Evolutionary agony

The Guardian has an “evolutionary biology agony aunt.” This doesn’t appear to be a deliberate joke.
The agony auntiness is basically standard newspaper-standard morality, dressed up in an evolutionary biology overcoat.

Readers send in their problems. So far, none of these have seemed to relate to the types of arcane technical or theoretical issues that you’d expect to worry evolutionary biologists.

The “problems” seem to be the dull wrangles between conscience and desire that we all experience, though you would hope that fewer of us share the problem-sharers’ capacity for self-justification.

To paraphrase one: “I am a good catch and my wife can’t breed any more, doesn’t evolutionary biology require me to get a younger model?”

Amazing that people with no capacity far self-knowledge can apparently survive into middle age. Obviously human intelligence wasn’t really that important to the survival of our species… (well, until now, anyway, what with climate change and ecological devastation, and all … )

Is this garbage there to give aid and comfort to creationists? It pretends that biology can somehow replace human morality. It misunderstands basic concepts of evolution, in ways that you would normally expect from the Discovery Institute.

I guess I’ll take it as a joke after all.

Failure to grasp the point

Truly, the world is a pendulum. A great post on Why Evolution is True about the vestigial grasp observed in human infants was countered by a silly post on Uncommon Descent.

WEIT discussed how the instinctive grasping reflex observed in newborn babies can best be interpreted as a relic of behaviour in pre-hominids (new-born babies hanging on to their mothers)

This is not a revolutionary new idea. I am amazed that it is even contentious. This was accepted wisdom in the UK several years ago.

O’Reilly’s counter starts from the position of apparently never having heard of the idea that “anecdote is not evidence”.

When my first child was very young, she had a habit of grasping my hair while feeding. My hair was long at that time.
It seemed to please and comfort her.

(Can I be the only person who sees it as a commentary on O’Reilly’s attitude to her offspring that – believing pleasure and comfort to be the only reason for the baby’s hair-grasping – O’Reilly immediately got her hair cut? )

However, grasping has many uses for a human infant – it is the principle [sic – a pedant] way the infant contacts reality (unfortunately by attempting to put things in its mouth), that being the only sense that is even moderately well developed.

This sentence is too ambiguous to follow. She seems to have meant to put the end of the sentence in the bracket, so I’ll ignore the bit about taste.

We are left with grasping being described as the main way in which an infant contacts reality. What? Does this make any sense?

In case you can’t answer that rhetorical question, let me answer it for you. “No.”

So what? Well, this Uncommon Descent post was O’Reilly’s “answer” to:

Incidentally, what do the ID and the Evolution-is-limited-in-scope (Behe, et all) do with data like this:

“Mouth random words” is what they do, apparently.

Oh, and betray that they implicitly acknowledge the role of evolution 🙂 :

However, I also suspect that it has been a long time since any such skill as hanging on to mother was needed.

A long time? As in “the sort of time scales and species changes that evolution would predict”?

The perils of Ignorance

The Perils of Ignorance

The Perils of Ignorance

(hat tip: FSTDT, as always this is the ultimate source of both ignorance and witty responses to it)

Evolution of Christianity

(hat tip: FSTDT)

Occams Razor - The Evolution of Christianity

Occams Razor - The Evolution of Christianity

Although the pedants might whine, I found this pretty funny.

Darwin and the Tree of Life

Possibly the best “educational” program I have seen on television in as long as I can remember. Better than Michio Kaku, better than all the discovery channel shows, better than all the rest.

I am talking about a wonderful BBC1 program – Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life – which has just finished. If you missed it, I cant stress how much you really should watch this on iPlayer. It is a part-Open University funded education program, supported by an interesting BBC Darwin website, where you can catch a glimpse of the program if it isnt on the iPlayer yet.

In a nutshell, David Attenborough shows his fantastic qualities as a presenter and takes the viewer on a tour through the history of the theory of evolution. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the science and has a presentational style that is unmatched. I was actually saddened at one point in the program, when I realised that 30 years ago people were more accepting of evolution and our place in the world than they are today. Thanks to the idiocy of fundamentalist religion we really are going back in time.

