Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What Did Thomas Nagel Write?

Thomas Nagel, a professor of philosophy, has written a book entitled Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, a book that has been given the singular distinction of being the Most Despised Science Book of 2012.  I have not read this book but here is what one reviewer had to say:
So what caused the offence?

Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.

There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin.
That nature would have some sort of direction and purpose has a distinct air of not just “intelligent design.” He is clear that he is not invoking a god of any sort, which leaves EC out in the cold.

The funny thing about the criticism that I can tell is that by just suggesting that there may be a direction in nature, he is drawing evolutionary biologists into the realm of philosophy where they are not as comfortable. In that realm, there is no logical reason for arguing that nature cannot have direction and purpose. When it stays within its own realm and is properly practiced, evolutionary biology has no say in whether or not nature has direction and purpose. That is the purview of the philosophers and theologians. Nonetheless, it has been the impulse of atheists like Dawkins and Myers to cross into the realm of philosophy in evaluating the role of evolution in the world around us. Consequently, when Dawkins released The God Delusion, it was not universally well-received and many critics argued that he had overstepped his bounds.

Darwin provided a mechanism for which evolution could be understood within a naturalistic perspective.  He did not, however, write anywhere that nature was inherently godless and admitted a reluctance to jettison his own beliefs in God, even if they did not take the form of Christianity. Whether or not one believes in God should have no bearing on the acceptance or rejection of evolutionary theory, nor should one's acceptance of evolutionary theory necessitate rejection of belief in God. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An Intelligent Design Murder Mystery

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has profiled a writer of murder mysteries who has centred one around Intelligent Design.  The book, titled Murder Intelligently Designed (Grit and Grace Mysteries) has the following tagline: “When atheistic biology professor, Brenda Blechard, is found flattened under a bust of Nietzsche, Grit Griffin, Grace Willis, and fellow "Deep Water" members must solve the crime and exonerate a friend.”  Being a pastor's wife, she has accepted the propositions of intelligent design but has this to say about other views:
Christians unabashedly should be able to accept proven scientific theory and still conclude there is a God, Wooley says.

"Those who insist on Earth being created in six 24-hour days -- you're not going to change their minds," she says. "But they're doing a disservice to Christians who want to pursue science" and a God who wouldn't allow the revelation of so much scientific information if it were false.

Wooley, 65, a minister's wife and former church secretary, also can't help putting her experiences and her frustrations in the book.

One of her characters, for instance, recalls being forced to attempt to speak in tongues as a child. That mirrored the author's childhood, when she was "frightened to death" by an occurrence at a Pentecostal Bible camp.

"At that age," she says, "nobody should be told they'll be unable to be a Christian and won't be loved by God" if they can't perform on demand.
It should be a good read.

More Trouble for the Complete "Out-of-Africa" Model

Science Daily is reporting on research done on migration patterns involving early anatomically modern humans.  They write:
The team, led by Johannes Krause from Tübingen University, was able to reconstruct more than ten mitochondrial genomes (mtDNAs) from modern humans from Eurasia that span 40,000 years of prehistory. The samples include some of the oldest modern human fossils from Europe such as the triple burial from Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, as well as the oldest modern human skeletons found in Germany from the site of Oberkassel close to Bonn.

The researchers show that pre-ice age hunter-gatherers from Europe carry mtDNA that is related to that seen in post-ice age modern humans such as the Oberkassel fossils. This suggests that there was population continuity throughout the last major glaciation event in Europe around 20,000 years ago. Two of the Dolni Vestonice hunter-gatherers also carry identical mtDNAs, suggesting a close maternal relationship among these individuals who were buried together.
It was also suggested that the split between non-Africans and Africans was much later in time, between 62 and 95 ky BP. This would mean that the window of hybridization would be much larger than originally thought and that archaic and modern hybridization was a good deal more common until a later time than thought.  The first moderns that we have are from the site of Bouri, in the Afar Triangle, and date to around 160 ky BP.  Maddeningly, what we are lacking is good material between that time and around 100 ky BP, when the Near Eastern Skhul and Qafzeh material are found.  A friend of mine and I argued that the archaic traits in those skulls represent African archaic traits and not hybridization with Neandertals.  This would seem to support that.  They suggest that there are discrepancies between these results and previous ones but, critically, that these results tend to support both the palaeoanthropological and archaeological evidence.    Here is the citation:

Fu et al., A Revised Timescale for Human Evolution Based on Ancient Mitochondrial Genomes,
Current Biology (2013),

Io9 Misses the Point

George Dvorsky at io9 thinks that the new Pope believes in evolution, but then gives us absolutely no evidence to back that claim up. He writes:
The answer is actually yes. And in fact, the Roman Catholic Church has recognized Darwinian evolution for the past 60 years. It openly rejects Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism saying that it "pretends to be science." But the Church’s unique take on the theory, what it calls theistic evolution, still shows that Catholics have largely missed the point.
He then proceeds to document the church's position on evolution all the way up through Pope Benedict VI. Consequently, we know no more about Pope Francis then we did. That is not the principle problem with this post, however. The principle problem is a maddening inability to distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes. About theistic evolution, he continues:
But it's here where the Church falls flat. This is the classic argument made by all reconciliationists — the idea that religion and Darwinian natural selection can work in harmony together. It’s a “want my cake and eat it too” proposition that largely ignores the potency of Darwin’s dangerous idea as a God killer.

