Sunday, January 21, 2018

Some Thoughts on Evolution from My Students

I gave my students extra credit on the final exam for my Evolution course in Fall 2017 if they shared their thoughts about evolution and religion. I wanted to pass a few of them on to you. I did not require them to agree with me; they could write anything they wanted and get credit, so long as they gave reasons for their beliefs. Remember, my university is in rural Oklahoma. Very few of the students actually had to take the course; it was a self-selected sample of students taking an elective. There were actually more anti-religious than religious students. The samples below are from the more thoughtful answers, often some combination of creation and evolution.

“I believe the theories and approaches of evolution are scientific fact, proven to be right, therefore, un-arguable. Evolution has shown prediction of how life flourishes and expands. Personally, I still believe there is a greater “force” that drives life and consciousness, and our intelligence is trying to hint to us there is something more, even if it’s not a white man with a beard.”

“Jesus—Done…I’m kidding. I am a Christian, so I do believe that God created existence. I think that God answers the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Why was there a big bang? Why was there a first cell? Why was there anything? Science can explain how, but not why. That is why I believe in creationism. With that said though, I also know evolution occurs. I mean come on, the evidence is strong for it. I do think that some of the Bible is metaphorical and poetic…”

“I am a Christian…However, I believe that evolution occurred and is still occurring today…We have billions of years of evidence suggesting its validity, so who am I to say it’s wrong. I’ve seen a catfish walk from one pond to another, this makes me believe that they could have stayed on land like Tiktaalik.”

“…if I was to create something then why not create a natural law to creation so you don’t have to keep changing things…Either way I shall always have an open mind and learn.”

“I am a Christian but my belief system isn’t anchored to the infallible bible. I…see the Bible as a book of wisdom…That being said, I believe that God created all that is and allowed the laws of nature to form life as we know it…There is no need to attack timelines because what God gave us was love for one another and never intended on us fighting over when things happened.”

“I have yet to understand why our origin story wants to be dictated by so many institutions. Rather I wish we could look back and appreciate just how amazing the story of our earth and species is. Instead of argue about it, why don’t we try and figure out more about it.”

“I was raised Southern Baptist and thought about salvation…the divine, etc. I had an early traumatic event when I was left alone in my house when 3-4 years old—I, literally, thought I slept through the rapture and was left behind, I went wandering outside crying and could not find anyone…I continued going to church, but things kept happening that made me question everything I’d been told…While I respect the beliefs of individuals I’ve found it increasingly hard because I do not understand how a person can be content…not questioning something that makes up such a large part of our identity…”

“I don’t believe evolution…Science does not care about opinions, it only is concerned with fact. The fact is that evolution has occurred…The idea of a god creating all life that we know is truly insulting to the billions of years of history of life fighting to survive.”

“I don’t know.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New Wine in Old Wineskins

In their 1981 book The Liberation of Life, Charles Birch and John B. Cobb wrote, “It is remarkable how much new wine we can put into old wineskins.” Making reference to the metaphor used by Jesus, they meant that humans have shown limitless creativity when it comes to cramming new discoveries into old world views.

This book, rather tedious and not much read today, a theologian and a biologist joined forces to examine how a spiritual view of life—not a view based on religious doctrine, but on spiritual sensitivity—might transform both religion and science. I’m afraid I missed most of their points, even when I re-read the marginalia I wrote back when I originally read it. But I want to share a couple of insights that these authors presented.

One of these ideas, which sounds like something from the writings of Ernst Mayr, is that it was not so much the idea of evolution by which science changed our view of the world as it was population biology. In the earliest days of science, the “balance of nature” view prevailed. In this view, providence maintained populations and species by creating them with different birth rates. Balance was maintained because prey reproduced rapidly and predators reproduced slowly. This was a view expressed by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century. Today we understand that there is a struggle for existence, as Darwin called it, and that the rapid reproductive rate of many prey species has evolved as a response to predators. That is, from the pre-Darwinian view, Darwin not only disrupted belief in the orderly realm of supernatural creation by saying that life evolved, but he upset belief in the balance of nature by writing chapter 3 of the Origin: The Struggle for Existence. Darwin’s opponents tried and failed to put new ideas, about the struggle for existence, into old balance-of-nature world view.

Another example is one that remains with us today: the idea of limitless growth. We talk as if we believe that the world economy, and the economy of each country, should grow forever without limit. The alternative gets labeled “stagnation” rather than “equilibrium.” But, as Birch and Cobb pointed out, nobody really believes this. We all know we live on a planet of limited resources. In some cases technology can raise the limits, as with breeding and the invention of fertilizers that boosted crop production. But we all know that we have to make the transition to a sustainable economy—as a whole planet, and as separate countries. The consequences are sobering: the economic and political leaders of the world are lying to us and they know it. And we progressives play right along with it when we say that a sustainable economy, based on solar energy, will continue to allow unlimited growth. To paraphrase Kenneth Boulding, anyone who believes that unlimited growth is possible on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.

The old wineskin of the balance of nature was born from a view of the Earth as a peaceable garden, like Gilbert White’s garden (The Natural History of Selbourne), and the old wineskin of unlimited growth was born from the period when empires were expanding. Empires could expand only because the cultures with powerful military forces conquered and usually killed the people who had less military strength. We need new wineskins (new concepts) in our world. Actually, they are no longer new, but as 2018 begins, we find that they remain largely unaccepted.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Shift in the World

It may not seem like the most important news of recent times, but I believe that Trump’s recent declaration that countries with dark people are “shithole nations” marks a major shift in the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world—not just with the countries that Trump insulted, but also with our European allies. As of this writing, Trump has refused to apologize for his words. (He admits insulting other countries, and only denies using the word shit.) He never apologizes for anything. He just blames Hillary for everything he says.

