Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A Quiz For "The New Atheists"

I dislike the term "the New Atheists", it seems like nothing more than a way to generalise about atheists and use a straw-man to dismiss the arguments as just another religion. Dawkins is often portrayed as the cult leader of this movement, and others like Harris, Hitchens, Shermer and Dennett are also prominent members. Andrew Brown recently wrote an article trying to define just what the New Atheism really is, and in there he listed 6 points that he feels characterises the political movement. So according to his definitions am I one of these dreaded "New Atheists"?

There is something called "Faith" which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief.
I disagree with his description of faith here. It would be better to say faith is belief without evidence, but then again I think that is almost impossible given we are evidence-based creatures. If I were to define faith, I'd say it's certainty without knowledge. When it is applied in a religious context, it's nothing more than speculation on the unknown. I'll chalk this one down to a bad definition and say that I'm covered under it. 1 from 1
The cure for faith is science: The existence of God is a scientific question: either he exists or he doesn't. "Science is the only way of knowing – everything else is just superstition"
A cure for faith? I think not. Science is a means to derive knowledge from the universe around us. As God is supposedly a force in this universe that can supposedly act within our daily lives, then the concept of God is a hypothesis of reality. Whether we have the means to measure God or can do a test that potentially falsify the concept is another matter. The old God of the bible - the creator of life and chief weathermaker of Israel, that concept is long falsified. But the abstract concept now that works through reality which may or may not still be a judge for the next life? Well that's a little beyond the scope of measurement. Again, his bad definition aside, I'll agree with this one. 2 from 2
Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason. "The real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition" [Jerry Coyne] "I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented." [Dawkins]
Again his own commentary on the matter ruins the core of the point. Will science bring on a utopia? Hell no. Will it eliminate superstition? Again, no. We can look at the rise of movements like the 911truth movement and see how something absurd can pierce the heart of the social consciousness, and it's things like that which make the battle between rationalism and superstition one of treading water. Agree with the Coyne / Dawkins quotes, do not agree with Brown's interpretation. 2.5 from 3
In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Enlightened common sense is gradually triumphing and at the end of the process, humanity will assume a new and better character, free from the shackles of religion. Without faith, we would be better as well as wiser. Conflict is primarily a result of misunderstanding, of which Faith is the paradigm.
Religion is not doomed, and even if religion goes away I'm not convinced the world will be a better place. It would be nice to see a fight against STIs that isn't inhibited by religious belief, or seeing equal rights regardless of sexual preference without having to fight the motto "God hates fags". History shows that it's science and progress that are on the losing ends of the battle, look at the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks or the golden age of Islam. Disagree completely with this. 2.5 from 4.
Religion exists. It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion's true nature.
Moderates being more dangerous than extremists, now that's just silly. It's like saying that giving refuge to a mass murderer is worse than perpetrating a mass murder. Moderates do cause problems with their defence of faith, but they are by no means the problem that is largely associated with religion. Again, complete disagreement. 2.5 of 5
Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today and the struggle against it and especially against Islam will define the future of humanity. [Everyone]
Most dangerous force? No. Even without religious faith, the same kinds of institutions are being built that pose a far greater danger. Dogmatism to me is the real problem, whether it be religious, cultural, political or anything else. Jingoism and xenophobia seem far larger problems these days in multicultural societies than any one religion, and the struggle to me is more about the best way to preserve human dignity across the globe. Then there's also things like global warming and depletion of resources that are going to cause major problems down the line. 2.5 from 6.

And there you have it. A quiz that deserves to sit alongside classics like "are you a man pleaser" A pointless exercise really, his characterisation of "the New Atheists" is doing exactly the same things that these people are doing to religion. Funny that he left philosophers Dan Dennett and A.C. Grayling off the list, as he did psychologists Stephen Pinker and Michael Shermer. There was also no room for religious historians Richard Carrier or Hector Avalos either. Not even the former preacher Dan Barker get a mention. I guess he didn't want to detract from his point that none of these people were philosophers, psychologists or theologians.

The term "New Atheism" is a useless one, there is simply no need for it. In trying to define the term, he has missed the mark even on the select few he names. And what's the point to it all? As far as I can gather, it's to show that the people who are talking on religion are unqualified to do so. If that's the case he could have just come out and said so rather than constructing an elaborate set of parameters to box them into.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Improving Upon Perfection

The original Starcraft was one of the most balanced Real Time Strategy games I've ever played. Three unique races, a multitude of different strategies required for victory, Blizzard created a masterpiece back in 1998. It's a game I still occasionally pull out and play at LANs.

Starcraft II looks to be fantastic so far, it's my most anticipated game of 2009. Blizzard may make games that try to aim at as wide an audience as possible, but it's hard to deny the effort they put into making a highly-polished and replayable game.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Book Review: Letter To A Christian Nation

The God Delusion was really the first piece of atheist literature I had ever read, it was more a curiosity than anything else since I was already a non-believer. Reading that book showed me a different perspective on the religious debate, and piqued my interest in the question of why people believe. It's just something I've never understood. Since then I've picked up the Sam Harris polemic argument The End Of Faith, a blunt insight into the dangers that religion as an institution poses. His follow-up novel Letter To A Christian Nation took the form of a long essay to deal with the core issues of what he sees at the problem.

The letter took the most extreme tenets that various Christian groups hold and successfully argued against those extreme views. With as many beliefs in Christianity as there are followers, I could see the dismissals of his work as a misrepresentation of their personal faith. The confronting nature of the book is bound to cause an adverse reaction and further isolate some extremists. At the same time it's going to put the moderates offside because it would seem like nothing more than a straw-man attack on religious beliefs. Harris makes it clear that the book isn't written for moderates.

There's no pussyfooting around the issues, each point that Harris makes is a merciless refutation coupled with examples of the exact danger the beliefs pose. Most telling were the examples of sexual sedition by the religious faith, the absurdity of opposing inoculations against STDs purely on the fact that in their eyes it promotes promiscuity. The opposition to stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa even among heterosexual married couples is particularly shocking. It's hard to walk away from this prose with a benign outlook on fundamentalist Christianity and the threat it poses to the world.

There was one moment of the book that stunned me:
The truth, astonishingly enough, is this: in the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: they don't know what it is like to really believe in God.
Maybe Harris is right on this count, personally I have no clue what it's like to believe in God. And certainly I don't know what it's like to believe in the fundamentalist sense. Though I wonder after reading this book if Harris truly does either. On that the entire argument rests because this book is an appeal against the fundamentalists. For it to be a success, he needs to communicate in a way that can appeal to those who with a strong education can still retain fundamentalists beliefs. My feeling upon reading this book, it's only really going to appeal to those who are already atheists.

Harris as written an honest appraisal of the threat of fundamentalists in this modern age, though he's really pointing out the obvious. As a response to the criticism of his first book, it's a fair read. But really his masterpiece tome is The End Of Faith, and a much better look at the dangers of faith. Here's hoping that once he finishes his doctorate he has something new to say.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Zombies of Creationism

Last month Valve released an excellent survival horror game called Left 4 Dead. In it four survivors try to escape from a ravaging infested horde of zombies. Most of the infested are mindless zombies that when started will quickly rush at the survivors, but there are also a few special infected that pose a different challenge to the player. It's a fun, twitch shooter with great replay value.

There are times though when a break from fantasy is needed and I like to play a little game of intellectual Left 4 Dead, or better known as arguing with creationists. Now comparing creationists to zombies is probably unkind to zombies, but for the sake of an analogy I hope the zombies won't mind. So without further hesitation, here is a list of creationist types as if they were characters in the brilliant Valve game.

  • Infested: the masses - mindless drones on their own, when in the presence of a survivor they will attack with great ferocity. There's no strength to their attacks, but will attack in great numbers. They have a limited range of attacks, all easily brushed aside. Ignorant catchphrases like "from goo to you", "molecules to man" and the very liberal use of the word "Darwinism". Individually they are no threat, but when attacking in large numbers there runs the risk of being overwhelmed.

  • Hunters: the strong believer - very much like the masses, but with a much stronger arsenal. They will actively seek out survivors and attempt to take one down through force. Their attacks include comments about the 2nd law of thermodynamics, casting doubt on radiometric dating, and using concepts such as irreducible complexity. Left one on one, a depleted survivor may be at risk, but with the right equipment a hunter is nothing more than a minor threat.

  • Smokers: the blogger - instead of hunting for survivors, it uses it's long tongue to draw people in. A smoker's attack is trying to suffocate the survivor, it uses the blog as a means to present a more formalised argument. Even after destruction the smoker will leave it's mark in the form of the blog. Smokers usually require a group effort to take down as one can easily be picked off. That "disable comments" option is never too far away.

