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Monday, 21 April 2014

Darwin's Wonderful Worms

Darwin's Meadow, Down House, Downe, Kent, UK
I was stimulated recently by an interesting question from a creationist which a friend passed to me for comments. Even creationists can sometimes pose interesting questions which need several minutes to think about. The question was, why are dinosaur tracks often found on the surface when human artifacts are often several feet below the surface. If dinosaurs are millions of years old why aren't they found at much deeper levels that human artifacts?

Superficially, this looks like a problem for evolution, and if it were true for every location it would indeed be. It would actually be equivalent to providing the evidence which the great J.B.S.Haldane said would falsify evolution - a fossil rabbit in the Cambrian. Of course, it isn't true for dinosaur tracks. All those found have either been in quarries or on the surface of eroded rocks such as the dry bed of Paluxy Creek, Texas, USA. But, old fossils are found on the surface or just a few feet down, so although my friend's creationist friend was wrong about the dinosaur tracks, there is a general question to be answered here.

The answer of course is that the surface of the Earth is dynamic and subject to forces of change, like erosion or human activity like quarrying and animal activity. Additionally, and more importantly, how fossils get exposed and how human artifacts get burried are two different processes entirely. The site of the Paluxy dinosaur tracks (the subject of the famous hoax that still has creationists fooled) is the bed of the Paluxy Creek, which has eroded away the upper layers, exposing the limestone layer with the tracks on. The dinosaur tracks found in Worth Matravers in Dorset, UK were exposed by quarrying for building material.

A lot of fossils are found in cliffs subject to coastal erosion and in exposed geological layers uplifted by plate tectonics but some can be picked up on the surface. I've spent many hours collecting fossil coral, ammonites and various other marine fossils from the Jurassic in a field in Buckinghamshire, and picking up heart urchin fossils made of flint from fields on the top of the Chiltern Hills in Southeast Oxfordshire. In both these cases the fields have been subject to human agriculture for at least 3,000 years during which ploughs have developed to plough deeper and be pulled with more power so today they can practically break up the bedrock.

At least in the chalk Chilterns, what is now the surface was once below a cap of sandstone which was deposited on top of the chalk and has long since mostly eroded away. In fact large slabs of this sandstone can still be found, as they were when the M40 was cut through the hill. Some of these can be seen at the side of the exit slip at Lewknor. Human activity continually churns over the surface of these fields bringing rocks from below up to the surface.

Tell Bari, Syria
Human artifacts, on the other hand, are often buried under the accumulated detritus of human activity. Ancient towns in Mesopotamia or Asia Minor actually stand on a mound or 'tell' of accumulated human refuse. Basically, until we had modern refuse collection and disposal, everything that came into a town, stayed there. Animal and human food which came into the town from the farms outside ended up eventually as the surface upon which new buildings were built.

New building materials were added to old building materials; clay was turned into pottery which ended up on waste-heaps or in dried up wells. Cartloads of goods came into the towns and hardly anything ever left. One of the main sources of this detritus was the mud bricks which were used for building but which quickly deteriorated.

Excavation at Tell Bari, Syria.
Note human figure centre for scale.
Today, archaeologists in these ancient places in the Middle East, India, China and Egypt works their way down through layers of human refuse, old buildings with their doorways now below ground when once they were at street level and modern roads run at what was once roof level or above. I've walked the streets of Luxor, the ancient Thebes of Ancient Egypt and one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world.

The streets are literally built of accumulated, compacted horse manure and other things I didn't want to think about, given that it hardly ever rains in Luxor and every passing lorry and car and horse-drawn cart throws up a cloud of fine dust. Only the main roads have a covering of tarmac. Don't even think of eating food from a road-side vendor unless you're pretty much immune to all known germs.

This brings me in a slightly rambling round about way to another important thing which, in the damper parts of the world at least, is a major cause of gradual, accumulated change in the surface of the Earth. It was something Charles Darwin himself worked out and wrote his last ever book about - the activity of earthworms.

Next to Down House, Darwin's home in Kent, is the meadow which he had known since his youth and in which he had spent countless hours just walking and observing the English wildlife at all times of the year. When he moved to Down House as a young man in 1842 he scattered some pieces of chalk over this meadow intending to check how deep they would be buried 'at some future period'. He returned to it again as an old man in ill health 34 years later and it led him to write his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms. In it, Darwin explained in meticulous details his observations on the power of earthworms to bury objects such as stones.

When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of mans inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.

Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms P.313

Darwin's studies had included a study of the fallen stones at Stonehenge to measure how far they had been buried.

