Monday, September 28, 2015

A Big Scary Eclipse

I’ve seen plenty of penumbral eclipses, when the full moon passes through the edge of the Earth’s shadow and turns orange. But last night there was a deep and full eclipse, in which, to use Biblical language, the moon turned to blood.

What did people think in the days before modern astronomy when they saw such an eclipse? They obviously gave it a supernatural, and apocalyptic, explanation. But even after scholars began to understand that the sun, moon, planets, and stars were objects in the heavens rather than gods, they still had a hard time explaining astronomical phenomena.

Back when church authorities enforced the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that everything else revolved around the Earth, they had a hard time explaining the movements of the planets. Some of the planets would appear to reverse direction. Copernicus explained that the heliocentric model, with the Sun in the center of the solar system, could easily account for these movements. But geocentrists, who succeeded in arresting Galileo, burning Bruno, and would have done something to Copernicus had he not conveniently died when his book was published, invented “epicycles” in which the planets did little ballet pirouettes while they circled the Earth.

But even after the Copernican model was accepted, and everyone knew the Earth went around the Sun, many scholars still enforced a theistic model on the universe. First, they insisted that the orbits were perfectly circular, because both God and circles are perfect. We in the post-Newton era know that planetary orbits are elliptical, not circular.

Moreover, some scholars thought that a perfect solar system would proclaim God’s glory by having planets and moons that all lined up, all of them revolving in a perfect ecliptic. But if this were the case, the moon would have a blood-red eclipse every month, not just every thirty years or so; and there would be a transit of Venus (see here for my 2012 essay about it) not just every couple of hundred years but every year.

Instead, the solar system formed out of a revolving disc of dust and gas, in which the planets and moons formed imperfect planes of revolution, not the perfect ones that God would have created.

The very afternoon before the eclipse, I listened to a radio interview of two astronomers at the Vatican Observatory. They made it clear that, to them, faith was not a rock of certainty upon which they could build their beliefs, but a source of wonder and anticipation. To them, faith was expecting to discover something beautiful and surprising. The Vatican, these days, has come a long ways from the days of Galileo and Bruno.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Noösphere

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French priest and paleoanthropologist in the early twentieth century. He believed and wrote about a predestined arc of evolution that would eventually lead to the “omega” endpoint, nothing less than Jesus Christ. His works were not published until after his death, but were read by millions. I doubt that anyone really understood what he meant—Sir Peter Medawar referred to his work as a “bouquet of aphorism”—and so his views, never taken seriously by scientists, have been largely forgotten by everyone else.

Along with the rest of Teilhard’s ideas, the concept of the “noösphere” has fallen into obscurity. This would be, in Teilhardian terms, the epitome of evolution, in which a worldwide network of consciousness would form.

But guess what. That particular part happened. We call it the internet. And it really did result from evolution—cultural evolution. Technological improvement has been a major product of human cultural evolution for thousands of years. Along came computers, and eventually a way for computers to communicate with one another, and therefore for users to communicate with one another. You can now tap into the thoughts of the world—including many that you would just as soon not know about. The noösphere exists.

I want to briefly mention my surprised enjoyment of one particular aspect of the internet: Facebook. There are many friends with whom I lost contact over the last forty years—some from high school, some from undergrad days, some from grad school. How to find them again? It would take an immense amount of searching back in the old days. To get the address of one particular friend, I wrote to a church I knew that person had attended. I got back an envelope with the address written on a scrap of paper, and nothing else. I felt like I was involved in some kind of hard-boiled private-dick novel. I felt almost criminal.

But nowadays you can search for people by name on FB. If you get several matches, you can look for the one that has recognizable biographical information, and a photo that may look like your friend plus forty years. If you don’t know a woman’s married name, too bad, but many of them want their old friends to find them, and use their birth name as a middle name. I must have found at least fifty friends on FB whom I would otherwise never have had contact with again.

Perry Mason would probably not need the Paul Drake Detective Agency any more. He could just have Gertie search online. Thanks, Pierre.

