Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bad Reason #4 – There are no transitional fossils

This is the fourth article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "There are no fossils that show transitions between species".

Of all the bad reasons to reject evolution this one is probably the easiest to deal with, that's because it's demonstrably wrong. A transitional fossil is one that is usually supposed to show a transition between one type of animal and another. Looking at this from a species point of view it would seem difficult to spot the differences between say a Herring gull and a Lesser Black backed gull fossil although we know they represent two different species, one may be a bit smaller for example but without the genetic differences physiologically pretty similar. What people usually think of when we say "transitional fossil" is more along the lines of something that shows evidence of the relatedness of all living things, for example a transition between fish and reptiles or dinosaurs and birds or snakes and lizards, some fossil that shows an animal somewhere on the path between the two groups, so a raptor with feathers or a fish with legs etc.

Interestingly we have great examples of all of these transitions, some famous fossils like Archaeopteryx show dinosaur-bird transition but others, perhaps less famous, like Tiktaalik show the fish-land reptile transition among many others, here is a list of some of the more well known ones, Google the names to see pictures and to read about them in more detail.

Archaeopteryx – Has a wishbone and feathers like a bird but a long bony tail, teeth and fingers like a dinosaur.

Sinornis – A bird with bony fingers and teeth

Yinlong – A small bipedal dinosaur with a beak

Bohlinia – A giraffe with a "medium" sized neck (most older fossils show giraffes with short necks)

Pezosiren portelli – A Manatee with legs, showing a transition from hippo like land animals to the sea dwelling manatee

Moeritherium – A small hippo like mastodon with tusks but no trunk.

Dimetrodon – A sail backed dinosaur with a skull and teeth physiology that only mammals have.

Tiktaalik – A transition between fish and land animals, fish like fin rays and joints like land animals (also surprisingly an ear that could hear in and out of water)

Gerobatachus hottorni – shows the common origins of frogs and salamanders

Osontochelys semistestacea – An animal on its way to becoming a turtle with half a shell and teeth (unlike modern turtles)

Ambulocetus - An amphibious mammal on its way to becoming a whale.

Most recently of course we have Darwinius masillae or "Ida which shows the transition between early primates and more recent forms like humans. As I have said before the concept of a "transitional" creature is somewhat of a misnomer, all creatures are transitional between what came before them and what will come next, a sobering thought.

Bad Reason #3 – We haven’t got all the fossils

This is the third article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "We haven't got every single fossil going back to the first bacteria".

Here is another indicator of ignorance, both of the scientific method and evolution itself, it is quite common for non-scientists to think that in order to "prove" something to yourself you need to actually witness it, clearly this is a childish notion, reminiscent of a playground taunt "how do you know its true, did YOU see it?" etc. To illustrate the fallacy I could say that I've never seen Tokyo, but I'm pretty sure it exits.

Another misconception here is that the credibility of the theory of evolution rests solely on fossil evidence, this is not the case, and in fact most scientists would say that the DNA evidence alone would be sufficient. Having said that though I'm going to focus on fossils because that's the main focus of the objection, the fact that DNA and distribution evidence stand on their own and yet still support the fossil evidence simply adds overwhelming weight to the accuracy of the theory.

We are fortunate that we do have millions of fossils to look at, I say fortunate because fossilisation is an incredibly rare event. If we look at the world today an important question raises its head, that is, where are all the bodies? Our planet should be littered with dead bodies, millions upon millions of animals die every day and yet our gutters don't run with dead pigeons, squirrels, bacteria, foxes or carp, it is incredibly rare that we see dead animals in comparison to how common it is to see live animals. Clearly dead bodies are eaten. There is a whole eco-system of creatures that vacuum up the dead at every level of the food chain, from scavenging bird and mammal species such as crows and foxes down through insects such as beetles on to bacteria and fungi, all generating a fine living from dining on the dead. To create a fossil a very special set of circumstances needs to occur, primarily that the dead body is quickly taken out of the food chain (for example it is buried in mud), oxygen and bacteria cannot be present (perhaps at a dark, cold lake bottom) then the cells in the body need time to take up the minerals of the surrounding materials and eventually be transformed into sedimentary rock, this takes ages during which time the body cannot be disturbed, then the simple bit is that someone has to actually find it!

So is it really surprising that we don't see every fossil and more importantly why are the fossils we do have sufficient?

Looking at fossils is a bit like solving a crime by looking at a crime scene, only some of the evidence is available and what little is there needs to be matched up to the environment, the landscape and the timeline in order to prove beyond reasonable doubt that something has happened. If we only agreed to convict criminals if we could see every piece of evidence, i.e. a video recording of the actual crime then we wouldn't get very far, proof is about weight of evidence and not absolutes.

