Thursday, 26 February 2009

On Reconciling Religion

Jerry Coyne has written an excellent piece on the struggles of reconciling religion and science, showing where those who do minimise one or the other. It's the nature of Dogma, it's the nature of a theist god, there has to be some point where the naturalistic explanation of the universe is altered in order for a theistic God to survive. But that's for those individuals to work out on their own, while Ken Miller actively promotes science and does a damn good job it's hard to see how a view like his can be harmful in society. It may indeed be of wanting a case of wanting the best of both worlds, but that's his problem. The heart of the problem is not in the reconciliation that people like Miller do, but the large portion of the community who reject science outright.

The battle for secular reasoning
So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.
It's amazing in this modern age when people invoke God for obviously man-made happenings. The financial crisis is a damn good example. The economy is a human construct, money is a human construct, the stock-market is a human construct, and the interactions that keep it all working are all actions of man. So when there's a collapse and people are praying to God to make it better, or claiming it's God punishing us, how could it possibly work? Of all the things that could have caused the financial crisis or all the ways it could be fixed, the last answer for either in any rational form should be God because it makes no sense whatsoever to invoke a deity for something obviously entirely the work of man.

Secular reasoning is obviously at odds with two memes that circulate today - the first is the meme of cultural relativism and the second is that the mind of the market. Now it would be absurd to think that both memes have no value whatsoever, indeed it would be hard to think how any meme at all could arise and propagate without filling a cultural niche. So in that I'm sympathetic to both concepts. As far as I can tell, cultural relativism is a nice way of keeping tolerance in a multicultural society. It almost feels like an inevitability in multiculturalism because without it there would be conflict. Likewise, no-one has time to fact check on every item under consideration so following the crowd could be overall beneficial. Unfortunately the usefulness of both these memes has little to do with the truth.

Dawkins once said "Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite." It should be obvious what Dawkins is going on about, that there are certain measurable and testable means by which an idea's worth can be determined. The computer each of you is reading this on works because the science behind it is demonstratively correct. The idea that popular means right is committing the logical fallacy of appeal to the population. Just because something is marketable, profitable, or bought by a lot of people does not make it any more or any less likely to be true. We buy under the belief that it works, not on the fact that it works. Those points are important to distinguish because no matter how popular something like homoeopathy becomes, it has no bearing whatsoever on the truth behind it.

So to Miller and Giberson, the focus of Jerry Coyne's piece. All the criticism and talk of incompatibility may be valid statements, and I'm in agreement with Jerry Coyne that secular reasoning and religion are incompatible. But in a predominantly religious society where the dichotomy is continually placed between God and evolution, it's people like Miller and Giberson who are able to at least try to bridge that gap. As Coyne observes:
Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Blame the atheists
One battle that will continue to be fought is the way in which evolution is presented in the public arena. It's understandable to an extent, given the recent New Scientist controversy with the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover, it seems that any statement that will confirm a creationist's preconceptions will hurt the cause of public acceptance of evolution. Now that creationists are holding the magazine cover as a gift from God, does this show that we really need to watch what we say in the evolution wars?

Quote mining is a huge part of evangelising creationism. There are still people quoting from The Origin Of Species in order to argue against evolution. Despite Gould being a massive figure in evolution, advocating and advancing the theory, creationists still quote-mine him talking on punctuated equilibrium as proof that evolution is fraudulent. This won't go away no matter how carefully scientists are in their words. So in this respect while a Dawkins soundbite saying that he's a darwinian or that evolution is incompatible with God would be misused, it would amount to nothing more than the same deceptive behavioural practices that have been part of any creationist movement.

So if the likes of Dawkins went away, would it actually do anything to subside the creationist movement? I would contend not for it's not the likes of Dawkins the creationists listen to. In terms of where they get the information, it's in the church, it's in their social circles, it's in the literature they read. Take Dawkins away and those factors still remain. Dawkins may provide a bit of fuel for an already burning fire, but he did not start the fire nor did he encouraging it to burn.

And this is where there's been a failure among the religious moderates, creationism is a solely religious endeavour so it's not now nor has it ever been the job of atheists to reconcile God with evolution. If an atheist says God and evolution are not reconcilable, why should that be more cause for ire than when a preacher says it? I would infer from this that there actually is an incompatibility; while some are able to reconcile the two, there are many who simply cannot. It would also show a failure on the count of moderates to show that the two ideas are reconcilable, and a failure on the count of moderates to get the message out.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Two Questions for Intelligent Design

Like it or not, despite the complete lack of scientific support, the attacks on evolution will not go away. Even though the political movement has changed from Intelligent Design to teach the controversy, the social force behind intelligent design is still strong. Scientists have really failed to get the message out there, though that's symptomatic of science. It not only needs some public advocates, but public advocates that can reach the audience who would otherwise fuel any grass roots movement. But this is not about that, it's about ID itself. Though widely discredited in scientific circles, here's a chance for proponents of the concept to address two problems that any science needs to answer: just what did the designer do, and how do we test for that?

Question 1: What role has the Designer played in the history of nature?
This seems an important question but one that has been largely neglected by ID advocates. Just what did the designer do? It's all well and good to say "It looks designed" but it's a systematically useless statement given that evolution not only can be demonstrated to give the apparent feel of design but the process is used in engineering in order to get good design. So when design can appear through selection on variation through subsequent generations, it intuitively looking designed is not enough in order to conclude it's designed.

Between the fossil record, the genetic code, geographic distribution, and morphological commonalities among similar species, we have a pretty good picture of how life diverged and when. Through the genetic code and morphological features, we can see some key divergence points. Currently those are able to be explained through mutation and selection, as both those mechanisms can be accounted for and have been observed countless times. So where did the Intelligent Designer come into play?

That's such an important question to ask because of the nebulous statements that often come alongside intelligent design. "It's all too improbable," "It looks designed," etc. One's own personal incredulity is not evidence against the ability of evolution to account for life, nor does it necessitate a designer. Positing that the Designer made a bacterial flagellum is a specific claim, that the designer made the immune system is again a specific claim. Though evolution has the means to build irreducibly complex systems, see here for details. But claiming irreducible complexity is at least a step in the right direction, even if it is wrong and has had an answer for over 90 years.

Question 2: How can we test for an Intelligent Designer in nature?
Over the last 150 years, serious testing has been done in order to understand how life changes. Through a variety of methods, testing criteria and a look at how it all works on a genetic level, scientists have been able to work out in great detail the mechanisms that are involved with changes from generation to generation. Combine that knowledge with details known about the role of separation to stop interbreeding and thus bring about new species, and evolution has the ability to explain life as it is and the means by which it came about.

And in that is the core of science. It's not enough to propose a force under which nature is subjected to, science at the whole is about subjecting it to rigorous testing. Without testing, without potential falsification, it's not science. For intelligent design to be valid there must be some empirical and experimental validity to the concept. Without doing such, ID is at best an untested hypothesis and has no grounds on which to challenge current evolutionary theory.