  • Boomers: the professional - the power of the boomer is not to directly harm survivors, but to incite the masses by vomiting on those they wish to target. Being in the presence of a boomer is bad enough, being puked on by one is nauseating. Nothing that comes out of their mouth has any worth, but it's ability to attract infested is astounding. A threat if not properly dealt with from a distance, it's best to keep out of harms way and always have a team to back you up just in case you are the one who is puked on.

  • Tanks: the troll - it takes a special kind of person to be impervious to reason, a tank can withstand wave after wave of sustained damage. They are slow but can deliver a powerful attack when need be. It's a game of sheer attrition with a troll, they will wear down a survivor through bludgeoning. They are a threat through depletion of ammunition, a team effort is needed in order to successfully take one down. Again it's a matter of keeping distance and staying far enough away not to get bludgeoned.

  • Witch: the victimised - a passive believer will not wake unless stirred, but will attack with such ferocity through emotional reasoning. Their attacks ignore evolution altogether and instead centre around the belief in God. One punch from these could land a fatal blow a survivor that is not careful could be destroyed by the equation of Darwinism to the holocaust or that without God there is only nihilism. Once stirred they are unrelenting in attack so the best strategy is avoidance.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Book review: A Brief History Of Time

"There is so much I don't know about Astrophysics, I wish I read that book by that wheelchair guy" - Homer Simpson
Although I spent a lot of time in my youth looking at the stars and even attending lectures on astronomy, what I understood about cosmology was very limited. My time studying physics was mostly spent on kinematics and dynamics. What I found in this book was a good starting point in order to understand the cosmos on the grand scale it resides in.

As a layman introduction for a very difficult subject, I can't fault the eloquence of this book. Any elements I couldn't understand were not due to Hawking's excellent analogies, rather my own inability to conceptualise the concept. I'm still trying to get my head around the concept of a singularity, each time I think I've got a grasp of the concept it falls into a black hole in the mind and I'm left still feeling confused.

Other than e = mc², the book was void of all equations. This I felt took away some of the explanatory power of the book. It became more of a "what we know" read instead of how we know it, and in there I was left feeling unsatisfied. It's understandable why he left them out, it's a difficult subject to begin with without having to rely on the explanatory power of mathematics.

Overall it was a good introductory book on cosmology, and it has rekindled my interest in physics. Or put more accurately, it's exposed a gaping hole in my knowledge that I wish to fill as much as possible. I've been recommended The Feynman Lectures.

Next book: Richard Feynman - Six Easy Pieces

The Battle Between Science and Religion

In the 3rd century BCE, a Greek called Aristarchus of Samos came up with the radical idea that it was the earth that orbited the sun and not the other way around. It was an idea that did not survive even it's own time, but almost 2000 years later a Polish mathematician named Copernicus made a mathematical model that predicted heliocentric orbit. It was expanded upon by Kepler, and finally it came to Galileo who for his work advancing heliocentrism was tried for heresy by the Roman Catholic church. It's only been in recent times that Galileo has been admonished and now in a complete turnaround Pope Benedict XVI is praising Galileo.

Between certainty and knowledge
Science is a very tentative enterprise, it's not to say it's wrong, but the nature of science means that ideas change over time as new evidence comes to light and new explanations are needed. For that reason, science is a highly conservative process wherein new explanations are vigorously tested as to weed out the inadequate explanations. An idea is as good as it's explanatory power for the empirical data.

By contrast, dogmatism already has ideas of how the world works. One only needs to look at the ferocity of the creationist movement to see the rejection of evidence in favour of a pre-existing story. The appeals of creationists today for genesis chapters 1 and 2 aren't all that different from the appeals in Galileo's day where the appeal was to Psalms 93 or 96. These days the charge of heresy is gone, but the threat of hell for rejecting God's word remains.

Herein lies the problem of trying to amalgamate dogmatism with scientific understanding. Once there is that preconceived notion of absolute truth any contrary view is unequivocally false. Science doesn't work on that notion, instead the tentative nature of knowledge has a mode of uncertainty that accompanies any knowledge. What we know to be true today may be superseded in the future as more evidence comes to light. It's grounding in empirical measurement of reality is what sets science apart from other means of gaining insight into the world.

When one comes from the point of view that there is a divine mandate that all knowledge must be reconciled with, fundamental shifts in knowledge are going to be an affront to said mandate. How can a religion reconcile knowledge as it keeps changing over time? The only two really tenable options are to withdraw the dogmatism as a guide to science or reject science as a means discovery. It's simply untenable to reinterpret an authoritative document time and time again then claim that each point along the way that the document was right. Though I'd take that act of mental gymnastics over the outright rejection of science as a means of inquiry.

A failed hypothesis
Many mythologies have died out, the myths preserved only through scholarship. We don't talk any more of the polytheist myths that were rampant in the ancient world, deities like Ra, Apollo and Odin have ceased to be used as explanations for natural phenomena. What one believes is much like what we see in nature, their cultural environment is shaped by the time and place of their birth. Being born in Australia in the 1980s means I'm growing up in a predominantly Christian culture. Just 250 years ago I would have been born into the hunter / gatherer culture of the Aborigines and been brought up with the dreaming.

Each one of these present-day religions is a concept that is waiting to die out as the culture that carries it perishes. Many of the major religions have done well in propagating their myths, making it collectively harder for them to go away completely. There are 38,000 current denominations of Christianity with well over 2 billion adherents to the religion, as a religion it will be a mainstay. Likewise Islam has over 1 billion adherents, Hinduism 800 million and Buddhism 300 million. For the foreseeable future, this is the religious map of the world.

Each one of these religions makes their own claim on reality, backed up through ritualised dogmatism. When a god was an explanation for forming the mountains, what place does that god have when a naturalistic explanation takes it's place? The same goes for all natural phenomena, almost all of these gods are expressions of explanation for phenomena that can be explained by natural causes. In addition, the myths of creation simply do not match the evidence. As for the explanatory power of gods, it's simply being cut away the more we learn about nature.

Now The Bible is considered by many to be the inerrant word of God. When thumbing through the bible, it's hard to consider there was divine insight imbued into those words either on a literal or spiritual front. Sam Harris notes "[the bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century." It's hard to find anything redeemable about this holiest of holy texts, it was purely the work of men and ignorant men at that. God in this sense is a failed hypothesis, what it did explain has now either been superseded or supplanted.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Unrelenting Struggle For Acceptance

Creationism trying to force it's way into the science curriculum is something I've blogged about previously, but it's always a persistent issue. Scientific American in their most recent issue (unless you are in Australia where we have to wait another 6 weeks) wrote about the latest face of creationism. Dispatches has a good summary of the tactics used as well. Now while some of these tactics may seem reasonable on the surface and indeed sound very reasonable to voters, it's still the same tactic of trying to undermine established science for the sake of religion.

Strengths and weaknesses of evolution
When creationists bring up the idea of teaching the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, I wonder just what weaknesses they are referring to. Is it gaps in our historical knowledge? If so, then all science (and all history) would be regarded as inadequate because there are always gaps in the past. Why single out evolution and not talk about the weaknesses of the historical arguments for the holocaust? After all, there is more evidence supporting evolution than there is evidence supporting the holocaust. It serves to highlight the difference between fact and theory in science. We are never going to have all the facts of the world, but we can create theories that fit the facts we do have and from there can predict what other facts we expect to discover.

Where the strength of a theory lies in it's ability to explain new evidence. All science is tentative, but the ideas that get carried on while human knowledge is progressing are those theories that fit the new observations. Evolution has explanatory power that explains all the data we have, there's a reason it's regarded as one of the strongest theories in science. It's as close to one of the most fundamental truths as the method of science allows. There's a reason that over 99% of scientists accept evolution as the only explanation that can adequately account for the diversity of life on earth.

So what are the weaknesses that creationists go on about? The origin of life for starters, though complaining about that is like complaining that evolution cannot account for gravity. Evolution isn't a theory of how life came from non-life, it's a theory on how that life changed throughout the ages. The various weaknesses of the various abiogenesis hypothesises does not stop evolution from explaining the diversity of life, any more than the weaknesses of the nebula hypothesis stops the theory of plate tectonics explaining continental movement. Abiogenesis is a question that needs to be answered as it's a necessary event in history, just as planet formation needs to be answered. But evolution doesn't rest on explaining an event (or more likely a series of events) that happened ~3.5 billion years ago.

Irreducible complexity is another that comes up, it's been especially popular in the last decade. There's no doubt that there are irreducibly complex systems in nature, but it's odd that it's being branded as an evolution killer. Especially as the solution of how an irreducibly complex system could come about: add a part then make that part necessary. Really the argument is just an evolution of the old "the eye is too complex" arguments that have been around for a while, it's now using a new buzzword that makes it sound more definitive. And the eye can be explained through Darwinian mechanisms, we can see the various stages throughout nature and through computer simulations show how though mutation and selection an eye that is comparable to our own can be made in a very short time, on a geological time scale that is.

