2014 = 205

Darwin Day

No, 2014 does not equal to 205. It’s just that this year and specifically this day, is the 205th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

The 12th of February is celebrated in mostly scientific and humanist circles as Darwin Day. Why humanist? Well that’s a long story; ask any fundamentalist Creationist. Don’t know any? Good for you.

Amazingly since the publication of his seminal work On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859, Charles Darwin has been both vilified and praised, and continues to be the subject of misinformation and abject lies. Fortunately modern science is slowly tearing apart the veil of ignorance and mischief that has plagued the Theory of Evolution originally postulated by Darwin and refined by others.

You will find a brief history of the origins of Darwin Day here.

darwin day

Darwin Award

And on a somewhat lighter note… The Darwin Awards has nothing whatsoever to do with Charles Darwin, although had he be still been alive, I’m pretty certain he would appreciate the humour.

The Darwin Awards were dreamed up by people on USENET groups, a precursor to modern Internet Newsgroups or Forums. The idea was to award individuals who through an act of sheer stupidity eliminated themselves (usually permanently) from the human gene pool.

It’s therefore fitting that just two days prior to Darwin Day, a member of the human species (debatable really) was involved in what I would call an act of premature disintegration, boldly announced his candidacy for a Darwin Award with a bang.

If this report in an Israeli publication is true (note that I haven’t read it anywhere else), then the Iraqi suicide bomb instructor who during a training exercise blew himself and 21 of his students up, is a winner by miles. Unfortunately the 21 students, will just have to be satisfied with being a piece of history.

Back to basics

English: Science icon from Nuvola icon theme f...I originally created this blog to rant about strange beliefs, political douche-baggery and things that are not so vile. And to promote science in the process off course. Off late I seem to have posted more about stuff of little or no consequence

Back to basics then…

It’s disconcerting, no infuriating when people bash science and level all sorts of wild accusations at it whether to protect their own narrow reasoning, or to promote it, or even benefit materially from it. Even more infuriating are people who wax lyrical about faith, and worse still are those who debase science to promote ideological thinking and false beliefs.

Recently Steven Pinker wrote a brilliant article in the New Republic, where he reveals why science is not the enemy. [Science is not the enemy of the Humanities].

To whet your appetite, here are some choice passages:

  • One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.”

  • Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

  • The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement).

  • To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

  • Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics. Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer. It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded. Today the term is often used to smear any application of evolution to the understanding of human beings. Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity. Today the term is commonly used to assail behavioral genetics, the study of the genetic contributions to individual differences.

  • And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Now please do yourself a massive service and read the article in its entirety at the link provided above.

Viva la Evolucion

“Che Guevara,” remarked the waiter as I walked into a restaurant yesterday. He was staring at my green t-shirt with the Che-like image and the words “VIVA LA EVOLUCIÓN”, a big smile on his face.

“No. Charles Darwin” I responded in amusement.

Seeing the puzzled look on his face, I wanted to explain further, but decided against it. Observing that the other customers were already happily tucking into their meals, the greater need to satisfy hunger prompted me to request a table in a hurry, instead.

Over lunch I pondered the pervasiveness of Creationism [despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary], and concluded that it was easier and more comforting for most people to think that god-did-it, than to tax their minds with the reality.

God by John Lennon

I’m not usually into commemorating Anniversaries, but there are a few deserving individuals who I’ll make an exception for; Charles Darwin being one and John Lennon another. This really should have been posted yesterday, but I don’t think John Lennon would mind too much about me missing the anniversary of what would have been his 70th birthday on the 9th of October.

I am also indebted to Jeff Randall who introduced me to John Lennon’s God, on his blog Thinking Critically, from where I poached the lyrics too. Remember a legend and enjoy!


God is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain
I’ll say it again
God is a concept
By which we measure
Our pain

I don’t believe in magic
I don’t believe in I-ching
I don’t believe in Bible
I don’t believe in tarot
I don’t believe in Hitler
I don’t believe in Jesus
I don’t believe in Kennedy
I don’t believe in Buddha
I don’t believe in Mantra
I don’t believe in Gita
I don’t believe in Yoga
I don’t believe in kings
I don’t believe in Elvis
I don’t believe in Zimmerman
I don’t believe in Beatles
I just believe in me
Yoko and me
And that’s reality

The dream is over
What can I say?
The dream is over
I was the Dreamweaver
But now I’m reborn
I was the Walrus
But now I’m John
And so dear friends
You’ll just have to carry on
The dream is over

Are there giant gaps in religious thinking, or is there a deliberate agenda to mislead?

We have access to information on every conceivable subject available either on-line or in books, tapes, discs and other media. People are relatively free to choose what information they retain and what to discard, what to believe and what to scoff at. However, given the availability of all this information, the levels of uncritical thought among people (even those one could describe as intelligent), is unbelievably appalling.

One can never believe anything with 100% certainty. There are ranges of probability always. And choosing what to believe is not so easy, but science, or more precisely The Scientific Method, through skeptical and critical thinking provides probably the only acceptable tool for making that choice with near certainty. Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark proposed a toolkit for skeptical thinking. Called the Baloney Detection Kit, it provides some basic tools for testing credulity (or detecting baloney according to Sagan).