Irreducible complexity is again at least a step in the right direction. And there are certain pathways in nature that are irreducibly complex. By raising the objection, it has actually progressed knowledge on the matter in that research to answer these unanswerable questions is being done. But when there is a scientific explanation that fits in with current framework, it's intellectually dishonest to keep using the example as impossible when evidentially it isn't.

Why answer?
Out of the persistent attacks I have seen from ID advocates on science, they seem to revolve around academia not giving intelligent design a fair hearing. that scientists and the scientific establishment are ignoring what ID advocates are working on. Yet it's these same people who won't put up evidence when challenged, and the questions raised above are not only left unanswered but ignored to keep that same sense of outrage that their views are being marginalised. Science is largely evidence-based and when one refuses to produce evidence that not only supports their view but is consistent with all other evidence, it's not going to be taken seriously. So while the Discovery Institute and other persons are publicly advocating ID, the actual evidential basis behind the concept is being ignored.

If one wants to believe that throughout the evolutionary process a designer (namely God) played a role in nature, then they are welcome to do so. Western society is founded on free speech and freedom of religion. But to say that a designer (namely God) played a part in nature is an unscientific statement without any evidential basis to back it up, and thus Intelligent Design is not science. So until those questions have been answered and has been experimentally verified, there simply is no basis by which to put Intelligent Design in the scientific classroom or in academia. So please stop feigning outrage that scientists won't debate ID when there is nothing scientifically to debate about and actually do research!

Friday, 20 February 2009

The Qantas Paradox

Qantas is regarded as one of the world's safest airlines, to the extent that in the movie Rain Man it was mentioned that Qantas had never had a fatality (It did have some before becoming a commercial jet liner). On my recent trip to Finland (I'm finally home) I flew Qantas from Sydney to Brisbane, then finally Hong Kong to Sydney. Despite knowing of the severe rarity of plane crashes and the safety record of Qantas, those two flights I was particularly nervous. Why?

In 2008 there were a string of accidents involving Qantas, thankfully no-one was killed, but it was still headline news. Air safety is a big deal after all. So while I had read all the statistics, understood at a statistical level how unlikely a crash is, each little sound or the hint of turbulence was enough to send me into a state of mild panic. Oh I wish I had my copy of the Hitch-hiker's Guide with me. Though at that stage of the journey I was quite sleep deprived so that may have had something to do with it.

It's important to realise that there are thousands of flights around the world each day and accidents are rare. Fatal accidents are even rarer. Yet even with a tiny statistical probability of there being a problem in a flight, it's only those times we hear about through the media. I wonder how different it would be if we constantly heard on the news "142 flights have happened in the last 24 hours in this country alone and all made it to their destination safely." But of course we don't hear that, it's not really newsworthy.

And in that is the core of the problem. It's far safer to travel in a plane than in a car, and on a practical side of things pilots are far more trained than the average driver is. Airlines have to make sure they keep their planes in working order because a single disaster could be disastrous for business. Yet despite these statistics, the means by which news is reported, the threat of an accident seems very real through sheer repetition of disasters as portrayed by the media.

News is reporting of statistical aberrations that couple with emotional significance. Statistically, events that happen to 1 in a million people on any given day should happen on average 20 times a day in a country the size of Australia. One in a billion occurrences should happen at least once every 2 years. And this is where I personally have a problem with the media - it's rarely informative and almost always sensational. It brings up an important question - what makes something newsworthy? It seems that these days it's whatever grabs the best ratings. So while that happens, what gives us emotional satisfaction will formulate and alter in our minds our view of reality. We are victims of selection bias on a global level, vicariously viewing the world through heavily and sensationally filtered eyes.

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World

Recently I've been watching the series Cosmos, a show in the style of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man but speaking to a far wider audience. While the two shows are similar, the way that Bronowski and Sagan go about selling science to a wider audience is vastly different. Bronowski sold science through enthusiasm while Sagan pushed the mystique of the universe almost in the Einsteinian sense. In this book, The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan takes that same mystique and writes in great passion of science itself.

Conveying scepticism is not easy, it almost all cases there remains the strong possibility of offending someone who has an emotional investment in a concept. From that sceptics are seen as cynics, stepping over the heart-felt beliefs of others - something that couldn't be further from the truth. Sagan tries admirably throughout the book to sell just that, it was certainly empathetic as opposed to the usually cold logical proses that go hand in hand with modern-day scepticism.

The essays that are the chapters are a wild ride at times, mid-chapter he would so often go on a tangent only to come back and round it all off very eloquently. This results in one refreshing aspect, that the point made in one chapter can be shown to apply to many topics. While there was frequent reference to alien abduction cases, he spread out the same criticisms and applied the same critical thought to similar phenomena such as satanic cults. There was even a look back in time at similar cultural phenomena like which burning in centuries past. The case for human error transcending any one phenomenon made for a more compelling argument.

On a practical note, chapters dedicated to the tools of critical thinking will be a useful addition to anyone's mental arsenal. Knowing logical fallacies is one thing, applying them on an everyday level is another. His criticisms of those who abuse the scientific method or act without thinking of the wider social consequences was refreshing to see in print.

There's something to be said for Sagan's way of going about things, though I personally have my doubts that it will win many converts. Surely it's more effective than calling someone deluded or deceived, though like many of these books that have something to say it's little more than preaching at the converted. And that seems to be the problem with all these great books on scepticism, no matter how accomodating the author is towards the beliefs of others, ultimately books like this are sold to an existing audience.

Next book: Ben Goldacre - Bad Science

Moving The Goalposts

More on the dishonest and tiresome tactics of Creationists. This time I want to cover the overly used tactic of "moving the goalposts." An example of this type of argument would be in talking about transitional fossils. Evolutionary theory states that whales had land-dwelling ancestors, so the fossil record should have transitional forms that show the gradual change from land-dwelling to sea dwelling. Now there are several linear fossils in the record, showing a gradual change from land mammals to sea-dwellers. Yet each fossil creates two more new gaps and the challenge now is satisfying each of those gaps, thus moving the goalposts.

Creationism vs atheism
The first blatant goal-shifting exercise done by creationists is to shift the debate away from whether evolution or creation best fits the evidence, and take the debate to whether God exists. For if the bible is true, then it's God's word. And if it's God's word, then it's truth. And if it's true then creation must be true and to hell with any contrary evidence. This technique is part of the now infamous Wedge Strategy as a means of trying to weasel creationism into public science classroom and ultimately bring people to Jesus. So now the debate is between naturalism and divine intervention, and of course in this instance it would be split down religious lines (Hence a wedge.)

The shift from science to philosophy is not going to make the scientific evidence any less real, or any less supportive of a particular theory. Whether God exists or not is not definitively resolved by being able to explain our biological origins, and even if it was it wouldn't make any of the lines of evidence any less valid. The transitional fossils are still there, the genetic code still shows many different evidences of common ancestry, the observations of natural selection and adaptation still exist, the geographical distribution of life both now and in the fossil record still tells the same tale. As the bumper sticker says - "We have the fossils, we win!"

