This will change your life, if you eat bananas.


via Pharyngula

Talk Origins

My favorite answer on the Talk Origins archive.

Creationist claim:

Homosexuality is considered acceptable and even desirable by most evolutionists, who point out that homosexuality is common in many species.

Evolutionist respose:

3. The Biblical objection to homosexuality is hypocritical, because those who condemn it do not condemn just as vigorously other prohibited behaviors such as wearing clothing made of two kinds of material (Lev. 19: 19), trimming or shaving sideburns (Lev. 19: 27), getting tattoos (Lev. 19: 28), and charging interest (Deut. 23: 19-20). People who condemn homosexuality do so not because the Bible tells them to, but, ultimately, because they want to. People who condemn others should first examine the morality of their own judgments.

I love the snide last sentence.

Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

I got this Nova special from Netflix because I was hoping to get a bit of a sense of what the people were like who were involved in the case.  In that regard, it didn’t disappoint.  Being Nova, they were pretty pro-science, but the ID proponents who were willing to talk did get to make their case.  As with good journalism, though, Nova didn’t leave it at that.  This said, if you’re interested in the Dover case, I still recommend Monkey Girl as the definitive account of the case.

  • The interviews with Bonsell and Buckingham were pretty interesting, because they still thought they were right and defended their actions.  I found Bonsell much more likeable, but both seemed still not to understand the essential problems in their actions.  And that really bugs me.
  • At the heart of the story is the essential idea that Intelligent Design is inherently a religious pursuit.  The people pushing it, even if they’re looking to find scientific understanding of the world, do so out of religious motivations.  And usually, they aren’t interested in science.
  • I also found Nova’s dig at the Discovery Institute telling: they said that DI wasn’t interviewed because they made demands  that were “outside usual journalistic practice.”  I wish they’d done a closeup on those letters.
  • I’m also disturbed by the consistent hypocrisy of “Christians” who make death threats and lie about others to achieve the ends they perceive as most just.

I’m gearing up to watch Expelled because a student asked me about it and I feel there’s a certain amount (though not a lot) of intellectual dishonesty there to give the answer which I gave, namely that I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.  For an issue that I care about as much as this one, knowing what the other side is saying is probably important.

Why Evolution is True

Why Evolution is True
Why Evolution is True

by Jerry Coyne

As y’all know, I follow the evolution / ID culture war pretty closely, but it occurred to me a while back that I had very little actual understanding of the science behind evolution. After reading Coyne’s book, I realize that I had more than I knew I did, but that I was missing a lot. Why Evolution is True demonstrates with strong clarity why evolution has proven itself to scientists as broadly and throughly as gravity. Unlike Miller’s Only a Theory, which focuses specifically on creationist arguments and why they’re bogus, Coyne explores evolution from the perspective of “how has this convinced us,” and he does so thoroughly. A few fun facts and good quotes:

  • Evolution depends on six concepts: “evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and nonselective mechanisms of evolutionary change.” Coyne explains each.

  • Whales descended from land animals. Their closest living relative is the hippo. They have hip and leg bones and occasionally one will be born with a leg.

  • The number of spots on the male peacock helps determine how sexy he is to the female peacock. One theory about this is that evolution to appreciate a certain color for unrelated reasons leads to sexual selection. Coyne writes “Suppose, for example, that members of a species had evolved a visual preference for red color because that preference helped them locate ripe fruits and berries. If a mutant male appeared with a patch of red on his breast, he might be preferred by females simply because of this preexisting preference.” (167) In other words, the females would select males because they look tasty.

  • The lineage of ape to human evolution is astonishingly well defined. The “hobbit” species, Homo floresiensis, an offshoot protected from worldwide species evolution by geographic barriers, lived as recently as 18,000 years ago.

  • The best argument against intelligent design is the bad design we find throughout complex life forms. By contrast, if we follow clues to explain development of one trait through adaptation from another, most of these bad designs make sense.

One extended quote I really like.