And while the noösphere isn’t quite the Christic endpoint of evolution as Teilhard imagined it, it is perhaps the most important thing in the world today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why Genesis is Wrong, Even Figuratively, Part Two: Male and Female Created He Them

The second reason that I consider Genesis to be wrong, even when interpreted figuratively, is that Genesis 1 is all about strict and absolute categories. The most popular figurative interpretation of Genesis 1, known as the Framework Hypothesis, explains the days of Genesis as categories for classifying the universe. On the first three “days,” got sets chaos into order; on the second three “days,” he fills them up. Days 1 and 4 are about the heavenly realm: light and darkness made distinct, then filled with sun, moon, and stars. Days 2 and 5 are about the fluid realm: air and sea made distinct, then filled with fishes and birds. Days 3 and 6 are about the solid earth: land and sea made distinct, then land filled with creeping things, one of which was humankind.

This is a nice figure, but we must not take it too seriously. There is no absolute distinction between light and darkness, atmosphere and outer space, land and sea. The world also has dawn and dusk, penumbra, an exosphere that intergrades without boundary into outer space, a world of marshes and estuaries.

Genesis also says that organisms reproduce after their kind. In general, this is true. Species are not simply useful categories of organisms but are realities. Still, the boundaries among species are sometimes indistinct. As a botanist, I will use a plant example. For example, Quercus stellata (post oak) and Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) are distinct species, but there are a few regions in which they hybridize, producing a hybrid known as Quercus x guadalupensis. The hybrids are rare and, presumably, less specialized than the parents; they probably cannot grow as well in dry as do post oaks, or soil as moist as do bur oaks. Rare though they be, they exist. There are many hybrids between different species of the same genus in plants, and, among orchids, even between different genera.

Genesis 1 also makes an absolute distinction between male and female. This distinction is useless for plants (but Genesis 1 does not apply it to plants). But even in animals, the male-female distinction is imperfect. Whole phyla of animals (for example the phyla that contain snails and earthworms) consist largely of bisexual individuals. In some fish species, individuals may grow up as females then, when they are large enough to be successful fighters, they change into males. Moreover, the natural world contains ambiguity of sexual behavior. Homosexuality is very common in many animal species, where it functions as social bonding (since it obviously has no reproductive function).

The male-female distinction is imperfect in the human species as well. Most individuals are heterosexual males or females. But many humans are gay or lesbian or bisexual. Speaking as a very, very heterosexual male, I admit I cannot understand these people’s feelings, but I acknowledge them and I accept them. I accept their testimony about themselves. They tell me nature has made them so and it is not a choice they made. In particular, there is no small number of people who are physically one gender and psychologically another. Many Native American tribes have long recognized the legitimacy of men who assume female identities: formerly called berdache, this identity is now called “two-spirit.”

There are some people who are born as little girls and then, at puberty, turn into young men. This happens because the gene that produces juvenile testosterone function is blocked, with the result that they develop as little girls. However, their adult testosterone function works fine, and they develop male characteristics at puberty. Of course, they cannot completely turn into men; they retain many feminine characteristics as adult males. The Dominican village in which this commonly occurs refers to them as a third gender: guevedoce, or eggs-at-twelve. A similar phenomenon occurs in Papua New Guinea, where these individuals are called, in pidgin, turnim-men. Nature does this to them, their chromosomes do this to them, and scientists know exactly how.

The absolute categorizations of the universe that are implied in even a figurative reading of Genesis 1 are therefore imperfect. This does not present any great problem unless you are a creationist or a fundamentalist. Creationists insist that “after their kind” means that evolution cannot occur. This is based on taking “after their kind” too seriously. Fundamentalists insist that all humans are either male, or female, or deviants who must be restricted or punished in some way. This is based on taking the phrase “male and female created he them” too seriously. One example of this is a certain state-funded university whose academic vice president rejected the tenure application of a transgender woman on religious grounds. At this point, Genesis 1 becomes an oppressive and oppressing chapter of scripture, even if no attempt is made to force Earth history into a six-day schedule.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Genesis is Wrong, Even Figuratively, Part One: Human Nature

Most readers of this blog know that the creationist insistence on a literal reading of Genesis is completely wrong. One reason for this is that they are picky about which parts they take literally and which parts they consider figurative. They say the Genesis days are 24 hours but they do not believe the “firmament” is actually firm, as implied in the original Hebrew of Genesis 1, or that rain falls through the “windows of heaven” as stated in Genesis 6. Same old, same old, I won’t bore you with this.

