Thursday, December 27, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Eleven: Was the World Made for Man?

It was on this day in 1831 that the Beagle voyage, on which the young Charles Darwin rode, began. No one, least of all Darwin, had any idea how significant this voyage would be—especially in terms of answering the question posed in the title.

This question of whether the world was made for man received its most famous answer from Mark Twain in a stunning and brilliant and humorous essay by that name. As I write this, I cannot find the essay online, and my copy is back in the office. Therefore all quotes are from memory. As I recall, Twain’s argument was that the world cannot have been made for man because of the vast period of prehistory to which man, “as impatient as the Creator undoubtedly was to see him and admire him,” was irrelevant. Twain ridiculed the idea that the vast periods of geological time were a preparation for man. Before God could make man, He had to prepare the world for him. “It was foreseen that man would need the oyster, and coal to cook it with,” so God spent millions of years making oceans with oysters and swamps that later became coal. “Now the oyster probably thought that the millions of years preceding him were meant as preparation for him—but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited being that there is, except man.” And then there were the long dinosaur ages, with what Twain called dinosaurians and Arkansawrians. Lastly, Twain compared the time that man has been on the Earth to the coat of paint at the top of the (at the time new) Eiffel Tower. He supposed that the coat of paint was what the Eiffel Tower was made for, if the world was made for man.

Interestingly, Twain intended his essay as a response to Alfred Russel Wallace, friend of Charles Darwin and co-discoverer of evolution. Wallace saw the vast periods of evolutionary time as part of God’s great story which culminated in mankind. Wallace was a spiritualist, and probably made more money giving spiritualist speaking tours (mostly in California) than from his evolution writings. In other words, Twain was criticizing someone that modern ID proponents and creationists would consider an evolutionist.

But clearly the Biblical viewpoint is that the world (1) was designed (2) for man. Of course, Adam and Eve lived in a garden, and their descendants were hunters, gatherers, and small farmers. Genesis actually depicts the rise of cities, such as Babel, Sodom, and Gomorrah, as evil. But modern religious people mostly believe that God wants us to live in cities with advanced technology. They therefore think that the world (1) was designed (2) for man (3) to live as we live today (in terms of our economy and technology).

All three points are clearly wrong. The world was not designed at all, certainly not for humans. Our chromosomes are filled with dead genes and dead viruses, and horrible mutations from which natural selection has incompletely cleansed us. There are more parasites than the most creative human could have thought of. I have heard creationists claim that Satan created all parasites, because they are so acutely embarrassed of the problems that result from attributing them to a loving God. I and others have written much about this, and I must leave the point for now.

But clearly the world was not designed for us to live with modern technology. Today, this is most clearly demonstrated by the greenhouse effect causing global climate disruption. There are seven billion of us, with eighty million more each year, and the average person produces directly or indirectly more carbon dioxide every year than the last. The natural ecosystems of the Earth simply cannot process all of this extra carbon dioxide any better today than it could at the end of the Permian period, when a massive die-off occurred as a result of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions, or at the end of the Cretaceous period, when a massive die-off occurred as a result of fires caused by an asteroid. The ecosystems of the Earth have not evolved the ability to deal with massive fluxions of carbon dioxide that occurred at those times or that is occurring today. They did evolve the ability to deal with lesser perturbations.

Modern religion assumes God designed the world for us to live in it as we do today, with advanced technology and massive carbon emissions. In three ways, this assumption is proving wrong and, in the third case, dangerously wrong.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Altruism Message

Merry Christmas, everyone. Pull up a chair by the fireplace and listen to some stories about altruism.

Society is based on altruism. One of the most common examples is traffic regulation. Nearly everyone obeys traffic laws almost without thinking about it. Think of the billions of dollars that would be lost in our economy if, instead of traffic regulations, we just had open competition on the roadways. It would be chaos, with millions of hours of productive work time lost by people stuck in traffic worse than they already are. I would be perfectly happy to yield to pickup trucks with half-ton ram’s horns on the front, but I wouldn’t necessarily see them coming in time to stop. Also, I do not think a free-market economy would work well for traffic regulations. I would be happy to let someone driving a big pickup pay me to let them always have the right-of-way, but the infrastructure necessary to keep track of the payments would consume most of the profits. Traffic regulations are perhaps the best example of everyone reaping immense benefits from altruistically surrendering just a little bit of freedom, and we all grudgingly love those little laws.