So where have we found good sequences of fossils that show beyond reasonable doubt that evolution and speciation has occurred, a good example would be the transition from land to sea in the case of the whales although there are many others. The key to discovering this set of transitions was finding where to look; apparently whales did a lot of evolving in what is now Pakistan, once this discovery had been made the floodgates of great whale fossil finds was opened and a very clear picture has emerged. In fact if you look at the skeleton of whales alive today there are some very big clues regarding their evolutionary heritage, the remnants of hind limbs can still clearly be seen, begging the question for the doubters why on earth would whales have back legs?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bad reason #2 – Monkeys don’t give birth to people

This is the second article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "We have never seen a monkey give birth to a human".

This is a common one, often you hear people say things like "viruses are one thing but you never see a dog giving birth to a cat", so what it behind this objection and why is it bad?

The root of this objection is seated in ignorance; the person making it clearly does not (or does not want to) understand what the theory of evolution actually proposes in order to explain speciation (the changing of one species into another) Asking to see a monkey birth a human is a somewhat ridiculous requirement because it is clearly impossible and that's not what evolution says anyway. A classic "straw man" argument and a favourite among young earth creationists.

What evolution actually says is that speciation normally occurs over vast periods of time and in tiny cumulative increments, it is driven at the genetic level i.e. it is genes that are changing, which in turn cause bodies to gradually change. However evolution is not a random process, it is constantly guided by natural selection. Only useful changes (or adaptations) survive and in turn these successful changes become the majority in a population of genes (or a gene pool) the benchmark for the selection process is "fitness" or how successful will an individual be at living long enough in its environment to reproduce and therefore pass on those genes to the next generation.

The definition of a species is a group of animals that can interbreed, so a good question would be how many changes are needed before a new species is created? This is a complex subject but fortunately we have some excellent real-world examples that show the process but in living species rather than backwards over time. There is a species of gull that lives around the Arctic Circle, in the UK we call it the "herring gull" it is a big white bird with a grey back and is quite common. However, as we move westward towards Greenland and the American continent we still see the herring gull however it changes slightly in size and colour, over there it is called the "American Herring Gull", as we continue across Canada and into Alaska we still see our gull but it changes subtly as we go, then across into Russia we see more and more changes until we get all the way back to Scandinavia and the UK where we end up with a Gull that is quite different from our original Herring gull and is called the Lesser Black Backed Gull and is now a different species (i.e. it does not interbreed with Herring gulls). At every point in this circle the gulls in proximity to each other breed together quite happily however as the distance and the changes accumulate eventually there is a tipping point and the resultant species becomes distinct.

This is called a "ring species" and represents a huge problem for people who don't believe that evolution can create new species, all that distinguishes a ring species from two separate species is the existence of the connecting gull populations, should there ever be a natural disaster (like a new virus for example) and a segment of the ring vanishes then we will have two distinct species.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bad Reason #1 – You can’t see evolution happening

This is the first article in my series of 10 bad reasons to reject evolution, this post deals with the objection that "you can't see evolution happening".

Well this one is simply not true, evolution is a common occurrence, it happens all the time and affects our lives directly. The most prevalent example is that of microbes becoming resistant to drugs (for example malaria) and new types of bacteria and viruses emerging that thwart our best efforts at developing vaccines, for example the H1N1 strain of flu is a natural mutation of previously existing strains of flu.

What people often mistakenly mean by "evolution" in this context is not actually evolution in the wider sense it is a small component of it called "speciation", i.e. the changing of one species into another for example dinosaurs into birds or fish into reptiles; speciation of this kind occurs very slowly over hundreds of thousands if not millions of generations, because of this fact we will never actually witness it, so lets explore why.

Just because we can't see something doesn't mean it isn't true, in life we know this to be a generally accepted state of affairs, for example we can't see gravity or ultra violet rays, but if we fall off a building or lie in the sun too long then we can see and experience the after-effects of these things all too clearly. This is the same for evolution, after-effects like the fossil record, the distribution of animals and plants over the planet and the genetic record cannot be explained any other rational way than by accepting that evolution has happened, all of these separate things point overwhelmingly to the fact that speciation has occurred in the past and is still happening today.