Darwin measured how much material they would ingest (eat), and how much they egested (pooped). He estimated how many worms there were on average in a given amount of soil, showing that all the soil in Britain ‘has passed many times through and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms’.

The rate at which worms process the soil can explain how ancient ruins are buried: Darwin calculated that worms push up eight tonnes of earth through the casts at the entrances of their burrows. He even carried out experiments to show this could happen within a human lifetime, he laid a stone in his garden, which was not to be disturbed, and measured the rate at which the earth was raised around it.

Darwin showed for the first time that worms increase the fertility of soils by aerating and mixing rotting material, this allows better root growth and water retention. By doing so he revolutionised compost heaps everywhere!

Charles Darwin & Evolution
©2009 Christs College, Cambridge, UK

During the course of this study, Darwin also showed that the 'denudation' of the southern English chalk downs was due not to coastal errosion as he had previously thought, but to the action of wind, water and frost. What he had previously thought were ancient coastlines were escarpments caused by aerial action on upfolded strata. This is still a fundamental principle of geology, and it of course, explains why ancient fossils can be picked up on the surface.

Some people have expressed disappointment that Darwin would devote his declining years to what, in retrospect, seems a rather trivial study for someone whose earlier works had been so profound and which had transformed Victorian attitudes to biology and human origins in particular and to science in general. I disagree with this view. For me it can be seen as the culmination of everything Darwin had discovered in his life's work and in particular how he had shown that what we see today is the result of a process of change, not of stasis, and how accumulated small changes can lead to big changes.

The world is not the product of a special creation and has remained unchanged ever since but is the product of a natural, formative and creative process requiring nothing more than the operation of nature. No magic need be postulated because no magic is required. The process is observable, falsifiable and can be used predictively. It is also, like Darwinian Evolution, so easy to understand that it takes real creativity to not understand it.

And underpinning the whole of his study is that same meticulous attention to detail, that same insistence that a conclusion must come only from evidence, a willingness to change his mind when the evidence requires it, and an enduring and contagious enthusiasm for his subject.

And (and this is especially pleasing) he answered the question posed by my friend's creationist friend by showing how those natural forces can account not only for fossil dinosaur tracks on exposed rock strata but also why human artifacts can be found often many feet below the surface.

Laughably for creationism, the answer to this 'killer' question has been known since 1881. That's only 133 years and about five generations ago. Obviously not nearly enough time for them to assimilate this new knowledge.

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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Spare A Thought For Poor Old Judas

Judas Iscariot. Gabriel von Max
Prague National Gallery
As it's Easter and the time for good-will to all men... now don't start... just because it's not Christmas there's no reason to bear ill will, is there? Anyway, in this season of goodwill to all men, is it not time someone spoke up for poor Judas Iscariot - possibly the most maligned man in all literature.

You may recall that the character of Judas makes his appearance in the stories about Jesus in the Bible but only seems to play any significant part towards the end of the tale, when his role suddenly become absolutely critical to the plot, only to be maligned and vilified for playing his allotted role later on. Although, as we shall see, this maligning of Judas seems to be a much later addition to the story, added moreover by someone who hadn't been following the plot too closely. Not only that but the later addition seems to have become muddled too.

To recap: the story goes that a god has gotten itself into such a state about a couple of people scrumping its apples that the only way it could think of to forgive their very remote descendants (work with me on this one!) was to manifest itself as a man so it could be sacrificed to itself in a ritual involving a blood sacrifice. Somehow (we are never told how) the god would so impress itself by this self-sacrifice that it would forgive everyone. Look! I didn't make this up! I'm just outlining the plot. Okay!

Now, this all hinged on the authorities who could actually allow the sacrifice being given a reason to carry it out and - and this is where Judas comes in - being sure they had the right person. Apparently it would have been all too easy to get the wrong person what with this god being indistinguishable from a human being and all, so Judas is unwittingly picked to be the one to point him out to the authorities.

So, the entire success or failure of the plan hinged on Judas and Judas saved mankind by playing his allotted role to perfection, pointing out Jesus so the authorities had the right person. Apparently, although omniscient, this god was incapable of identifying itself to the authorities or of putting the necessary knowledge into the arresting soldiers' minds so they could pick it out themselves.

So, are we grateful to Judas for being, by all accounts, the only one on message and ensuring mankind got saved? Not a bit of it. The person who ensured the success of the plan gets vilified and, if the accounts are correct, even the god who must have been aware of his pivotal role in the whole scheme, never steps forward to defend him. Instead it simply lets him become one of the most vilified people in all folklore and the archetypal traitor prepared to sell his principles for a small sum of money.