No longer does the United States, embodied now in the figure of Trump, oppose only its enemies such as North Korea or its economic rivals such as China. Trump, who insists that he is a “very stable genius,” has made it clear that he hates every country that is not pure white. Clearly, the United States no longer wants other countries as friends. We Americans want them to either hate us or to fear us or both.

It is not just Trump. The entire Republican Party, even if not completely sharing Trump’s sentiments, has supported him. America elected him, and knew what kind of person he was when doing so.

The majority non-white countries of the world have been pushed away from the table of friendship with America. Naturally, they will turn to one another for cooperation. And the majority-white European countries such as France and Germany must be perfectly ready to form coalitions with these countries. Perhaps even more importantly, when the United States insults most of the world, the Russians and Chinese will say, “Come and join with us, make special trade arrangements with us, at least we will not insult you.”

I do not mean the other countries of the world will become military enemies of America. But, starting now, and increasingly with time, they will consult with each other but only negotiate with the United States. It is quite clear to them that there is no point in talking with America except from a position of their own solidarity and power. We do not need to be at war with the other countries of the world in order to be overpowered by them.

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s classic novel The Human Factor, about a British double-agent who defects to the Soviet Union. But this man was not a communist. He thought communism was evil. Why, then, did he do it? He did it because, when he was a representative of the British government in South Africa, he fell in love with an African woman. In South Africa, love between blacks and whites was illegal. He had to escape from South Africa in order to marry the woman. The only people who were willing to help him escape were the communists, and in gratitude to them for this help—not because he agreed with their politics—he became a double agent. (Leave it to Graham Greene to make a spy novel into an empathetic exploration of the human spirit.)

In a similar fashion, the countries that will begin to form an alliance against America—whether a few or many or all other countries—do not necessarily disagree with democracy nor do they necessarily agree with Russia or China. They will do it primarily because America hates them.

I imagine a future in which the other countries of the world form a new version of the United Nations, one in which America is not invited to participate. As I have so often said in this evolution blog, human altruism has been the greatest achievement of evolution. It will continue into the future, but the form in which it continues may be as mutual aid among countries who have had their fill of American hatred and arrogance.

And I think that future historians will look back and see that this shift started to take organized form in early 2018.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Welcome Again!

I began this blog in late 2009. For those of you who have begun reading this blog more recently, I would like to continue summarizing some of the previous entries. The first entry for 2017 summarized some of the 2009 and 2010 entries..

I now review some entries from 2011. Please check them out!

  • January12, 2011. Earth is a Lucky Planet, Part Three. Goldilocks’s Earth. A continued overview of the ways in which Earth got lucky in its evolution.
  • January19, 2011. Parasite Load. Financial corporations are parasitic upon us the same way that parasites can build up to deadly levels on a host.
  • Starting on February 11, 2011, I posted four entries called The Evolved Capacity for Evil, all based on Barbara Oakley’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend.
  • Starting on March 14, 2011, and through April 16, I posted a series of eight reports, My Fun Creationist Weekend, about the weird things I learned from visiting local creationist museums: The Creationist Museum in Rural Oklahoma; Noah’s Ark! Wow!; Into the Land of the Dinosaur Preacher; The Lost Paradise of Carl Baugh; Mysteries of the Cretaceous World at the Baugh Museum; Lies and Damned Lies at the Creationist Museum; The Ghost of Marlyn Clark; and a final instalment.
  • April 26,2011. Welcome Aboard, Mrs. Ples—Your Cabin is Number 10,587,282A. Where would human evolutionary ancestors have fit on the Ark—in the animal pens, or in a cabin?
  • I posted two entries, the first on May 13, 2011, about John Avise’s book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design.
  • Starting on May 27, 2011, I posted a series of four essays that remain even now one of the most extensive critical reviews of the Near Death Experience and how it is an internally-generated experience by the victim rather than a vision into the afterlife. Yes, I present the evidence. I really wanted to believe there is an afterlife, I still do, but my arguments remain unanswered. I also speculate about how it could have evolved.
  • If you want to read about the meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution at the University of Oklahoma, I have a series of entries starting June 22, 2011.
  • On August 19, 2011, I posted an essay, What Rick Perry Thinks about Science, which I assumed would be part of the dustbin of history by 2018, but sadly it is not.
  • Starting on September 1, 2011, I posted a series of brief excerpts from my book, published the next year by Prometheus Books, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World. I think you would enjoy the book, still available for purchase, but alternatively you can check out the essays I posted from it. The first essay is Hurry up and Wait, about how evolution is sometimes fast and sometimes slow.
  • Starting on October 7, 2011, I published a series of five essays called Dinosaur Adventure, my first visit to the Paluxy River with Glen Kuban. This is the set of dinosaur trackways that creationists claim include human footprints. But there are a lot of things to learn from them besides just the tired old conclusion that creationists are wrong. See the photos!
  • On November 10, 2011, I posted an essay, Darwin Has a Sense of Humour. Did you know there was a really funny passage in The Descent of Man? Check it out.

I would like to call attention to an entry I posted on May 24, 2011, about altruism, and how it is fundamental to our human species. Let me repost a brief passage from it:

“On a news program on NPR, one of [the richest people in America] called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.”

I plan to continue the work I started in 2009 as long as I can. Happy New Year to you, too!