Friday, October 29, 2010

Scientific Faith

All scientists are people of faith. A few are religious people, adhering to specific doctrines. Most are spiritual, with a reverence for the beauty of the universe, particularly of whatever part of it they are studying (in my case, trees and other plants). But all scientists make at least one assumption of faith. We believe that we can find the truth.

All of us scientists believe that the universe makes sense and that we at least have a chance to figure out how. We analyze light from distant galaxies, with a firm faith that light in those galaxies obeys the same laws of physics as does the light from our own sun, and that from that light we can determine the distance of the galaxy and how rapidly it is rushing away from its Big Bang point of origin. We believe in our own brains. We cannot see the Big Bang but we trust that our inference of it, from the correspondence between distance and velocity of the galaxies, is not a delusion. We believe that if there is a God, he has not created fake light to trick us into thinking that the universe is 13.2 billion years old, or fake DNA in our chromosomes to make it look like we had evolutionary ancestors when in fact we did not, and did not magically move plants and animals around during the Flood to make the resulting fossils appear to have an evolutionary order.

I have students who do believe that God made fake light, fake DNA, and a fake fossil record to trick us into rejecting creationism. Not surprisingly, these are the students who have little interest in science, even the science that should be compatible with their religion. These are the students who often plagiarize papers, since they are not interested in thinking for themselves. What is the point, if the physical world is an illusion?

But, I assert, it is the scientists, not the anti-scientists, who are people of faith. It is faith because we cannot prove that the universe is not a fake scenario created by God. I doubt that any of us scientists has ever stopped in the middle of our work and thought, “Geez! What if everything I am studying is just an illusion created by Zeus?” And we stake our entire lives on this faith. If a government were ever to threaten to kill us for accepting the evidence of evolution, most of us would probably end up being martyrs.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sexual Selection and Conservative Politics

There is a close connection between sex and conservative politics. Not the one you would first think of, namely, that many conservative politicians are boastful of their sexual infidelities, and remain proudly in office proclaiming Republican family values. Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich, and David Vitter are names that come quickly to mind. (Check them out on a website I found.) Rather, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection helps to explain the very existence of conservative politics. Here’s how.

Sexual selection is a process that rewards organisms for characteristics that allow them to mate more successfully—even if those characteristics are otherwise dangerous or wasteful for the organism. The example that is most often used is the bright feathers of birds. Colorful feathers do not help a bird get more food, or to be better adapted to its climate. The feathers serve only to attract mates. Most evolutionary biologists agree that the color feathers are indicators of the health and strength of the bird—only a healthy bird could afford to make them. A female bird cannot judge the quality of a male bird’s hidden genes, but the colorful feathers are indicators of underlying genetic quality.

Health, and bravery. A male deer with big antlers (some Irish elk, an extinct species of deer, had antlers a fathom wide) is healthy, and a male deer that can push aside another male deer with his antlers is brave. The female deer want to benefit from the resources and territory of the dominant male. In many animal species, males compete with other males and females choose from among them.

As Geoffrey Miller points out, many human characteristics have been sexually selected as fitness indicators. For example, hunting and sports are activities that contribute little to domestic economy, but allow males to show off how brave and strong they are to females. (The women do not usually see the hunt itself, but see the big animal that the triumphant hunter brings home.) And women often show off their abilities to men as well. In humans, both men and women compete with members of their own gender and choose members of the other.

I will take Miller’s idea one step further. I admit this is a speculative hypothesis. If any readers have an idea of how my hypothesis can be tested, let me know.

Conservative politics is a fitness indicator just like big antlers or the instinct to fight. As a matter of fact, conservative politics mostly consists of fighting. A fiercely conservative man will nearly always speak in warlike terms, and even in the complete absence of information he is extremely decisive. His sword is always at the ready. Nearly all of them, in my experience, say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, but this is the truth.” This is a nearly exact quote that I frequently hear from them. We shoot first and ask questions later, says the sign posted outside of many conservative houses. Many women find this attractive, because they feel that the opinionated man would be a good fighter and defend the home from being attacked by Democrats. Likewise, many conservative women who spout off warlike ideals may do so, even subconsciously, in the hope that a strong fighter will be attracted to them.

In most cases, reason and the search for evidence is not as sexy. The stereotypical Democrat wants to reason, reach consensus, and do what is best for everybody. This is why true conversations cannot take place between far right conservatives and anyone else (even moderate Republicans). Conservatives spout their talking points and shift immediately into abuse. For a progressive to engage a conservative in conversation is like a medieval Irish monk trying to reason with a Viking who is pissing in the Eucharist grail, or like a dull bird trying to explain to the chicks how he really does have good genes, really.

Conservatism is not really a political position. Conservatives claim to be pro-family and opposed to big government. But many of them are pro-adultery and want as big a government as possible in order to start wars and pay contractors a lot of money for little work at taxpayer expense. They have talking points, not principles. And this is exactly what an evolutionary explanation would predict: the talking points are intended to intimidate, not to prove anything. Conservatives seem to have a deep psychological need to be hypocrites. Nearly every conservative I know is a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is a display of power—“I’m lying, and you can’t do anything about it,” they seem to say.