There's the familiar cry of lack of transitional forms, even though there have been a plethora of transitional fossils found showing the gradual change over time to what we see now. Dinosaurs with feathers, fish with tetrapod features, mammalian-like reptiles, early hominid ancestors, even the transition of terrestrial mammals into cetaceans. The list of transitional forms in nature is staggering. There is also the micro / macro evolution debate, where only "micro" evolution has been observed but not macroevolution. Yet macroevolution has been observed dozens of times and this is only in the short time frame we've been looking. Once you have a mechanism for change (inherited mutations), selection critera on those mutations (natural selection, genetic drift), and a means to isolate populations and allow mutations to accumulate (speciation), what more do you need?

And that's just looking at the proposed weaknesses, what about the strengths? The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. From morphology to genetics, to the progressive fossil record, to ERV markers in the genome. All these lines of evidence, the facts of the world, only make sense under the theory of evolution. There's just no other explanation that's been proposed that can adequately explain all the evidence as we see it today, and that's why evolution is regarded as one of the strongest theories in science today.

Academic freedom
The argument about academic freedom baffles me, there is academic freedom and the ability to pursue any idea within the scientific community. Of course it's tough to get ideas that go against the established knowledge heard, but that's one feature of science. Anyone can have an idea on reality, it's the hurdles an idea has to go through to be accepted that weeds out the bad ideas from the good. Science is done within the scientific community, just as history is done within the historical community. Within these communities, there will be stern resistance when a new idea crops up but ultimately it comes down to the evidence.

Getting an idea into the scientific curriculum in schools is subverting the process under which all ideas have to go through to be accepted as science. It's in effect destroying academic freedom by allowing any idea no matter how unscientific to bypass the very system of academic freedom. If creationism or any of it's relabelled had any scientific credibility, it would be fought tooth and claw among scientists. Instead the battle is being fought out in the public arena, science is a battle between those in the know and the weapon of choice is empirical data.

Creationism is unscientific because it cannot be falsified, no matter what the result of data the creationists will always have a reason why the data says what it does. Why do we see galaxies 13 billion light years away? Why do we see stars that are up to 13 billion years old? Why is it that rocks from the earth, the moon and meteorites all date to over 4 billion years, which happens to coincide with the same date as ageing the sun? Why is it we see a gradual emergence of life over the geological time span? Why is it we see morphological similarities between species? Why is it that we see ERVs in exactly the same place in the genetic code across species?

Science takes these collections of facts and applies hypothesises to them, and the hypothesises that best fit the data are counted as theories. Evolution makes falsifiable predictions time and time again, none of which so far have falsified evolution and many that have not only validated the theory but furthered our understanding of the process. Each time a new piece of evidence comes to light, it's a further test for evolution, so far it has passed every challenge presented. By contrast, where is the falsification for creationism? What data could possibly falsify divine intervention? It's not a science, it's not playing by the rules of science, why should it then be let in the science classroom?

The 'default'
Even if evolution were not true it doesn't make creationism any more plausible. Casting doubt on evolutionary theory is simply undermining science in the hope that people will be drawn to belief. It's not about being scientifically accurate or even being honest about the data, it's a system of intellectual dishonesty designed to play on the ignorance of people. Science not only uses critical thinking, it demands it! So to single out evolution as needing to be critically considered is nothing more than a ploy to cast doubt on a theory that is unfavourable to many purely for religious reasons.

If one wants to believe the world is 6000 years old and all life was created by God, that's their choice. No-one is infringing on that choice. But teaching that view in the science classroom is deliberately deceiving children who don't know better. Again I must stress that if anyone has evidence for creation, show it in the scientific community. Same goes for history, if you think the J.F.K. assassination is a conspiracy, then you need to show evidence to the historical community. Science is there for anyone to contribute, but the community will not stand back and watch those who don't want to participate try and destroy it because a few ignoramuses think they know better than the last century and a half of human progress.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Five percent

12 of the last 13 years of Australian federal politics, we had a conservative government. At a time when the rest of the world was starting to take on the concern that is climate change, our leader stood proudly behind the Americans in defiance of the scientific consensus. But as the warnings from leading climatologists became more mainstream in the media, there was a communal shift behind acting. And the Australian voters stood tall and elected a heroic figure that would save the day. That man was Kevin Rudd and in his decisive stance on climate change, to save the planet and show he's a world leader in the crusade to save the planet he's pledged Australia to cut emissions by... 5%?

The global financial crisis has given our government like many others a lot to think about. So while the government is investing many billions of dollars into infrastructure and giving handouts to those who would spend it on power-consuming LCD televisions, there's simply not any room for saving the environment. Why not research into new technologies? Why not put money into training more science and engineering students? Why not try to shift our failing economy away from a commodities market and into a world technological leader?

We've been enjoying the high commodity prices, turning environmental resources into economic capital. It turns out that we along with every other nation are harming the very planet we live on, and for a long time it's been done without a consideration for the long-term consequences. Finally now we are in an age where we can actually understand the implications for our actions and we are doing as little as possible to change our actions for the better. Perhaps helping the environment is one of those non-core promises that were a mark of the Howard years.

It's such a shame that our country has such little drive to actually save our planet, it's either a rejection of the science, an appeal to the economy or a cry of our insignificance on the world stage. "What about China?" Yes what about China? What are we doing to help them stop buying our coal? Are we giving them a better product, or one that is going to maximise our profits? Is this short drive for money in the nation's long-term interest? Is the great barrier reef a concern? Is ensuring there's enough water for our population to survive a concern? How has economics factored in these long term scarcities into the cost of each tonne of export we send overseas?

We've hit that situation in Australia where there's no reasonable alternative in tackling this problem, the "left" party is proposing a paltry 5% cut and the conservatives are still out on whether such a problem exists - or if it does how many jobs it will lose. There's not much we can do at all here, Kevin 07% (only if the international community agree on a 7% cut) has shown that his environmental credentials are mute. What can we do but hope that Barack Obama turns around 8 years of American inaction and actually has the balls to make the decisions that are needed to put earth back into the balance. Can Obama do it? Yes he can. Will it happen? Probably not. But a man can dream.

Each day of inaction is one more day of doing more damage to the environment. Sure there needs to be some time in order to formulate a comprehensive plan of action, but each moment we keep this polluting system going is quickly lessenning the time we have to fix the problem. The system is geared towards polluting, we need those fossil fuels to power our society. The sooner we start looking at putting in the infrastructure to break our dependance on fossil fuels the better. Otherwise our system will become more and more reliant on resources we are depleting at a rapid pace, each day we don't act the harder it will be to act in the future. The more expensive it will be too, but that's for future generations to worry about.

Can A Cat Turn Into A Dog?

Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that supports evolution, it's creationism mantra to snipe back that evolution has never been observed. Despite the many instances of mutation, natural selection and speciation all being observed, the mantra persists. It took me a long time to figure out why, but I've finally worked it out. The understanding creationists have of evolution is completely wrong, that to them evolution is like a cat giving birth to a dog. Now this is an absurdity and no literature on evolution even suggests anything like this could happen.

It's important to remember that evolution doesn't happen on an individual level, it happens across a population over many generations. In an individual variation occurs, but it's the accumulated changes over time that leads to what we call evolution. It's important to recognise that population doesn't mean entire species, indeed if species changed in their entirety then we would not see any divergence in life. There would just be one form that has continually changed throughout history. Instead there has to be a mechanism for divergence.

Evolution is descent with heritable modification, no child is simply a hybrid of their parents - copying errors do occur. Most of these are neutral to the fitness of the organism, there is the occasional harmful mutation and there is on the very rare occasion an advantageous mutation. Now these mutations can only get passed from generation to generation, so over successive generations the advantageous mutations should get passed through an entire population. Along with many more neutral mutations than advantageous.

Consider a situation where there are two different populations of an animal. Through geographic isolation, the populations can only pass down heritable mutations in their own population so the gene pools will never mix. With the right mutations the populations will be unable to reproduce together and are now considered two separate species. Now because those populations can no longer share mutations, each population will have their own future evolutionary path. In a changing environment over a long enough time, the mutations could make one of the populations look drastically different to the other.

It's important to remember that evolution works in on a long time scale, that we are observing just one snapshot in time. The fossil record gives us a glimpse at the past, and both our morphology and genetic codes show divergence between the species. That we can see any evolution at all even in the small time frame we've known about the process is astounding. Speciation has been observed, and alongside mutation, selection and genetic drift, the mechanisms that permit the diversity of life on this planet are understood.