So how does speciation happen? In the summer of 1995, at least 15 iguanas survived Hurricane Marilyn on a raft of uprooted trees. They rode the high seas for a month before colonizing the Caribbean island, Anguilla. These few individuals were perhaps the first of their species, Iguana iguana, to reach the island. If there were other intrepid Iguana iguana colonizers of Anguilla, they died out before humans could record their presence. As these 15 individuals reproduce and die they will gradually change, the mechanism that causes these changes is the same tiny genetic changes between generations that makes a new flu virus. Tiny changes in genes caused by mutation may lead to changes in bodies, for example a slightly longer jaw (this has actually been observed in another species of lizard that became isolated on a tropical island) or perhaps a slightly different colour, or shorter legs etc. Should any such change (say a bigger jaw) confer a survival advantage for the lizard then that individual will be more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation. Over hundreds of generations the frequency of the "bigger jaw" gene will gradually become greater in the whole population and you end up with an island full of large jawed lizards. Give this process enough time and eventually you end up with a population of lizards that are so different that a member of the remote population could no longer mate with a member of the original population of lizards, and then you have a brand new species.

This is called allotropic speciation, there are 3 other kinds.

Expecting to actually witness speciation would be like expecting to witness the precise moment that a child becomes an adult, it's not possible because it simply doesn't happen like that, there is no precise moment of change, the process is one of tiny increments (clearly for legal purposes we put an artificial "moment" in place which is normally on the 18th birthday) but we all know and accept that it is a gradual process. Speciation happens even slower than this, typically over a time scale that extends beyond many generations of human life and is therefore impossible to witness.

What is the key evidence for speciation?

-Animals marooned on tropical islands are often are very similar but not quite the same species as animals of the same kind on the mainland, the older the island the more differences there are. It's not just water that acts as a barrier between species, deserts, mountains and ice are all effective mechanisms for separating populations of animals.

-When we look at lineages of common fossils over many generations we see gradual changes, sometimes we find fossils that have characteristics of both their ancestors and what they will eventually become in the future, these special examples are called "transitional" fossils, although this is somewhat of a misnomer because every fossil is transitional, no two animals are ever identical.

-The distribution of animals over the world fits exactly with what you would expect if speciation occurred.

-The DNA in our cells contains the precise history of our species, it proves that we are related to every other living thing on the planet, the closer the animal the more similar the DNA is, for example human DNA is 98% the same as chimpanzees, even intuitively and from the fossil record we can see that we are closely related to the higher primate, the DNA confirms that we are in fact a branch of the ape family itself and that many millions of years ago there was a speciation event that separated us.

If you argue that speciation did NOT happen, then you are left with the daunting task of explaining how these things occur some other way.

10 bad reasons to reject evolution

The inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had with a relative of mine at a recent family BBQ; it was an enjoyable conversation on the subject of evolution, but to my surprise the person that I had the conversation with kicked the ball off by saying that he didn't believe evolution was true.

I was keen to understand the reasoning behind this lack of acceptance and discovered some rather strange logic combined with a whole number of common misconceptions about both the facts of evolution itself and the scientific method in general.

I have captured what I think are the top 10 bad reasons to think evolution is false, then over the next few days I intend to explore each reason looking at why it might represent a misconception or why perhaps it might represent simple ignorance of the facts.

First let's look at the 10 reasons, these are statements or assertions that are commonly used as reasons why people say that they reject evolution, interestingly some of these assertions are exactly what the person I was talking to at the BBQ came out with :-

  1. You can't see evolution happening
  2. We have never seen a monkey give birth to a human
  3. We haven't got every single fossil going back to the first bacteria
  4. There are no fossils that show the transitions between species
  5. The human body is too complex to have come about by chance
  6. If we evolved from monkeys, how come there are still monkeys
  7. They can't possibly know how old all these fossils are
  8. How did evolution know to create such specialised animals
  9. Evolution is "just" a theory, not a fact
  10. I just find it too incredible to believe

There are a couple of great reference books that cover the facts of evolution at a fairly basic level, I would recommend "Why evolution is true" by Jerry Coyne and there is a new book coming out soon by Richard Dawkins called "the greatest show on earth".

Over the coming days I will be looking critically at each of these assertions and covering them in more detail, stay tuned.

The old “root of ethics” shuffle

The Arch-Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was up to his old tricks bashing Atheism and Secularism again (but as ever in such a nice fluffy way) this week; I came across this article in the Guardian today covering the Hay Festival and the discussion that he had with AN Wilson regarding Williams' new book which is entitled "Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction", I have not read the book so cannot comment on that but the author of the article illustrates the main thrust of it in his article and it is an utterly familiar one.

In Dostoevsky's work "The brothers Karamazov" the theme of life without God is explored, and there is one famous line in it which religious people seem to trot out at every opportunity seemingly thinking that a line plucked from a piece of 19th century fiction holds some mystical weight. The line in question is "without God everything is permitted", ok, I understand the point but every time I hear it I cringe and think, well, that's demonstrably crap for starters. Personally I think these guys should bring their arguments up to date, why not pick a more modern piece of entertainment to derive your philosophy from, star wars for example, wouldn't it be great to watch these jewel encrusted old men wondering around saying "may the force be with you" to each other, it would have just as much significance for me.