Attenborough calmly and politely mocks the ideas that all species were created as they are with no change and gives a wonderful (if brief) example of how the eye is a good example of evolution at work. It is all well done and while the hardened scientist may object at some simplification, this is a program which explains evolution in an hour for the general public. To that end some abbreviation of the tree of life is understandable.

Sadly, the BBC website sort of undermines Attenborough’s fantastic work with this line:

David shares his personal view on Darwin’s controversial idea.

Now, while it was indeed controversial in the 1860’s it is now valid science with solid evidential backing. The controversy is not real. Implying it is still there plays into the hands of the idiots and anti-educationalists. Shame really.

This program shows that, despite its faults, the BBC really can pull it out of the bag when it comes to “important” programs.

Stupidity and lies for Jesus

Always willing to flog a dead horse, I’ve stumbled across more mind-bending nonsense on the crazy-fest that is Yahoo! Answers. As I mentioned previously, this (*) is a haven for the weird and wonderful ideas people can come up with. Sadly, in the best of Web 2.0 traditions, idiocy, bad education and lies rise to the surface while real education gets drowned under the stupidity of the commons. I honestly think that if a good answer ever turned up it would be drowned under the idiocy (and get so many thumbs down) it would quickly flee for its life.

The most recent idiocy to draw my attention is a month old question titled “Do fossils of now extinct creatures such as dinosaurs prove evolution?” (see original)

At first site this looks like a legitimate question. It is the sort of question you would expect inquisitive school children to ask. It gives the chance for a well thought out answer about the nature of fossils, what evolutionary theory is and how scientific proofs work. You can imagine it being the sort of question a teacher would set a class to see what research they carry out. Well, Toutatis forbid they type the question into a search engine. The results are shocking. To an otherwise ignorant person seeing to improve their education, this search would be disastrous. Anyway, back to the question.

After an innocent start (obviously to trick the unwary), the question continues:

The fact that dinosaurs once lived and are now extinct is no proof of evolution. Such fossils merely show us that certain species once living were destroyed and became extinct. Theorists have been able to reach no general agreement on the cause or causes of extinction. The theories on this subject are numerous and sometimes very imaginative. Since most fossils are found in sedimentary rocks and show signs of catastrophic burial, they seem to point to a global flood as the principal cause of extinction. They must have lived on earth at the same time, just as the Bible implies.

Oh dear Belenus! It is true that the fact dinosaurs lived once and not any more is not proof of evolution. After a promising start it crashes down into a pile of blithering idiocy. So far so uneducated. Next we get:

If the flood-geology interpretation of geological strata is correct, all or most dinosaurs became extinct at the time of the flood. Until that time, then, man and dinosaurs lived on the earth at the same time.

Its good that he uses an “if” to start there. I agree that if the flood geology interpretation were correct dinosaurs died at the flood. However it isn’t. It isn’t even close. Man and Dino did not live on Earth at the same time. It really is that easy.

So far this is just standard creationist idiocy. It is the sad product of poor education, poor understanding and religious doctrine combining. As always though, the monumental lack of evidence to support creationism causes problems and the TRUE BELIEVER© is forced to lie for Jesus. It happens all the time. In all types of debate. The stronger the persons faith, the more they seem willing to lie for their deity. I find the irony very entertaining. Here we have:

Is there any EVIDENCE outside of the Bible to support this view? Yes, there is. It is well known that along the Paluxy River in Texas many dinosaur footprints have been found in limestone strata classified as Cretaceous. Not so well known is the fact that for about fifty years human footprints have been reported in the same strata.

Taranis give me strength. Don’t you just love it when some one asks a question that they answer themselves? Yes. (all puns intended). The only evidence to support humans and dinosaurs co-existing is in the minds of creationists. It isn’t even in the Bible. It is pure fiction. The Flintstones is not real. Lying for Jesus is still lying. The crazy questioner finishes off with his bit of conspiracy theory for Jesus nonsense:

Source: Footprints in Stone(color-sound film)
But since the concept that man lived with dinosaurs is incompatible with the theory of evolution, many Scientists dismiss this documentary for the persuasive evidence unfolded.