[Creationists argue] that all the perceived evils of evolution come from two worldviews that are part of science: naturalism and materialism. Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism. Darwinism tells us that, like all species, human beings arose from the working of blind, purposeless forces over eons of time. As far as we can determine, the same forces that gave rise to ferns, mushrooms, lizards, and squirrels also produced us. Now, science cannot completely exclude the possibility of supernatural explanation. It is possible– though very unlikely—that our whole world is controlled by elves. But supernatural explanations like these are never needed: we manage to understand the natural world just fine using reason and materialism. Furthermore, supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that’s the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until humans go extinct.

Baby media roundup

As y’all know, I’m currently at day 6 of double-fatherhood. It’s pretty awesome, as expected. But I’m sure you miss all the commentary I spew on what media I watch. We had Finn at an excellent local hospital with nice delivery rooms that have AV setups so you can do whatever the mommy wants, be it Enya and candles, be it new-agey stuff, or in our case, movies. So here’s a rundown of the media I’ve seen since Finn came along.

  • The Goonies, a perennial favorite of Jenny’s. This time around, I particularly noticed the amuzing malapropisms of the group’s Asian member, “Data.” I also noticed how unlikely his “pincers apparel” is–the ability to shoot a set of plastic jaws that can latch onto a rock and stop the fall of a 50-80 pound boy is pretty amazing, and unbelievable. I was also amused by the use of the phrase ORV to refer to the Ford Bronco (SUV not yet being part of the common parlance). Finally, I noticed for the first time the regular reference to Chunk’s jewish-ness. I’m curious about whether the “Hebrew school” and “matzah ball” references were just a way to give his otherwise one-dimensional character some heft, or if the writers saw this dimension as another way to mark him as an outsider, a “Goonie.” Finally, Jenny and I commented on the very subtle explanation of the film’s title–the characters all live in a run-down part of town called the “Goondocks.” Oh, one more thing, I also remembered that the town where this movie takes place is also the town where Ahnold takes his job as a Kindergarten Cop.
  • After a short break to read (I was reading the cheery boy-prostitute serial-killer book The Alienist), we watched another favorite, The Wedding Singer. Jenny and I have a long history with this movie, having watched it “over the phone” during our two years dating long distance. Nothing much new this time about the movie, but the nurse enjoyed it quite a bit. The hospital wasn’t too busy, so we weren’t sharing our maternity nurse. She was bustling about preparing for delivery and glancing up at the screen occasionally. We chatted about how we liked these movies and she said she did too. Then she pulled up her stool and watched the last 20 minutes with us. Then we called the doctor and got ready to push.
  • That evening, before bed, we watched Clue, another favorite of mine. All the performances in the film are amazing, and the small jokes kill me every time. This time, I was particularly tickled with the moment when Evette, the busty maid, said “But it is dark upstairs and I am frightened. Won’t anyone go with me?” Four of the men said “I will,” while Mr. Green — the avowed homosexual — murmured “No thanks.” But really, every moment of that movie is funny.
  • At breakfast time we watched Bridget Jones’ Diary, not one of my favorites, but not a movie I despise either. Colin Farrell is pretty funny here, as is Jim Broadbent.

At this point, we were out of movies and had 36 hours or more to go. Jenny was still pretty uncomfortable to read (and it’s hard to read while nursing), so I wandered down the hall to the two big drawers of VHS tapes the ward had on offer. I skipped over the half-dozen copies of Die Hard (though I would have relished the line about men’s fashion, Jenny would have pulled a veto), and pulled some movies I thought we’d both enjoy. Over the next day and a half, we watched:

  • Evolution, a moderately amusing alien invasion comedy. A b-movie Men in Black. The kind of movie you’d leave on if it came up on the Saturday afternoon matinee. Or you’d pick out of a drawer filled with mostly eighties action films (Hard to Kill and Speed made appearances too).
  • Three Men and a Baby, a not-very-amusing fish out of water comedy, with peeing. We’d both seen it before, but rose colored nostalgia duped us into watching it again. I still don’t understand why the reign of Steve Guttenberg ended.