Usually anyone who tries this strategy will break away from science and into pseudo-history. Because apparently if you can show that if a couple of names and places that are in the bible are also in other historical documents, then the bible must be true. Though this position breaks down with all the archaeological evidence that goes against the bible, and even the bible itself is littered with contradictions. And even if the historical events of the bible had validity, it doesn't mean that the miracles associated with those events happened. Faith in creationism is not faith in God, it's faith in an inerrant bible.

Science doesn't allow for the supernatural as an explanation as it's an untestable assertion. Saying "God did it" adds absolutely nothing to the endeavour of human understanding and it takes proof to one higher layer of abstraction. Showing God's hand in nature not only requires demonstrating the event of divine intervention, but puts the burden of evidence onto demonstrating that there's not only a god but the Judeo-Christian construct of god.

A theory of everything
Evolution explains a lot of things, to sum it up as an explanation for the diversity of life sounds like a cop-out. But given the magnitude of what constitutes the process of life, it's explains so much. But for all it can explain, there are many things evolution cannot explain nor does it attempt to. It doesn't explain the origin of life, it doesn't explain how planets form or how gravity works. It doesn't explain where the universe comes from. To anyone familiar with the theory, these are nothing more than obvious truisms. But the 2nd blatant goal-shifting exercise by creationists is to rest the truth of evolution alongside science without the same evidential weight behind it.

This line of thinking leads to an invalidation of evolution through it's association with more speculative hypothesises. Without an explanation for the origin of life, it doesn't negate the evidence for common descent. Unless creationists are positing that God created the first cells from which all life came about, the creationist position of each life-form (and specifically humanity) being hand-crafted by God doesn't follow from a lack of explanation on the abiogenesis front. Likewise, the question of why there is something rather than nothing, i.e. The Big Bang, does not mean that one can infer that because the universe exists rather than not exists (meaning this question would not be asked) that God created it all 6000 years ago when quite clearly the universe is over 10 billion years old.

Again this is a way to not assess evolution on its own merits, instead the merits of whatever hypothesis evolution is tied to. Abiogenesis is a necessary precursor to evolution, it's an as yet unknown process that happened sometime between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago. It's important to understand what evolution is, and by doing so it should become obvious of what evolution isn't. It's not a theory of everything, it's not mean to explain the process by which the first cell came about, nor is it there to explain why there is something rather than nothing. Instead evolution is there to explain the diversity of life.

It's understandable why evolution is seen by some as a theory of everything, it takes away one of the most fundamental roles God was alleged to have played in humanity's history. If evolution can explain away why we are here, then it does harm some people's image of God. So in that respect, when evolution is attacked for being an inadequate theory of everything, it's an indicator of how fundamental our origins are to how we define ourselves and our place in nature. So without a God explaining our origins, that would surely mean that other roles God played have to be accounted for as well. Thus evolution is understood as being synonymous with nihilistic materialism.

The shifted target is now explaining all of reality without invoking a supernatural power, something that evolutionary theory cannot satisfy, and something that with our limited knowledge and observation point cannot currently be satisfied. So while the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, the shifted requirement for evidence means that those invoking a supernatural power will never be dissuaded - despite the overwhelming evidence contrary to their assertions.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Inter-Kingdom Erotica

As the more observant regular to this blog may have seen, I now have a tracker displayed that shows recent visitors. One odd thing was my post "A Banana Also Fits Well In A Vagina..." which has nothing to do with inter-kingdom erotica, was visited directly from Now this seems quite odd, but I decided to do a little investigating so I put the words banana and vagina into my search engine... and sure enough the 7th post down was a link to this blog. Upon further investigation, I found that the searches that led to the link were searches for "banana in vagina" and my blog was the 8th hit.

So all those people who have accidentally visited this blog searching for inter-kingdom erotica, I'm sorry but I don't host pornography here. While I thank you for your patronage, I hope this serves as a lesson that google is not going to be a good search engine for hardcore fetish porn. What a banana does with a woman in the privacy of her home (or a banana tree) is none of my business and we should let all relationships be as long as they aren't hurting anyone. Luckily God designed the banana for that very purpose, why else would it be curved with a tab at the top so a woman can get a good grip on it? Cucumbers on the other hand...

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy Darwin Day

It's February 12th in 2009, so on this day 200 years ago 2 revolutionaries were born. One was Abraham Lincoln, freer of the slaves, first republican president. The other was Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution changed more than anyone the understanding of what it means to be human. Evolution by natural selection despite it's controversy and implications, has stood the test of time and immense scrutiny to the point where in science it's about as certain as science can be. The theory has been modified as all science goes through, but the core ideas of selection and interrelatedness still remain.

The word "Darwinism"
There was an interesting opinion piece in the New York times about the use of the word Darwinism, while the article makes some good points it seems to miss the mark. Both PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne give good rebuttals and are well worth the read. Personally I dislike the use of the word Darwinism and don't use it for a variety of reasons. At best I say Darwinian evolution as a means to distinguish it from other forms of evolution like Lamarkian or theistic evolution. So I should be all for the decoupling of the term from evolutionary theory, right? Well, no.

The reason I'm against trying to change the word is simple: this is nothing more than a PR exercise that misses the core of the problem. A brand change will not stop the creationist attacks on adherents to evolutionary theory, nor will it stop the links between Darwin and evolution. The word evolutionist is being used in exactly the same sense as Darwinist by creationists as an insult against supporters of evolutionary theory. It seems naïve to think that changing the academic use of the word will stop the use of the word as an insult among circles who have never listened to a scientist in the first place. And even if that word is removed from the lexicon, there are already many other words with exactly the same inference out there being used. In short, taking the word away won't address the problem the word brings.

It goes even further than that, by shying away from a word purely from negative association. Surely creationists would lap up this re-branding PR exercise just as we have noticed that "Intelligent Design" and "teach the controversy" are re-branded forms of creationism. A similar problem exists with the word "theory", there are plenty of people who use the colloquial sense of the word when applying it to a scientific theory, where the meaning is very different. Should science also engage in an exercise of PR re-branding in order to stop the misconceptions that stem from the basic yet profound misuse of the word? Again, I would argue not.

It's hard to imagine that anyone who actually knows about how science works would think that those who accept evolutionary theory are doing so on the authority of Charles Darwin. The systematic dishonesty of creationists to propagate the association between Darwin's authority and evolution is a far more core issue. Ignorance begats ignorance, and those who play on the misinformation willingly exploit those who don't know better. I call it the Beetlejuice Principle, by simply repeating the same thing enough times then it's bound to come true. Like the lie that Darwin repented on his death bed, never happened but it's become so ingrained as part of the story of Darwin that it's repeated by creationists and non-creationists alike.