What I consider more interesting is that Genesis is wrong even as a figurative picture of the universe, life on earth, and humankind.

One example of this involves human nature, human evolution, and the origin of society. Christian evolutionists (they do exist) have struggled to figure out which stage of human evolution was represented by Adam and Eve. They believe God made Adam from the “dust of the ground,” but that this phrase refers to matter, which includes DNA and cells. Perhaps, they speculate, that there was a point in history in which the spirit of God infused itself into an existing animal species, Homo sapiens. For centuries, even conservative Bible believers have speculated about the existence of “Pre-Adamite” humans.

However, there appears to be no abrupt point in human evolution in which an animal species became suddenly spiritual. Christians in science who try to reconcile Genesis and evolution have had a devil of a time.

And, I believe, they need not bother. The picture of human origins in Genesis is all wrong. It depicts a primordially sinless human race, which experienced “The Fall,” after which humans had a sinful nature. There has never been a time when humans or any of our evolutionary ancestors have not been fighting and killing one another. As far back as you look, you find what we would call sin. Recently, it was reported that one of the Homo heidelbergensis bodies in Sima de los Huesos in Spain was a murder victim at least 350,000 years ago.

And, furthermore, the Christian story depicts humans as falling not only from primitive sinlessness but into modern depravity, or “original sin.” That is, that modern human nature is evil, unless the person has the Spirit of God living in him or her. But this cannot be true. Human nature is not entirely evil. Human nature is characterized by (imperfect) goodness and altruism within groups—cooperation, even love. It is also characterized by genocidal evil between groups. Human nature has both.

So, for example, good Jewish soldiers under Joshua could carry out genocide against Canaanites with not a second thought, because the Canaanites were outside their group. Good Christian Massachusetts pilgrims could slaughter Pequot villagers with scarcely a second thought because the Pequots were not in their group. (I say scarcely, because in his own record of the events, William Bradford was actually bothered by the screams of the Native Americans as they burned or were shot; however, in God’s name, he suppressed those inconvenient humanitarian thoughts.) In the Confederacy, until recently revered by the state of South Carolina and still worshiped by hundreds of thousands of Christian racists, Christian men and women could torture slaves because they classified slaves as “other,” in particular as property rather than persons. As Jon Stewart and associates said, it is difficult to kill a person, but easy to kill a heretic.

One reason we know the Bible is wrong about human nature is that those religious humans who supposedly have the Spirit of God living in them are no better than any other humans, on the average. Conservative Christians are no more or less likely than anyone else to commit fornication, adultery, financial crimes, etc. The constant stream of Christian televangelist scandals is no different than revelations of scandals in any other group of people, except that televangelists proclaim themselves to be morally superior. Reverend Ted Haggard’s homosexual partner was not bothered by the relationship itself, but by Haggard’s hypocrisy—that’s why he spoke out. If there is an indwelling Spirit, it has no overall effect on Christians compared to non-Christians. I know good Christians and good non-Christians and so do you.

There actually is some good news in human history. Humans have gradually (on the whole, not in every individual instance) expanded their compass to include more and more humans in their group. Who could forget the Wedgwood medallion of the early 19th century, depicting a slave in chains, with the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Including slaves in our human family is the only reason they ever got freed.

Therefore, the real picture of human history has been a gradual widening of humanitarianism rather than a sudden Fall from sinlessness into depravity. Furthermore, much and perhaps most of this expansion has occurred in the last few hundred years, long after the completion of the New Covenant and the founding of the Christian Church. In Christian doctrine, New Testament principles as expounded by Jesus were the ultimate expression of goodness, and there has been no improvement since that time.

Consider, for example, Christopher Columbus, about whom I will write as we get closer to October 12. When Columbus tortured and enslaved Native Americans, he was either evil or not. If we believe that the Bible condemns such actions, then Columbus was evil, and we cannot do such things today because they are evil. But if we believe that Columbus was a hero who brought the light of Christianity to the heathens, then he was not evil, and we should be able to do such things today.  No Christian should say “It was OK for Columbus to do those things but it would be wrong for me to do them,” because that implies that during the two thousand years since the New Covenant began God somehow changed the rules.