In the article Rowan is reported as saying that Atheists can clearly be good (at least he's not as deluded as the Catholics on that one) however he then immediately contradicts himself by claiming that without God there is no foundation for ethics and no ultimate source of goodness, what a lot of poppycock. Has Rowan never seen a David Attenborough documentary, has he never seen animals like Chimpanzees or Lions cooperating together to achieve a common goal, has he never read a book on evolution or seen a paper on the psychology of social animals, where on earth has he been since scientists started studying animal behaviour way back in the 50s?

It is hard for a rationalist like me to read something like this and still take such views seriously, clearly Rowan is a very educated and articulate man but how can anyone fall for this kind of double-speak. The cynic in me sees a sub-plot of obfuscation designed to enable religion to cling onto power, it might just be possible that religious leaders like Rowan are running scared at the upsurge in secularism and atheism in our society (particularly in the USA) and clearly if that trend continues these guys will be out of a job. Spreading a little fear, uncertainty and doubt coupled with liberal sprinklings of the "bogey man" of Stalin and Mao seems to be the stock in trade of these religious leaders, and the FUD machine is in full swing.

The article finishes with another gem of a conclusion which I just have to reproduce here and add to my ever growing library of religious leaders meaning mangling prowess, here he is talking about Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" books and somehow manages to flip the real message of these books 180 degrees to make a rational view of reality appear to be the "bogey man".

Pullman himself has the church in mind when he describes that dehumanising programme, though Williams interprets the action more generally to include any force – cultural or institutional – that seeks to turn human beings into automatons. Totalitarian regimes are one example. The scientistic conception of human beings as gene-transmitting machines would be another.

Notice how we have the straw man of "gene-transmitting machines" (no scientist, including Dawkins ever says this is "just" what humans are) and made up words "scientistic" to provide the illusion of credibility. Pullman originally modelled his totalitarian organisation called the "Magisterium" on the Catholic Church, which absolutely is an organisation that seeks to turn human beings in to (Catholic) automatons, the fact that we actually do transmit genes from one generation of human beings to the next (although oddly Catholic priests deny themselves this perfectly natural function) is simply an expression of scientific fact, why is this so threatening to him?

Go Indiana!

I spotted this little story in the American press yesterday here.

I am hard wired to subliminally latch onto the word "Indiana" since a coupe of year's back I spent a few years shuttling back and forth to Indianapolis because of work. I couldn't help but notice at the time how religious the society was there (at least compared to the UK) I must say it was quite a shock having previously only experienced US East & West coast life (which is much more like Europe). It struck me how insular the communities were and how the company I was working for seemed to be run entirely by a bunch of people who all went to the exact same church. Religion seemed so prominent in everyday working life; in fact I would go as far as to say that the religious "way of thinking" permeated the entire culture of the company, very solipsistic, they did raise money for charity now and again and they did help their local community and encourage others to do the same which was refreshing. Suffice to say not everyone I met was a rabid religious bigot, there were some very nice people there of course but it was not a culture that I felt comfortable with. I'm sure they thought I asked way too many questions and kept annoyingly pointing out what I thought were "obvious" rational flaws in their arguments; I was glad to cut ties with them as soon as I could.

Anyway, this story somewhat reinforces my perception of the place, the secular Alliance of Indiana University, in Bloomington attempted to emulate the London Atheist Bus campaign in Indiana by placing boards on the sides of buses but failed because the Indianapolis public transport system wouldn't run their campaign. Next they tried South Bend whose bus company kicked up a fuss, initially refusing; fortunately though that bus company had already run religious ad's and was shamed into relenting. You might be wondering at this stage what hateful anti-religious venom these Atheists wanted to publicise, what spiteful disrespect could cause such a kerfuffle? The message reads "You can be good without God", a simple fact, plain for anyone to see, how radical.

Anyway now the campaign has moved to Chicago, where fortunately there was much less fuss, now you can see the Atheist messages alongside ad's saying things like "Islam, got questions?" (well yes actually but that's a topic for another post)

All that's left to do is reflect on a zeitgeist changing in front of my very own eyes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Michael O'Brien for Taoisearch

Michael O’Brien, 72, was separated from his seven brothers, sisters and cousins when they were placed in separate church-run residences in the 1940s. He suffered repeated rapes and beatings from age 8 onward in an industrial school run by the Rosminian order in the town of Clonmel.

O’Brien electrified the nation this week by denouncing a government minister on live television, detailing the perversions and terror he endured as a boy and demanding a constitutional crackdown on church wealth.

It must have taken huge courage to say what he said, he is clearly an honourable and articulate man, you cannot fail to sense the pain that is clearly below the surface.