The tree of life
Darwin's theory of evolution postulates that all live diverged from either a single or a few branches of life. So that would mean that at one time or another, we would all have shared a common ancestor. Just as all members of the feline family share a common ancestor, going further back on the tree would show a common ancestor with dogs. There would also be a common ancestor with apes somewhere along the line, going even further back there would be reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish and indeed all life.

Consider the statement: "A cat will always give birth to a cat." I happen to agree with that statement, a cat will never give birth to anything but a cat. So when there's a speciation event, now there are two different species of cat both giving birth to their own version of cat. Hypothetically fast forward this millions of years where one of these cat populations has become bipedal and has their front paws more suited to grabbing onto objects. Now would this still be a cat? Yes it would. But our classification of cats is based on the end node we see on the tree of life.

Consider this hierarchy
5)A B C D E F G H I

This is a hierarchy like the tree of life, and as observers we would be seeing one snapshot in time. Say life as we know it now is the top line (rung 5). We'll label cats as I and dogs as G(5) just for arguments sake. So the path to cats was ABEEI while the path to dogs was ABEDG. So if we look back say 50 million years or so, we may be looking at the third rung on the ladder and evolution would predict that cats and dogs were once species E(3). Now species E(3) speciated into two new species, species D(4) and E(4). So this would mean that species D(4) and E(4) are still classified as descendants of species E(3). So species F(5), G(5), H(5) and I(5) are also still descendants of E(3). If we took E(3) to be a cat, then D(4) and E(4) would still be cats. F(5), G(5), H(5) and I(5)5 would still be cats. But F(5) couldn't mate with G(5), H(5) or I(5) so it would be a separate species.

What's important to note is the hierarchical structure in the relationships. If E(3) is the common ancestor of all felines, then all creatures born on from that original species will still be felines. But the nodes prior to E(3) would not be felines. B(2) and A(1) would be the creatures that in one form morphed into felines over successive generations. All B(2)'s are A(1)'s, but not all A(1)'s are B(2)'s. Some A(1)'s are A(2)'s after all. Now dogs may be on the other side of the tree, a dog could be B(3), meaning its evolutionary path would be AAB, where a cat's would be ABE. So what does this mean?

It means that a cat is not a dog, that while they have a common ancestor they both have taken very different paths. Dogs will only give birth to dogs, while cats will only give birth to cats. The dog code is AAB so all it's descendants will branch from the AAB node. The cat code is ABE so all descendants of cats will branch from the ABE node. You will never get a node off AAB that could equal one off ABE. Species cannot go across the nodes, they can only go down.

Making sense of the incomprehensible
That node example was unnecessary complicated, it's a failure on my part to explain how common ancestry works. Dogs descended from a single pack of wolves around 100,000 years ago, dogs are a domesticated subspecies of wolf. A dog was not always a dog, but any descendants it has will still be dogs. Where we draw the line on species is dependant on the point we are viewing the snapshot of time. If we could travel back in time and see the earth 65 million years ago, we would see our furry scavenger ancestors that wouldn't resemble our current form at all. We'd also see many species that are long extinct, each one having their own little ecological niche and each one being wonderfully unique. In that snapshot of the past would like the ancestors of all life today, though only some would take the form we currently know them as.

So to the original question, can a cat turn into a dog? No, it's an absurd proposition. But can a cat morph into another form given enough time and advantageous mutations? Yes, that's what the theory of evolution proposes. Species change over successive generations, it all depends on their current form and their suitability for the climate they are in. A dog will never give birth to a cat, but millions of years ago one species that's most likely extinct gave birth to two offspring. One of those offspring is the ancestor to all manner of wolves, bears, weasels and seals. While the other offspring is the ancestor to all manner of cats, hyenas, meercats and mongooses. If we could have seen that common ancestor to all those families when it was alive, we would see now that it could only give birth to offspring of it's own species. If we called that species Carnivoria, each dog or cat or meercat would still be a Carnovoria. Over time and with speciation, the variation of those offspring would be staggering. It's only our frame of reference that limits us from knowing this ancestor to so many mammals as anything more than a necessity on the tree of life.

Monday, 15 December 2008

A Ridiculous Argument

A good discussion is always a worthwhile endeavour, it's been a good opportunity to engage ReasonablyAaron in regard to tactics when discussing creationism. In his latest post in this mini-discussion on the subject, he gave a great rebuttal to my comments and brought up some problems I hadn't considered. So in the interest of keeping open a healthy and open dialogue, here is my right of reply.

Why do people laugh at creationists?
It's got to be established what the target audience is of any text. There's no point in writing War and Peace for young children likewise there's no point in addressing the problems of creationism to people who will never listen. AronRa on youtube makes this point clear, those professional creationists will not be swayed no matter what. Instead he like many others aims at the middle-ground, at those who simply do not know better or have been misled. So while the styles of Thunderf00t, DonExodus2, Pharyngula or any of the other big names on Web 2.0 will not stop those dyed-in-the-wool creationists, I would contend they provide a service to those who are susceptible to evidence.

As Thunderf00t says on each video: "why do people laugh at creationists? Only creationists don't understand why." Maybe this statement is wrong, evidence would suggest that the majority don't understand why creationism is mocked. Indeed where the majority thinks it appropriate to teach both sides when there simply aren't two sides to it. This is really a failure of the scientific institution to explain why there aren't two sides to this, or at least explain it to the layman. Those in the know understand the methodology of science, those not will still say as Aaron points out:
"It's just a theory"

The expectations of having someone just give up their belief on just one stimulus is unrealistic. If someone has had decades of cultural indoctrination and years of personal rationalisation, just simply showing them the evidence is not going to recant on what they hold to be true. It would be like trying to reverse the direction a river flows by blowing into it with a straw. The enormity of the task is not to be understated, if there is such a tactic that works I would be glad to hear it.

Fringe versus the mainstream
Aaron makes an excellent point about holocaust denial if it were a different audience like one in Iran. How do we take the views of the intellectual establishment and compete them against the views of the ignorant majority? In the USA, the figure who believe evolution without any intervention from God is around 14%, where in science the figure is around 99%. Why is there such a disparity between the two?

As for Scientology, I would contend that Scientology's fringe status has less to do with mockery and more to do with an ultra-competitive market. This is actually testable, put a religion into an open society and see how it thrives. The New Age movement is taking off in post-Soviet Russia, the memes are working in an open environment. Scientology is it's own worst enemy, being secretive in a free society is cause for distrust.

The contention as I see it is thus: the establishments that are selling history or science are not doing a very good job competing against religion. In the case of holocaust denial, it's no surprise that it's huge in countries that want to wipe Israel off the map. Likewise the biggest threats to evolution come from communities where there is Fundamentalist Christianity, the flock rallies around the preachers of ignorance. Is it up to the historical community to stand up in Iran and show the evidence of the holocaust? Is it up to the scientific community to show the evidence for evolution (and indeed the old earth / vast universe)?

The 'I' word
In the end I can truly appreciate why people like Dawkins see religion as corrosive, and why they are attacking it with such vigour. It's influence is part of the problem, but really it's the ignorance of the general population. For you and me, it doesn't matter one bit whether the holocaust happened or not. I could be oblivious to all the facts, all the evidence for the holocaust, and still live a perfectly functional life. Without any knowledge on history I would be susceptible to influence by those who appear to have knowledge on the topic.

When a preacher gets up and talks about evolution being wrong, that's what he's becoming. He's a beacon of knowledge for the ignorant. Now there's a chance that any of us are simply that, it could be that everything I have written in my blog is down to misinformation and I could be showing falsehoods. To the average person would it just be my word against another's? Like the conservapedia example, to the casual observer it would seem like scientists are scared of debating creationists. Most the population have no idea how a microwave works, or even how they get electricity into their homes to power it. It's ignorance that is the real enemy.

One final thought, there's been one recent movement that has gained weight despite it's absurdity: the 9/11 truth movement. It's something we can study both from a sociological and psychological perspective to understand just how these delusions of reality can spread with apparent plausibility.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Designing the Designer

Last night I watched Judgement Day: Intelligent Design On Trial, and one of the things that fascinated me was Michael Behe talking about design in the universe. This got me thinking about an argument I've heard time and time again about, that because we exist that there must have been a creator much in the same way that because a car exists it must have had a designer. We exist, therefore God exists.

A hurricane in a junkyard
One undeniable fact about reality as far as we can tell is that we exist, even if we were nothing more than a computer simulation that simulation is our reality. Atheists, theists, deists, pantheists and spiritualists all can agree that for the sake of argument we are real. The question of why we are here is an unknown, so what makes theists so sure that because we are here that means there is a deity behind it all?

