every word of the Bible or Qur’an must be literally true. Feel free to reply if you’re a theistic creationist yourself or if you used to be one.

  1. How do you reconcile those parts of Scripture which appear to require a literal interpretation of the entirety of Scripture? (I’m being a bit vague here, I know, but I’m simply echoing a question that I’ve seen posed by Creationists both on WordPress blogs and elsewhere.)
  2. Does accepting evolution make you less likely to believe in God because of some sort of teleological argument? If so, does that ‘weaken’ your faith (interpret as you wish) or do you think that God reveals his existence via some other aspect of the Universe?
  3. Can you imagine a hypothetical situation where some sort of scientific discovery leads you to becoming an atheist? Or is your belief in God (as opposed to your religious views about Scripture) entirely separate from scientific knowledge?

While I’m at it, I also have a question for Creationists, one that has recently been posed in the comments section of this blog:

  • If your belief in a young Earth and your rejection of evolution are based on Scripture, why does it matter whether the scientific evidence agrees with you? Why bother to make these pathetic attempts at undermining established science? (I’m not going to pander to you and pretend that the body of Creationist ‘work’ is anything other than pathetic.)

Holocaust Denial and Creationism

October 16, 2008

Yesterday I raised the issue of parallels between Holocaust denial and Creationism, which is something I’d like to expand on now. I’m certainly not the first person to notice the striking similarities between these two movements, but I’d like to think that I’m in a good position to talk about those similarities, as I spent some time in the past debating with holocaust deniers and spend some time now debating with Creationists.

Holocaust denial shares many similarities with Creationism in methodology, ideology and consequences, which I’ll go through point-by-point. These will be based on my somewhat outdated knowledge of holocaust denial, but I’m assuming that things haven’t changed much in the few years since I last looked into it.

Ideological bias. Both Creationism and Holocaust denial spring from strongly held ideological biases. Creationism is the product of fundamentalist religious views (primarily Christian and Islamic ones), while Holocaust denial is the product of anti-semitism, White Supremacist views and White Nationalist views, and is almost ubiquitious among those who subscribe to these worldviews. (The differences between ‘White Supremacism’ and ‘White Nationalism’ aren’t important here.)

White Nationalism (WN) in particular hinges on the idea that ‘the White Race’ (always capitalised) is under threat from multiculturalism, which has been pushed upon predominantly white nations by ‘the Jews’. Who exactly these Jews are is generally not elaborated upon, but the entire Jewsish race is frequently implicated. The story behind this supposed attempt to eradicate the white race is complex and internally inconsistent; Jews are said to have a knowingly parasitic relationship with white people even as they attempt to destroy them – this despite the fact that they are also said to be cunning and intelligent. However, the Holocaust is said to be one of the primary means by which ‘the Jews’ have gained influence over ‘white’ nations.

It is immediately obvious from this why the Holocaust being a hoax is so important to WN. Having set up the Jews as every white person’s sworn enemy, White Nationalists cannot then admit that it was a predominantly white nation, acting under a predominantly racist ideology, which was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.

Creationism is much the same. The myth of the worldwide conspiracy by atheistic scientists to undermine the Word of God is the lynchpin of the Creationist worldview. Without this vital component, much of Creationism stops making sense; it would be ludicrous to suggest that the vast majority of proffessional scientists could be wrong about evolution while the likes of Kent Hovind and Ken Ham have stumbled upon ‘the truth’. Evolution must be a conspiracy, for this reason and in order to supply Creationists with an enemy to fight against.

Methodology.

The Holocaust couldn’t have happened, because the Nazis did not have the infrastructure to transport, gas and burn the bodies of six million Jews.

The Holocaust couldn’t have happened, because Zyklon-B cannot kill humans efficiently; it was used merely as a de-lousing agent.

The Holocaust couldn’t have happened, beause some eye-witness reports of the Holocaust are contradictory.

The Holocaust couldn’t have happened, because Auschwitz had a swimming pool and even a brothel at one point! Clearly, it was a much more comfortable place than the Jews claim.

The Holocaust couldn’t have happened, because there is no historical evidence whatsoever to suggest that it did.

These kinds of claims are the bread and butter of the Holocaust denial movement, and they strongly echo similar claims made by Creationists about evolution. In all cases, the conspiracy theorist (for that is what these people are) either takes an accepted piece of historical or scientific evidence and interprets it in a bizarre fashion or else outright lies. All of the above arguments are an example of this: six million Jews were killed in World War II in its entirety, not just in concentration camps and certainly not just by gassing; Zyklon-B was first used as a delousing agent before being turned to its more infamous application, and is fully capable of killing humans (confusion over this rests upon the different methods by which it kills humans and insects); nobody expects all eye-witness reports to be 100% accurate, and this claim ignores the many reports that don’t contradict each other; Auschwitz-Birkenaudid indeed have a makeshift swimmign pool and even a brothel at one point, but it was always somewhat segmented – these relatively ‘luxurious’ aspects were never seen by those who were executed there.

Perhaps the most informative claim made by Holocaust deniers is that the changing of the estimated number of Jews killed in the ‘Final Solution’ has changed quite a bit since the end of WWII, thus ‘proving’ that historians are desperately attempting to prop up the Holocaust as a real event. This is very similar to what Creationists do when they complain about the theory of evolution changing over time as new evidence comes to light. Here the conspiracy theorist mistakes (out of ignorance or by design) the ordinary business of history or science as ‘smoking gun’ evidence of a hoax. It is usually implied that these evasive measures have been taken in repsonse to deniers rather than new evidence coming to light.