The Catholic church (in league with a complacent Government) has a lot to answer for in Irish society, if I had to sum up what I feel about the Catholic church after watching this I would say that it is a parasitic blight on humanity and would conclude that the sooner this divisive and immoral organisation is legally evicted from the shadows of power and influence and exposed in the light of secular scrutiny and criticism the better off the entire world will be.

I have finally found Jesus

Here he is, been in a tub of Marmite all this time...

Such a relief.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Kettle, pot?

I noticed this little story on the BBC feed today, it's about a religion called Scientology which was founded in the USA in the 50's by a science fiction writer called L. Ron Hubbard, it is a truly bizarre organisation and has always struck me as more of a business venture to exploit the gullible than claiming anything in particular, although there is some heavyweight science fiction mythology going on in there if what I read is true.

The story centres around an upcoming case to be fought in France about whether or not Scientology committed fraud by extracting monies from a woman under false pretences, making false promises and applying undue psychological pressure on her. You can check the story out here but it got me thinking, I wondered how the French court could believe that a trial like this would not set a precedent for all organised religions particularly Christianity and Islam, if you examine the charges you quickly see similarities in behaviour and a familiar pattern emerging the only real difference being that the more established churches are, well, simply more established.

Look at the charges and see if you could make the same claims against say, the Catholic Church (although all the Abrahamic dogmas would be similar).

Extorting monies by making false promises
Scientology claimed that this woman had mental problems and charged her for lessons, books and medicines, Scientology is a very rich organisations with huge resources. The state of mental health of this woman can and probably will be checked by proper medical authorities, although no doubt the representatives of Scientology will claim that the kind of problems they detect cannot be tested for nor proven since they reside "below the conciousness level, exerting a hidden influence".

Catholicism claims that we are all born sinners and must repent by applying their particular cure which involves among other things donating monies to that organisation, ideally for your entire life. The Catholic Church is a very rich organisation with huge resources. The physical state that they claim all humans are in and the cure that they offer is not falsifiable by science and there is no evidence for it whatsoever. Not a single human has ever in over 2000 years actually proven (by any means) that their particular "cure" for sin is true or that the concept of sin is even valid in the first place.

Mental Pressure
Scientology is accused of applying undue mental pressure in order to extort money from this woman, presumably they told her that their cure was the only cure and therefore compelled her to make payments for it. However she was an adult and could at any time validate the claims made by evaluating evidence freely available on the internet and elsewhere regarding the efficacy of cures and treatments claimed by the Scientology organisation, she would have found the organisation to be a source of ridicule by the vast majority of real scientists.

Catholicism also applies mental pressure on people; however it typically does it to small children rather than adults who are obviously easier to convince and less prone to making waves by critically examining evidence; clearly small children do not possess the rational faculties that adults do. This indoctrination is reinforced throughout the life of the person in the church, and any attempt at rational enquiry about the validity of the concepts presented is claimed to be evil and discourages by the leaders of the Church. A state of dilemma and guilt are propagated regarding original sin and hell, children are told to follow Catholic dogma or risk suffering eternal torture by burning. They also claim that the only way to avoid this punishment for being born is to follow their dogma and presumably support the organisation by giving it money.

So, will this trial set the stage for the outlawing of all religion from France, I doubt it, but it is interesting never the less to look at the striking similarities between the techniques that religions use to suck in the gullible and to hold them in their clutches with un-knowable and dubious "science".

Friday, May 22, 2009

Thick and fast

There has been a lot of science in the news lately (hurrah!); we've had Hubble, Herschel, Planck, Ida and many others, BUT just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water we have another one, NIF!

Relegated to the backwaters of the BBC science pages here this little understated story contains few words but big implications for our planet. The subject is nuclear fusion, usually these two words induce a coma in readers, "been there done that" is the reaction most people I know give it. Fusion has been one of those technologies that have been "just around the corner" for 40 years now, never seeming to deliver on the original promise of unlimited power and hideously complicated in terms of theory and practice, impractical and uneconomic some have said.

But now we have third generation devices entering commissioning stages, this one in California uses lasers to focuses 500 trillion watts of power (more than the entire peak energy capacity of the USA) onto a ball-bearing sized pellet of hydrogen fuel. It's the first time this much energy can be harnessed on demand in this way.

Now I know what you're thinking, so what, geeks in white coats playing with fire etc., but think about it. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it is effectively limitless; being able to use hydrogen to generate power like this would potentially solve all our energy needs and global warming in a single step. Hydrogen is also available in space; future vehicles powered by fusion could in theory re-fuel in space thereby overcoming the current crippling constraint on distance because of the amount of fuel that can be physically carried.