But now things start to get a little strange, because whoever began this campaign of vilification didn't make a good job of it and we've ended up with a typical Bible muddle of two irreconcilable stories, at least one of which must be wrong.

First Matthew's version:

When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.

Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.

So, Judas regrets what he's done, confesses and asks for forgiveness - not that that means much apparently - gives the money back and tops himself. The priests then use the money to buy a plot of land to bury strangers in and it gets called the Field of Blood because it was bough with blood money.

(Incidentally, note that 'unto this day' phrase. Would that be used by an eyewitness writing soon after the events described? Of course not. This is a tale being written down many years later - and we'll see why in a moment.)

When we get to Luke's account however, something really strange has entered the tale:

Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.

And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.

Curious indeed! Satan is now helping to ensure God's plan to save mankind works! Why would Satan do that? Someone has lost the plot completely here. The point of the story has been abandoned; the objective now is to blacken Judas's name at all costs.

Neither John nor Luke, like Mark before them, have anything more to say about Judas. Judas is a traitor and that's enough. John bends over backwards, almost obsessively, to refer to Judas's treachery every time he mentions his name but we learn nothing more of his fate.

It's not till we get to Acts that we learn more. Apparently, the author of Acts had a source outside the 'testimonies' of the four Apostles. Bear in mind what Matthew told us above.

And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry.

Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.

So, did you stop the difference? In this version, Judas buys the field, not the chief priests. There is no repentance; no returning the money and no meeting of the chief priests to decide what to do with it. And Judas doesn't hang himself but falls headlong and 'bursts asunder' and his bowels gush out. The field is now called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilt on it, not because the priests bought it with blood money. In fact, the only things in common between these two tales is the the name of Judas, where the money came from and the name of the field.

Both these stories can't possibly be right. Either Judas or the priests bought the field, not both. Either Judas returned the money or he bought a field with it, not both. Either Judas hanged himself or he fell headlong and burst asunder, not both. And either the field is called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilled on it or because it was bought with blood money by the priests, not both.

By now readers of this blog will be familiar with the irreconcilable differences to be found in the Bible, so that's not really the point of this blog. There can be no doubt that at least one of the stories was made up, even if we allow that the other is correct. There is, of course, like so much of the Bible, no external corroboration of any of this so no basis by which we can determine which is the correct version, if any.

The interesting thing here is why these stories about Judas were made up. Instead of being the hero of the tale, as logic should dictate, having ensured the Passover Plan worked, Judas is the worst of all men who sold the saviour of mankind for a handful of money. Only Matthew seems to show a modicum of pity on Judas and at least has him confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness.

Another clue about what's going on here as the stories in the Bible developed is a line from Paul which normally passes completely unnoticed:

And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

The twelve, of course, being the twelve disciples. When Paul, or whoever was writing to the Corinthians purporting to be Paul, wrote that, there were still twelve disciples for Jesus to appear to. No one had yet written Judas out of the story. He hadn't been accorded the credit to which he might have felt entitled, but he hadn't been dropped from the gang even though his alleged betrayal had been in full view of the others. The standard excuse that the other disciples had chosen a replacement can be dismissed by the quote from Acts above, which specifically relates how they replaced Judas after Jesus had allegedly departed for Heaven. Again, if they had replaced Judas, Acts is lying.

You might think that from the beginning, Christianity was always basically one thing: a religion descended from Jesus, as interpreted by Paul, leading to the church of the Middle Ages on down to the present. But things were not at all that simple. About a hundred fifty years after Jesus’ death we find a wide range of different Christian groups claiming to represent the views of Jesus and his disciples but having completely divergent perspectives, far more divergent than anything even that made it into the New Testament.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible
(And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 191).
Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
What we are seeing here is an echo of the tensions and struggles between the various early messianic sects that seem to have sprung up some time after the supposed death of Jesus as they battled for control and membership. It would appear that Judas was an early leader of one of the losing sects and one which seems even to have had its own 'gospel' or statement of faith together with tales of the legendary Jesus. Judas is cast in the role of traitor for no other reason than to discredit a rival sect and slander its leader. What happened to him after the betrayal is of no real importance; the important thing to get established in people's minds is the betrayal. The differences show that Matthew's sect was a little more kindly disposed to Judas while John is dripping with loathing and positively relishes a gruesome, almost supernatural death.

This was a time of undoubted culture shock for the Jews of Palestine. From having been "God's chosen people", they had become hellenized subjects of the Eastern Roman Empire with their kings chosen for them and answerable to Roman governors. As Bart D Ehrman points out, a large number of Jews had become effectively A-Yahwehist and a new god had been created in it's place, considerably more Greco-Roman than the old irascible, capriciously violent and angry god of the Old Testament. The struggle was on for control of this new religion.