This idea came to me when I saw one of my students—a meek and gentle girl—wearing a T-shirt with an image of Rosie the Riveter. The shirt read, “Up yours, Obama.” During the Bush Administration, a liberal wearing a T-shirt that deliberately offended Bush would have at least been questioned by authorities as being possible terrorist sympathizers. But if a conservative insults Obama (who, I remind you, is commander in chief of a war against terrorists, just as Bush was), it is hallowed free speech. Even though the Al Qaeda terrorists believe just as strongly as this girl in “Up yours, Obama,” no one will call her a terrorist sympathizer. No one will threaten this girl with death, as I heard my fellow Okies threaten the Dixie Chicks in 2002. Now, I could simply have been offended (although, as a professor, it would be inappropriate for me to confront the student in anger). Instead, I reflected that this was the product of ongoing human social evolution. This girl, who seems so gentle, may not herself be mean, but may be seeking the protection of a strong, mean man. (And, of course, there are many strong, mean conservative women who have male admirers.) Conservatives are mean, and it is a sexual turn-on. That’s the way it has always been, at least since the days of Athens and Sparta, and probably since the days when Og bragged around the campfire about how he was more glorious in war than Zog as the listening villagers ate auroch meat. Conservatism has nothing to do with reason and evidence, and conservative voters cannot be swayed by either.

Conservatism is the product of evolution by means of sexual selection. This is rather humorous, given that they pretend to be sexually modest and they hate evolution.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Death of Gonzago

Evolution is the most outstanding example of science that the world has ever seen. The framework of evolution has been constructed from thousands of hypotheses, each of them tested and confirmed. It is true that evolution, as a whole, cannot be tested; it is simply too big. But all of the hypotheses of which evolutionary theory consists have been proven.

The scientific mindset, in all walks of life, consists of testing hypotheses with evidence. When I hypothesize that someone has done something (usually something bad), based on circumstantial evidence, I then gather direct evidence to test my hypothesis. This sometimes leads me to reluctantly consider that my hypothesis was wrong. The scientific method leads to honesty and fairness in human interactions because it forbids us to draw conclusions from our hunches. A hunch is a good hypothesis with which to begin, but it must be tested before you conclude that someone is guilty of wrongdoing.

One of the most famous, though seldom recognized, examples of someone using the scientific method is Hamlet. He was thoroughly convinced that his uncle had murdered his father, and became king. After all, his father’s ghost had told him so. The murder was particularly gruesome. “Sleeping within my garden, my custom always of the afternoon,” said the ghost, the uncle sneaked up with a vial of poison, and “in the porches of my ear did pour the leperous distilment, whose effect holds such an enmity with the blood of man that…with a sudden vigor doth posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk…”

But how could Hamlet convince anyone that the king was a murderer? How did he, himself, know that he was not crazy? He needed to test his hypothesis.

The opportunity came when a troop of actors came through Elsinore. A brilliant experiment popped into Hamlet’s mind. He asked the troop leader if they could perform The Death of Gonzago. They said they could, and Hamlet arranged for its performance. In this play, a murder was enacted that was exactly the same as the way Hamlet’s uncle poisoned his father. Hamlet’s hypothesis was that if the king was guilty, he would react strongly upon seeing the murder enacted. If the king seemed unmoved, it might mean he was innocent, or it might mean he was just a cool liar. But it was an experiment worth doing. The experiment made Hamlet particularly excited, with the kind of glee a scientist often feels: “The play’s the thing wherein we will catch the conscience of the king.”

The experiment worked. The king, stood up and walked away during the enactment of the murder. As it turned out, though, Hamlet was not able to use this evidence to prove the king’s guilt. Or at least he didn’t. But it was a good, scientific try. And it convinced him that he was not just imagining what the ghost of his father had told him.

The anti-evolutionists take the first thoughts that pop into their heads and run off to metaphorically murder scientists (the way Hamlet, assuming the bulge behind the curtain was the king, stabbed Polonius) without carefully testing their hypotheses. In contrast, the patience of evolutionists, testing tens of thousands of hypotheses, one strand of DNA at a time, one fossil at a time, has led to the construction of the greatest structure of knowledge the world has ever known.

Also, please remember to tell your associates about this blog, and to vote Democratic (the less unsatisfactory choice) in the upcoming midterm elections.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Lover's Embrace?

Richard Dawkins visited the University of Oklahoma on March 6, 2009. In the parking lot outside of the field house where he spoke, a van was parked. It was a van for the Thank God For Evolution group. In the logo on the side of the van, a Jesus fish, an extremely common symbol on bumper stickers, was kissing a Darwin fish.

While this sentiment is commendable—who would not want to minimize the unnecessary conflict between evolutionary science and religious objections to it?—it is misleading. It creates the appearance but does not deliver the substance of resolving a conflict.

First, evolution is a science and religion is religion. They do not have the same objectives. Evolutionary science can help to explain the origin of religion and of religions, and science can test religious claims. But science cannot determine which ethical beliefs are right.

