Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Dear Members of the Council of Cardinals or Bishops or Whatever

Dear Members of the Council of Cardinals or Bishops or Whatever:

It is my understanding that your organization will very soon have an opening for the position of Pope. I herewith submit my application for that position. I believe I have numerous strengths that would prove valuable, invigorating, and profitable to your organization.

Here is why I would be very excited to lead your organization. As everyone knows, your organization has had considerable influence on world history, and has a nearly inestimable influence on over a billion people in the world today. Just think of what such an organization could accomplish with visionary leadership. My visionary ideas would be limited only by my imagination, and as anyone who knows me can testify, I have little constraint in the imagination department.

You all know, though you may hesitate to admit, that nearly all of your positive changes over the last millennium have resulted from outsiders or outside influences. It was the Protestant Reformation that spurred your organization to undertake its own reformation, such that many of the evils against which Martin Luther railed no longer exist within your organization. It was science that convinced you to, at long last (in 1992), admit that you were wrong about Galileo. But, you must admit, your organization has benefited immensely from embracing these changes. Instead of viewing outside criticism as an enemy, why not bring in an outsider to lead you into the changes that you know are coming? I am the person to do this. Just electing one cardinal after another has resulted only in the perpetuation of the old institutional momentum. I mean no offense by this. But you cardinals got where you are by being bureaucrats, not visionaries. The very fact that I am almost wholly ignorant of your bureaucracy and theology is not a disadvantage but an essential strength of my candidacy.

Two of my main strengths are that I know science and I know the Bible. First, science. I have devoted much study to evolution, an idea that most of your scholars now accept. In particular, I have studied altruism. Altruism is, in effect, doing well by doing good. That is, the genes of an individual are passed on more effectively, in many cases, if the individual is nice and works with others than if he or she is selfish and antagonistic. Altruism has been a stunning success in the animal kingdom (and, according to a recent article published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, in plants also, but we will skip that point). I believe you should make full use of this winning formula in your organization. Your profitability has taken a blow recently. I believe I could return your organization to profitability by emphasizing the good things it does and clearing away the things that tarnish its image. As a result, you will make your members more proud of their organization—their organization, not yours—and even attract new members. I am the altruist to do this.

Second, the Bible. I have carefully read the Bible twice, asking questions from a fresh outside viewpoint, rather than accepting the answers handed down to me by superiors. I believe my understanding of and enthusiasm for the Bible was immeasurably enhanced by this process. As a result, I believe I know what Jesus and the prophets actually wanted to accomplish. They did not want a secretive organization puffing smoke out of chimneys, but an open-to-sunlight open-to-science open-to-reason organization, which promotes real action to defend the poor and the downtrodden and the beautiful Earth on which we live.

Your organization is in great need of a fresh, outside viewpoint in order to begin turning a prophet. I mean profit. Actually, I am making an important point here. A prophet is a visionary woman or man who sees, and feels passionately about, the fundamental ideas of a society or organization, and wants to clear away the bureaucracy that hinders the actualization of that idea. Your organization is not known to the outside world for producing prophets, although everyone has heard of two of your prophets, St. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa. These prophets were, exactly like the Old Testament prophets, opposed and ground into irrelevance by the organization bureaucracy, and they became famous and revered only later: after Francis was dead and after Teresa was very old. Your organization did its best to make the world forget about other prophets such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Daniel Berrigan. Under my leadership, these prophetic voices would receive serious consideration—this means we would solicit outside opinions about them, as well as those of the organization hierarchy. You cannot make your organization profitable just by making all of your historical buildings into gift shops that sell devotional candles, as you have done with your eighteenth-century California missions. As a result of the fresh viewpoint I could bring, I believe, even outsiders would feel good about investing in your organization. Let’s hear the slogan: prophets mean profits!