What Charles Darwin did for evolutionary theory is astounding, he was the one that gave the idea a plausible mechanism under which to act (natural selection). Since Darwin evolutionary theory has changed, and Darwin was wrong on certain matters. To put him up on a pedestal does undercut the 150 years of scientists who made advancements in the field, but to take him away entirely would be to belittle the role that Darwin played. Creationism would exist and be vocal regardless of whether there's an 'ism on the end of Darwin or evolution. Just as the same type of arguments get thrown up on both sides of the global warming debate. The same charge of climate change believers is thrown by those opposed to the notion time and time again, and that's without an authority on the matter. Maybe global warming proponents will become followers of Goreism given enough time and energy, but that's not going to solve the debate.

Darwin's dangerous idea
I was born less than 25 years ago, as a result I've grown up with the societal advantages that the last 200 years have brought. I've grown up with the modern evolutionary theory as a constant. Chimpanzees have always been my near cousin, and the octopus a distant cousin. Even the trees which were made into furniture were distant relatives - all life has always been related for me and thus it seems absurd that anyone could see humans as the ultimate species on this planet crafted by God.

For me I've grown up reading science books, both my parents saw to it that I had a plethora of books on science, even encyclopaedias for children that explained how the world works. As a child I was fascinated by the heavens, astronomy was then a keen interest of mine. Seeing the grandeur of space inspired a sense of awe, and even to this day I sometimes just go outside to sit and watch the stars. Yet if I were doing this only 500 years ago, I would have been taught into thinking that everything is orbiting around the earth. Likewise thanks to the time and place of my birth, I've grown up learning that all life is related, all created and shaped by a process called evolution.

I can try to appreciate the extreme difficulty in reconciling evolution with God. On a purely academic level, it's just one more naturalistic explanation that has replaced a supernatural one that has persisted for thousands of years. Evolution in this respect is no more a threat to God than the nebula hypothesis or plate tectonics. But on the philosophical level, it does radically change things because it takes God out of the process of our origins - it hits at the very core of our being. Darwin knew this at the time of penning his work, he likened his theory to "confessing a murder." While many theists have been able to reconcile God and evolution, the continual conflict between religion and science is showing that despite the best efforts of individuals to bridge the gap, that gap will always exist. In Why People Believe Weird Things Shermer brought forth a statistic that only 9% of Americans believe that life came about with no divine intervention. That's 9% who share the same scientific opinion as over 99% of biologists. Tack on those who believe evolution in the general sense but with some theistic intervention, and the number approaches 50%. A spectacular fail on account of science there.

In the arguments of creationists and by proxy the arguments of the faithful, the arguments against evolution are so often tied in with atheism. The charge of atheism is even brought against theists who argue for evolution. The academic misrepresentation of evolution is made clear by the philosophical reasoning behind the charge. Philosophically for many, take out creation and you take away the fall of man and the need for redemption. Of course evolution isn't the only science that sits alone, geology, nuclear physics, plate tectonics, astronomy and cosmology all contribute to timeline of the universe. Taking evolution out doesn't solve the problem, so at some point it means for the creationist position to be valid, then either a gross amount of scientists are lying, or God intentionally made the universe and world look old. The former is unrealistic and the latter is even more philosophically distant from the theist god that is preached.

Darwin's idea was dangerous 150 years ago because it changed who man was and what role man plays in nature. It changed how we think of ourselves. Even today the persistent rejection of evolution shows the idea is still as dangerous philosophically as it was 150 years ago. But the volume of evidence supporting the theory is overwhelming so it won't be going away any time soon. Keeping both God and evolution has been a bridge too far for many, though it's not impossible to reconcile. And reconciled it must be because both evolution and religion are not going away any time soon.

Monday, 9 February 2009

On The Other Foot

Recently I was contacted by a theist on facebook, he sent me a private message linking to a debate between Lennox and Dawkins; under the title "listen and learn". What followed was a series of forth and back where I ended up becoming infuriated at his continual link he was pushing between atheism and Stalin's actions in Soviet Russia. Aside from the fact that I couldn't see just what point he was trying to make (it seemed like it was: Stalin is an atheist, Stalin did bad things, therefore atheism is bad) it did nothing more than infuriate me. Whatever points he may have had that were valid, his repeated effort to tie atheist morality to Stalinist Russia only served as a distraction. And at the end he claimed he had countered my argument (which he didn't even ask for) and I was running scared, which left me feeling quite perplexed at how he drew that conclusion. But like a lot of life lessons, the real lesson was not the straight-forward exchange of ideas, rather it was a lesson on the ability to communicate.

Know thine enemy
I guess a military analogy would be appropriate. When going into battle, it's important to not only know what offensive weapons an enemy has, but what defences there are as well. So what that means for me is regardless of whether I'm on the offence or defence is that I need to know whether I have the defences to properly counter any attacks and that I have strong enough weapons myself that I can pierce my opponents defences. In the context of debates, it means not only do I have to be able to effectively argue my case, but I have to argue it in such a way that reaches through to them.

The argument about Stalin being an atheist or that what happened in Soviet Russia was done in the name of atheism is something I'm not accustomed to. I first came across it when reading The God Delusion. Firstly I didn't know that Stalin was an atheist, or why it matters what his beliefs were - he was a tyrant who did what he could to fortify power. How that has to do with the notion that God is an incredulous concept I'll never understand. But it's a popular argument so knowing how to counter it should be a vital part of an argument arsenal. From what I can gather, the argument is meant to show the dangers of an atheist society though to me it just speaks volumes for the problems of totalitarianism. Stalin used the church when it suited his own ends and attacked it when it didn't. His actions were a profound human tragedy that can not be adequately expressed in words, but to link that to atheism seems nothing more than a tenuous link for a desperate.

The person who decided to contact me was obviously a fan of Lennox, so it would make sense that his personal reasons for belief are similar to that of Lennox - that God is a source of justice. So if that is the case, the appeal against atheism on a societal base would make sense. So in hindsight if I knew what I was up against, I would make sure I could cover the evolutionary origins of morality, talk about the societal role in dictating behaviour, how justice arises and plays a part in society, and talk about societies as a whole where certain extremes arise. So when I move away from strong science and into sociology, I do hit a wall. Does this mean that I'm conceding defeat? No. Quite simply the arguments along the societal line are irrelevant to my arguments of why I don't believe in God. Even if society is better off with belief in god than without, it doesn't make the existence of a god more likely. As Voltaire spoke:
Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer. (If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.)

Know thyself
When in an open argument, there is no real way of knowing what your opponent is going to spring on you. Likewise there is no real way of knowing how responses will come to seemingly reasonable arguments. One could have all the facts and construct an elaborately succinct argument and simply have it ignored. I've had that happen multiple times when talking about the fossil record to creationists, though in those instances it was a case of pushing shit uphill.