And so we end up with the logical absurdity of Judas being both the logical hero of the plot and the one who ensured God's plan came to fruition, and the villain of the piece, for exactly the same reason. Clearly, sectarian rivalries, and the power of rival priesthoods assumed an importance over and above even the central event of their emerging mythology. Such is the nature of human pride and megalomania which sees these things merely in terms of their utility value to their ambitions.

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

How American Muslims Silenced Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: ‘They Simply Wanted Me to be Silenced’ |

Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., USA has caved in to pressure from Muslim students and rescinded its plan to honour Ayaan Hirsi Ali with a an honorary degree on 8 May.

If there is anyone who can be described a role model for Muslim girls who want to take control of their own lives, then it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A former muslim and member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2008, she is an outspoken advocate for women's rights and a critic of Islam. Born in Somalia and raised as a strict Muslim, she survived a civil war, beatings, genital mutilation and a forced marriage before escaping to Holland and finally renouncing her faith in her 30s. She described the moment thus:

I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, "I don’t believe in God." I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

A fuller account can be read here, in one of the most inspiring and powerful arguments for Atheism I have ever read.

Brandeis University was founded as a secular, co-educational establishment in 1948, soon after World War II and the Holocaust, when many US universities were racially, religiously and gender segregated. It had been assumed that Ali epitomised all that the University stood for, hence the honour. However, Muslim students raised a petition, pointing to a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which she said of Islam:

Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

Brandeis University claimed to be unaware of this and decided it was not something they wished to be associated with and withdrew the offer of the honorary degree.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has responded in typically measured and dignified style with:

Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called "honor killings," and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not "overlook certain of my past statements," which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The "spirit of free expression" referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me "to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues." Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to "engage" in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck — and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed women and girls everywhere.

And so American Muslim girls in general, and Brandeis students in particular, have been deprived of the opportunity to hear one of the most inspiring advocates of the principles of secular, liberal freedoms and human rights that Brandeis University was founded on. They have been denied this by those to whom everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands for and represents is anathema - the right of women to control over their own bodies and their own destinies and the extension of full human rights and the right to respect and dignity to all members of society.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

The Internet Is Making Theists Think

Top: Internet use. Bottom: Religious affiliation
How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion | MIT Technology Review

Americans are following many European countries in losing their faith. The change hasn't been so spectacular as in many European countries where Atheists/Agnostics are now in a clear majority, but the growth has been a steady 0.5 percent per year over the last 20 years, rising from just 8 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2010.

The obvious question is, why is this happening? There are many social and psychological factors involved in relative religiosity, not the least of which is income inequality with those in the lowest income groups and forming the lowest social strata tending to be more religious and more fundamentalist, while those in the higher social strata tend to be less religious and more moderate.

Similarly, some studies have shown a correlation between educational attainment and religious belief with those receiving only basic education again being more religious and more fundamentalist, and those with higher degrees of education being less religious and more moderate. But then there is an obvious correlation between education and income, and so between social position and education.

Relationship between countries' belief in a god and average
Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
A third factor, as found by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2008), is a correlation between IQ and religious belief with a higher IQ tending to correlated with lower religiosity. Again, though, there is an obvious link between IQ, educational achievement, income and social position.

Now Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has analysed data from a widely-respected American General Social Survey carried out by the University of Chicago and has found a correlation between religious belief and time spent on the Internet which suggests that, as the time on the Internet increases so religious belief falls. Downey says this can only account for about 50 percent of the fall in religious belief but nevertheless, there are several possible causes.

It is always possible that the correlation does not indicate a causal relationship but that both are causally related to a third factor - like income, IQ, education, etc, but it doesn't come as a surprise. I and many others have often remarked on how the exposure of the 'moderate' or thinking theists to the mindless gibberings and downright dishonesty of the fundamentalists must surely cause them to ask some fundamental questions about the origins of their own beliefs. Exposure too to the blatant money-making scams being perpetrated on line by pseudo-pious frauds clearly seeking to exploit the credulous gullibility and thirst for cognitive dissonance-relieving confirmation bias in the ranks of fundamentalism and creationism, must cause honest and intelligent people to wonder just how much credulous gullibility played in their own religious beliefs.

It is noticeable to people like me who cut our teeth in the early days of the Internet in serious debate fora, or user groups as they were then known, where some serious theologians, scientists and philosophers participated and debate was mostly polite and good natured, that, as access to the Internet increased and the fundamentalists began to come on line, how the standard of debate deteriorated.