300 years ago, Newton proposed that the movement of the planets in such precision could only have been the work of a greater intelligence. 200 years ago, Paley's version of the teleological argument involved the complexity of life. Even in the last century Fred Hoyle proposed that a cell could not simply happen by chance and equated it to a hurricane through a junkyard randomly assembling a Boeing 747. This is the more formalised way of thinking about it, the same justification can be given without even the slightest knowledge of the universe beyond the self. i.e. we are here so God must be too.

The fact that we exist is not proof or disproof of the supernatural, the universe is how it is and if it were any different we wouldn't exist to be able to speculate on the matter. The best we can do is look at the parameters for the universe, look at the natural occurrences and from there try to understand the processes behind it all. From there we need to set up conditions that indicate design, but even then we are limited by own own biases and post-hoc reasoning. Upon some contemplation I came to regard the laws of physics as constants from which everything is an expression of. Can the laws change in different universes? Are they an expression of pure luck, or is there deliberate intent there? Or simply could it be that the laws just are and there is no other way they could be. This is the constraint of our observable reality, we simply cannot know beyond the limitations of observation.

The ultimate 747
So if everything is unknown, why do I reject that a deity is behind it all? Firstly I reject the idea of an interventionist deity because there's simply no need for one. The interventionist deities of the past: the weather-maker, the solar system harmoniser, the watchmaker, and the conjurer of original life - these are ideas that do have an adequate explanation through observable reality. We have a far better idea of how stellar bodies form, we know now of evolution, and we have good insight into the origin of life.

These arguments have typically been "god of the gaps" type arguments, it takes a void in human knowledge and fills it with God. So while many gaps exist in our knowledge now, there's simply no reason to put a deity in there to understand it. In scientific terms, the interventionist god has been a hypothesis that has constantly failed. Well not so much failed but cut away by occam's razor. Thor could very well be causing lightning, but the explanation of atmospheric electrical discharge requires no supernatural force. God could have made the planets orbit the way the do, but now we have a good understanding of how planetary formation can come about without requiring an appeal to a deity.

As for a tweaker of physical laws, it's answering complexity with something even more complex. It seems to beg the question "who created the creator?" A question that has the property of infinite regress. Once the question of complexity is resolved with an answer of an even greater complexity, the new greater complexity is an even greater problem to explain. If it turned out that an alien race seeded life on this planet, it would be pertinent to ask how that alien life got started. If they were started by another alien race, then the same problem arises. Eventually the explanation is going to have to be grounded in a process that can give rise to the first aliens.

Newton (among others throughout history) remarked "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." All we know in society now has been a steady accumulation of knowledge throughout time. Why is it that Egyptians of 3,000 years ago rode chariots instead of driving cars? Why did the Native Americans lived in tipis as opposed to skyscrapers? Why did the early wars be fought with stone axes instead of high-powered rifles? Our understanding of the way nature works has been shaped over time, it's changed and while some understanding has been lost, the understanding we have now has progressed at a staggering rate. In effect, our ability to design in the 21st century has become because of all the centuries previously where the foundation was laid.

In that same respect, to invoke God without a cause is contrary to what we know about accumulated knowledge. Things don't just exist that have supreme intellects, the only way we know how intelligence can come about is through evolution. We may be improbable beings, and if but a few small events had slightly different outcomes we wouldn't be here today. Our improbability though is the same as the improbability for any creature that exists, we are all 3.5 billion year old survival machines. Now it may be there's a God behind it all, it's beyond the realm of human knowledge. But as a causeless cause, the concept of God breaks it's own rule of design. It's the ultimate 747, something that is just too complex to be without explanation. The universe may be a mysterious place, but it shows nothing that would indicate that such a being can just be. Any design we see in the universe is nothing more than speculation.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Re-skinned Oblivion

In 2006, a game came out that reshaped the way I view RPGs. The 4th game in the Elder Scrolls series (to which I confess that I haven't played any other title) known as Oblivion was to me one of the pinnacles in modern gaming. It was really the first game where beauty and met, and while the mechanisms for gameplay had some flaws, it's diversity and scope make for a compelling game time after time. It was a fantasy epic with a captivating story, a spectacular open environment with so many different options for the gamer.

By contrast, Bethesda's latest effort, Fallout 3, is a bleak environment. The developers have outdone themselves in selling the post-apocalyptic setting, the engine capable of the magnificent imagery in their fantasy classic was able to render such a desolate world. The game looks truly fantastic, everything from the design of the ruins to the cartoon displays in the hub. Visually the game looks spectacular.

As for the gameplay mechanics, if you have played Oblivion then you have essentially played this game. The interface is the same, the interaction with objects is the same, the AI behaviour is the same, it's another open-ended world, there are still plenty of places to explore and quests to do on the side. It's Oblivion with guns, though the mechanics of battle suits gun-fighting far better than swordplay. The VATS system is really cool too, the ability to queue up moves is very helpful at times.

As for differences, obviously the levelling system is different. The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. approach means that actions do not have to be taken into consideration and it becomes a lot easier to build a customisable character. All that matters is the accumulation of experience points, the fact that I don't need to put on autowalk and sneak or spend hours swimming in order to skill up. The karma system is a really nice addition. Ammunition conservation and weapon degradation also add another level of complexity to the game. When there's a few approaching Mirelurks, having to worry about whether to unload multiple clips of ammunition is one more thing to consider.

Like with Oblivion, the main adventure comes from exploring the lands, and the side-quests keep the game interesting. Lock-picking is far less frustrating than in Oblivion, it's simply a matter of skill level rather than timing. One of the more fun novelty tasks is computer hacking, it's like a game of mastermind but with letters instead of colours. The joke-telling butler from your house in megaton can provide a laugh or two, but not as much as the gullible shopkeeper (and amateur novelist) Moira. Messing with her after she sends you on misguided fieldwork is somewhat cathartic.

The success of Fallout 3 as a game rests on it's ability to immerse the player, and like Oblivion it's the game's strength. Without playing the original games I can't really comment on whether it's successfully captured the franchise, but as a stand-alone product it's thoroughly impressive. In the last 6 weeks or so, about half a dozen top titles have all hit the shelves. Once I got this game, all others have ceased to even be touched. Going back to Far Cry 2 now will feel like a step down. A fantastic game with truly amazing depth, it's a reminder of the quality that Bethesda studios are capable of. It may be little more than a re-skin of Oblivion, but for a game to base in on they could have done a lot worse.

The Mockery

This is a response to a post on the blog Reasonably Aaron regarding tactics when dealing with creationists, titled oddly enough Fallacies against Creationists. It's a pretty decent assessment of the problem that creationism poses and the degree of difficulty it will take to overcome the threat. It also made some good suggestions of practical ways of going about things. Though I disagree that I'm not seeing the bigger picture (of course I would disagree that), and of the role that mockery plays.

A comical absurdity
Hypothetically, think of a scenario involving a discussion on the holocaust. On one side, there is a world war 2 historian with decades of research into the field. On the other, there is a holocaust denier who has never even picked up a history book. Now the debate starts and the historian lays out all the evidence for the holocaust, dispels the myths that are around, and generally gives a convincing historical analysis of what happened. Now the denier stands up and says "If the holocaust happened, why don't we see the ghosts of dead Jews haunting children of Nazis?"

This sounds absolutely absurd and the holocaust denier would be laughed out of the debate hall. But this is exactly the kind of arguments we see from professional creationists. The difference is that why the Crockduck is an absurdity on the order of Jewish ghosts haunting Nazi captors requires at least some scientific understanding of what a transitional form is. To the scientifically illiterate, it can seem like a legitimate problem for evolutionary theory.

Kirk Cameron has been talking for years against evolution, and still the Crocoduck example comes up. Either he's still oblivious to the fact that Crocoduck is an absurdity of the highest order, or he continues to use it despite knowing it's an evolutionary absurdity. Yet these are the kinds of arguments that are all too common in creationists circles, and they are being legitimised by a 'moderate' perception that this is merely a difference of opinion.

As far as ridicule goes, it may simply put those being ridiculed further into their shells and feed their persecution complex. When a person can't separate themselves from the beliefs they hold, then attacking those beliefs is going to seem to them a personal attack. This is unavoidable. But on a whole, ridiculing these beliefs may play a part in stemming the spread of the memes. Without such ridicule, those beliefs are legitimised under a guise of tolerance. Anyone holding the opinion of a flat earth now is ridiculed because it's known to be a ridiculous belief to hold, the same with geocentrism. The evidence for evolution is on a par with heliocentric orbit, yet doesn't enjoy the same level of support in the community.

Science has that unfortunate quality that it takes effort to understand, ridicule without explanation would leave most people bemused. Pointing out the ridiculous nature of creationism with the evidence that's available makes for a far more convincing case. It could simply be as Aaron points out that most people don't understand the type and magnitude of the evidence, even those who believe evolution to be true. It's so vital that the evidence is known and that's been the focus of my posts. Ridiculing their position is not a logical fallacy if done right. It's important to distinguish between a reductio ad absurdum and an appeal to ridicule. Showing an argument to be ridiculous and calling an argument ridiculous are two very different things, and while there might be the same adverse reaction to both, it's not a logical fallacy.