It really was perplexing when the person I was discussing with claimed that he had pushed me into a corner and countered all my arguments. I don't feel it's personal arrogance, I have been challenged many times where I have been pushed into a corner and this did not at all feel like one of those times. Indeed if he took a minute to even ask why I don't believe and then addressed those points, then maybe I could see where he was coming from. For a message initially titled "Listen and learn" it seemed like the person did not for an instant want that same position personal improvement. Instead he was happy to rely on his own knowledge even when it was manifestly false (such as his definition of atheism.)

Without even bothering to understand where I was coming from, how was he ever going to reach me? Likewise without knowing his reasons for belief in a god, how would I reach him? I could read theist text after theist text, listen to apologists, and still I'd only have arguments that if I threw them out there could only apply to certain people. This has understandably made me quite cautious to go on the attack. I play chess in much the same manner, rarely will I go on the attack against an unknown opponent, rather I take a cautious approach and watch for mistakes / opportunities. Of course chess has set rules so you won't see people trying to use their knight like a rook, so the analogy breaks down at that point.

I've learned from this that it's more than just fact memorisation that comes along with making a successful argument. I've got to be able to communicate my ideas in a way others can understand rather than using the sledgehammer approach I so often employ. By seeing someone come after me, I've glimpsed at the trappings one can easily fall into without a proper awareness of an opponent's position. I've read Dennett talk of writing a successful argument, in where you first take an opponent's position and rephrase it in such a manner so that they can see something insightful from it, and only then can you go about dismantling it. It's a tough standard to live by, but the more I see of communication on matters of disagreement, the more I see merit in Dennett's way of thinking. The key is understanding and without that one is lost.

Learning To Fly

Yesterday I did something I had never done before: I went skiing. Now this may seem like some mundane activity, and in many ways it is. Surely it's not worth contemplation let alone a blog post. But like a lot of things in life, the real lesson is not the activity. It was almost a Calvin and Hobbes moment where my skis was analogous to his sled, and my awkward attempt at something my 24 years of Australian life had not prepared me for was incidental to the point of the exercise.

I'm in a foreign country in the middle of winter, it seemed only logical to try one of the past-times of said country. Skiing is something I've always wanted to try, but my geographical location had largely made that activity out of reach. So I'm an absolute beginner making the mistakes that a 3 year old would do, there is a certain amount of humiliation that comes with being in that position. Part of it is offset by being in a foreign country, though that was cancelled by doing it in front of my partner and her parents. At least the photos of me don't capture how bad I was at it.

So afterwards I got given a summary of some of the things said about me. How my partner's mother thought I was really courageous for trying despite being really bad at it, that I didn't care what other people thought. That they were all laughing at just how bad I was at it to the point it was surprising when I managed to actually to okay at points, and a comment on how I don't exercise much.

When I gave absolute concentration on skiing, I did alright. I was able to stay up, keep my balance and move along faster than walking pace. But as soon as I found myself wary of those others skiing near me or thinking about my partner watching me on the sidelines, that was when I slipped up. It reminded me of when I was learning to drive, when it was simply a matter of using the tools inside the car I was fine. But driving on the open road where I had to do at times 30km under the speed limit, I was a lot more nervous and I learned some bad habits. The focus and sticking with the basics were what I attribute the limited success I had.

The other option of what would have transpired is unrealistic, that I would be naturally able to pick up the skis and go without any training whatsoever. Unfortunately by the age I am now, that does feel like the expectation that society gives. Childhood is for learning, and an adult needs to be able to display some form of proficiency in any activity. It reminded me of that scene in 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carrell's character is speed dating, trying the only technique he knew in talking to women. I'm also experiencing that same feeling of humiliation in trying to learn Finnish. Even when I do know a word, my pronunciation is so terrible that I refuse to talk altogether. The first sentence I've learned how to say is Minä en ymmärrä, minä en puhu suomea. Puhutko englatia? (I don't understand, I don't speak Finnish. Do you speak English?)

So I'm sure there's a lesson in all of this. Barring exceptional circumstances, the likelihood of succeeding on first try at anything is minimal. Instead it takes practice and perseverance in order to become competent. As much as we would like to have humiliating experiences as not more than a distant childhood memory, life is always going to throw something at you where you are going to be compromised. I would have loved if I could ski in private, away from the watching eyes of people who have a level of competency about it and away from the eyes of those who will remember watching me fail. But circumstances don't always enable that. Occasionally there are times where the humiliation is preferable to the option of missing out altogether.
A soul in tension that's learning to fly
Condition grounded but determined to try
Can't keep my eyes from the circling skies
Tongue-tied and twisted just an earth-bound misfit, I - David Gilmour

More Anti-Darwinian Rhetoric

Theists calling atheists Darwinians is a straw-man that has persisted for much longer than I have been alive, and in the days leading up to Darwin200 (the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth) it's expected that the link between Darwinism and atheism will only intensify. So why should I care when one theologian happens to spew his anti-atheist rhetoric in a national newspaper? Well it turns out he's a theologian at the university I attended. So in the interests of salvaging a personal piece of university pride, I want to expose and debunk his absolute inanity.

The limits of knowing
As an educator and an intellectual surely Tom Frame would know what the limits of evolutionary theory are. So when he makes the same argument as Ben Stein or Ray Comfort, one wonders if he is building up a straw-man against atheism.
There is, in my view, a range of other positions.Evolutionary theory does not explain everything we want to know about the natural world or human life, and some of what evolutionary theory purports to explain it hardly elucidates at all. While we might know how some things occurred we still want to know why. Most importantly, why is there something rather than nothing?
Evolution is a theory that explains how we got here, how life emerged, adapted and diversified over billions of years. To apply it to all of nature would be to misuse the theory. Likewise, why there is something rather than nothing has nothing to do at all with evolutionary theory. The limitation of evolution is that it can only apply to existing imperfectly-replicating life, beyond that it's impotent to explain anything.

The way Tom Frame rationalises creation in the face of evolution is much like the means of Ken Miller and Francis Collins:
Evolutionary theory requires creation to be understood as a continuous process rather than an isolated act in the distant past. In this view, God creates in and through natural processes.
This is fair enough, but if he thinks that is a valid objection to atheism then he is mistaken. Rather, it seems, that there's a dichotomy between the creationism and evolution where if you don't believe in creation then you must be an atheist. Dawkins puts it best in The Blind Watchmaker:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
Note the distinction, it's not a rejection of God purely on the grounds of evolution being true. Rather evolution is an answer to the complex question of how we came to be, which everyone would be in agreement needs answering. One could ask 200 years ago where life came from without God as an answer, these days it's asking where did the universe come from.

There's always going to be a question of recursion in any explanation of our origins, the theist in this case is arguing that before the universe the question of recursion can be solved with "God did it" while many atheists will again take the Hume position that we don't know but God is not a good answer. It does have a feeling of dissatisfaction, it would be nice to have a theory of everything. But there are observational limitations like the big bang and limitations of testing equipment. The atheist contention is that positing a god as an answer is really a non-answer as all it does it add one more layer of complexity to explain.