Within a few years debate had become almost ritualised name-calling, cursing, hysterical shrieking about burning in Hell, Satanism, "Darwin was a Communist!", "WE SAVED YOUR BUTT IN 2 WORLD WARS, U F**KING COMMIE!!!!!", etc, etc, followed quickly by creationist scam sites, people selling prayers, trashy books full of copy and paste Bible quotes, begging for donations to "help spread the word of the Lord" or using religion as an excuse for far-right political extremism. The serious theologians equally quickly melted away, being subjected to the same abuse as the scientists and atheists from the same religious fundamentalists and people using religion as a cover for their behaviour.

It's hard to believe that this didn't have, and still isn't having, a negative effect on the intellectually honest theists of whatever religion. If it didn't then they have much to be ashamed of. When your 'faith' can give rise to, and permit, such behaviour isn't there something fundamentally wrong with it? When your faith can't be defended with polite respect, honest argument and an open-minded willingness to understand the other point of view, is it worth defending? And when your faith is being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable attitudes and behaviour and has become the tool of the fraud and the sociopath, shouldn't it be actively opposed? Or was it ever thus?

And then there is the exposure to the high-profile professional religious apologists who earn their living peddling long-refuted fallacies to eager audiences, often with a clear right-wing political, even subversive, agenda seeking to overthrow, for example, the US secular constitution, and replace it with a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. People for whom having an argument refuted or shown to be lies is not regarded as a reason not to try it on someone else. It must be hard for the liberal or left-leaning theist in the USA to see his faith becoming more and more the domain of the swivel-eyed, often racist, usually misogynist and invariably anti-science, anti-choice, anti-welfare, anti-liberal, pro-wealthy, pro-corporate, pro-war, selfish and greedy - in short, nasty - right, and probably the antithesis of everything they thought their religion stood for.

So, no, it's not hard to see why increased Internet access and the time spent on line is correlated with reduced belief in the supernatural and an increased dissociation from the fundamentalists.

Then of course there is the ready and free access to information. Even those lacking much in the way of a formal education can quickly educate themselves in any subject they wish. The association between ignorance and superstition is well-established and a parasitic memeplex like religion which thrives in an ignorant culture has an obvious antidote in the form of knowledge, hence the association between (lack of) education and religiosity.

The Internet is providing that antidote.

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Vatican Backs Code of Silence Over Child Abuse

Pope Francis "We will not take one step back..."
Italy's bishops pass Vatican-backed rule that child molestation does not have to be reported - Europe - World - The Independent

In stark contrast to what Pope Frankie claims to be doing to clean up the Catholic Church, the Vatican has been complicit in a policy adopted by Italian Bishops that states they are no longer required to report child-abusing priests and nuns to the police.

The 'speed' with which Vatican reforms are progressing can be gaged from the fact that only in the last few months has the Vatican seen fit to strengthen its laws on abuse of minors to include sexual abuse of children. Astonishingly, this was not even considered an abuse of minors when the law was first drawn up.

[I] personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children. We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.

Pope Francis
(Statement made on day of Italian Bishops' Conference statement)
This legalistic excuse comes from a treaty between the Vatican and the Italian state in 1985 which stipulates that priests are not obliged to inform the police of crimes learned of through their ministry. The Italian Bishops' Conference, which published the guidelines last Friday, say they came from a suggestion by the Vatican's office that handles sex abuse allegations.

Last month Pope Francis had complained that, "No-one else has done more [to tackle child sexual abuse]. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked."

[the Vatican is systematically placing the] preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.

In 2010, to great publicity and in response to the growing world-wide outrage at these sexual and psychological abuses as more and more victims found the courage to be open about what they had suffered at the hands of predatory paedophile priests and nuns, the Vatican had instructed bishops to report these offences to the authorities - but only where required to do so by the local law. The Vatican has never seen it as the moral duty of Bishops to protect the vulnerable from predatory clerics by adopting a zero tolerance policy and reporting all such cases even when not required to do so by local law.

Now we see the Vatican office supposedly responsible for dealing with the problem, recommending a policy of strict legalism regardless of the fact that this gives a degree of protection to offenders and removes a little protection from the vulnerable. Obviously this offices sees it as dealing with the problem to prevent it being exposed.

The 'problem' is seen as one of embarrassment and damage to the Catholic Church, not damage to the victims of these abuses. The solution is a Mafioso-style code of silence or a 'no snitching' rule.