I don’t want to re-invent the stunning work done by Carl Sagan, or by Michael Shermer in the video which the link above points to, but briefly the Baloney Detection Kit asks the following questions (the video provides a more detailed explanation with examples):

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

Now, if you’re still with me, I’ve just  mentioned all these things because it is leading up to the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Over the last week or two, I’ve been receiving comments on some of my earlier posts which lead me to believe that either there are monumental gaps in religious thinking which causes them to articulate innocently or unknowingly. Or there is an effort by believers to obscure their beliefs either deliberately or collaboratively through premeditation [Chapter 12, The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World].

Over the years, I have observed that the debate between the evolution and creation camps has become more than just a fight between science and religion; it has come to represent the difference between belief and non-belief, the god-fearing against the heathen. It’s no surprise then that believers usually resort to dragging up this old debate every time they are confronted by non-believers.  In recent times, and with this being the Year of Darwin (the 200th anniversary of his birth on 12 February, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species on 24 November), Evolution is yet again under attack, and Creationism with its more fashionable alter-ego Intelligent Design, is defiantly being bandied about with renewed vigor, but with the same absence of credible evidence. Only these days, even though fewer people believe this creationist and intelligent design nonsense, those who still do, express their belief with the absolutist fervour that mainly religion provides.

It seems that the main problem creationists have with evolution is the gaps in the fossil record. They conveniently ignore the wealth of evidence that has been collected over the years in other areas and disciplines of science which overwhelmingly point to the validity of evolution, and natural selection. Ergo question 6 in the Baloney Detection Kit above. And at the risk of belaboring this point, consider this revelation from Richard Dawkins in his book, The Ancestor’s Tale :

In spite of the fascination of fossils, it is surprising how much we would know about our evolutionary past without them. If every fossil were magicked away, the comparative study of modern organisms, of how their patterns of resemblance, especially of their genetic sequences, are distributed among species, and of how species are distributed among continents, and islands, would still demonstrate, beyond all sane doubt, that our history is evolutionary, and that all living creatures are cousins. Fossils are a bonus. A welcome bonus, to be sure, but not an essential one. It is worth remembering this when creationists go on (as they tediously do) about “gaps” in the fossil record. The fossil record could be one big gap, and the evidence for evolution would still be overwhelmingly strong. At the same time, if we had only fossils and no other evidence, the fact of evolution would again be overwhelmingly supported. As things stand, we are blessed with both.

The other grossly dishonest practice by creationists is the constant referral to evolution as a belief system or just a theory. Invariably in my correspondence, I have also come across the veiled inference to Darwinism as a kind of belief-system or religion. It’s quite inexplicable why to date, creationists have not learned what a scientific theory really is, with all the information available on the subject. Have you ever heard them refer to the Theory of Gravity, as just a theory?  Is it laziness or plain ignorance, or perhaps more sinister; wilful ignorance? And have you noticed this pathetic attempt by the creationist lobby to bring the whole debate down to the level of worship: do you worship Darwin or god? It leaves me filled with anger.

The other fundamental dishonesty I have come across is the attempt to pass religious texts off as containing profound truths about the secrets of the world, life and death, and even scientific facts. Most claims in this regard reference the bible, although I’m pretty sure that other religions make similar claims about their religious texts too. Consider the following from one of my commenters:

…things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

If you haven’t figured out what this scientific fact is, allow me to enlighten you: everything you see is made of invisible atoms. Although why the particular text does not state ” things which are seen are made of atoms” is beyond me. However, I’ve been cautioned not to question the word of god.

He…. hangs the earth upon nothing. (Job 26:7)

Supposedly it is a great leap forward from ancient mythology when the belief was that the earth sat on the back of some animal or other creature (common belief from Greek mythology is that it was the Titan Atlas, but it has been more accurately interpreted as him actually holding up the sky on his shoulders to prevent the earth and sky from embracing). The contention is that the bible revealed long before the advent of science that earth floated freely in space. Perhaps it has not occurred to believers that by the time the bible was being compiled, people had already figured out, just by observing the moon, that maybe the earth was also floating freely in space. But it still doesn’t explain why the wording is not plain, and why the earth should “hang” on anything, even if it was nothing.

He that made him can make his sword to approach unto him. (Job)

Apparently a reference to behemoths in the book of Job, describes the dinosaurs and how god made them go extinct. What the book doesn’t describe is why god would create dinosaurs in the first instance and then destroy them before the great flood that apparently wiped out his original creation of man.

There are off course other claimed references to scientific fact in the bible, but it’s not necessary to list them. I think the point is made. Some of these other references apparently point to the fields of medicine as well. Who knows, maybe there is the cure for AIDS in there somewhere, but we’re too dumb to find it. What also remains inexplicable is why the claimed scientific facts were not more clearly spelled out to enable man to use them and thus eliminate years of suffering and misery. Apparently god’s agenda encompasses a great deal of pain and suffering, then grovelling, before salvation is earned.

I have touched on a few aspects of flawed religious thinking here, but the question still remains: Is it naive ignorance, or a deliberate attempt to obfuscate? Or maybe a bit of both?