Now that we’re home and nursing, the bleary-eyed middle of the nights give us time to watch some more films. When Avery was born, we worked our way through the extended Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this time we’re being less orderly. So far:

  • Music and Lyrics. I don’t care what other people say, I like Hugh Grant movies. There, it’s out. This one’s got some particularly amusing eighties jokes.
  • Best in Show. This was my pick. Good ol’ Christopher Guest and crew. I never get tired of these films.

And finally, I’ve had a couple nights of walking and rocking in the living room during the wee hours (the morning of the 5th found me up at 2am and rocking a wakeful kid until 7). I’ve worked my way through my TiVo’d backlog of Law and Order and Numb3rs. So I’m caught up for the new seasons now.

Monkey Girl

Monkey Girl by Edward HumesEvolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for America’s Soul
by Edward Humes

Getting ready to read the three books I’d picked out to read about ID and the Dover case (the other two are The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything and Only a Theory), I suspected this one would be the best, because the author won the Pulitzer Prize for a previous book.  I was right.

  • Humes does an excellent job providing the historical backdrop for the Dover trial, something Slack didn’t do as much of.  (On the other hand, Slack does a much better job of trying to understand the ID perspective.  Humes explains it, but regularly interjects corrections and rebuttals that make it quite clear he brooks no room for the offences of the ID crowd.)
  • Humes’ writing sparkles, with excellent description and skillful character sketches.  It’s easy to get a sense of what the people involved are like.
  • I was interested to see where Slack and Humes overlapped, particularly in their use of the trial material.  Slack makes big deal of the burning of a mural, while Humes just mentions it in passing.  By contrast, Humes focuses his attention on a few bit players in the drama that Slack barely mentions.
  • Humes (like Slack) does focus much on the devious means the Dover board used to get this decision passed, and to defend it once it was on its way.  The rampant dishonesty in the case is appalling, and it disgusts me that these liars can claim to have morality or ethics on their side.
  • Humes narration of the trial is amazing, with excellent excerpts and descriptions of the legal jousting.
  • I was physically angry reading this early parts of this book; injustice outrages me.  I think I should join the ACLU.  The story ends well, though.  For now.

The most distressing part of the discussion, for me, was the solid connection between lack of education and belief in creationism.  At one point, a young medical student stood at a meeting to defend evolution.  He was jeered and shouted down by folks yelling, among other things, “You were brainwashed in college.”  The fear religious folks have of education seems to stem from the idea that Enlightenment thinking generally leads to more nuanced and less fundamental views of God and religion.  To education (not fundamentalist religion) must be bad.  Makes me SO mad.

As I said in a previous post, those who call science and it’s “materialistic naturalism” bad should forfeit the benefits of that approach.  No lightning rods for your houses.  I need to stop, this is getting ranty.

Natural Selection

Cover of Natural Selection by Dave Freedmanby Dave Freedman

A decent thriller in, as the cover reminds us multiple times, the vain of Jurassic Park and Jaws.  Freedman does a good job in the last third of the book, particularly.  The beginning is a bit slow, especially his character development, which feels a bit like a made-for-TNT movie.  In fact, this would make a pretty good TNT movie.  Freedman should talk to his agent about that.

  • The science isn’t terrible here — I suspect the bit about the speedy leap from environment to environment is, but the bit about predators in the deep being unexplored seems legit to me.  It’s hard, on the face of it, to imagine a manta ray with the predatory viciousness of a shark and the cunning of a human, but he develops it believably.
  • On the other hand, his characters are pretty wooden.  In particular, the villain of the piece is so clearly the villain, from the beginning, that it’s a bit disappointing.  Similarly, the toady is also easily spotted.
  • I got my copy from bookmooch, and the cover was faded enough that you can’t see the whole ray body, as in the picture to the right, but you can only just make out the mouth.  It made the cover art very weird.
  • Spoiler in white: I found the end a bit hard to swallow.  When the protagonists manage to kill the beast (something like 15 feet long, etc), they discover that it’s just one of a dozen or more living in that cave.  The problem I have with this is that the book did not provide any idea that this amount of hunting and stuff was going on.  It just went from one to a whole bunch, which I found dubious and a little hard to swallow. It made for a dramatic end though.
  • Not terrible, but not great.  A nice summer read.