Fear of an atheist planet
This paragraph is possibly the most alarming in the article:
The problem I face is weariness with science-based dialogue partners like Richard Dawkins. It surprises me he is not chided for his innate scientific conservatism and metaphysical complacency. He won't take his depiction of Darwinism to logical conclusions. A dedicated Darwinian would welcome imperialism, genocide, mass deportation, ethnic cleansing, eugenics, euthanasia, forced sterilisations and infanticide. Publicly, he advocates none of them.
Are those the obvious conclusions of Darwinism? It seems the opposite, evolution calls for none of those, and indeed any understanding of modern evolution would show that these are bad ideas. I wonder how Frame came to them as the obvious conclusions, or if it's just scaremongering in the face of the notion that without God there is chaos. Darwin would not have advocated any of it, and it was his opposition to slavery that partly drove the development of the theory.

Of course there seems to be means to check out a claim such as this, after all there are plenty of statistics floating about where some may have some relevance. Maybe in countries where the acceptance of evolution is high would correlate with these kinds of behaviours, and especially where atheism is in higher concentrations. And luckily there have been such studies done, here's one on acceptance of evolution among European nations. There's also a larger amount of atheists in Europe than in the US, Sweden alone is reportedly 80% atheist. So with these statistics we should at least see some societal correlation between the social ills that are the apparent logical conclusion of Darwinism and societies where atheism and acceptance of evolution is high. Correlation does not imply causation, but if there is no correlation then there's no reason to assume causation either.

Funnily enough, those same objections to Darwinism I have heard about atheism in general. That without the objective morality that God provides, then there is chaos. It feels like nothing more than scaremongering, using the FUD principle to cast atheism in a bad light - that it's bad for society and bad for individuals. Does Tom Frame truly believe that atheism would lead to the social ills described? Perhaps. It does feel as if he's trying every trick short of "eats babies" in order to portray materialism as an immediate threat. In this way he doesn't even have to make the case for God, all he has to do is cast enough doubt on atheists not only in a philosophical sense but in a societal sense, and it makes the case for him.

Materialism and evolution
I find the materialist atheism of some rational sceptics harder to accept than theistic belief, and cannot make sense of my life in this world without believing in God and providence. Crudely naturalistic science leaves no room for poetic truth, refuses to honour any spiritual element in physical things and cannot accept the existence of a human soul.
If the existence of the soul is truth, then why doesn't Tom Frame show an experiment to detect it? Likewise, why isn't Tom Frame calling up the Templeton Institution and looking at funding for experiments that will show the Judeo-Christian deity in all its glory? It's all well and good to sit back and complain that science sticks to the natural, but there's a good reason that science doesn't test God. God is unfalsifiable as a construct, even in it's absence it's rationalised that God works in mysterious ways. Tests like checking the effectiveness of prayer turns out to be as useful as not praying, is that enough to falsify God (Mark 11:24)? No matter what test there is for God, there's always a reason why that test doesn't work. I've had my "Water turning into Vodka experiment" running for months with a 0% success rate after over 100 experiments.

Tom Frame may talk like God creates through evolution, but how is that any different than God not being there at all? Just how did God work through the process, did God directly intervene, or is the way that atoms work geared towards building humans given the right selection conditions that again atoms are primed for? How did the soul become part of the human body? Is it also a material construct? At what point did the soul become attached? For all the talk of inadequacy of Darwinism it seems as though the explanations that Frame puts through really is saying nothing more than "God did it" and asserting wild speculations on unfounded properties as if they are indisputable fact. The nebulous nature of the speculation precludes it from being useful.

Evolution does have consequences for God, but not more so than cosmology, or geology, or any other science that doesn't fit the biblical account of reality. Darwin knew of the implications when he wrote the theory and it's said that it was mainly that reason as to why it took him 20 years to publish. The 150 years following has seen the main opponents to evolution coming from religious circles, just as 400 years before the objection to heliocentrism was centred in religious circles. Evolution does ask hard questions of theism and those aren't going to go away by attacking materialism. It's not enough to say "God did it" any more, the question of how "God did it" can be answered and that gives us insight into the mind of God. (to rehash Hawking's words for the biological)

Friday, 6 February 2009

Passing The Use By Date

I don't normally watch a lot of television, most shows don't appeal to me. But the few I do watch, I have a sort of religious devotion to them. But there always comes a point where the show has run it's course, and instead of just ending the show persists into a downward spiral where it becomes so unwatchable that it feels amazing I stuck with the series for so long. It seems especially apparent with American series, a show's longevity is decided by ratings so series go well on past a date of expiry.

Don't have a cow, man
The Simpsons was and still is a landmark television show. It's staggering success as a prime-time animated comedy has led the way for TV of a similar ilk. But really the show stopped being funny a decade ago, and these days it's a shell of the greatness it once exhibited. Over Christmas, I sat down with my youngest brother to watch season 4 of the show and I was blown away by the quality on all fronts. The storyline were compelling, the jokes were funny, it complex characters, it may simply be nostalgia but while watching I remembered how great the show once was.

In this decade, only one episode stands out: Behind The Laughter. Aside from that even the best episodes have felt like average episodes from seasons past. The movie was an improvement but still had nothing on what came before it. The characters are too one-dimensional these days, weighed down by 20 years of previous character development. It's painful to watch new episodes for that reason, it's destroying my memories of a once great show. But that's just me, maybe the new episodes work for a new audience.

Likewise the re-emergence of Family Guy is really just a continuation of the same formula that persisted in it's early years, and for that the non sequitur jokes are becoming again stale. Ever since South Park lampooned the show, it's also become quite unwatchable because the formula is apparent. It's getting tired and repetitive. South Park on the other hand is one show I can point to as being a successful series more than a decade later, it stands alone in that it's able to capture an element of the zeitgeist and push the boundaries that other shows will not do. Not even Penn & Teller are able to get away with lampooning Scientology, and I don't know of any other show that could be able to show George Lucas raping Indiana Jones.

The Fawlty Towers principle
One of my favourite TV shows of all time is The Office, Ricky Gervais cites Fawlty Towers as the reason why the show ended after two seasons. In that time he was able to tell a compelling story, yet not have the material get stale or repetitive. By contrast the US version of the show is now in it's 6th season with no sign of ever going away. Now I actually like the US version of the show, it has taken the British format and created it's own show around it. It's not a pale imitation, it's good on it's own merits and that's something I've never seen in a remake before. Without an end in sight, the TV show does suffer in that there's really no climactic arc to obtain. Each storyline is a mini-arc that will vaguely draw the show in some unspecified direction as the need to keep capturing the audience makes each episode ever more slightly incredulous and fantastical. Scrubs has gone that way, the show has lost most it's charm by continuing ever onward in the evolution of a never-ending show.