Man living with Dino is not incompatible with evolution. The “documentary” evidence cites is not dismissed for that reason and it really is not persuasive…

The screaming stupidity that is Yahoo! Answers comes out in the “best answer” chosen by the “asker.” As is so often the case, the person chooses a best answer that restates whatever idiocy they agree with. This is no different:

I do agree with you to some extent. It is impossible for humans to prove the actual “age” of the extinct dinosaur remains. When scientists try to “determine” the age of the dinosaur remains by soil composition and “carbon dating” etc, I just shake my head. Anybody can make an assumption about life that way. It is also impossible for humans to determine exactly how old the history of mankind is as well. Remember, in the early days of creation, people lived much longer then we do now. Of course they did. Adam lived for 930 years, and his son Seth lived for 912 years. Before the flood, many people lived well into their hundreds. There was a wonderful balance of nature then. No pollution or anything “man-made” existed to destroy that balance. God knew what he was doing right from the very beginning. His creation and existence is perfection in itself – he is the superb mastercraftsman! I bow to his absolute genius…

It is mind-numbing in its stupidity. What on Earth is age doing in quotes? What is the idiot trying to say? Putting determine in sneer quotes – what is that all about? The whole answer manages to be so far from the truth it is almost beyond belief. It isn’t even internally consistent. Even in Biblical terms there were lots of man-made things before the flood – the Ark for example…

The wonders of the internet (and specifically web 2.0) push this stupidity to the top of a search engine query. The miracle of Web2.0 gives the asker the chance to give prominence to the madness that the person asking the question wants to be seen as the answer. Yes, if you scroll down you can find better answers but not everyone is going to do that and, crucially, when they have had their reasoning tainted by the initial two bits, they will be more sceptical of the truth than of the idiocy.

Web 2.0 is not about empowerment and it certainly is not about the shared wisdom of the masses. The tragedy of the commons seems so much more appropriate.

* I suspose this may be a specific problem to the Religion and Spirituality part of Yahoo Answers, but the other sections seem to be riddled with nutjob answers…

Darwin is not the atheist god.

In today’s Guardian, Madeleine Bunting has obviously run out of things to write about and pulled a bit of a weird post about atheists and Darwin to try and stir things up (and she has succeeded here at least 🙂 ).

With a peice titled “Darwin shouldn’t be hijacked by New Atheists – he is an ethical inspiration” she generates all manner of fallacies and incorrect statements. Interestingly, she achieves this without actually saying much at all. What a wonderful example of how you can fill four columns in a national daily newspaper with, effectively, nothing. She is writing about 2009 being the “Year of Darwin” (as well as Gallileo, but that is another story) and begins with what a “brilliant scientist” Darwin was, leading to this:

He is, Newton apart, the greatest British scientist ever, so it makes good sense for the British Council, among others, to use this as an opportunity to flag up the prestigious history of British science.

Now, I am sure there are many British scientists (living and dead) who would take offence at this. Darwin’s work (and Newtons) was indeed brilliant, but there have been many other examples of equal brilliance albeit in different fields. Lawrence Krauss, in New Scientist, states that “anyone who was looking could have seen that humans were animals” which is certainly true – Darwin’s brilliance was to have been looking…

Further on, Madeleine identifies one of the biggest worries about the state of British education (and possibly a reason behind the Year of Darwin):

What drives this anniversary is a missionary zeal to persuade and convince the public of the truth of Darwin’s great discoveries, because, astoundingly – despite the mountain of scientific evidence – there is still considerable scepticism and even hostility to this great Victorian. A poll for the BBC in 2006 found that less than half the British population accepted the theory of evolution as the best description for the development of life.

Less than half. In a “largely” secular nation. Sad, isn’t it. I have some doubts of the figures, because I know of no-one personally who would say Evolution is false. For 30+ million people in the UK to think this, the chances of me never having met even one is pretty remote. While I personally feel the figures are somewhat inaccurate, it doesn’t matter. One person thinking the Sky Pixie shook magic dust out and life appeared is one too many.