The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything

Cover of The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything by Gordy SlackEvolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, P.A.
by Gordy Slack

Another interesting book about the IDiocy in Dover. Slack doesn’t obfuscate his leanings (he’s a materialist with no belief in the supernatural at all), but also softens his perspective by explaining that his father is a born-again Christian Creationist whom Slack seeks to understand as the book progresses.

But mostly, it’s a blow-by-blow account of the Dover trial.

  • Toward the end comes the most distressing bit of this whole affair, in my mind. In his chapter, “Liars for Christ,” Slack highlights the actions by the school board members who obfuscated their religious intent once they learned that it would seriously hamper the legality of introducing the material into the curriculum. They told lies in their depositions, and then again in the trial. The moment that most strongly illustrates this trend came when the ACLU deposed the Board in order to possibly file an injunction against the ID curriculum even starting. The board met and colluded and all conveniently forgot or denied that the word creationism and the religious motives were ever discussed, despite two published newspaper accounts to the contrary. Apparently it’s the lying that got most of them ousted from the School Board.
  • Of course, I’m also rigorously opposed to the incursion of religious institutions into secular, government-run spaces. I always want to sit down with self-righteous folks like the Bonsells (leaders of this movement in Dover) and ask whether other religions would be welcome in their classrooms.
  • The book was delightful to read from the perspective of a pro-evolution person, but it feels biased. The last book I’m planning to read on the subject, Monkey Girl, claims to be more balanced, but we’ll see. It’s hard not to see the folks behind this movement as outrageously caricaturing the Religious Right.
  • The jerk in me wants to see anti-evolution folks barred from taking advantage of evolution-derived discoveries. See the Doonesbury below.
  • When Scott Minnich of the Discovery Institute was testifying at the end of the trial, Plaintiff attorney Steve Harvey kept calling him “Dr. Behe,” implying that Minnich and Behe were so similar that he couldn’t keep them straight in his mind.
  • My favorite line from the trial came at the end. Here’s Slack’s account:

    When the judge asks whether anyone has anything further to say, [defense attorney] Gillen pipes up.
    “Your Honor,” he says, “I have one question, and that’s this: by my reckoning, this is the fortieth day since the trial began and tonight will be the fortieth night, and I would like to know if you did that on purpose.”
    “Mr. Gillen,” replies Judge Jones, “that is an interesting coincidence, but it was not by design.” (181)

    I really like this bit for several reasons. First, it’s funny. Second, it reveals the depth of the religion at work in the defense. I can’t think why it would have been a smart move to highlight, yet again, at the end of the trial, the connection between the defense and religion. The only possible reason I can think of is to get some sort of wink wink nudge nudge from the judge that this was planned, but a blatant religious action on the court’s point would certainly have been grounds for a plaintiff appeal.

  • My favorite discussion of this trial comes from Fred Callahan, one of the plaintiffs. He said “What am I supposed to tolerate? A small encroachment on my First Amendment rights? Well, I’m not going to. I think it is clear what these people have done, and it outrages me.” (175)

And please forgive me one more crucial passage from Slack.

Those who believe in the Revelation don’t believe the world itself can be saved, Moyers points out. For them, the world is destined to go up in smoke. Bring it on.

If such a significant percentage of Americans, and many in high places, believe that the end of the world is a good thing, and that it’s coming soon, what are the chances we will take steps necessary to curb global warming, for example, or address the Middle East conflagration that many believe signals the return of the savior? As a foundation for political policy in the perilous twenty-first century, the Revelation is several orders of magnitude scarier than frogs or boils.

No authority other than the Bible, or some far-out interpretation of it, needs to be cited to hold or spread this view. It has nothing to do with the kind of evidence that is at the bottom line of any good public policy — foreign, economic, or environmental. Popular disregard, even disdain, for demonstrable truth is the most dangerous thing that can happen to a democracy. And it is happening here. Not only tonight in Dover, but in Washington too, where the Bush Administration’s contempt for science and evidence-based policy is everywhere evident, including its inhibition of stem-cell research; its censoring of the Clean Air Act, climate change, and other environmental reports; and its depleting of NASA’s science budget to pursue vanity projects such as sending humans to Mars. If beliefs trump facts, politicians can launch wars that have no basis, imprison suspects without explicit justification, and quell efforts to explore solutions to long-term environmental problems. If belief trumps fact, in these days of very dangerous truths, we’re screwed. (94-95)


Doonesbury on Evolution

Sentence of the week

See if you can pick it out.