An evolutionary view, in contrast, would say that since the time of Columbus we have widened our compass of humanitarianism. We can say the standards of good and evil are different now than in Columbus’ day. We cannot condone Columbus (he should have known that rape and murder were wrong) but we can perhaps understand him better. Unlike us, he was raised to think that anyone who was not a member of his holy Catholic Church should die.

In conclusion: Genesis is wrong about human nature and its origin. Genesis implies, even figuratively, that primitive humans were sinless, and modern humans are depraved unless God saves them. An evolutionary view indicates that human nature has always been both good and evil and that morality has evolved.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Parasites on Altruism

Humans are a very altruistic species. That is, altruism is a large part of our instinct. It is such a prevalent component of our instinct that it is one of the major resources for parasites.

The number of criminals who fraudulently prey upon well-meaning (altruistic) people is incalculable. No need to go into this. I just thought I would mention a particularly disgusting example that took me by surprise. As each week passes, I discover more kinds of evil in the world that I had previously been unable to even imagine. This was one of them.

Most people really want to make the world a better place. Some people would gladly destroy the world for short-term gain, but most people would not. Most people don’t care enough about the world to do anything to help other people. But that leaves millions of people who really want to help. One way that many people help the world is in supporting farmers’ markets. When people buy vegetables at a farmer’s market, they are getting high-quality and healthy food directly from family farms, bypassing industrialized and corporate agriculture. I love them. Whenever I go to a farmer’s market, I feel just a little hope that the future will resemble this rather than the nightmare fate that probably awaits the world. Peace, love, okra, and tomatoes. The produce is usually a little more expensive than in a big store, but it is worth it. In this photo, my daughter and her boyfriend examine some produce at a Tulsa farmers' market.

But some produce stands—usually little independent ones, rather than participants in a large farmers’ market—are parasitic. They claim to sell produce raised by local farmers, but what they really do is buy wholesale produce from big corporations and re-sell them at a higher price. I heard one story of a produce stand owner who was caught peeling off labels that the wholesaler had put on the produce. This is a particularly slimy form of fraud. You can find articles about it here and here and here. Such places are parasitic upon the desire of customers to support local organic agriculture and their willingness to pay more money to do so.

I am fairly confident that the farmers’ markets in Tulsa, where I live, are legitimate. How do I know? I don’t, of course, but here are a couple of pointers that I look for.

First, the produce looks like it came right out of the field. The tomatoes have little imperfections on them, and other produce has little bits of dried leaves. If your produce stand has tomatoes that are all the same size and color—especially if, like a nearby produce stand I no longer visit, they use a red awning to make the tomatoes appear redder—then the little fraud-alarm should go off in your head.

Second, each farmer’s market in Tulsa has a manager at a table. The manager’s job is to verify that the vegetables, spices, honey, soap—and wine!—are grown or made by small family businesses.

Keep your eyes open and your brain’s parasite-detection system active and you will probably avoid this kind of victimization.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Do Scientists Ever Change Their Minds? A Flashback to Nuclear Winter

Of course we do!

We scientists get accused of thinking that we know all the answers, but among the scientists I know, this is not the case. It is particularly evident among global-warming denialists: they think that the 99 percent of scientists who accept Global Warming science are closed minded and totally unwilling to consider the facts as presented by the oil companies and the think tanks that they sponsor.

But I have a story to tell that only my older readers will remember, a story that shows how scientists can, in fact, change their minds. It is the story of Nuclear Winter.

The concept of Nuclear Winter entered scientific and public consciousness with something of a splash. In a 1983 issue of Science, two days before Christmas, a pair of articles appeared. The first one claimed that a nuclear exchange between the United States and the USSR would put so much smoke and dust into the air that sunlight would be blocked and the surface of the Earth would freeze. In fact, it would freeze so deeply that it would never thaw. This is because ice reflects sunlight into outer space. A planet covered with ice could not warm up because it would reflect all the sunlight that it would need in order to warm up. The authors did not consider the “dirty snow effect,” in which the dust and smoke would settle on some of the ice, absorb sunlight, and melt the ice, to be important. This one paper, written by Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack, and Sagan (yes, Carl Sagan)—referred to by cognoscenti as the TTAPS paper—painted a stark picture of the fate of the Earth that had not been considered previously. The second paper detailed all the extreme consequences that such a deep freeze would have upon all life on Earth. Merry Christmas, everybody!