Christmas is a time when people dabble in a little more altruism than normal. And tell and retell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the Dickens story about the quintessential anti-altruist. Scrooge (whom I played in a high school drama, as difficult as that may or may not be to imagine) was an evolutionary failure in all three forms of altruism: kin selection (he was mean to his nephew), direct reciprocity (he was mean to Bob Cratchit), and indirect reciprocity (he refused to donate to charity). Christmas is also a time when everyone can congratulate themselves that they are, at least, not as mean as Scrooge.

One might think that everyone would, with Dickens, rejoice in Scrooge’s Christmas Day conversion into an altruist. But one might be wrong. Leave it to a conservative commentator to criticize Scrooge for turning into a nice guy. This commentator (whose name I forgot, but who worked for a conservative think tank) said, in effect, what was Scrooge thinking? Giving Bob Cratchit and his family that big goose? First, how would that affect the employer-employee relationship? What will happen on the day after Christmas, when Cratchit shows up for work and expects to get a goose every week? And, second, this would only encourage Cratchit to sue Scrooge after he and his family ate all the grease and developed circulatory problems.

Okay, I just made that second one up. But the conservative commentator really did make the first point. I couldn’t make something like this up. Truth is stranger than fiction. I first learned this when, as a child, I was watching Dragnet on television. In one of their episodes, they investigated a case in which someone had stolen a man’s lawn. It was an expensive dichondra lawn, rather than a grass lawn. Dichondra has shallow roots, making it easy to scoop up a dichondra lawn (I think, never having tried it myself). No one could make up a story about someone stealing a lawn (Dragnet always began with, “The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent”). And only in the real world could a conservative commentator criticize the generosity of Scrooge. I only hope it was intended as a joke, although neither the guest speaker nor the radio host gave any such hint.

If you want another Christmas message, this time from Charles Darwin, check out the Merry Christmas from Darwin video on my YouTube channel.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Ten: Mind and Spirit

I have just posted a video on my YouTube channel that corresponds to this topic.

I now come to perhaps the most striking difference between the ancient Biblical and the modern scientific understanding of the world. In the Biblical view, you are a lump of flesh (actually, of dust of the ground) quickened by a spirit. It is the spirit that causes all of your thoughts and actions and feelings.

We now understand that every thought, feeling, and action is caused by nerve transmissions: positive ions going in and out of nerve cells, neurotransmitters going between nerve cells, neuropeptides and hormones influencing the activity of nerve cells. The brain has trillions of nerve cells, each of which can form hundreds of connections with other nerve cells, producing a “connectome” of astonishing complexity, which makes a galaxy seem simple by comparison. Every time neurobiologists have looked for a part of the brain that functions in a certain mood, or emotion, or thought process, they have found it. It is seldom as simple as they hoped: nearly every action and feeling is caused by more than one part of the brain. But the neurological basis is always there. The parts of the brain that are active when you are angry are different from those that are active when you are at peace. I keep up with the major scientific journal in the world, Science, and at least once a month there is an article in which a brain scan shows the brain-chemistry basis of a certain pattern of thought.

There is only one thing this can mean. It can only mean that brain activity causes feelings and thoughts. If you are angry and fearful, it is related to activity in your amygdala, not to your having a bad spirit. If the spirit does anything at all, it only mirrors what the brain does. Since the spirit has no independent activity, and since it cannot be detected, it is reasonable to conclude that it does not exist. The causation cannot be the reverse: a spiritual cause of nerve cell activity has never been found.

This is the tenth essay in a series about how a literalistic Biblical view of the world is utterly contradictory to a scientific view. And you will notice I have not even mentioned evolution—because everybody already knows this one. Biblical science would have to reject biochemistry, genetics, the germ theory of disease, and human physiology, especially neurophysiology. If I were a creationist, I would be a lot more worried about psychology than about evolution as a threat to faith.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Nine: Disease and Physiology

There is no shortage of creationist doctors and nurses. They appear to have made their peace with the germ theory of disease (infectious diseases are caused by germs) and with the genetic basis of inherited diseases. But, if they really really take their Bible seriously, they should not believe these things. They ought to believe that diseases (at least half of them) are caused by demons.

