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.