I understand that the changes I envision would meet with considerable resistance. For example, I make the common-sense claim that it is time for your organization to make full use of the talents of the female half of the human race and maybe to even admit that two X chromosomes may be better than one. I also claim that it is time to stop your unreasonable proscription against birth control and clergy marriage. I further claim that it is time to focus on big issues, such as poverty and oppression and the stewardship of the Earth, rather than to spend so much of your time bolstering the quickly-fading concept of male domination. I am also open to considering such innovations as online masses including the use of 3-D printers for the dispensation of the elements of the Eucharist. Computers can now even generate the scent of incense—something to which we should give serious attention. Should your organization become profitable under my leadership, you could even invest in a satellite dedicated to creating virtual communities of faith.

I realize that you are under considerable time pressure to choose a Pope. For this and other reasons, I realize that a snowball is more likely to be selected for the position than I. But by ignoring my candidacy your organization would be passing up a great opportunity to begin turning a profit.

Should you select me as the next Pope, I would be able to begin work about June 1. I am a devoted educator and wish to finish this semester of teaching before taking another position.

Thank you for considering this application.

(I have posted a video of this letter on my YouTube channel.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

Jerry Coyne’s Critique of Accommodation

All evolutionary scientists agree that the creationists are wrong, in almost every way; but they disagree in how to deal with the problem. Scientists disagree about whether to oppose all religion, or to accommodate those religious ideas that are consistent with evolutionary science.

“Accommodationists” are evolutionary scientists who accept the legitimacy of some religious views, even if not believing them. For example, some scientists see “let there be light” as an ancient description of a Big Bang. They believe that “all truth is God’s truth” and if a religious belief contradicts the clear facts of science, then the belief must be wrong. They accept a highly figurative interpretation of the Bible. Galileo was an accommodationist; he said the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Some scientists, such as Sir John Polkinghorne, have gotten advanced degrees in theology so as to not make amateurish theological assumptions.

Of course it has not escaped anyone’s notice that religion has retreated whenever science has advanced. Galileo’s story is a case in point. See my earlier series of essays about the vast gulf between science and religion, from October 2, 2012, to January 2, 2013. One wonders if, someday, the accommodationists will have anything left to accommodate. Even the oft-repeated question, “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” might have a cosmological answer someday.

Some accommodationists are sincere believers in some form of religion. Others are simply being practical: religion is here to stay, and we might as well work with it. Religion may be ineradicable (I am trying to use the word neutrally): even if there is no genetic basis for religion per se, its mental components and the memes that activate them will always be part of the human experience in some form. I am reminded of the scene in Nicholas Mosley’s novel Hopeful Monsters in which two children in Soviet Russia had a secret cave with Orthodox icons in it. Accommodationists think that opposing religion itself is not only going to fail but it is going to make some religious people, who might otherwise be open to science, dig in their heels. I have actually seen science teachers who are religious show resistance to evolution, then soften into cheerfulness when they realize that the evolutionary scientists are not preaching atheism.

Many accommodationists are greatly bothered by the tone taken by many of their critics, one of the most prominent of whom is P. Z. Myers, who writes the Pharyngula blog. It is an extremely popular blog and, in the eyes of many outside of science, represents scientific belief. Sam Harris is famous for saying that Francis Collins’s religious beliefs make him a very poor choice to be the head of NIH. Another vocal anti-accommodationist is Jerry Coyne, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Coyne, however, published an article in the journal Evolution in 2012 that makes a very reasonable critique of scientists accommodating religion and is well worth reading. Most Evolution articles are for members only, but this one is free.

Some of Coyne’s points are common sense. The mere fact that some scientists are religious does not mean science and religion are compatible. “That people can simultaneously hold two conflicting worldviews in their head is evidence not for compatibility but for” the flexibility of the human mind. “This argument for science/faith compatibility is like saying that Christianity and adultery are compatible because many Christians are adulterers.”

But Coyne makes some very basic and insightful points. It is similar to the point I also made in the first of my essays on science and religion, though of course he thought of it first. Coyne says, “In science faith is a vice, in religion it is a virtue.” Furthermore, science itself is based on the assumption that “deities do not affect the universe.” Coyne says this is a “conclusion born of experience; the experience that only a naturalistic attitude—that is, a scientific one—has helped us understand nature and make verified predictions about it.” Name an example of any time that religion has helped science make a discovery.