Context: P.Z. Myers grouses about some claims made in an article profiling “Intelligent” Design.  The boldfaced sentence is the claim being made by the article.

IDists are correct to say love is not an illusion. Scientists say this. Frankly, this is the most dumb-ass argument in a whole slop-bucket of dumbassery; that cherished, complex phenomena like love have a material basis does not in any way imply that they are not “real”. (Pharyngula)

Did you catch that?  Frankly, this is the most dumb-ass argument in a whole slop-bucket of dumbassery. Beautiful.

Only a Theory

Only a Theory by Kenneth MillerOnly a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
by Kenneth Miller

With some of my birthday money, I picked up this book by Ken Miller, a Brown University biologist whose textbook was so “Darwinist” that it prompted the Dover board of education to try and weasel ID into the curriculum as a counterpoint.  I blazed through it, as it was very readable and interesting.  A few thoughts:

  • Miller does a great job of skewering the standard claims of IDiots.  His evisceration of the two most common examples of irreducible complexity (bacterial flagellum and the clotting cascade) had me giggling.
  • This would be a very good book to give someone with an open mind about the subject, who honestly wanted to know what Intelligent Design was all about and how it compared to evolution.  I doubt it will convert and “true believers,” though.
  • Miller’s arguments about the nature of the ID campaign ring true to me.  ID isn’t about good science, it’s about changing the definition of science to include the supernatural.  He makes a great argument for the problem with civilian evaluation of education standards.  We see this in writing education a lot–since people took a couple writing classes in college (and they’re “good writers”), they have no problem telling us how writing should be taught.
  • I can see this kind of discussion being much more tolerable to religious folks than someone like P.Z. Myers, whose acerbic voice won’t win many hearts and minds.  Both are probably necessary for the evolution debate, though.
  • My only complaint with Miller’s book is his evaluation of the trends of non-science disciplines in the last 40 years or so.* Miller suggests that ID proponents are using Allan Bloom’s observations from The Closing of the American Mind to try and inject cultural relativism into science.  Miller scoffs at the developments in other disciplines where notions of an abstract “truth” have been eroded and replaced, in his view, with cultural relativism.  I would suggest that the cultural relativism he sees there is the most facile understanding of the research done in the humanities.  People like Foucault and Derrida were not destroying “Truth,” but rather digging into what it meant when a single group of people with a single worldview pretended that their background and context had nothing to do with their understanding of how the world worked and how people should behave.  But this is a small point that has little to do with his larger argument.

Overall, the main message that I take away, in thinking about the issue, is that ID is not science.  It doesn’t rely on the natural world for its answers, and it doesn’t provide testable hypotheses.  It has no standing in the scientific community, and thus does not merit inclusion in any curriculum short of a study of American science and politics, perhaps as an upper-level sociology or cultural studies course in college.

*Obviously, as a member of the humanities academy in 2008, I have a vested interest in suggesting our disciplines haven’t been corrupted and made futile.

Darwin’s Radio

By Greg Bear

More and more, in the last few years, I’ve come to enjoy good hard SF books by folks like Robert Sawyer. I’m going to have to add Greg Bear to my regular reading list. Darwin’s Radio is excellent.

The book supposes that the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution is actually correct, and ponders the moment of just such a punctuation. While I can’t speak to the science very thoroughly (it rings true, from what little I know of genetics), the politics and the people in the book are spot on. Though Bear was writing a decade ago, the developments in post 9/11 USA have shown just how much we’re willing to trade civil liberties for freedom, and his book plays on that question remarkably.

It will take an act of will (though not a major one) to avoid reading the next book right away. I’ll wait a bit, but I plan to read Darwin’s Children sometime within a year, for certain.