In some ways shows like Arrested Development are the lucky ones, it was cancelled while the show was still quality. While it's cancellation forced the final series to compress plot lines and there is talk of a movie, the show was able to maintain a high standard throughout. Californication could have done with the same culling. The first season of the show was one of the best shows I've seen in recent years, each episode was constructed all towards a climax that the show finished on. Yet the second season had to pretty much disassemble that ending in order to continue in the same spirit as season 1. The second season to me was a pale imitation of the first.

A movie really has a set period of time to tell a story, usually between 90 minutes and 2 hours in order to lay down the antagonists and protagonists, create the setting, begin a conflict, search for a resolution, then wrap it all up. Television on the other hand has two real options: use each 22 / 45 minute episode to tell it's own story, or use each episode as a chapter in one long story. In recent years, I've particularly enjoyed shows like Dexter that have done the latter. Each week is a new chapter which all is building up to that grand finale 3 months down the line. But even then, is Dexter ever going to end? Will the writers of the show (or even the novelist) decide that enough is enough and the show has reached a logical or artistic endpoint? How many seasonal arcs can be sustained until the idea has been pushed past the use by date? Will it be decided by ratings, by network funding, or by some other means? And if so, will it even reach the climactic ending that all shows deserve to have?

... But then you get to the end and a gorilla starts throwing barrels at you
Futurama would have to be my favourite show of all time. I remember when it was cancelled, those final few episodes were treasured like no other show before it in my eyes. And the final episode felt like an ending. Now it's been resurrected and the 4th of a series of straight-to-DVD movies is due out in a month, and the producers have stated that the movie has a finishing point regardless of whether it's renewed - something that is looking unlikely. While I nervously wait for the final episode, knowing that it will possibly be the last time I ever see new content, in some ways I'm glad that it was cancelled before it's time. Seasons 3 and 4 of the show were sublime, and the 72 episodes combined with the 4 DVD films will stand as they are - a great science fiction show that only got better as time went on.
"another great sci-fi show cancelled before its time." - Bender

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Contending With Snow

Snow is a fascination to me, aside from one day as a young child visiting relatives in Tasmania, I've never experienced it. So one of the great things about visiting Finland at this time of year is that there's snow everywhere. Walking in the street is a wonderful new experience, initially I was treading in snow just to see the tracks. I walked on different levels of snow, on compressed snow, on icy parts, all just to feel the difference under my shoe. I've even tried jogging to see how it would go.

The way that snow sits on trees fascinates me, the way that lakes or bodies of water freeze fascinates me, the way that birds like ducks account for that extreme coldness fascinates me. One thing I've constantly taken pictures of is the frozen ice on top of cars - everything has been a new wonder for me. Last week I took a walk around a partly frozen lake, so to test out just how frozen it was I made snowballs to throw at it. Obviously the force of the snowballs wasn't enough to break the ice, so I still had no idea whether the ice was strong enough for me to walk on, but I didn't want to take that risk.

Last weekend I took a cruise to Stockholm, on the way back the sea was partly frozen around the Helsinki area. I took dozens of photos of the sea; of the ice up to islands, of the way the ice cracked as the cruise liner went through it, it was beautiful to see. It was really a fascination with an unknown quantity, something I had only experienced vicariously through television was something I could see right before my eyes.

I've been told to come back and see the country in the summer, that then the country is far more beautiful. But I don't know how that's possible. I see a non-snow environment 365 days a year in Australia, though while the landscape and vegetation may differ the same basic principle applies. Hopefully I can do a proper tour of the country at a time when the sun doesn't really go down, again that would also be something wonderful. It may give me the chance to see some stars too. The one drawback of this time of year is that the perpetual overcast skies prevent me from looking at the wonders of the universe from a northern perspective. But aside from that, and the dirty colour old snow turns after a few days, I can't imagine this country being more beautiful than it is now.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Accidental Design

This will be my 100th published post (yay for me) and because I couldn't figure out what else to write, I decided to expand on a false dichotomy I often hear from theists as an argument for God - that us / life / universe is either designed or an accident. And of course an accident could not account for what seems design, so of course that needs a designer and that designer has to be Jesus. While that latter part never follows logically, what of the former dichotomy between accident and design? Is there merit in the dichotomy or is it merely anthropomorphising reality?

No accident
There seems one element of pure chance in nature - that is physics on a quantum level. Beyond that set processes shape reality to how it is now. When a star forms from a collapsed hydrogen cloud, the size determines it's life cycle. Size matters and it determines how long a star will burn for, and how the star will die. A large star will go supernova, it will get to such temperatures that make the heavier elements. Thus we can safely conclude that for the earth to have existed it must have needed a supernova explosion to account for the abundance of heavy elements that exist on our planet.

When a star forms, it doesn't form by accident or by random. It follows on the causal effects of the universe. The fundamental forces of nature and the distribution of material and the effect of gravity are what build stars. The sun is how it is now thanks to the previous 13.7 billion years of the universe, likewise the earth was built through the gravitational effects of the sun. Life on earth would take a similar measure, life being the result of a series of chemical reactions, and the diversity of life is the result of adaptation and selection over a long period of time.

Is it pertinent to call the planetary system designed if we know that the designer is a blind force acting on particles that have causal reasons for being there in the first place? Would we call a canyon shaped by wind and water erosion designed? Obviously given what we know about how the universe works that a canyon is no accident, that it didn't just happen randomly. A rainbow appearing in the sky after rain is again no accident, nor is the way a foetus develops in the womb. This is where the dichotomy hits a limit, either natural processes are a satisfactory designer or that there is no design at all and the dichotomy becomes a false one.

Anthropomorphising the universe
It's so easy to talk with intent when talking about inanimate objects, for we humans play the role of designer so often in everyday life. Even something so simple like the food we prepare is not done without our wills being imposed to shape nature around us for our benefit. So when looking at the intricate motion of the planets or the complex and diverse life that exists, it's only natural to conclude that a similar will must be behind the process - but one that is far more powerful and knowledgeable.

It's astounding to contemplate that such large and complex structures like stars, planets and even life, all has come about through natural forces. That everything in this universe is an expression of energy acting within a few fundamental forces. Blind processes have shaped the universe and everything in it for well over 13 billion years now, everything from black holes to bananas, from stars to starfish - all is an expression of but a few forces interacting in a causal chain.

The dichotomy presented above is one of humanity, we need to understand causal events and the ability to create in order to function properly. We understand that cause and effect that is a vital underpinning to nature, and from there can manipulate nature to suit us. It's not a matter of finding shelter anymore, it can be built to suit our needs. That is deliberate design the way we know. But that understanding cannot be adequately representative of a nature where blind forces are at play.