The problem of faith
One point that Aaron excellently pointed out is the eventual appeal to the holy books. That even if all the evidence in the world points away from the biblical stories, those stories were handed down by God so they must be true and the scientists mistaken. For those kinds of arguments, while it brings up tough theological questions about the nature of God, the people who base their beliefs on that book will not be swayed no matter what. If they truly have faith they are right, we can't touch them no matter what. But the arguments against evolution are almost never argued by faith, the arguments are pseudo-scientific.

It's the same kind of arguments over and over: evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics, evolution can't account for the complexity of the eye, evolution cannot account for morality, evolution cannot account for love, there are irreducibly complex structures in nature, it looks designed so it must have a designer, DNA is a language, evolution is not predictive so it doesn't count as science, there are no transitional fossils, etc. So while faith may be the justification of their position, the arguments are on a scientific front and need to be addressed as such.

Arguing against creationism is like fighting the Hydra, every time you cut off one head, two more grow back in it's place. Aaron is right that simply lopping the heads off won't achieve anything, in order to defeat the beast you must figure out the way to stop those heads growing back. In Greek mythology, Heracles did this by burning the flesh so nothing could grow back. To parallel this with creationism, refuting the arguments is cutting the heads off and bringing up the positive evidence for evolution is searing the flesh so it won't grow back. That final head that's impervious to any weapon is faith, the ultimate defence that will keep the beast alive, albeit in a crippled form.

Over time, the scientific establishment has made great inroads into gaining popular opinion about reality. It was less than 500 years ago when Copernicus wrote of heliocentrism and less than 400 since Galileo was imprisoned for heresy for daring to publish scientific findings that supported heliocentric orbit. Few will argue for a flat earth of geocentric universe any more, the ideas still exist but in severely crippled forms and only held by a few. Over time, provided we can maintain society, the same will hopefully be able to be said of evolution which so far has only had 150 years of awareness. Figures over the last century are encouraging, and through awareness of evidence it's possible to imagine a world where a non-contentious scientific issue is non-contentious in the general population as well.

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Idiocy Of Creationism (part 2)

This is a continuation of a refutation of Harun Yahya's problems with evolution. Part 1 can be found here.

(7) Reptiles are not the ancestors of birds...
It's very well established in the scientific literature that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx is considered an intermediate form because it contains both avian and saurian features. Archaeopteryx was not the first creature with feathers either, there are at present 20 different species of feathered dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx also had a reptilian tail - not seen in modern birds, a mouth full of sharp teeth, and three fingers with claws. There are several other transitional forms between dinosaur and bird including the Microraptor. Not to mention that flight has evolved several times independently including in mammals, insects, and other reptiles like pterosaurs which were not dinosaurs and were not ancestors of modern birds.

(8) Fish did not move onto the land...
This is another outright denial of evidence. Perhaps Mr. Yahya hasn't heard of Tiktaalik. Now this is possibly one of the best evidences for evolution ever found, it shows the predictive nature. In the fossil record there no amphibians until around 370MYA and lobed finned fish before then so palaeontologists knew to look in 375 million year old rock of the right type in order to find this intermediate form. It was predicted to be there, it was found to be there and it had the right morphology just as predicted.

As for coelacanth, it being a living fossil doesn't invalidate evolution. It doesn't matter when a species leaves the fossil record, but when it enters it. If the coelacanth was around in Precambrian rocks or early Cambrian long before any other vertebrates had developed, then it would be a problem. Instead it's place in the fossil record comes in after the vertebrates and after fish have developed. The coelacanth is exactly where it should be in the fossil record, and it's stasis in morphology in the fossil record is no objection to evolution. Indeed if it's an adapted form for it's environment, it would be odd to see macroscopic mutations that are more advantageous.

(9) Mutations cannot form new species...
The premise for this is all wrong, mutations naturally occur in all of us. They are simply copying errors in code. On average there are about 128 mutations in each of us, most of which are neutral and have no affect on our overall fitness. There are harmful mutations too, but harmful mutations tend to be deleterious and don't survive into subsequent generations. Then there are the occasional advantageous mutations, these increase the fitness of the organism and make it more likely to survive. In our own species we can trace back certain features to single mutations, like the mutation that allowed for blue eyes.

If mutation couldn't produce anything advantageous then there would be no need for the other 16 points of contention. Throw out heritable adaptation and natural selection and there is no Darwinian evolution; that's it, that's 150 years of science simply being wrong. But there are mutations that give an increased fitness, there are mutations that help the survival of an individual. It's important to remember that evolution works on a species level and not an individual, that mutations on an individual alone will not bring about a new species. Rather it is an accumulation of mutations over many generations.

(10) Natural selection cannot lead to evolution...Natural selection works with mutation in order to get evolution. Mutations happen, natural selection weeds out any of the bad mutations. It alone cannot lead to speciation, but it's a non-random selector of successful heritable traits. In the example of a zebra, if the fastest runner is so because of a mutation making it's legs better suited to running, then that trait will get passed down in it's offspring. Those without the mutation will be more prone to being targeted by predators so over time the zebras with the mutation will find itself in more and more of the population. But of course the predators also have the potential for mutations so faster or stronger predators would also be more suited to survival. This brings an evolutionary arms race, a driving factor in evolution.

As for the zebra is still a zebra remark, of course it is. Just as any offspring we have will be human, or any offspring a cat has will be a cat. The difference is that if two populations of cats are left for enough time and there is enough mutations of the right type then those populations will not be able to interbreed. Once you hit the species line, genetic differences really can't be shared and thus mutations will accumulate on each side and eventually there will be visible difference.

As stated earlier, if evolution could not act on natural selection or mutation then it would be game over. That's all the paper would have to show: that advantageous mutations are impossible and that natural selection is insufficient to weed out those bad mutations. Instead it's focusing on mute points that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.

(11) Human beings did not evolve, but were created as human beings...
There's just so much evidence that we did evolve. Humans have 46 chromosomes while the other primates have 48. So there are three options: the other primates all had chromosomes split, humans had chromosomes fused or we are wrong about common ancestry. Since we are the odd ones out, it should be us that has the fused chimpanzee chromosome. So when scientists mapped the human genome and the chimpanzee genome, we were able to look for this fused chromosome. And we found it. Now why would a fused chimpanzee chromosome be in our DNA if we were created as human beings? It comes down to the creator putting it there to trick us.

Of course there is going to be some overlap in the fossil record, again it doesn't matter where a species finishes in the fossil record, only where it enters. What's important is that Australopithecus come before homo habilis, which comes before homo erectus, which comes before both neanderthal and homo sapien. Dogs came from a single pack of wolves about 100,000 years ago, it would be fallacious to say that because there are still wolves that dogs didn't descend from wolves. Just as it would be fallacious to say that because there are still Africans that Europeans didn't have an African origin.

For the record:
  • Australopithecus (in various forms) - 4.2MYA to 1.1MYA
  • Homo Habilis - 2.4MYA - 1.5MYA
  • Homo Erectus - 1.8MYA - 0.3MYA
  • Homo Sapien - 0.5 MYA - present

(12) All the fossil skulls proposed for the supposed evolution of man are false...
Again, more lies. There skulls have intermediate characteristics including the size of the brain case, and the size and type of the jaw. For the distinction between apes and humans, all skulls are ape skulls. But to the point, it's interesting that homo habilis is classified as ape while homo erectus is classified as human because initially some scientists wanted to put homo habilis skulls in the same category as homo erectus. The skulls found show intermediate steps between older fossils and modern fossils, they show the gradual path to humanity. In fact there are so many skulls from different types of intermediate forms that scientists have to work out which ones are more likely candidates for our ancestry and which ones probably aren't. The problem for theists is that not a single one of these skulls should even exist.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

On Blogging

The Scientifically Illiterate

Being ignorant is not something to be ashamed of, there's just so much to learn in the pool of accumulated knowledge that it's impossible to know everything. Though when it comes to science, there is not only gross ignorance in the understanding of science but a pride attached to that ignorance. Yet it's these people who take pride in not understanding who present the greatest attacks on scientific theory. They reject what not only they don't understand but proudly misunderstand, then feel the need to coerce others into their cone of wilful ignorance.

Rudimentary knowledge
Is it really too much to ask that people at least understand the basics before opening their mouth on a subject? There's a reason I don't talk about 19th century English Literature or the Meiji period in Japanese history - I don't know the first thing about them. Sure I've had to read some Jane Austen in high school, and I've seen some anime dealing with that era of Japanese history, but that by no means makes me even slightly qualified to talk about those. If I wanted to write something about Meiji era Japan, I would spend a long time researching it. And even at that point, all I could do is echo what the experts say. I'm not in a position to rewrite history.