Darwin’s theory provides for a stand alone system. Evolution is fully autonomous process that does not require any guiding “rationality” (Benedict’s term) to function. It’s an agonizingly slow, brutish, and insanely methodical process, but it works.

Moreover, it has given rise to the concept of scientific naturalism — the idea that the material world and all the phenomena we see around us can be explained without having to invoke an architect or overseer. All the evidence currently points to this conclusion, and until science reveals any hint of supernatural meddling — which it has not – we will continue to have to accept naturalism as the ongoing scientific paradigm.
Here is has invoked Daniel Dennett's argument that acceptance of evolution necessitates a rejection of belief in God, something that Darwin himself never wrote or said at any point in time. The idea that it might be a "God Killer" is unique to modern atheism. He is correct that Darwinian evolution explains past and present biodiversity very well but so what? Modern cosmology explains the universe quite well too and yet there are Christians who practice it. The same is true with geology (Davis Young, Carol Hill) where known laws set out by Lyell and others are the basis for the modern understanding of how the earth behaves. These are no more or less self-contained than evolutionary theory.

By invoking a "Cake and eat it too" dichotomy, Dvorsky has practiced a philosophically naturalistic reductionism that sees the belief in God and evolution as a zero-sum game, which it is not.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Science Teachers Express Frustration

Science teachers are beginning to express frustration about having to get around legislation that requires them to add ID-tinged education to their classrooms.  As Bob Fowler, of the Knoxville News Sentinel writes:
Teachers today face daunting, sometimes scary challenges, a trio of Oak Ridge High School educators said Thursday.

“We’re teaching science in a climate of denial,” biology teacher Beth Adler said. “We have legislated denial.”

From the theory of evolution to climate change, teachers are becoming wary of teaching basic scientific consensus because of the potential backlash they can face, she said.

“This leads to intimidated and capitulating teachers,” she said. “We need courage. It is scary,” Adler said. “We need to hear ‘Thank you for teaching the scientific consensus.’”

Adler said she’s faced 14- and 15-year-old students, some of them in tears, “ready to argue basic scientific principles,” and other students “thinking that climate change is a liberal hoax.”
This is what happens when people who have no basic scientific knowledge get into positions of power in legislatures and then can wreck havoc on educational policies. You need to have a policy in place so that people who are appointed to education committees or who run for state education boards have to pass a basic test in the understanding of modern science. Those who cannot or will not try to understand it should not be on education boards.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Another "Noah's Ark" Opens

Reuters is reporting that a replica of Noah's Ark has opened at a church in San Antonio, Texas.  According to the press release:
Approximately 20,000 people attended the unveiling of the newest addition to Cornerstone Church, a 28,400-square-foot Noah`s Ark inspired building on Saturday, March 16.
And then down a bit...
The Ark boasts true-to-size animatronics animals, custom-designed wall murals, synthetic trees and grasses, LED shooting stars, custom wood-plank carpeting and more. The building will host the church`s Sunday school, Mother`s Day Out and other children`s programs. With its unique, stimulating and larger-than-life elements, the Ark experience truly brings to life the famed Bible story.

"There is no greater investment that can be made than that of building a foundation in the life of a child that will keep them the rest of their days," said Pastor Matthew Hagee. "The Congregation at Cornerstone has once again demonstrated its deep desire to be certain that every child has a refuge in the Ark of God`s loving embrace. To God be the Glory. Great things He has done."
One might reasonably argue that a much better way to make sure that every child has refuge is to feed more of the hungry and take care of more widows and orphans than an ostentatious live-size Noah's Ark.  I get the need for a new church building.  We built one a decade or so back but we kept it as inexpensive as possible so we could use more money for mission purposes.  