A couple of years ago, I read through the Gospels, looking for stories about Jesus healing the sick. I listed each of these stories in a table, and identified the stories that appeared in more than one of the four gospels. I have mislaid the table, but I recall that there were about twenty stories about Jesus healing people. In a little over half of the stories, no cause of the disease was identified. But in almost half of them, the cause was clearly identified: one or more demons. The clear conclusion from the Bible is that somewhere around half of all diseases are caused by demons. Universities and medical schools should at least have a course in demonology, and perhaps devote half of their curriculum to it.

In one case, the victim clearly had epilepsy. The gospel account tells of the boy who had spasms, fell down on the ground (sometimes into the fireplace), and foamed at the mouth. The Bible says a demon caused it. All medical scientists know that epilepsy has a genetic basis. Alternatively, the account could describe rabies, which is caused by a virus. Would not a creationist doctor, faced with such symptoms, be obligated to prescribe an exorcism?

I have just posted another Darwin video on my YouTube channel.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

YouTube video interview of Dr. Vic Hutchison

I interviewed Dr. Vic Hutchison, a long-time proponent of evolution education and opponent of creationist legislation, on my YouTube channel.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Eight: Where Babies Come From

The most widely and deeply held conviction of religious conservatives is that life begins at conception. They believe that the Bible says so. Of course, it does not. The reason is that, back then, and for over a millennium after the Bible was written, nobody knew about sperm and eggs. Everybody thought that babies grew from the man’s “seed,” which is the literal meaning of “sperm,” which he planted in the womb of a “fertile” woman, as a farmer plants seed in a fertile field. When spermatozoa were first observed under a microscope, scientists imagined they contained little humans (homunculi). Since many ancient people had actually seen spontaneously aborted fetuses, they knew that a developmental process occurred, under the direct control of God (“He knit me together in my mother’s womb,” Psalm 139:18). (We will leave aside the question of whether it is literally a process of knitting.)

I tell my biology students that science cannot tell them when life begins. There isn’t even a “moment of conception.” There are three: when the first sperm penetrates the egg membrane; when meiosis is completed; and when the sperm and egg nuclei join. And then everything that we associate with human physiology (brain activity, heartbeat, etc.) begins at a different time during fetal development. If you want to believe human life begins at conception (perhaps the third moment of conception), no scientist can prove you wrong. But if we had only the information in the Bible to go on, we would not even be having the discussion.

It is tragically humorous that religious conservatives seem to have a self-imposed vagueness about where babies come from. It is not exactly a well-taught part of home-school science. Young teenage girls are taught to not sleep with their boyfriends, as part of abstinence-only education. But the Bible belt leads the nation in births to unwed teen mothers. Rick Perry’s protestations aside, abstinence-only education does not work. I heard that one Texas teen said she did not know how she became pregnant because she only had sex with her boyfriend; she did not actually sleep with him. (This story may be apocryphal; but the statistics are not.)

By now everyone has heard about Rep. Todd Akin’s statement that during “legitimate rape.” He said that in certain instances, such as legitimate rape, a woman’s body can shut down a pregnancy. While many people, including myself, ridiculed Akin’s statement, let me stick up for him in just one small way. He was probably remembering, back during a biology class somewhere, the Bruce Effect. This occurs when a pregnant female, exposed to the hormones of a new male, spontaneously aborts the fetus sired by a previous male. Many rodent and primate species do this. According to a recent paper in Science, spontaneous abortion in one monkey species benefits the female as well as the male, assuming that the alternative is that the new male would kill the babies, which is the brutal truth for many species such as lions. So maybe Akin was remembering more of his biology class than most other elected representatives. (A little learning, said Alexander Pope—not to be confused with Pope Alexander—is a dangerous thing.)