Holocaust denial also has its own semi-professional organisation (the Institute for Historical Review) which pretends to be interested only in historical and scientific truth but in reality is strongly wedded to WN ideology.

I should point out that there is one area in which Holocaust deniers have a strong case: their opinions are illegal in several countries, something that I and a lot of other people disagree with.

Consequences. Holocaust denial is thankfully a fairly rare phenomenon, and has so far not transcended the bounds of WN groups (in the Western world, at least; it’s far more common elsewhere). However, much like Creationism, it acts insidiously in that it implants the idea of a massive hoax perpetrated by ‘the establishment’ in the public consciousness and sows the seeds of anti-intellectual distrust in the historical community.

Creationism has been the success that Holocaust denial can only dream of. It is not limited only to those who would refer to themselves as Creationists, but has become disturbingly common among ‘ordinary’ Christians and conservatives in the USA and (to a lesser extent) Europe. In some Islamic countries it appears to be even more widespread.

Unlike Holocaust deniers, Creationists have actually succeeded in getting their conspiracy theories taught in public schools, and are doing their utmost to have it re-introduced. The fallout from such a Creationist victory would be devestating for education and science worldwide, and Creationists have already managed to bring about an anti-scientific culture in some areas (I doubt I need to point out why this isn’t a good thing).

Holocaust denial and Creationism are both the products of extreme worldviews and are exactly in alike in how completely they fail to make their respective cases. Despite this, they still exist and, in the case of Creationism, are thriving. This is a situation that should be deeply disturbing to anyone interested in actual scientific advancement and in particular to those whose children’s education might one day be undermined by conspiracy theorist nonsense.


Tiktaalik in the News

October 6, 2008

Our friend Tiktaalik features in this Panda’s Thumb post, in which a Creationist is loud and angry over nothing. Here’s an example of what I mean (an excerpt from the post being commented upon, from the odious evolutionnews.org):

Clearly, Darwin’s public relations team has invested much rhetorical capital into this fossil. If past experience is to be our guide, the only event that might cause Darwinists to criticize Tiktaalik would be the publishing of a fossil that was claimed to better document evolution. In the past, I have called such events, evolutionist “retroactive confessions of ignorance.” And with a recently published re-analysis of the fish Panderichthys, Darwinists are now praising Panderichthys for having features that are “much more tetrapod-like than in Tiktaalik,” and are retroactively confessing weaknesses in their precious Tiktaalik, which is now admitted to be a fossil with a “quality” that was “poor.”

The latest retroactive confessions of evolutionist ignorance comes on the heels of a published re-analysis of the bones of Panderichthys. The study used CT scans to show Panderichthys apparently had a few well-defined radial bones in its pectoral fins. (Radial bones are found only in fish fins, but evolutionary paleontologists contend that radial bones are homologous to digits in tetrapod limbs.) When commenting on this new find, the paper’s lead author, Catherine A. Boisvert, boasted in an interview with The Scientist that “it is now completely proven that fingers have evolved from distal radials already present in fish that gave rise to the tetrapod.” Boisvert also praised her findings, stating: “The disposition of distal radials in Panderichthys are much more tetrapod-like than in Tiktaalik.”

This one plays off of another misconception: the idea that scientists only have one, maybe two examples of transitional fossils at any one time. Since Archaeopteryx has been ‘proven’ by Creationists to be something that just looks exactly like a dramatic example of a transitional form but isn’t (or a hoax – yes, I still get that one), they can now turn their attention to Tiktaalik and thus refute all fossil evidence for evolution.

As ever, this new ‘controversy’ over the quality of Tiktaalik specimens is entirely fabricated by Creationist. The Panda’s Thumb writer explains why, but honestly, you should be able to spot the stupidity of the argument just by reading Luskin’s original post.


A Common Misconception

October 6, 2008

Unfortunately, Creationists aren’t the only ones who don’t quite ‘get’ evolution. Have you ever watched Heroes? Remember those odd monologues at the beginning and end of each episode? The ones that talk about ‘evolution’ as if it was some sort of weird, pervasive predestination that a person could actively (and willingly) participate in? Yeah.

There is one particular misconception that both Creationists and non-Creationists make, though, and that’s ascribing some sort of intent or purpose to natural selection. Sally Kern recently gave a perfect example of this (originally found on Pharyngula):

Kern defined evolution to me as “the process of wanting to create something or have something be perfect. Get rid of that which is not healthy and strong.”

Uh…no. Not only does this have pretty clear Social Darwinist undertones (the other major misconception that needs to be put to rest), it gets natural selection completely backwards. I’ve been told a few times that scientists believe Archaeopteryx’‘learned to fly’ because it ‘needed’ to. Obviously that’s not what anyone is saying: Archaeopteryx did not go from being non-flying to flying in a single bound, and it certainly didn’t ‘learn’ to do it.

Evolution is not a process that somehow recognises a species’ weaknesses and then attempts to address them throgh mutation; that actually would imply design. Rather, species that are better adapted to their enviroment survive, while those that cannot adapt to a changing enviroment will become extinct. There’s more to it than that, but in no way does evolution grant an organism stronger legs or better eyes because it ‘needs’ them. Nor does evolution work towards some sort of ultimate goal or purpose, and please, if you learn nothing else about science, realise that evolution is not a linear process with microscopic life on one end and Homo sapiens on the other.