By 1984 everyone was talking about nuclear winter. I did not think about it very much, until I had sort of a political conversion experience on Easter Day 1984 and became an anti-nuclear activist. And then I told everyone I could—in particular, my laboratory and discussion sections that I taught as a graduate teaching assistant—about it.

This was about the same time that Global Warming science started to get broadly noticed. While research into Global Warming was already a couple of decades old, it was not talked about very much before about 1984. Global Warming and Nuclear Winter were, therefore, both fledgling theories at that time. In case you wonder how they could both be true, it is simple: Global Warming if you don’t have nuclear war, Nuclear Winter if you do.

That’s when the two theories started to diverge. As more scientists investigated Nuclear Winter, they began to get skeptical. The numbers were a little off. Maybe that dirty-snow effect was a little more important than previously thought. Maybe the smoke and dust would settle fast enough that the Earth would not have a chance to cool off very much. The principle of Nuclear Winter was sound, but the new calculations began to show that the cooling after nuclear war would not be as profound as previously estimated. I remember that by 1986 some scientists were talking about Nuclear Autumn.  And not long after that, Nuclear Winter was just not discussed very much by scientists.

Meanwhile, the evidence for Global Warming became clearer and clearer. Not the least of the evidence was that, since the 1980s, nearly every year has been one of the hottest on record. The arctic ice really has been melting and getting thinner. The Northwest Passage really did open up. Glaciers really have retreated. Global Warming science has advanced as Nuclear Winter science has retreated.

Scientists were willing to give up the theory of Nuclear Winter, even those like me who held it with an almost gospel intensity. Scientists are also willing to give up the theory of Global Warming, should the evidence ever warrant it. I say this because scientists have in fact changed their views about a major global issue that has political consequences. But the evidence supporting Global Warming science is so massive, and of so many different kinds (temperatures, ice, tree buds, bird migrations, methane bubbles in Siberia), that this is extremely unlikely to happen. I guess it could. I guess we might even find out that the geocentrists were correct after all. And if it does turn out that Global Warming scientists, or Copernicus, were wrong, scientists will (eventually) admit it.

Oh, I forgot one little thing. The Great God Donald Trump has proclaimed that Global Warming theory was invented by the Chinese as a way of ruining our economy. Well, Trump has spoken. That takes care of that. Evidence? God doesn’t need evidence.

Friday, September 4, 2015

New video

See my new video, Darwin Loves Perry Mason.

What’s Different about Humans?

Lots of answers to this question but I am focusing on one particular thing. The natural world is a constant struggle of all against all, but this struggle is quite different from the worldwide violence that humans have created.  What is different about natural vs. human struggle?

The struggle for existence in nature can sometimes be very violent, and can (especially for victims of parasites) gruesome. But usually what you see in nature is a struggle that can be called “I will outgrow you” or “I will out-reproduce you” or “I can do better than you” rather than “I will kill you.” Natural selection, the engine of evolution, is not always bloody; it is competition.

Consider a forest. You look all around you, and you see green leaves. If you look closely, and at the right time, you will also see herbivores such as caterpillars. The leaves produce toxins, and the caterpillars tolerate them, resulting in a balance that ends up, by chance rather than by design, allowing both of them to survive and even flourish. This is struggle for existence but not violence. You can feel peace in a forest but not, of course, on a battlefield or the scene of an ISIS terrorist attack.

In contrast, you cannot hear a single day of news without being confronted with violence, sometimes unspeakable violence, all around the world. Humans, perhaps uniquely among all species, have gone far beyond the Darwinian struggle for existence and gone into what can only be described as evil. Humans, unlike other animal species, are not content with simply out-competing another person. In this sense, the religious people might turn out to be right, that humans, alone among species, are fallen.