Clearly people back in Bible times considered the development of a baby in the womb to be miraculous. Modern physiology is a threat to Biblical literalism because it says otherwise.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Seven: Genetics

First, a couple of announcements. First, you don’t want to miss my new Darwin video in which Darwin uses a hookah pipe as an advanced piece of scientific research equipment and for hypothesis testing. Second, my website no longer has original essays, though the previous ones are still archived; I wish to move my essays to my blogs, mostly to this one. The website is now mostly a clearinghouse of links to other things. Now on with the new topic: the Bible and genetics.

The Bible presupposes that characteristics that an organism acquires during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. In so doing, the Bible is no different from what everybody, including scientists, thought until a little over a century ago. But to a creationist literalist, the Bible cannot be wrong about something even if every human being was wrong about it until almost two thousand years after the last of the Bible was written.

The most noticeable example of “Biblical Lamarckism” is in the story of Jacob and Laban in the book of Genesis. Jacob was if anything very tricky. He tricked his brother Esau out of his birthright. And he tricked his relative Laban out of some goats too. Jacob was shepherding Laban’s goats, and made a deal: Jacob would get to keep all of the speckled goats, while Laban got to keep the pure white and pure black goats. Sounds like a deal, Laban said. But Jacob had a plan. (He almost always had a plan, except one night when he was terrified of having to face Esau, his defrauded brother, the next day.) Each evening the goats would come to the water trough to drink and to copulate. (Mommy, what does copulate mean? Be quiet and read your creationist book.) Jacob set up a little wall made of alternating dark and light boughs. The goats would see the striped pattern and have striped offspring, which Jacob got to keep. The clear implication is that the goats had striped and speckled offspring because they saw the stripes at the trough. This is a clear Biblical teaching of Lamarckism. Most of us interpret this to mean that Jacob just thought that the goats had striped offspring because they saw the stripes. But the clear implication in the story is that seeing the stripes caused the offspring to be striped. Creationists ought to have trouble with Mendelian genetics.

There is an easy Mendelian explanation for what happened. The genes from the black goats and from the white goats mixed to form striped and speckled goats. That is, the black and white goats were homozy-goats and the striped goats were heterozy-goats. But this is what science, not what Genesis, says.

The ancient Hebrews also had a very limited idea of what we today call genetic variation. They did not know about many species of animals, or different races of people. They knew about “Ethiopians,” but did they have any idea about the blonds and redheads up north? For aught they knew to the contrary, all genetic variability within each animal species could be contained within a pair of animals on Noah’s Ark, and all human diversity could be contained within Noah’s family. But we know that each species of animals (and everything else) has more genetic variation than could possibly be contained within two individuals, even if God chose the two most diverse and different individuals (for example, two animals of genotypes A1A2 and A3A4 for gene A). No more than four alleles for each gene could be so preserved to account for the whole world of diversity within each species. Modern creationists get around the human problem by claiming that Noah’s daughters-in-law were black, oriental, and white. The Bible mentions nothing of the sort (although it sounds like a good premise for a sitcom), but creationists have never been hesitant to make stuff up about God.

If I may stray a moment from the topic of genetics, I might mention that Biblical biogeography is also wonderfully strange. All the animals debarked from Mt. Ararat in what is now Turkey, and somehow most of the marsupials went to Australia, except for Pogo the Possum, who always had to be different from the others and went to North America. This is just one example. There are hundreds of examples of animals—and plants too—whose geographical distribution looks as if the taxonomic orders and families of which they are a part evolved in the locations where they now reside, rather than migrating there from Ararat. In his book The World That Perished, the father of flood theology John C. Whitcomb answered the question of why the marsupials all went to Australia. He said, in effect, they hopped.

The ancient Hebrews did as good a job as anyone else at figuring out how traits passed from one generation to another. They did as good a job as Darwin, whose pangenesis theory is almost painful to read—such a wrong theory from a man who got almost everything right. But you cannot base the science of genetics on what the Bible says. Darwin did do one thing much better than the ancient Hebrews, however. He extensively studied the genetic (“heritable”) variation in plant and animal species, and knew that there was a lot more of it than met the eye. This was the basis of natural selection.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Six: Continents

It is with considerable relief when I say, Congratulations to Barack Obama for winning a second term. I was afraid that Mitt Romney would make devastating cuts to science and education, cuts that would actually not reduce the deficit very much. At the same time, almost exactly half of the voters voted against Barack Obama. His next four years may be even harder than his previous four years.