Unlimited cheap energy would also facilitate faster and better computing resources, public transport systems, food production, water desalination and cheaper raw materials among many other vital things. Would access to unlimited energy cause us to destroy our planet at an increased speed perhaps? possibly, as with all advances I think care would be needed, however the possibilities are tantalising, I hope I live to see it.

Catholic Atheist bashing (again)

What is it with Catholics, are they schooled in hypocrisy and irony?

Here is a story reported on same day as the Irish Times reported the systematic sexual, mental and physical abuse of 35,000 children in the care of the Catholic Church in Ireland over 35 years (just keep that little fact in the back of your mind as you read this)

The story refers to the speech by the new UK leader of this pack of hyenas in red velvet. Vincent Nichols who said "Faith is never a solitary activity nor can it be simply private", which is what all intelligent people will recognise as the precise reason why it can be a very dangerous thing; but even more insulting to our intelligence was the line “it took courage for Catholic church members who abused children to face up to their actions”, put a brave face on it hey Vinnie. This insult was piled on top of our injury by his brother in arms the ex grand wizard Murphy O'Connor who said that “a lack of faith is the greatest of evils.” He blamed atheism for war and destruction, and implied it was a greater evil even than sin itself.

Have you got that all you Atheists out there; not only are you not fully human but you are EVIL as well, in fact MORE EVIL than anything else, I realise that in polite society we aren’t supposed to raise our voices to “religion” (that would be disrespectful after all) but is this true even when they indoctrinate and rape children, get the Irish government to pay the compensation and then attack OUR morality in public for not believing what they believe.

Can these unelected old virgins really say what the heck they like about anyone and then hide behind the cloak of “religious respect”?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Missing Link?

For once the media seems to be latching onto a science story today, which is great to see; unfortunately some publications seem to be over egging the custard when explaining the significance of it. The discovery they are reporting is a 47 million year old fossil primate (Darwinius masillae) called "Ida" (the specimen is a female), a good example of the story can be found here at National Geographic magazine.

The thing that's odd in these articles is the incessant reference to a "missing link", to understand why this is irksome you need to appreciate that *every* fossil could be called a "link", "missing link" is just a piece of journalistic fantasy first coined by those anti-evolution chumps the creationists in a characteristic haze of ignorance. Usually the term applies to the idea that there should be a fossil that shows an animal that is half human and half monkey, thereby proving a "link" between our species and lower primates, to be missing you have to envisage the whole of evolution as a chain, this notion is of course nonsense, the fact of the matter is that there is a continuous and unbroken branching tree of ancestors (trillions of them) from modern humans like you and I right the way back to (probably) RNA based microbes at the base, every fossil we find is a single infinitesimal log slice out of a branch somewhere on that tree. It would be equally valid to say that Ida is a missing link to chimps, gorillas, rhesus monkeys, orang-utans and all other modern primates, the link to our narrow line is only a small part of the story. There is some chatter that Ida is a "direct ancestor" of humans, without DNA we have no way of knowing this, one thing is for sure though, judging by her life stage (juvenile) at death, as an individual animal she probably had no "direct" ancestors at all.

Ida is never the less a very important fossil, 47 million years puts her way back deep into the primate tree and at a major branch point in primate history, the state of preservation is utterly awe inspiring; the fact that we can see the outline traces of fur and the stomach contents is very unusual and perhaps allows us to consider this discovery from a more human perspective for a moment. Here was a little animal, not quite adult still with some baby teeth and perhaps still being cared for by her parents, a little animal who stumbled into a muddy lake one day after having feasted on berries and leaves in the forest. There she lay for millennia, ice ages came and went, mountain ranges rose and fell, continents drifted and the entire span of recorded human history flashed by in 0.02% of her total resting time; then on a day that wasn't special for any reason in particular, a distant relative cleaved her remains from the rock and released her sleepy bones into the warmth of the sun again.

Fossils are so cool!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

So prayer is like satellite TV?

I came across this rather scientific looking diagram the other day, it really made me chuckle, the WEB site it comes from seems deadly serious, check it out and see how long you can go without raising your eyebrows.

When I showed this to some of the guys in the office they remarked how it looked like a promising method of receiving German Porn films direct from the satellite; it brightened up our day so thanks for that SSRF!

Completing the Abiogenesis jigsaw

I noticed this little story yesterday, on the surface it doesn't look like much but when you read the detail you quickly realise that this line of enquiry has the potential to fill in a hugely important piece of the abiogenesis puzzle. Abiogenesis is the branch of science that concerns itself with working out how life could have emerged from inorganic matter 4 billion years ago. It is distinct from Evolution which concerns itself with how life evolved via natural selection from simple forms to present day, something that I often find people are confused about.

You can read the full story here.