As reported on the BBC website, the long litany of Catholic Church abuse scandals includes:
  • Germany - A priest, named only as Andreas L, admitted in 2012 to 280 counts of sexual abuse involving three boys over a decade.
  • United States - Revelations about abuses in the 1990s by two Boston priests, Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, caused public outrage.
  • Belgium - The bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April 2010 after admitting that he had sexually abused a boy for years.
  • Italy - The Catholic Church in Italy admitted in 2010 that about 100 cases of paedophile priests had been reported over 10 years
  • Ireland - A report in 2009 [The Cloyne Report] found that sexual and psychological abuse was "endemic" in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages for most of the 20th century.

BBC News - Pope Francis asks forgiveness for child abuse by clergy

These are the same people who claim to be guardians of our morals and who demand the right to be consulted on all legislation inasmuch as it related to a woman's rights to her own body, the rights men have over them, what consenting adults may or may not do in the privacy of their own bedrooms and who may form a legal relationship with whom.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fundamentalist Threat To EU Freedoms

Mamber states of the European Union
Pro-Life Citizens' Initiative Worries E.U. Scientists | Science/AAAS | News

In an astonishingly arrogant move, a small, highly organised and well-financed group of Christian fundamentalists, posing as a European citizen's initiative, is seeking to exploit and subvert the democratic process. In the EU a petition with over 1 million authentic signatures collected across at least eight member states must be considered by the European Commission (the legislative body of the EU) for possible legislation.

If the Commission agrees with this petition, embryo stem-cell research will be illegal, and something having its origins in primitive superstition will be mandatory on all 28 current, and all future EU member states. This is because Christians believe a magic entity called a 'soul' enters a zygote at conception and thus a cell, or small group of cells, which could not possibly have independent existence in that state, is a fully human individual with full human rights. No evidence of the 'soul' has ever been found.

This superstition, which has its origins in the infancy of our species, views a reification of the entity they assume to inhabit our bodies and to be looking out at the world through the 'windows' of our eyes, as the real person, not the body in which it finds itself, and thus entitlement to human rights is conditional on this magic thing. Christians believe this thing survives after the death of the body. Since the body is a mere vehicle for this 'soul', it has no value in it's own right. This superstition led Christians in earlier times to happily kill people for such imaginary crimes as witchcraft, having the wrong religion or even questioning the authority of the Church hierarchy, believing that they were liberating this 'soul' from a corrupt body or a body which had been possessed by evil demons, thus turning an abhorrent crime against humanity into a moral crusade for the benefit of the ruling class who designated the 'crime' of doubt and dissent as a mortal sin in the first place.

Curiously, they seem to have turned this convenient view of human life on its head and now claim it as a reason not to destroy the zygote or the early stage of embryonic development, the blastocyst, claiming as a reason, with typical hypocrisy, the human rights they denied people in earlier times when they had the power to deny them.

This fundamentalist group, which also attracts support from conservative Muslims in the EU, is exploiting the fact that the recent expansion of the EU into the former Eastern Europe, Balkans and Baltic states has incorporated a large number of conservative Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians into the EU.

The EU, which is a federation of autonomous states each having its own laws and legal system within an overarching EU framework of consumer protection, environmental protection and employment rights, had the current compromise policy: the union does not sponsor research that is illegal in the country where it would take place. In addition, the commission never funds research activities that create human embryos for research purposes. The fundamentalist want to impose the same blanket policy onto everyone, regardless of the level of support for their superstition in the local population.

They are seeking to exploit an unrelated European Court of Justice ruling on the patenting of the human genome. In the case known as Brüstle v. Greenpeace, the court had ruled that the processes and products of human embryo stem-cell research are not patentable. The fundamentalist argue that this "indicates that fecundation is the beginning of human life and in the name of human dignity excludes the patenting of any procedure that involves or supposes the destruction of a human embryo."

There is little doubt that, if they succeed with this, they will seek to have abortion, contraception, same-sex marriages, even divorce outlawed, opening up the way to an all-out attack on women's rights and equality legislation and even the compulsory teaching of biblical creationism as science in schools, and against the strong post-war trend in Europe away from religion and towards secular humanism.

The European Union, unlike the USA, has no overarching constitution, mandatory on all member states. Although freedom of religion is enshrined in the European Human Rights Convention, to which all new members must subscribe in their national laws, and the EU is deliberately secular in it legislation and organization, there is no secular constitution as such and so nothing equivalent to the US 'Establishment Clause'.