Now back to our series about the many ways in which science differs from traditional religion.

The Biblical view of the Earth is that orderly dry land is surrounded by chaotic oceans; in fact, one of God’s earliest acts of creation was to set a boundary between land and sea. The landlubber Israelites were frankly afraid of being out on the ocean (so am I). The God of orderliness had created dry land as the place for people to live.

But the Israelites had no idea that the continents moved around. Of course, neither did anybody else. The idea of continental drift was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the early twentieth century, and accepted only decades later by geologists. You cannot fault the Bible for omitting continental drift, unless you believe the Bible to be the outline of all scientific truth, in which case you have to reject continental drift.

But it is a little more complicated than this. Creationists believe that God sent a Flood upon the Earth, saving only Noah and his family (which, they imagine, contained black, white, and oriental daughters-in-law) from which all the people of the Earth are descended. This was such a severe disruption to the stable continents that all sedimentary rocks (of which continents largely consist) and all volcanic and metamorphic layers between them were produced at that time. Where did all the land come from? Not from day three of Genesis 1, but from the big piles of mud left over after the Flood of Noah. The problems with this theory could fill a book, and have filled many books.

But it gets even more complicated than this. Genesis 10:25 said that in the days of Peleg (a mysterious patriarch about whom little is known) the Earth was divided. This was after the Flood. Let us consider the tremendous scientific implications of this verse, if we take it literally. This verse literally says the Earth was divided. The word for “earth” is the same Hebrew word that is used for the entire planet (see here for concordance references). The word for “divided” refers to cutting entirely in half (see here for concordance references). To really take this verse literally, we have to say what one creationist (Walter Brown) once said in a public forum at the University of Illinois: this was when God created the Atlantic Ocean, causing the Eurasian and North American plates to diverge. But the word literally means to split into pieces, thus we must go way beyond continental drift and believe that the entire planet was split in two. One of the halves must be the one we are on, and presumably the other half has been lost. This would mean that, even right after the Flood, Earth was a much bigger planet, which would give it stronger gravitation, which would make birds unable to fly and large animals (as they are currently designed) unable to walk… This quickly leads to absurdity. Therefore, creationists such as the people at Answers in Genesis claim that “earth” in this verse refers to the people of the Earth. They refuse to allow this interpretation for the very same word in reference to the whole Earth being covered by the Flood, or to God creating the whole Earth in Genesis 1. Apparently, creationists have appointed themselves as the official “deciders” of which passages are to be taken as scientifically literal statements and which are more figurative.

It gets even stranger. Something interesting happened during King Solomon’s coronation parade. “And all the people went up after him [King Solomon], playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.” Some translations say that the earth rumbled with their noise, but the actual Hebrew words refer to the Earth itself actually splitting. Most of us would assume this is the figurative equivalent of “ear-splitting,” and some Bible translations take the liberty of translating it, “The earth rumbled with their noise.” But if you base your science on a literal interpretation of the Bible, you have a problem here. Creationists quietly accept the figurative meaning of this verse.

There are whole continents of difference between the ancient religious view of the earth and the modern scientific one.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Religion vs. Science the Vast Gulf Part Five: Weather and Climate

I just uploaded a YouTube video about Darwin visiting the Petrified Forest in Arizona. The petrified wood comes only from ancient conifers, none from modern trees, proving that it could not have been produced by a big Flood. See other videos here.

This is the fifth in a series of entries about the vast difference between the modern scientific view of the world and the view that people had of the world at the time the Bible was written.

To the Biblical worldview, the climate of the Earth is directly controlled by God. And there are many, many religious people who believe this today. Their proof? Genesis 8:22, in which God makes a promise: while the Earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. I have several students each semester who quote this verse in their supposedly scientific papers on the subject of what I now try to call global climate disruption. In this, they are imitating their great Christian hero, Senator James Inhofe, who quotes Genesis 8:22 whenever the subject of climate comes up in the Senate.