Coyne’s position is further strengthened by a study published this year in Science by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. This article is available to members only, but this link shows you the abstract. Gervais and Norenzayan preconditioned some study participants by showing them images (such as The Thinker statue by Rodin) that promoted an attitude of critical thought, and preconditioned others by showing them the otherwise similar discus-thrower statue (Discobolus by Myron). Regardless of their general religious beliefs, experimental preconditioning to critical thought significantly reduced the participants’ acceptance of religious statements. To many of us, this is experimental verification that religion dulls the proclivity (though perhaps not the ability) to think carefully.

Coyne’s solution is to quit accommodating. He particularly criticizes the John Templeton Foundation and the AAAS DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) program, as well as Stephen Jay Gould. He isn’t even very pleased with the National Center for Science Education. And he goes further. He says that scientists should actively try to “weaken the grasp of religion on America…” He points, correctly, to the recent and dramatic secularization of Europe. However, he does not claim that European secularization was caused even in part by anti-religion missionaries telling people to stop going to church. So he cannot use the example of Europe to demonstrate that scientists will be successful in an attempt to de-religionize America.

Then, at the end of the article, Coyne seems to draw a different conclusion. Coyne presents data that indicate an association between how religious and how dysfunctional a society is. But which causes which? I live in rural Oklahoma and know of no one who says, “I am religious, therefore I will beat my wife and get into drugs and crime.” Maybe, after all, we scientists should not go around trying to weaken religious belief: Coyne says, “…weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian.” Now this conclusion is one that, I think, even Francis Collins could accept. And if, as a result of the advancement of altruism in society, religion dwindles away, this is a risk that accommodationists will have to accept.

Announcement: I just posted a YouTube video about symbiogenesis on my channel.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Confessions of an Oklahoma Evolutionist

I gave a presentation last Saturday afternoon in Tulsa. There were 35 people in attendance. It was every teacher’s dream. Not every lecturer’s dream: if your idea is that the audience will just passively absorb what you say, then this audience was not for you. But they were actively engaged in my presentation, and then asked questions for a half hour afterwards. While I think my presentation was good and had many valuable insights, the best part was clearly the audience discussion. In particular, I was not always the person to answer the question. I was ready for disagreement, but it turned out there was none. Convened by the Humanist Association of Tulsa, the audience seemed to consist mostly of Unitarians. But they were very knowledgeable people, including some who were retired scientists and science writers.

Briefly, my point was that evolutionists cannot ignore religion. Religion evolved and may be an instinct. Religion can be good or bad, and we should facilitate the good things and oppose the bad things. I focused on my own experiences, and those of my ancestors in Oklahoma. It was a very personal story, long on experiences and short on science, as appropriate for this audience. A PDF of the script from which I extemporized is at my website. The direct connection is here.

The audience brought up some interesting things to discuss. If I get a chance to post video clips from this session (which I will announce later), I hope to include some of the audience dynamics. One person wanted to know whether technology speeds up or slows down natural selection. Another wanted to know about the humanity and intelligence of the Neanderthals. Another wanted to discuss the origin of languages and the possible pivotal role of women in this process. While I had a lot to say from my extensive reading and writing on these topics, I was happy to defer to my wife, Lee Rice, who has studied and taught linguistics. She took a break from being a camera-person to leading a brief discussion. Thanks!

Julie Angle, on the education faculty at Oklahoma State University, was present, and whenever there was discussion of teaching evolution in Oklahoma, I was able to ask her to help. I said that if I have questions about science education, I would turn to her. I did not plan her presence; it was a lucky blessing. Thanks!

It is always a pleasure when a speaker, even one dressed up like Charles Darwin, can let the audience keep a good discussion going. I tend to be a control freak, but I have learned to deliberately let discussions take on a life and an evolutionary trajectory of their own.