That rewriting science is precisely what creationists are trying to do, instead of learning about evolution from the scientific establishment, they seek the voices of those who aren't part of that establishment. As a result the same tired arguments are recycled so I'm willing to bet that in 50 years time we'll still hear how evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics and that a global flood made the grand canyon. Indeed the funniest comment I heard from a creationist was being asked "If there was no global flood, how do mountains and canyons form?" Grade A ignorance on display, and these are the people who aren't willing to break that ignorance.

Some people simply don't know better and they are a product of poor teaching by their peers. But it boggles my mind that the likes of Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort can preach their nonsense after decades of arguing the topic. Kirk Cameron still parades his Crocoduck around, despite it being a complete misrepresentation of what a transitional form is; indeed if we found a Crocoduck that would really be the end for evolution. Yet it's hard to imagine that in the years he's been using that straw man he's not once actually looked up what transitional forms really are, or been corrected by people who do know what transitional forms are. As for Ray Comfort, a padded cell may be needed.

It takes not only a propensity to find information, but a knowledge of where to find information to be able to form a solid understanding of the concepts. For an understanding of evolutionary theory it's best to ask scientists about it. There are plenty of books on the subject, with a substantial amount of pop science literature to explain it to the layman. There's that old saying, "opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one", but this doesn't mean that opinions are of equal worth. Ideas with evidence behind them trump ideas without evidence, or are contrary to evidence. Sure the Crocoduck could exist, but it's not a 50/50 chance of it being so. It's only in the context of all other evidence that we can consider whether it should be in the fossil record. The way evolution has been deduced from evidence is that no Crocoduck should exist anywhere in the fossil record - it would be an anomaly. Kirk Cameron's objection to evolution is quite simply false and it's a perfect example of the importance of understanding a topic before speaking out on it.

Having an open mind
Creationists are now using the insults that were once levelled at them: evolution is a religion, evolutionists have faith, evolutionists are intolerant, evolutionists are closed minded. It's that last point I want to address. As mentioned above, ideas are not of equal worth for so many reasons. The reason why creationism is rejected is that it contracts the facts of science. A young earth creationist rejects: cosmology and the age of the universe, astronomy and both the age and distance of stars, it rejects nuclear physics and the radiometric decay of unstable isotopes, geology both in the age of our earth and the formation of the planet, plate tectonics, the fossil record, dendrochronology, ice core dating, the spread of life on this planet, and everything that has been observed in biology over the last 150 years including mutation, natural selection and speciation. It's a total rejection of science and scientific evidence so evolution and creation are not on equal footing.

So it's quite well established that one idea is not as good as another, so the source of the information and it's context both need consideration. In effect, everything is evidence and each one of us applies a filter to that evidence in order to form a worldview. All evidence comes to us either through our own observations, or vicariously through the storytelling of others. Each book or article we read, each show we watch or radio podcast we listen to, they are all summations of evidence and we are at best a 2nd hand receiver of the information. A news article on the BBC website would not be written by the one who did the experiments, they would be a 2nd hand source and we would be consumers of 2nd hand information.

This leaves us as vicarious observers of reality in a perilous position, all we have is one person's word over another. Why should the layman trust Ken Miller over Michael Behe when it comes to evolution? Or an even more extreme example, why trust Richard Dawkins over Ken Ham? Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron manage to keep in business despite not knowing the first thing about the topic at hand. It all comes down to trust. So why should we trust Dawkins' word over Ham's? Because of the type of evidence backing Dawkins.

It's not to say that appealing to Dawkins over Ham on evolution will mean that Dawkins is always right and Ham is always wrong, that would be an appeal to authority. It's that Dawkins' books and lectures have 150 years of scientific backing, something of which Ken Ham spends most of his time trying to destroy. Dawkins could be wrong on a lot of things, indeed many scientists feel he is wrong on certain aspects of evolution and many others feel he is wrong on matters of theology. He isn't the authority on reality, rather he's an expert in the field of natural science. Ultimately he's considered an expert because of the time and dedication to study the evidence that's available and even make his own contributions to the field.

Keeping an open mind is being open to evidence, it's being able to understand what types of evidence are accurate and being able to tie multiple lines of evidence together. It's not taking ideas on face value, that would simply be being gullible. The type of evidence, how it was derived, and how it fits in with the rest of the evidence all need consideration. No process is perfect and especially not our own experiences, so it's important to keep in mind that there can be fallibility in any information. It takes critical thinking skills to understand the processes on which the information was derived, there are basic tests of parsimony that can be used with a strong degree of certainty. Taking some humility with the uncertainty no matter how small is vital, but inferring that uncertainty means that any idea has a 50/50 chance is quite simply absurd.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Internet Censorship

Australia is going down the path of China, well sort of. It's not enough that Australia is bedfellows with such an oppressive regime, it now seems we are going down the path of the great firewall. Okay, I'm being a little extreme here. It's not going to be that bad, though the argument that those opposed to the censorship are enabling child pornography is a far worse slander. Clive Hamilton recently weighed in with his opinion, blasting the libertarian mantra on the issue. Here's a non-libertarian reply.

Won't someone please think of the children?
The may Dr Hamilton has constructed his argument makes for a sound rebuttal of the absolute libertarian position. That notion of absolute individualism is at odds with society and the restrictions we have when we play in it. But I can't help here to think his argument is a straw man, that by equating the libertarian argument to the protection of children he's making the same fallacy as anti-drug advocates do. You'd be hard-pressed to find a libertarian who would be against a voluntary filter, it's that it's mandatory where the problem lies.

Herein lies the false dichotomy presented by Dr Hamilton, it's either everything is permissible to everyone or the government should be allowed to censor for everyone. In writing his condemnation of the selfish individualists who are vehemently opposed to censorship, he's neglected the most fundamental principle of a liberal democracy: choice. There is a big difference between a voluntary and a mandatory system, and a voluntary system gives choice to those presented. It allows the government to help out the parents who need help, not everyone has the technical ability to censor their own system. But not everyone is a parent, not everyone needs to have their internet censored to protect children.

In Australia's film and literature classification system, we have grades depending on the content. There are certain films that are adults only and as a consequence only adults can view them. Arguing that the internet needs to be censored for all is like arguing that adult films shouldn't be allowed because children could watch them. The same argument too is against the R rating for computer games, the double standard in our society is explicit. There are plenty of exceptions that are made for adults, adults can drink, smoke tobacco, and they can gamble. They can read and view material that children can't. It's important to remember that even the opt-out option will still block material that's available to buy in certain stores.

Having the government help out having parents make informed choices should be part of a liberal democracy. Hamilton is right to rebuke those who argue that paternal responsibility doesn't have some social responsibility. This to me sums up his argument in a nutshell:
This argument for mandatory internet filters is in principle the same as the argument for the film censorship system. In the libertarian world where individual rights overrule social responsibilities we would have no film censor and kids could go to the cinema to watch whatever they liked. The film censorship system is pretty good at balancing the variety of viewpoints in the community.
It's possible to be in favour of the ratings system and still want to be able to see R-rated films. The argument he is giving is that adults should not be able to see R-rated films because children can't either. By censoring the internet, you are taking away an adults ability to go and see an R-rated film. Parents can still buy or rent R-rated DVDs, and children could still watch them if they are unsupervised. What's to stop a child from watching an R-rated film that their parents have a copy of? It does come down to parenting in the end, and while the government can assist in choice, ultimately whether a child watches an unsuitable film is an element they can't control.
"The whole principle is wrong. It's like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can't have steak." - Robert Heinlein on censorship

Technical feasibility
We need a community debate on the question of whether we should do it before we consider the question of whether we can do it because too many internet libertarians and industry spokespeople cover up their refusal to countenance any sort of regulation by insisting that it won't work.
From an ethical perspective, maybe this idea has some validity. From a pragmatic perspective, it's a pointless discussion if it can't be done. Prohibition of alcohol is pointless because of how easy it is to make your own (I have some brewing right now.) To me the discussion is tied to the practicality of the measures, there's no point in talking about building an electricity grid on the assumption of superconductivity if there are no room temperature superconductors. So in that any argument for or against censorship on a practical level can only be done in the boundaries of what is possible.

There are several factors to take into account: how many false positives there are, how many false negatives there are, the overall loss in bandwidth, and how easy it is to bypass the filter. Is having a browser based filter a better overall solution than a ISP-based filter? How can one objectively measure such claims? To me, if even a single legitimate page is censored then the filter is not doing it's job. But others would think differently and see that if a recipe containing chicken breast being blocked so a child doesn't see an exposed breast then the sacrifice was worth it. There's no way to objectively measure the effects of technology without appealing to some idealism. Freedom of speech and expression have been long touted as examples of Australia's freedom, so surely as an ideal it needs to play some role in being a base on which to make an objective measure.