Perhaps what I am reacting to in this story, however, is that it is yet another fundamentalist church veering off in a direction that is, I think, antithetical to the original mission of the church, and doing so in a way that reflects a particular view of scripture that, more every day, I am coming to believe, is gnostic. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Duane Gish Has Died

I missed this when it happened last week.  One of the grand old men of young earth creationism, Duane Gish, has died at the age of 92.  There is an obituary on the Answers in Genesis page. Mark Looy writes:
On this website earlier today, we shared the sad news that famed creationist debater Dr. Duane T. Gish had passed away this morning. This great defender of the Christian faith was a tireless and bold defender of the book of Genesis. The same courage that marked his service during WWII in the Pacific Theater of the war was seen in later years as he appeared about 300 times at venues around the world as he took the stage to debate prominent evolutionists, sometimes facing a hostile audience who jeered his defense of Genesis.
I saw Gish in the late 1990s, when he came to the University of Tennessee. He did, indeed, have a compelling presentation, even if most of it was either wrong or based on out-dated information. The interesting thing about Gish and other traveling debaters is that, as they moved from town to town and university to university, their presentations didn't change, even in the face of devastating rebuttals. This problem seems to characterize young earth creationism in general.  The same discredited arguments keep popping up, although there are exceptions to this pattern, Todd Wood, for example.

The statement that he often faced hostile audiences may only be partly true.  One of the complaints that many scientists have about debating creationists is that they bus in huge crowds from local churches to bolster their cases.  Additionally, whether or not Gish received hostile treatment at other universities, he certainly did not at UT.  The one thing that did characterize the festivities is that the audience was very polite.  So much so that some of Gish's arguments that obviously did not hold water, were not adequately challenged. 

Nonetheless, he has now gone to be with the Lord.  Rest in Peace, Dr. Gish.

Attention-Grabbing Ad

Here is the advertisement that 23andMe runs. It certainly got my attention.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Another Ersatz Science Bill Fails

NCSE reports that the time limit on the reading of Oklahoma House Bill 1674 was allowed to lapse.  According to the story:
Along with Senate Bill 758, which died in February 2013, HB 1674 was one of two proposed laws that would have undermined the integrity of science education in Oklahoma. If enacted, HB 1674 would have encouraged teachers to "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught." HB 1674 specifically mentioned "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as subjects which "some teachers may be unsure" about how to teach.
Funny how these bill always emphasize just these subjects, as if the science is settled on all of the other subjects being taught.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Science and the Catholic Church

Tanya Lewis of LiveScience has penned a short refresher on the history of the Catholic church's relationship with science.  She reminds us that it's relationship with evolution has been a rocky one, writing:
The church's views on evolution have themselves evolved over the years. For the first hundred years or so after Charles Darwin first put forth his theory, the church took no formal stance on evolution, though some church figures rejected it. As late as the 1950s, the church maintained a neutral position on the subject, but by the end of the 20th century the Catholic Church showed general acceptance of 'theistic evolution,' which states that God created a universe where cosmic and biological evolution occurred.

"The theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge," former pope John Paul II said in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican in October 1996.
It is known that Pope Benedict's views on evolution seemed to be in flux during his pontificate. There has been no word about what the views of Pope Francis I are in this matter. I will see if I can find any writings.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

News Looking Up For Accurate Science in Homeschooling?

The Atlantic has an excellent article on changes that are happening in the homeschool market that suggest that many homeschoolers are getting disgusted with the bad science.  David Wheeler writes:
For homeschooling parents who want to teach their children that the earth is only a few thousand years old, the theory of evolution is a lie, and dinosaurs coexisted with humans, there is no shortage of materials. Kids can start with the Answers in Genesis curriculum, which features books such as Dinosaurs of Eden, written by Creation Museum founder Ken Ham. As the publisher's description states, "This exciting book for the entire family uses the Bible as a 'time machine' to journey through the events of the past and future."

It's no secret that the majority of homeschooled children in America belong to evangelical Christian families. What's less known is that a growing number of their parents are dismayed by these textbooks.

Take Erinn Cameron Warton, an evangelical Christian who homeschools her children. Warton, a scientist, says she was horrified when she opened a homeschool science textbook and found a picture of Adam and Eve putting a saddle on a dinosaur. "I nearly choked," says the mother of three. "When researching homeschooling curricula, I found that the majority of Christian homeschool textbooks are written from this ridiculous perspective. Once I saw this, I vowed never to use them." Instead, Warton has pulled together a curriculum inspired partly by homeschool pioneer Susan Wise Bauer and partly by the Waldorf holistic educational movement
If you will recall, it was the whole "dinosaur-with-a-saddle" problem that got Ken Ham into hot water, recently.The sad thing is that the biblical stories have been twisted so far out of proportion that they are barely recognizable for what they are and pictures like this, which should strike any student of the Bible as ridiculous, are simply accepted. 

Wheeler writes that many people homeschool not for religious reasons but because they don't like what is being taught in the public schools. That is partly so and partly not. One of the principle reasons that many do not like the public schools is that God has been summarily removed from the picture and it is hard to instill biblical values over the secular ones that the kids are pummeled with every day.