Modern science has demonstrated that Earth’s climate is controlled by many complex factors. In any given year, it is affected by changes in the angle of the sunlight, by the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, by the amount of energy coming from the sun, by ENSO patterns, rain shadows, etc. Long-term changes are caused by periodic oscillations in Earth’s orbit, movements of the continents, etc. A religious person could claim that God works through these natural laws; but we are not talking about that kind of religious person. We are talking about people who believe God is forbidden to use figures of speech. Forbidden, I presume, by them.

That is, we know what causes the seasons. The Earth moves, and is tilted, and as a result a lower angle of sunlight creates winter, and a greater angle of sunlight creates summer. Psalm 93:1 clearly states that the Earth does not move, and it was this verse that got Galileo in trouble with the Catholic Church. Creationists no longer claim that the Earth does not move, but they do so mainly by arbitrarily assigning a figurative meaning to the psalm.

We also know what causes wind and rain. Air blows from high to low pressure areas, and rain results from the condensation of water vapor. In contrast, the Bible says that rains caused Noah’s flood because the windows of heaven were opened. Job referred to the storehouses of the wind. These are perfectly good figures of speech, and are apparently accepted as such even by creationists. But they have to violate their own assumptions by doing so.

There is a dark side to creationist beliefs that God has made sure that global warming has not occurred. At the moment, creationists are denying that global warming is happening (step one), or if so, that humans are causing it (step two). They deny that we should be doing anything right now to reduce carbon emissions. God put all that coal in the ground during the Flood (thoughtfully picking out just the conifers and keeping out the flowering plants) so that we could burn it right now. Not slowly, over centuries, but right now. This is because many of them think Armageddon is right around the corner, so why wait?

But at some point even creationists will have to admit that global warming is a reality. However, when they do so, they will go directly from steps one and two to step three: It is too late and there is nothing we can do about it. They circumvent the entire process of trying to bring our carbon emissions under control. And they will give their own religious twist to step three: they will say that global warming, which in upcoming decades will be greater than most of us have even been able to imagine, is God’s punishment upon the world. Punishment for what? Probably for homosexuality. After all, God said that while the Earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. Creationist stage three belief concerning global climate disruption is that it will in fact occur while God is carrying out His end-time Apocalypse.

By the way, why did God make the Genesis 8:22 promise? One might think there is a lofty reason, based upon Jesus’ version of God. But according to verse 21, the reason is that Noah offered a sacrifice of clean meat on an altar, and when God “smelled the pleasing odor,” he made the promise. So if you ever want anything from God, invite Him to a barbecue. Yeehaw!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Four: You Are What You Eat

I continue the series of posts about the many ways religion, especially Christianity, differs from science. The first entry was about the scientific method. The second was about the sky. I posted part two before I had heard about Bill Nye and the creationists in 2006. Bill was giving a lecture in Waco, Texas, in which he mentioned that the moon does not create its own light, but reflects the light of the sun. Some creationists walked out, since Genesis describes the moon as “the lesser light,” which to them meant that it emits its own light. My guess is that this viewpoint does not represent most creationists.

In the previous essay, I wrote about how carbon-based life forms cannot be made from the dust of the Earth, taken literally. But there is a temporal dimension to this also. Your atoms are in a state of continual turnover. You are losing some, and gaining some, from the food that you eat, which is carbon-based. There is a reason Captain Kirk did not share a sandwich with the silicon-based Horta.

Which brings up the important subject of what we should eat. While Jesus considered it to be of secondary importance (It is what comes out of a man, not what goes into a man, which defiles him, he said), there are nevertheless laws of food and health. And the Biblical dietary laws contrast with the scientific dietary laws. The U.S. government guidelines for nutrition look pretty different from Leviticus 11.