Other technologies to consider are the different protocols that will not be affected at all by the filter. Peer-to-peer networks, cryptographic networks such as Freenet. There are plenty of cryptographic technologies and mechanisms to hide one's online identity. To push more users into these kinds of technologies will make a mockery of any filter - for not only will people have access to otherwise restricted content, there will be no way of having any enforcement. The open system allows for the catching of those who do view dangerous material like child pornography.

The internet is a global communications network, and Australia is but one hub on the network. Our laws can't control what is put on elsewhere in the world, but it's still accessible. Like companies that take advantage of tax breaks in other countries, the laws of one country can be bypassed by setting up shop in another. I wonder how politicians would feel about preventing the practice by banning any company from trade that goes offshore for tax breaks. I'm betting the take-up would be quite low. After all money talks. The point is that we operate on a global network every day including with unfavourable nations and business practices. China buys our iron ore and we turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses there, again money talks.

In the end, it all comes down to on an ethical level the best way to serve the interests of the vast majority of the population. The compromise between freedom and security is at the heart of this issue, how much freedom do we need to trade in to protect us from ourselves? More so, how much freedom do we need to sacrifice of ourselves for the security of others? How many people are on internet connections that do not need such protection? How many people do need protection and to what extent does that need to be there? Here it seems to be that mandatory censorship is problematic, it seeks to bypass asking those questions by giving a blanket effect on the ban. And if that mandatory filtering is going to have a false positive rate of 3% and reduce speeds by at least 11%, is it the best way for society to go for those who don't need such a ban?

The Infocalypse is nigh
Former Intel engineer and crypto-anarchist Timothy C. May talked of the Four Horsemen Of The Infocalypse: terrorists, paedophiles, drug dealers and money launderers. These horsemen are demons in our society that can be used to gain public support. In this debate, Stephen Conroy has invoked the horsemen "paedophiles". The tactic for using these horsemen is as follows.

How to get what you want in 4 easy stages:

1. Have a target "thing" you wish to stop, yet lack any moral, or practical reasons for doing so?

2. Pick a fear common to lots of people, something that will evoke a gut reaction: terrorists, pedophiles, serial killers.

3. Scream loudly to the media that "thing" is being used by perpetrators. (Don't worry if this is true, or common to all other things, or less common with "thing" than with other long established systems - payphones, paper mail, private hotel rooms, lack of bugs in all houses etc)

4. Say that the only way to stop perpetrators is to close down "thing", or to regulate it to death, or to have laws forcing en-mass tapability of all private communications on "thing". Don't worry if communicating on "thing" is a constitutionally protected right, if you have done a good job in choosing and publicising the horsemen in 2, no one will notice, they will be too busy clamouring for you to save them from the supposed evils.

All I'm hearing when I read through Clive Hamilton's prose was Mrs. Lovejoy off The Simpsons screeching "won't someone please think of the children?"

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Idiocy Of Creationism (part 1)

For anyone wanting to earn an easy 100,000 lira, Old Earth Creationist Harun Yahya is offering a prize for the best paper on why evolution is invalid. At first I was excited because I thought that by writing a decent paper I could swindle some creationist cash and put it towards real science, but reading the entry page was a list of every fallacious argument that Creationists come up with. So instead I felt it best to debunk the frivolous claims in my own words, even if Talk.Origins counters all these arguments and more.

(1) Life cannot emerge by chance...
Firstly, evolution does not try to explain the origin of life. Evolution is a process which acts on life that is already there, it's like complaining that plate tectonics is invalidated because we don't have an adequate theory of planet formation. How life came about certainly does need an answer, but even if that answer is Goddidit the diversity of life in it's present form can only be explained by evolution.

As for abiogenesis being a matter of chance? While Einstein was wrong to say God does not play with dice, to put life down to an expression of quantum physics would be an inadequate explanation. Instead life would need to come about by a set number of steps that have to be in the realms of possibilities of what that organic matter can do. No theory of abiogenesis is down to chance, each one is a series of steps that start with but a few chemicals and a catalyst and result in replicating organisms.

As for the probability given on their site (1 in 10950,) an explanation can be found at There will not be one single step that will lead from inanimate matter to fully-replicating cells. It may be hundreds of steps all requiring certain conditions in which to happen. It could take thousands or millions of years for the process to take, we simply don't know. But no scientists are alleging that the first cells will look anything like modern cells we have to work with. What survives now 3.5 billion years later would look nothing like the primitive cells that would have started the process.

(2) There is not a single intermediate fossil...
This is a flat-out lie. Firstly every fossil is an intermediate form, life keeps changing generation to generation so life can be nothing but intermediates. But that's not really the point Mr Yahya is getting at, so I'll directly address the idea of transitional forms.

Each fossil is going to be it's own complete form, it's going to look like the species of which it is. But it's the relative transition of the form in regard to older fossils and younger fossils that gives us the understanding of evolution. In our own lineage, Homo Erectus is much like us but not quite. It's probable that we are descendants of Homo Erectus, just as Neanderthals were. But it's unlikely that we are descended from Neanderthals, the DNA support just isn't there. Going back further we have Homo Habilis and even before that Australopithecus. By sorting the fossils in order, we can see a pattern of transition.

An intermediate in this case would play the role of the "missing link", an intermediate between Australopithecus and Homo Sapien is Homo Erectus. Between Australopithecus and Homo Erectus is Homo Habilis. Each is their own species, but they become intermediary forms when put in context. Humans are not the only species where we have a good fossil record of the transition. The horse and the whale both have a strong fossil record supporting the gradual transition. We have intermediaries of the fish to tetrapod transition, of the reptile to mammal, of the dinosaur to bird.

(3) “Living fossils” are a response to evolutionary myths...
Evolution is not destroyed by the idea of "living fossils", all that matters is when the species first appears in the fossil record, not when it last appears. If rabbits appeared in the fossil record long before any other tetrapod, common descent would be wrong. But a 200 million year old rabbit is not a problem at all for evolution provided there are other species before it that show a transition from reptiles to mammals, and non-rabbits to rabbits.

It all comes down to a matter of selection. If a species like the Coelacanth is in a successful form, then any variation on that form may not be as advantageous and die out. It comes down to a matter of survival, so if any macroscopic mutations aren't successful then there is no reason why we should expect change. It's a shame we can't compare the DNA of a modern Coelacanth to one from 400 million years ago, because that should highlight the difference.

(4) The unimaginable information in DNA...
Again with the "it's all too complicated to be formed by chance" argument. All that's needed to show this argument to be false is to show how information can be added. And there is such a mechanism: gene duplication. There are several thousand scientific papers explaining this phenomenon (go here and search for gene duplication). Once there is a mechanism of increasing information, combined with a process of selection on said information, the size of any genome presents no problem given enough time.

(5) Organs with irreducible complexity...
Two things here come to mind: firstly irreducible complexity is not a problem for evolutionary theory, secondly the eye and wing are not irreducibly complex. The problem of irreducible complexity was solved almost a century ago, decades before it became the new calling cry of creationists. All it takes is for an additive part to become a necessary function of the system, as soon as that happens taking away that additive part would make the system non-functional.

The eye will still work if one takes away components, so it's not irreducibly complex. One can be born without lenses in their eye and still have sight in some form. Some people are born partially or wholly colour blind, yet the eye can still serve a function perfectly well. In this case it's mistaking complexity for irreducible complexity, and that is the more important question: how did the eye evolve? The answer is through a gradual set of stages, from simple light sensitive cells all the way to what we have now. Each of these stages can be seen in the animal kingdom, it's not hard to make the link from one to the other. A wing is much the same, through gradual stages wings have evolved into what they are now. The same can be said for any complex function, the gradual stages are seen throughout nature.

(6) All the variety of life on Earth appeared suddenly 530 million years ago...
Suddenly? Well on a geological timeline, suddenly sounds right. In reality the Cambrian explosion happened over a period of tens of millions of years. There is also evidence of multi cellular life going back at least 50 million years earlier, the explosion itself is not a sudden outburst of life. There is a good run-down of the gradual timeline here. Even the rapid state of emergent life as seen in the Cambrian explosion can be seen in other points of earth's history as well.

It's also important to understand that events like the Cambrian explosion are macroscopic expressions of life. Early evolution of complex creatures would have been on the microscopic level and would have simply been too small to see. Whatever events transpired to allow for macroscopic creatures doesn't mean that all phyla came to be at that point, it just means that it's the point where they are visible in the fossil record.