Perhaps it's time we had a secular constitution and the equivalent of a Supreme Court to enforce it and to protect our rights against the religious fundamentalists who have never gotten over the withdrawal of what they see as their divine right to govern us. One of the reasons for the foundation of the EU in the first place was the belief that there had to be a better way to conduct affairs in Europe than how they had been conducted for the previous 1900 years, with the obscenities of warring factions and nation states based on different religious cults, priest kings and robber bishops that had been the norm, culminating in the bestialities of two world wars with deaths numbered in the tens of millions, each side being urged on and blessed by the clerics who assured them they were doing God's work.

The secular humanism of EU has given us two full generations of peace for the first time in European history. The last major war in Western Europe was fought by our children's grandparents. War in Europe is unthinkable now and is receding into a folk memory. We are now better than that.

They must not be allowed to take our Europe and our grandchildren's future peace and prosperity away from us.

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Discovery Shows Science Changing Its Mind

Australopithecus sediba
Human 'missing link' fossils may be jumble of species - life - 09 April 2014 - New Scientist

News this week that doubt has now been cast on what had been hailed as a new species of Australopithecus showing striking 'transitional' features between these pre-hominid apes and the hominids. A new analysis by Ella Been of Tel Aviv University, Israel suggests what were believed to be the fossils of one adult female and a juvenile male found in the same location at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008 may actually be two adults and two juveniles of different species - one each of australopithecine and hominid.

This emerging dispute interests me especially because it touches on something that many creationists and other scientifically illiterate people purport to find puzzling about science. If science is the best way to discover the truth, why is it full of disputes and disagreements, often resulting in a change of mind and even a 'rewrite of the science books'. Isn't it better to stick with dogma which hasn't been changed for a couple of millennia so you know where you are?

I'll deal with that in a moment. First, the dispute and it's background.

The exciting thing about the supposed new species, named A.sediba by its discoverer, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, was that it appeared to have a hominid lower body, complete with feet which were close to those of Homo sapiens, and the more chimpanzee-like skull and upper body of an australopithecine. As an interesting sequel to this find, the Boston Museum of Science, MA, USA, asked visitors to walk barefoot across a mechanised carpet that analysed their footprints, and found that one in thirteen had differences in foot-bone structure similar to those of A. sediba.

This suggested that modern humans might well trace their ancestry back not to the Ethiopian Highlands as 'Lucy' (A. afarensis) suggested but to much further south. Of course, this is still consistent with the picture of H. sapiens having evolved in Africa from chimpanzee-like apes which had earlier diverged from the other three African primates; the picture merely shifted further south.

So, a few years ago we had to change our minds a little. From it being fairly safe to assume H. sapiens had evolved in Ethiopia we now needed to allow for the possibility that it might have been in South Africa instead. A little less certain and a little more uncertain and a suspension of belief pending some more evidence. Now we may have to shift it back again as the balance of evidence changes.

The doubt raised by Ella Been revolves around her analysis of vertebra and lower jawbones from the supposed two individuals. She sees close similarity between the boy's vertebrae and the vertebrae of the 1.5 million year-old 'Turkana Boy' (H. erectus) while the adult female has undoubtedly australopithecine vertebrae. This suggested two different species. Then her colleague, Yoel Rak, also of Tel Aviv University, noticed a notch on the boy's lower jawbone which looked australopithecine while a similar notch on that of the adult female looked hominid. Conclusion: there are four individuals, not two; one adult female and one juvenile male australopithecine and one adult female and one juvenile male hominid, the bones of which had become intermixed.

At this point, and admittedly not being in possession of all the facts, I think I would be tempted to ask if just one adult or one juvenile bone had been duplicated, because this would be indisputable evidence of two or more partial skeletons. I assume, since none is mentioned, that none have been found. On that basis I'm inclined not to change my mind that much, just yet.

The question remains to be resolved and one thing is sure - it will only be resolved by evidence. Until that evidence is forthcoming, it remains for science an unresolved question. The interesting this is to see how science copes with evidence which seems to refute an idea. The only honest answer to the question of where the Homo genus split off from the Australopithecus genus is one which reflects the current uncertainty and the respective strength of the evidence for and against while allowing that both could be wrong.

A central tenet of evolutionary theory is that variation within taxa becomes variation between taxa as species diverge.

Lee Berger, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Of course, those with an interest in one side or the other will champion their particular views. Lee Berger says that the position of the bones as found makes it likely that they were from one individual. He concedes that the juvenile vertebrae do look like H. erectus but suggests that they would lengthen as he grew to become more australopithecine. To which Been points out that other fossil Australopithecus children have long vertebrae.

Berger also argues that Been's and Rak's analysis would also make sense if A. sediba really was transitional between Australopithecus and Homo because a mixture of features is exactly what we would expect as species diverge over time.