Second, a major contradiction remains between evolutionary science and Christianity, no matter which interpretation is used. Evolution is based on natural selection, which is a ruthless, merciless, and often arbitrary process. The losers in the evolutionary struggle may have inferior genes, through no fault of their own; or may simply be experiencing bad luck. And the deaths of the losers in the evolutionary arena are often grisly and painful. How could a God of love and compassion, a God who rewards goodness, use such a process as a method of creation? Nature, in its daily operation as well as its evolutionary history, presents a picture of its creator (or its creative process) that starkly contradicts the Biblical God.

A few years ago, I wrote a book manuscript in which I attempted such a resolution between evolutionary science and Christian belief. (Interestingly, I entitled it “Thank God For Evolution,” the same title that was used more recently by a book that apparently inspired the organization that sponsored the van.) Even Niles Eldredge thought it would be a good book, and told me so. My agent, however, was not interested in it, and in hindsight this was a wise decision for which I am grateful. If I had published this book, I would now be a little bit embarrassed of it, mostly due to its projection of certainty. At the time, I thought I had resolved the conflict; now I know that probably nobody can do so. In that manuscript, I spoke confidently about God, as if anybody could know who or what God is.

The best we can do is to admit the truth and the consequences of evolutionary science; to admit that we cannot define our religious terms; and to make our best efforts to decide for ourselves the ethical principles by which we, and the world, should live. Even an atheist can do this. Atheism does not lead to a rejection of ethics and a pursuit of brutal selfishness. Somebody asked Richard Dawkins (the world’s most famous atheist) if he thought there was any basis for ethical beliefs. While he did not believe there were any transcendent truths, he did note that, all around the world, an ethical consensus is arising: despite ethnic and religious differences, people of many nations now understand that war and oppression and the abuse of the Earth are wrong. It is hard to pinpoint the sources of this ethical consensus, but there it is, and we can believe in it.

This essay first appeared on my website on April 26, 2009.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

At War with the Cosmos

The fundamental assumption of science is that the cosmos can be understood, and that it operates by consistent laws and principles. While this is an assumption that may be embraced by religion as well, I am not convinced that evangelical Christianity does so. Mainline denominations, and liberal groups such as the Quakers, appear to do so, but not the big, powerful, and loud fundamentalist groups that dominate the religious scene in America today.

Jesus told his disciples, “The world will hate you.” I always assumed, back in my fundamentalist days, that this meant that people who love to sin will hate those who tell them not to, or even imply by their moral lives that sinning is wrong. But this is not what the Biblical statement says. The “world” in that statement is kosmos. That is, the physical world that science studies. The implication (or so it was suggested by A. N. Wilson in his biography of Jesus) is that it is wrong, from the Christian viewpoint, to want to make sense of what happens in the world. The world, including the planets and plants, is the kosmos that is hostile to Christians. Jesus also said, to Doubting Thomas, blessed is he who does not see yet still believes. As Richard Dawkins points out, to evangelical Christians, the dissonance between facts and faith is itself accepted as confirmation of the faith.

I suppose this also means that truly religious people should reject Occam’s Razor. A complex creationist explanation full of invented stories (e.g., God moved the fossils around during the Flood to make them get buried in an evolutionary order, and God stuck thousands of pseudogenes into noncoding DNA to make it look like organisms had evolutionary ancestors) are just as good as the simplest and most straightforward explanations: that the fossils have an evolutionary order because they evolved over time, and that pseudogenes were genes used by real, living, evolutionary ancestors.

Christian scientific organizations such as the American Scientific Affiliation and the John Templeton Foundation will strongly object to this interpretation. Good for them, and they deserve our admiration for it. But this observation might make it easier to understand why so many religious people seem to live in a world devoid of reality when it comes to scientific, political, and cultural ideas. Get rid of that kosmos; the truth consists of whatever ideas pop up in my brain, because God must have planted them there.

Reminder to American readers: Remember to vote Democratic, which is the milder and less dangerous choice. Democrats, however imperfect they are, are more likely to get their facts from the kosmos.

Reminder: Send a link to this blog to your friends and professional associates.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Please Spread the Word

This is just a brief message to ask you to share this blog with your friends and acquaintances, even (or perhaps especially) with those who may not agree with it. There are not very many visitors to my two blogs, and I truly believe that a lot of people would benefit from reading them. It is certainly healthier fare than much of the hate-filled bile that is found in many blogs devoted to religion or to evolution. (Interestingly, I have more visitors from the Netherlands, Russia, and Luxembourg than from the US.)

But for those of you from America, please remember also to vote in the elections. I urge you to vote Democratic, since the Republicans represent a real possibility of danger to science and to religious freedom. I find it difficult to get excited about Democrats, but they are at least less dangerous than Republicans.

I realize that it is unlikely that this gentle blog can compete with blogs that push the buttons of unthinking anger, any more than a little garden herb can compete with a weed, but you can help.

And please leave comments, to which I will try to respond. If you bring up an interesting point, I can post something about it so that it does not remain hidden in the comments section.