The words design and accident almost by definition imply intent regardless of actuality. Reading Slaughterhouse Five recently, the phrase "so it goes" is now embedded in my head. Something good happens - so it goes. Something bad happens - so it goes. Something I can't control happens - so it goes. i.e. things just happen, neither by accident nor design. A comet may plunge into the earth tonight killing all humanity and it may take 10 million years for the re-emergence of large life forms. Was it an accident, or was it because of the gravitational forces that for the last 4.6 billion years have been acting on it? It's neither accidental or design that would lead a comet to destroy life, it just happens. "So it goes" is a far better explanation for the universe as it stands than using either accident or design. Blind processes with causal interaction over time produce the state of the universe at any given time, no will, no intent, it is because of what came before it just as it will be in the future. So it goes.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Darwin Was Wrong?

So saith New Scientist. Unsurprisingly this is not that creationism is true and evolution false, rather that one of Darwin's big predictions about life is being superseded. The tree of life central to Darwin's thesis is inadequate to tell the whole story of life on earth, that a process of horizontal gene transfer not only plays a part on the unicellular level but in multicellular life as it is today. Evolution is happening, just in a more complicated way than was originally understood.

The web of life?
The aforementioned articles are a must-read in order to understand what the articles are saying. It's important to realise that ideas in science are never static and will be replaced as more evidence combined with different thinking come to light. Evolution in general is about as true as science can get, but the mechanisms behind the process are still being discovered. After all, life is a 4 billion year mystery to solve. This doesn't degrade the role of natural selection in the slightest, more it's a rethink on how mutation and variation come about.

As the article says, the tree structure of life still plays a role especially in the animal kingdom. We still have a more recent common ancestor with chimpanzees than we do with wolves, just as dogs have a more recent common ancestor with bears than with cats. Hybridisation breaks the tree analogy, as do ring species. As for viruses inserting genes horizontally, that again breaks the tree structure. To think that the tree structure would be a perfect fit for life as we know it is somewhat naïve. So where does this leave Darwin's initial relevation?

Like all science, ideas change or get superseded over time. Darwin's theory was always incomplete as there wasn't the amount of evidence that was around today. The core of his theory - natural selection still stands at the chief architect of the process, though the role of genetic drift does take away the role of natural selection somewhat. Likewise the tree structure is still there mostly (at least for animals and plants), but it's not a complete explanation. Copernicus was on the right path when he posited heliocentrism, but the truth was not yet discovered - that we are in the outer spiral arm of one of hundreds of billions of galaxies that are moving away from each other at staggering speeds.

The tree of life is not completely dead yet, though it's a little more intricate than first realised. Horizontal gene transfer is hardly revelatory, nor are the implications in the article. Was Darwin wrong? Well he wasn't entirely right, that's to be expected. Indeed if Darwin was able to make a theory that could take into account findings that happened over a century later, it would have been almost godlike if he had predicted it. There was no way Darwin could know, and it in noway diminishes his role in evolutionary theory that he did not know. The tree of life may have a few cobwebs connecting bits of branches, but for now the tree is still there.

The humanising of Charles Darwin
There needs to be a means to distinguish between evolutionary theory and Charles Darwin, the creationist use of the word Darwinism is unhelpful in that respect. It also puts Darwin on a pedestal, and the concept of evolution contingent on the works of Darwin - something in science which simply does not happen. Darwin's work also created a cult-like status among scientists and atheists too, the celebration of his works and insight has bordered on the fanatical at times. Evolution as an idea does not imply atheism, but it has led people to re-evaluate what it means to be human and what that means on a universal scale.

The theory at the time was revolutionary, that life has changed over time and even came about without the help of a deity had been proposed before Darwin (even by his own grandfather) but Darwin (and Wallace) proposed a theory that had a valid mechanism that could account for life on earth as it stands today. That all life was related was another great insight, something that has been validated through multiple lines of evidence. Horizontal Gene Transfer doesn't shift the interrelatedness but it does shift the relationship of that interrelatedness.

This is the year of Darwin, 12th of February makes the 200th anniversary of his birth, and 24th of November marks 150 years since the first publishing of The Origin Of Species. I have a copy of the book that I hope to read to coincide with it's initial publication date, but first I want to learn as much about the theory as possible so I can see where the ideas put forth by Darwin have been superseded. He's a scientific hero, just like Newton or Einstein. They are minds that have fundamentally changed how we view the universe, of course there is going to be some reverence among subsequent generations. What Darwin put forth was fantastic, but it is still the work of man. It wasn't even unique, without Darwin there was still Wallace who came up with the same idea. It was a marvellous insight into the world, but still a human insight after all. A great man who had a great theory, a secular and scientific hero - but not the deity Ray Comfort wishes him to be in the eyes of atheists.

A Paranoid Nation

I just got back from a cruise from Helsinki to Stockholm. On that cruise, I left one country, entered then left another, then came back to the first country - all the while enjoying duty-free goods and doing whatever I wanted really as long as it was in the law. The strangest thing, I didn't even need to show my passport! Not once did I even have to pull it out of my pocket, even to get in either country. I didn't even have to go through security, I've had more thorough screenings at minor airports in Australia! What this has left me to conclude is that Australia is way too paranoid for what it needs to be.

Australia is very geographically isolated compared to anywhere in Europe. Apart from Indonesia being a very long boat-ride away, Australia is almost impossible to get to except by international ships and aircraft. Because of that geographic isolation, I can understand the need for strict quarantine procedures - we have an important ecosystem that has been damaged by foreign invaders in the past (rabbits, foxes, cane toads, etc.) So that I can understand. But what happens in Australia in terms of foreign movement seems to go well beyond what is needed.

Take my initial trip. In Australia I had to go through a security checkpoint where I couldn't use my mobile phone past it, then had to fill out a form detailing where exactly I'm going and the purposes for my trip. Instead of just asking me, they had me go back and spend 5 minutes filling out a form that would have taken 2 questions and 30 seconds for me to answer. By contrast at Helsinki airport, I just rocked up with my passport, they asked me what my purpose of stay was and for how long and that was it. I was out of Helsinki airport bag and all quicker than any domestic travel! I even had meat to declare (Kangaroo Jerky - it was a gift) and they had a look at it then gave it back and let me pass through without a fuss. By contrast getting back into Australia from Thailand had me in a long line and it eventuated in customs cutting a padlock off my mother's baggage.

Likewise at the harbour in Helsinki, it was a matter of collecting my ticket then walking straight on the ship. Then the same happened in Stockholm. No questions, no fuss, it was straight out then in. I'm really liking the freedom of it all, it's trusting and non-invasive. Yet given the geographic location and ability for migration, there would be far more reason for the Australian customs to be in Finland and for the Finnish customs to be in Australia.

It speaks wonders about the Australian psyche. We are a paranoid nation, fiercely xenophobic and incredibly isolationist. When I see the manifestation of patriotic violence, it feels like a microcosm of the paranoid self-identity we've signed onto with the ANZUS alliance. As we move towards a more global society, the self-proclaimed restrictions take the national identity back to a tribal state of affairs. All this points for me to one basic truth: an EU passport is a valuable document to obtain.