The Old Testament Jews were very concerned about clean vs. unclean foods. Leviticus has quite a list of unclean foods. Many of them seem arbitrary. But modern scientists have figured out some likely reasons for some of these laws. For example, why did Jews hate pigs so much? And they have hated pigs for a long time. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has unearthed evidence that the Jews were not very different from surrounding tribes even during the heyday of Solomon, and that Jerusalem of Solomon was not the glorious city that the Old Testament describes. But even in the sites of their earliest villages was the remarkable absence of pig bones. We all know pigs are dirty. Of course, the reason they are dirty is we keep them dirty. Wild pigs are no dirtier than other wild animals. Pigs spread parasites, but so do cows. Smallpox apparently evolved from cowpox early in human village life.

One possible reason that the Jews proscribed pork is one I heard from José Lutzenberger, former Secretary of the Environment in Brazil. He spoke at the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. (He didn’t keep his job too long. As someone pointed out, he was serious about environmentalism, and appointing “Lutz” as Secretary of the Environment in Brazil was like appointing Wes Jackson as Secretary of Agriculture in the USA.) He said that cows, horses, sheep, and goats did not compete with humans for food; they ate grass and other things that humans cannot digest. But pigs eat some of the same things we do, and therefore may compete with humans for food. A rich man could fatten his pigs while poor people starve in the ancient, or not so ancient, world. Pigs were, to Lutz, a symbol of poor environmental stewardship in ancient times. I’m not sure if he had any scientific evidence, but his statement has stayed with me for many years.

The Old Testament laws also proscribe shellfish. The reason was obvious: spoiled shellfish can make you very sick. They knew this back in ancient times. There was a good chance that any shellfish, by the time it reached the hills of central Judah, would be spoiled. A more recent custom is to eat shellfish that have been harvested only in the months with the letter R in them (that is, not May, June, July, or August). Today we know that shellfish that have fed upon dinoflagellates (“red tide”) can have neurotoxin. So this made sense.

But the modern view of nutrition is totally unlike that of the Old Testament (and New). We can eat fat foods, but only a little bit, and most of our fats should be unsaturated, e.g. from olives and nuts. We need to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, and get lots of exercise during the ordinary course of a day. This was not so important in the old days when food was often scarce, and when people walked everywhere—there was no stair-vs.-elevator decision for them to make. Their laws worked for them, imperfectly, and our laws work for us. (I’m about to eat some chicken thigh meat, because my cravings are prehistoric in origin.)

This may seem like a small matter, and Biblical literalists do not, to my knowledge, attack nutritionists. I have not heard creationists say, while engulfing fat steaks, “God guarantees my health because I avoid pork and shellfish.” But modern nutrition science does show, just as clearly as modern evolutionary science, that our scriptures were the products of their time, reflecting the best understanding that people had back then, rather than inspired and infallible scientific truths.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Three: Dust of the Ground

Last night, a big dust storm blew across Oklahoma. It was visible from outer space, and brought precious topsoil from Nebraska. It has been about seventy years since Hugh Hammond Bennett convinced the Senate to establish what was then called the Soil Conservation Service. Have we learned anything?

I now continue my series about the many ways in which modern science differs from the Biblical worldview--a series that does not include any discussion of evolution. The first essay is here and the second is here.

Most biology courses begin with atoms and molecules. Organisms are mostly made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, organized mostly into carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. You don’t usually hear any religious people objecting to this. But they should, if they are Biblical literalists.

Genesis 2 describes the creation of man (and later of woman, after he created the animals). And God made man from the dust of the ground. One time, back when I was a theistic evolutionist but a Christian believer, I taught in a Sunday class that this could include organic molecules. A creationist in the class said that this was not so; dust is dust, that is, very fine soil particles blowing in the wind. Not DNA, proteins, and such.

Well guess what. The dust of the ground consists of very different atoms from organic sources. The dust of the ground consists mostly of silicon and oxygen. You cannot take a handful of dust and turn it into an organism without changing the atoms.

And then there is the breath of life. Genesis 2 says that God breathed the breath of life into the lump of clay and made it a living soul. Now, both of the main Hebrew words (ruach for breath, and nephesh for soul) are broadly interpretable. Ruach (Greek: pneuma) can mean breath, wind, or spirit. Nephesh can mean body or soul. But to a literalist, it should be disturbing to realize that life results from the production of ATP by mitochondria. “Breath of life” and “metabolism by mitochondria” can be forced to reconcile, but this is not how the ancient mind thought of life.