Thanks to Larry Roth and the Humanist Association of Tulsa for sponsoring this presentation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Darwin Presentation in Tulsa on Saturday Feb 16

Here is an announcement of my presentation this Saturday:

OESE president-elect Dr. Stanley Rice will give a presentation titled "Confessions of an Oklahoma Evolutionist: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" on Saturday, Feb. 16 in the Harmon Conference Room of the Genealogy Center at 2901 S. Harvard Ave. in Tulsa at 2:00 PM. For details, visit the Oklahoma Science Teachers Association online here.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Why Creationists and Other Conservatives Reject Global Climate Disruption

Many of us have wondered why the same people who attack evolution also attack human-caused global climate disruption. Many evolution education organizations, from the National Center for Science Education to Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, now address both issues. Many of us have assumed that the two issues are connected by a general conservative attack on science, and perhaps by the fact that the Republican Party happens to reject both.

But I think there is a more direct reason. It is that conservatives believe that God designed the Earth so that we humans could live in technological comfort, raise lots of grain to feed to cattle, drive big fast pickup trucks, use water for private swimming pools, and have unlimited reproduction. The fact that God did not do so is deeply disturbing to them, and they reject this fact vigorously.

The early Old Testament writings assumed that God had designed the world, and designed it for man. These Biblical writers, however, assumed that big cities, based on massive agricultural production, were evil. Their ideal was wandering shepherds like Abel and Abraham and young David, not agriculturalists like Cain and big technologically-advanced cities like Babel (Babylon), Sodom, and Gomorrah. These early writers might have agreed that God did not design the world for the kinds of things we are now doing in it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Destroying the Fourth Dimension

The human species is unique in having the ability to store knowledge than any one brain can contain, and the ability to pass this knowledge on from one generation to the next, especially in the form of writing. This is one of our greatest evolutionary adaptations. It allows a fourth dimension of adaptation: time.

When religious extremists, of whatever variety, wish to brainwash people into following them, one of the things they sometimes do is to attempt to erase the knowledge of the past. Their message is clear: God’s work begins right now, with them, and whatever has gone before is irrelevant. The extremists present themselves as the sole and unprecedented source of God’s words and will.

This is nothing new. According to Edward Gibbon, Christian zealots destroyed the Library of Alexandria, the last and greatest collection of ancient writings. During the Reformation, Catholics destroyed Protestant books, Protestants destroyed Catholic books, and everybody destroyed Jewish books, along with the persons who read them. Nazis burned Jewish books. But we sometimes think that, in modern times, we no longer do this. But do you remember when, in 2009, the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC, planned to burn Bibles? They failed to get the necessary fire permit so they just tore them up instead. They wanted to destroy all versions of the Bible except the King James Version.

Just this past week, religious extremists struck again at the fourth dimension. Before fleeing Timbuktu, in Mali, Islamist militants set fire to as many as twenty thousand ancient manuscripts. The manuscripts were Muslim books and writings, but the militants were passionately convinced that nobody before them really knew what Allah wanted people to believe. They tried to erase the past and make people think that they have the one true interpretation of Islam, and that everyone who went before them is irrelevant. They claim to venerate Mohammed, but to them Mohammed is just a stick figure that they use to justify their own blasphemy.

Perhaps the main reason that no group of zealots has ever been able to wipe out all of the knowledge that preceded them is that this knowledge was widely distributed. Especially after the invention of the printing press, lots of copies of books were spread everywhere, and no one could track all of them down. I wonder if this might be changing. If all of our books are eventually released only online; and if the books themselves are not sold, but only the temporary right to read them; is it not possible that a centralized, religiously-crazy government could use the internet to destroy all copies of a book that they oppose? This sounds like a weird story for a dystopian future, but it may be closer to reality than we like to think. I have no doubt that, if they had this ability, the Islamist extremists in Mali would have destroyed all writings except their own interpretation of the Koran.

One of our main evolutionary adaptations is the distributed network of brains and books—interconnected, but independent.