From this point on, however, it goes downhill. Madeleine falls into the trap of thinking Darwin is the Atheist equivalent of Jesus. She seems to think that atheists require a historical icon to have been an atheist to support the cause. She seems to imply that Darwin has become the Old Testament Prophet of the New Atheism.

Utter nonsense but first some quotes:

In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century.

Where has this come from? Creationists initiated the battle against Darwin, invoking their god to strike down evolution. Religious people of almost all persuasions are happy to accept evolution as valid science. The catholic church has embraced the work of Darwin. How in the name of Wotan is Darwin the “standard bearer” for Atheism?

I actually think Madeleine has mistaken Darwin for Dawkins. Easily done, but a mistake none the less.

Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin.

Only by Creationists. Again, she is using the arguments of creationists against atheists. Madness. There have been atheists as long as there have been humans. We are born atheists and some are converted into theists. The Royal Society was full of non-theists who had nothing to do with Darwin. This is just nonsense you would expect to see on Rapture Ready or CARM.

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up).

The fear by creationists. What is this “New Atheism” thing anyway? What does it mean? Does it imply people have found a new way of not believing? Does it actually have any meaning or is it an underhanded way of taking a shot at Atheists? Is it an example of how some atheists hate their own lack of belief so much they feel the need to distance themselves from others? (This leads to a point excellently expressed on The Atheist Ethicist Blog)

Agnosticism is not a valid belief structure. You either believe there is a god, or you dont. There is no new way to not believe, just in the modern world people are less frightened of stating they don’t believe. It is not “militant atheism” any more than Songs of Praise is militant Christianity.

Next we have a sleight of words trick:

Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events.

Wow, this is good. There are two points here and she writes to imply they are heavily linked. She first tells us that people are lined up to assert that it is impossible to believe in a Deity (any deity) and accept Evolution and then mentions Dawkins. The implication is clear, Dawkin will be one of these people. This appeals on some levels, because Dawkins is an outspoken atheist (damn his eyes for having the temeretity to speak out….) but it is clearly written by someone who knows nothing of what Dawkins has said.

It is possible to believe in the Christian God and accept evolution. Evolution makes no claims on the origin of life. The Catholic church is happy that God planted the seeds and life evolved. See, it is easy. Evolution disproves a literal interpretation of the bible, but outside the more fundamentalist minds this is rarely found anyway. It is, largely, only devout creationists who feel that Evolution alone challenges God.

Science as a whole challenges belief. In the God Delusion, and during his TV shows and talks, Dawkins uses a vast array of scientific fields to challenge the existence of any deity. I can not think of a scientific disciple which does not provide information to show there is no [Wotan|Odin|Thor|Set|Dievas|Allah|Krishna| etc]. Astronomy and Geology rubbish any idea of a literal interpretation of the biblical creation theory. Evolution is but one strand. No one would say “hey, ignore everything else in science, the only thing that disproves the bible is the genetic similarity between humans and chimps” (or what ever variation you want).

However.

There is a group of people who do think Evolution is the only means by which God can be disproven. These people are convinced that the rest of the scientific stable supports the existence of god, and provides a framework for him to exist. These people also think Dawkins is the evil spokesman of “Darwinism” and these people use the term “New Atheism” to put down those uppity non-believers who have the cheek to speak out in public.

Creationists.

Madeleine Bunting’s article has been so heavily influenced by creationist thinking you could almost read it on CARM, Uncommon Descent or the like. Almost but not quite. The terms are creationis terms. The arguments are creationist-inspired. But the general tone is one of a non-believer. I suspect there is some element of lazy journalism here, or a creationist researcher, or both. Possibly, Madeleine Bunting is an “Old Atheist” – the sort who kept quiet, went to church, paid a tithe etc but didn’t have faith – or perhaps she is an “Agnostic” – an atheist who wont admit it – but either way, she is wrong about Atheism needing, wanting or having a standard bearer in the form of Charles Darwin.