This seemingly impossible task inched a step closer toward a potential solution with this discovery that RNA molecules could be created via a set of straightforward chemical steps that given the right conditions could have occurred in nature spontaneously. RNA is a very important chemical, it is a close relative of the DNA molecule, in fact some viruses have RNA instead of DNA as their main information carrying molecule.

Here's an exert from the article.

Scientists have long suspected that the first forms of life carried their biological information not in DNA but in RNA, its close chemical cousin. Though DNA is better known because of its storage of genetic information, RNA performs many of the trickiest operations in living cells. RNA seems to have delegated the chore of data storage to the chemically more stable DNA eons ago. If the first forms of life were based on RNA, then the issue is to explain how the first RNA molecules were formed.

This discovery could finally close the loop in terms of explaining, soup to nuts, how we got here and why we are like we are, and some people still say that science can't answer the "big questions".

Friday, May 15, 2009

What is truth?

Did anyone else notice yesterday that two competing goliaths of truth seeking squared up to each other in the media, on one side we had religion, represented by an old man in elaborate fancy dress kneeling down in the basement of an ancient building in Jerusalem, alone and in silence receiving his wisdom secretly, invisibly and in a special code that only his organisation can decipher; on the other side we had hundreds of people collaborating and working together around the world, igniting thousands of tons of controlled explosive and sending £2Bn worth of cutting edge equipment at 17,000 mph to a rendezvous with an invisible point of gravitational maxima 1.5 million kilometres into space with pinpoint accuracy.

For religion we have carefully crafted political statements, repetitions of the same old platitudes, offering nothing but hope at the cost of servitude to unfalsifiable dogma, for science we have the Herschel and Planck telescopes which will provide images (actual pictures that anyone can look at!) of what was going on billions of years ago, tangible answers to fundamental questions about the origins of the universe and hopefully insights into other planets like ours in the universe that could potentially harbour other forms of life.

Which story do you think the media found more impressive?

Predictably the Pope was covered on TV all day long (in between revelations about MPs putting dog food on expenses) and I didn't see the real human achievement story once, in fact not even the launch was covered, the geeks in our office had to follow it on the WEB, via a text stream.

Now call me uncharitable but if this is truly representative of the priorities and interests of the majority of people in this country then we are royally screwed. I have to ask why people are not bothered about something as fabulously impressive as Herschel/Planck, something that moves the needle of progress for the entire species, but are totally captivated by a deluded old man in a cellar with nothing new to offer humanity except the same old dogma and superstitious divisiveness. I don't understand.

This is a subject that has come up a fair bit in my recent and highly enjoyable exchange with Oranjepan but I think it is an important question, what represents truth, is it the Pope's view of the universe or Herschel's?

Anyway, for those interested in the science bit, check out this baby:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When does faith become lies?

At what point in a public person's discourse does an obviously stupid (and wrong) faith based belief become so stubbornly entrenched because of the dogma of religion that it's expression simply becomes a lie, is there such a thing as lying for Jesus?

I think the answer to this question is yes and here is the man to prove it Cormack Murphy-O'Conner, this sterling example of Catholic buffoonery claiming today that Atheists are not fully human, as a thought experiment just change the word "Atheist" to "Muslim" and play it back, I wonder if the Cardinal would have the guts to say something like that? logically in his mind it must be true?

Some part of me feels sorry for this old virgin, it must be hard work clinging onto the vestiges of power in the 21st century, and trying desperately to rationalize his delusions in the face of advancing rationalism and secularism. Then again screw him he's going to be dead long before me and only then will he find out if he has wasted his whole life believing that the point of life is to adhere to a particular bronze age myth (and not having sex).

For more detail and a video the story is here and there is also an on-line petition that is attempting to stop this man becoming a peer here, yes our pathetically apologetic government is actually considering rewarding this man by giving him real secular power, simply because he believes in ghosts; please, let's not lower the IQ of our parliament any further, it's about time free thinking rational people stood up to clowns like this and more importantly the privilege that his perverse organisation enjoys courtesy of HM Gov.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Promising new secular WEB resource

I really like Sam Harris, of all the poster boys of secularism (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens et al) he seems to me to have the most clarity of thought and clearness of purpose, however he is also not afraid to speak his mind against the tide of opinion, for example his recent articles regarding dropping the term "Atheist" as a label to identify people who have nothing more than a lack of belief in deities, much like you wouldn't call someone who didn't believe in fairies and Afairiest etc. (see here).

Sam has launched a new WEB site called "The Reason Project" here, so far it looks really promising with some superb materials aggregated and categorised and freely available.

As a taster here is a video that I highly recommend, sensible, critical and above all crystal clear.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Should we “respect” religion?