One could say that Genesis 2 says that God made humans from pre-existing organic matter—actually, from pre-existing hominins. Many religious people use this as a way of reconciling Genesis with human evolution. But this is not satisfactory to a literalist creationist. How can a creationist accept biochemistry?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Two: The Heavens

In a previous blog entry, I wrote about the vast gulf between science and religion with how to determine what is true. I now continue this series about how different science and religion are from one another.

Before Copernicus and Galileo, most people viewed the sky as some kind of sphere or series of spheres on which the stars rotated around the Earth, and each planet (as well as the sun and moon) had its own sphere. Either that or they thought the sun, moon, and stars were gods. This was certainly the view of the writer of Genesis 1, who used the term “raqia” for what is usually translated “firmament.” Did you ever wonder why Genesis called the sky “firmament,” which sounds like “firm”? Because “raqia” is derived from “raqa,” which means “to beat out,” or stamp out, often used for metal beat into a thin sheet. This is the way the word is used in Exodus 39:3, Numbers 16:39, Isaiah 40:19, and Jeremiah 10:9. It refers to trampling or stamping with the foot in 2 Samuel 22:43, Ezekiel 6:11 and 25:6. Figuratively, this can mean “an expanse,” but literally it refers to a metal dome. (See here.)

This does not mean, of course, that the Biblical authors were somehow anti-scientific. They shared the view that nearly everyone had until recently. Copernicus believed in the heavenly spheres; he just made the sun the center, and Earth was on a sphere. Nobody accuses Copernicus of being anti-scientific. It was not until the twentieth century that scientists understood that many of the “nebulae” were faraway galaxies. But the Bible certainly cannot be used as a literally accurate basis for astronomy. Many scientific Christians simply point out that this was not the purpose of Genesis in the first place.

The Bible refers to stars falling from the sky. Isaiah said it (Is. 34:4), Jesus said it (Matthew 24), and Revelation uses the phrase at least twice, in chapters 6 and 8. Of course this cannot literally happen. We all use the term “falling star” figuratively for meteors. No problem, unless you base your science on the Bible. The Biblical view of the universe, like all views of the universe before Kepler and Newton, is vastly different from the modern view shared by everyone, even most creationists.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Oklahoma Teachers Evolution Workshop, Part Seven

As the Teachers' Evolution Workshop sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education drew to a close on October 9, we had presentations and discussions by high school teachers about how to teach evolution, usually in interesting laboratory settings.

Andrea Blair, high school teacher in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and a graduate student at the University of Tulsa (where she spends time studying the anatomical structure of amphibians), told the participants about some of the lab activities she has devised or adapted. Some were versions of the natural selection simulations that have been used in many classes for decades; for example, to simulate natural selection of light vs. dark moths against light vs. dark bark, based on the twentieth-century studies by H. B. D. Kettlewell. But the greatest amount of discussion came in response to Andrea's investigation of radiometric dating. Students begin with a box of coins, all heads-up, which represent radioactive atoms. Then the students shake the box just once, count and remove the tails-up, which represent atoms that decayed. The students repeat this over and over, and generate a graph of radiometric decay. But they do so by stimulating a random process (actually a quantum process). I, for one, have never heard about this activity from anyone else.

Andrea also described how to use different colors of beans to represent alleles in a population. Students randomly draw pairs of beans that represent diploid individuals in a population. Then, natural selection can be simulated on the simulated diploids. The advantage of this activity is that students can see the effect of natural selection not on phenotypes but on allele frequencies in a population. This activity can be modified to simulate genetic drift and founder effect.

One thing that Andrea emphasized is that these activities are cheap and easy. You don't need a budget for prepared teaching materials or for computer simulation software. Best of all, students are learning about the processes of evolution, without feeling like "evolution" is being pressed upon them.

And with this, the workshop ended. The participants were, we hope, inspired and equipped to teach evolution in creative ways and to deal constructively with inevitable conflicts. The setting, the University of Oklahoma Biological Station on the shore of Lake Texoma, was restful and beautiful.