Part of the reason that some of us do not have our kids in public schools is because of the progressive dumbing-down not just of the students but of the administration, as well. Witness the recent problems resulting from lack of rudimentary common sense on the part of teachers and administrators involving children with pastries and toy soldiers. In the first case, the common sense was evident to everyone except the school officials, who suggested counseling for kids (rather than themselves) who were troubled by the incident. Most homeschoolers look on at these stories with a mixture of disbelief, horror and amusement and think, "There but for the grace of God, go we." But for those of us who despair of the lack of critical thinking in the sciences, hope is on the way:
The rising number of homeschool families striving to reconcile belief in God with today's scientific consensus has attracted the attention of at least one publisher -- Christian Schools International in Grand Rapids, Michigan...The CSI science curriculum clearly presents science from a Christian perspective, but does not attempt to discredit the theory of evolution. The content presents God as the author of all of creation, no matter how he did it or when he did it."
This is welcome news for those of us that just watched a child slog through It couldn't Just Happen, which does no better a job than Of Pandas and People in getting the biological and evolutionary sciences right. For both of these books, the emphasis is single-minded: the destruction of evolution. There is no other objective.  If conventional, accurate science is trod upon in the process, so be it.

I don't expect miracles overnight but this is a good first step.  There will be backlash from groups like Answers in Genesis, Abeka and Bob Jones, however.  I just hope that these "underdog" publishers stay true to their mission.  We will all benefit from it. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Jonathan Merritt: Why conservative Christians should oppose teaching the Bible in public schools

Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Service suggests that it would be a very bad thing for public schools to teach the Bible.  In the wake of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's History Channel miniseries The Bible, he writes:
Two days before the first episode aired, however, the couple penned a controversial opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible.” They argued that public schools should encourage or perhaps mandate teaching courses on the sacred book. This should apparently top the list of priorities in a time when America’s educational system is faced with depleting resources and failing to keep up with the rest of the world’s students.
Christian pastors and leaders in social media lauded Burnett and Downey’s article as wise and appropriate. And while the timing of publication could not have been more perfect—the article reads like a thinly veiled marketing piece with a commercial for the television show inserted as the seventh paragraph—the  arguments are worth considering.
The crux of the problem is, as Merritt sees it (and I fully agree with him) how would the Bible be taught? He suggests that it would not likely be the Bible that most evangelicals want taught. For example:
Those who teach these courses will most likely be non-literalists trained at secular state universities, not homeschooled conservative evangelicals or Bible college graduates. They may believe that the many “seeming contradictions” of the Bible are actual ones. If asked, they may teach students that the stories of “Jonah and the Whale” or “Noah’s Ark” are mythic allegories, rather than historical accounts of miraculous events.

Do the Christians crying for a reintroduction of Bible courses want their children taught, for example, that the creation account in Genesis is little more than pretty poetry? It’s safe to assume they do not. But most haven’t thought this deeply about the issue.
I have used this argument against the teaching of young earth creationism in schools. Typically, when Christians advocate this kind of thing, they are unaware of the insurmountable scientific problems associated with these views.  Aside from the fact that it is ersatz science, teaching these arguments in a public school setting would paint a target on those cherished beliefs and open them up to complete ridicule when it is discovered that they don't hold up to even rudimentary scientific examination. If Christians thought this one through, they would not want this.
Sorry about the lack of posts.  My mother passed away this last week and I have been preoccupied with that. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

New Scientist: Is Extinction Really Such a Bad Thing?

A new exhibit at London's Natural History Museum asks just that question and concludes that, no, it is not.  Shaoni Bhattacharya at The New Scientist's Culture Lab writes:
The five mass extinctions in Earth's history wiped out swathes of life, but out of the devastation new species rose - shaped and honed by evolution - to inherit the Earth. More than 99 per cent of species that ever lived are now dead, and the exhibition hammers home the point that extinction drives evolution, which results in life in all its wondrous forms.

But it tempers this message strongly with a second sobering one: human actions are causing extinctions in a way never before seen. "If we don't do anything about it, make no mistake - it will hugely affect the world we live in," says Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist at the museum whose work on the extinct Irish elk forms part of the exhibition. "It would take the biosphere millions of years to recover."

It's not all doom, though. There are upbeat stories on display - animals we drove to the brink but then saved through conservation efforts: the Californian condor, the Arabian oryx, and China's Pere David's deer.
We have many, many tales of extinction in our own "bush." The robust australopithecines, who got out-competed by early Homo and the Neandertals come to mind.  The case of the Neandertals is peculiar, however, because it looks like they interbred with modern humans before they got gene-swamped.  Regardless, it is out of their stock and those like them that we came.

As far as conservation goes, I certainly hope we learn to understand how important it is to have our great apes around.