We all know what it's like, we hear a long and complex story relayed by a stand-up comedian that contains tons of observational gems, funny anecdotes and an underlying gag that makes us laugh our heads off until we are nearly physically sick – then, the next morning when someone asks have you heard any good jokes lately you can't even remember the punch line. I often have similar failures of memory when talking with friends and the subject of the "rights" of the religious comes up.

In my experience, a lot of people (religious or not) I meet still hold the view that everyone has the right to believe whatever they wish and refuse to engage in criticism of any religion simply because seemingly "people believe it". As a rationalist, my own position is that religion should have no more rights or special respect in our society than any other human activity that is voluntary and self endorsed, like sports, rambling or civil war re-enactments. When confronted with this there are usually two paths that people take; they often use the "what's the harm" defence or they say "but think about all the good things religions do" As reasons to respect religion itself, both of these arguments are logical fallacies however it is always possible for people to find specific cases that superficially support their feelings, i.e. my 80 year old Catholic granny makes jam for charity, how can you possibly take a position against this?

Contrary to popular belief the general argument from rationalists like me is that anyone should be free to believe whatever they want as long as those beliefs do not directly harm others or can be proven to lead to harm indirectly however just because someone believes something, that concept or idea doesn't automatically deserve special respect or privilege from society in general or people that don't believe it. When you explain this most people are in full agreement because, well, it just makes sense; but they struggle to see how this applies to religion, there are a lot of points that need to be explored in order to understand why this does apply, and it is often difficult to get them all out unless you untangle them yourself first.

Here is the checklist of points that I think need to be bought out in order to give this topic a full and proper airing,

  • The meaning of the word "belief" needs to be clarified, what we are talking about here is generally the kind of belief that is unknowable, i.e. not based on a weight of evidence like a scientific "belief" in something like antibiotics, gravity or evolution etc. often people are surprised that these two types of belief are different and NOT equal.
  • Saying that religion shouldn't have special privilege isn't the same as saying there should be no religion; people who say football shouldn't have special privilege over rugby do not mean that football should be banned etc.
  • No one disputes that some kinds of religion are useful to some kinds of people, for example it is commonly understood that religion can comfort people at times of stress; however this has no bearing on either its truth value or its apparent need to hold a privileged position in society. Other things in our society are useful, for example sun-block; however we wouldn't expect Braun or Garnier to be given tax free status and a seat in the House of Lords.
  • Is it really religion that causes people to be "good", if someone donates to charity and is Catholic then does their Catholicism cause them to do it? How then do we account for non-religious people who donate to charity? Clearly this doesn't mean that religion is never the motivation for good deeds but it is important to understand that it is not necessary for people to be religious to do good things.
  • Respect should be offered to religious people as people without surrendering the right to criticise the ideas that they hold, this is no different from having friends who are conservative whilst voting labour yourself, it does not follow that a criticism of an idea is the same as a criticism of the person that holds the idea.

In order to support this line of reasoning you need specific counter examples, and that's where the problem lays, although there are thousands of examples, we seldom hear about them in mainstream press and I can never remember the specifics, however in this technologically advanced age where machines can do the "remembering" for us I thought I would start a bookmarking exercise and attempt to keep track of all the stupid things that are done as a direct consequence of a religious way of thinking, here are a couple of recent examples to get things started.

13 Year old denied treatment

Another child killed by religion

PS: Thanks to Jesus and Mo for the splendid cartoon, you can see more of these here

Friday, May 01, 2009

Watch your blarney!

Oh Ireland, Oh Ireland, why are you forsaking the civilised world?

The irony was again just dripping from this story in the Irish press last week, see here and also here; justice minister Dermot Ahern thinks that Ireland should have strong blasphemy laws; miscreants would be subject to a maximum fine of 100,000 euro and confiscation of the "blasphemous" material.

Just wow! How on earth can thinking people believe that this would be a good idea, this would mean that peoples computers, books, music and other cultural currency could be taken away from them simply on the whim of a piece of random religious dogma, there is no definition of which particular religious dogma provides the test against which the criminal words would be measured so who is the arbiter here, who decides what is blasphemous and what is not?

The thought experiments that could be played with this are mind boggling, for example if I was a Jew living in Ireland then I could simply point at the Koran and claim it contains anti-Jewish sentiment and should be banned, similarly an atheist could claim to be offended by all religions, Mormons could sue the Government for not allowing them to hold many wives, never mind important social issues like the rights of women to have abortions, homosexuals to exist at all and the rights of children to receive a proper science education.

Can anyone else see the problem with this picture?

Freedom of speech means (by definition) that no individual or organisation is protected from being offended, it represents the only "fair" position for any society, we all have the equal right that if we don't like something we don't have to read it, watch it or listen to it!

The following text is taken from the UN universal declaration of human rights; it would seem that some Irish people wish to opt out of that?

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people