All this is mere detail, of course. It actually matters not at all whether humans evolved in South Africa out of A. sediba or in Ethiopia out of A. afarensis, or out of an as yet undiscovered species. There is little doubt that we evolved in Africa. And even if someone were to discover that modern humans evolved in Europe or Southeast Asia after all, then that would be sensational but nothing more. We would not need to change anything other than our minds, the next editions of the textbooks and some museum displays. And our knowledge would move a little closer to the truth, which remains the truth regardless of our beliefs.

So why is this a better way to determine the truth than going with dogma, and what's the use of 'truths' that keep being disputed and changed?

Imagine you're in court, on trial for something you didn't do. One witness produces evidence which suggests you are guilty and another produces evidence which suggests you are innocent. Would you want the defence and prosecution teams to argue and debate the merits of the evidence, pointing out the flaws in it and the other possible interpretations - maybe that footprint did look like yours but thousands of people have those shoes; maybe you did once own that gun once but it had been stolen in a burglary which you had reported to the police, and the DNA at the scene was not your DNA.

Or would you want the jury to listen to someone who said it was an accepted 'fact' that people like you are criminals and there is an old book which says so, so the jury didn't need to bother with the pros and cons of the arguments over the significance of the evidence when even the experts couldn't agree. They could just go with what the old book says and save a lot of time and expense. After all, it's having an opinion that matters, not whether it's right or wrong. In any case, dogma was deemed to be right so whatever agreed with dogma would be right automatically, and the dogma said you were guilty. Why bother with a trial at all even?

Hands up those who would like to be tried by dogma and not have the jury bother with the evidence and what the experts say about it!

The point is that only by constantly reassessing and disputing the evidence can it be fully tested, assessed and appropriately weighted at the bar of informed opinion. This can only be done by people who are prepared to abandon earlier ideas and adopt new ones when the evidence changes and to whom all conclusions and 'beliefs' are conditional and transient and informed by evidence. It takes a special form of arrogance, and more than a little intellectual dishonesty, to insist that there can be knowledge without evidence. Even in the cases of a wrongful convictions, it is evidence which eventually proves the conviction to be unsafe or wrong.

Dogma is the antithesis of intellectual honesty and explains why science progresses and develops but religions remain unchanged until they cease to have any relevance and are swept aside by the tide of evidence which eventually overwhelms them or they are forced to change to avoid extinction.

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Friday, 4 April 2014

More Blunders By The Unintelligent Designer

I've written several blogs already about the 'design' mistakes in the human make-up and other blunders in design of natural things of which any self-respecting intelligent designer would be thoroughly ashamed (see list following this article). Here I look at a few of the less obvious ones - less obvious that is because they are less visible and often something we take for granted as 'normal'. This list is based on an article written by Claire Ainsworth and Michael Le Page, published in New Scientist, 10 August 2007.

Inefficient Respiratory System

It's considered a real achievement and a feat of endurance for a super-fit human, after prolonged training, to climb Mount Everest without oxygen tanks and breathing masks. It was first done as recently as 1978. Everest is a mere 8,848 Metres high. In 1975, a jet flying at a height of 11,264 Metres sucked a griffon vulture into its jet engine.

The problem with mammalian lungs like ours is that we draw in fresh air, which mixes with the stale air left in our lungs, trachea, bronchioles and alveoli, so it's already partly stale by the time it gets to the alveoli where gas exchange takes place. We then breathe out as much as we breathed in, leaving a substantial amount behind to contaminate the next intake. Physiologists refer to this as the 'dead space'.

Because of this, we need particularly large bronchioles to shift enough oxygen in and get rid of enough carbon dioxide and, with particularly high demands such as sprinting we can literally run out of breath. Our muscles don't get enough oxygen and burn sugars anaerobically leading to a build-up of lactic acid causing our muscles to fail eventually. The ensuing 'oxygen debt' means we need a prolonged period of recovery from exhaustion as we burn off the excess lactic acid. In short, just when we need it most, our respiratory system can fail and so it imposes a severe limitation on our abilities. Additionally, in order to shift enough oxygen and carbon dioxide across the alveolar membrane into and out of the blood, their lining needs to be very thin and is easily damaged leading to emphysema.

Birds, on the other hand, have a different system. Fresh air not only goes into their lungs on inspiration but into storage sacks too. When they breath out, fresh air from the storage sacks is pushed through the lungs, flushing out all the stale air, so a bird's lungs get fresh air in both phases of their respiration. So, they are able to make do with finer tubes and more robust alveoli and can sustain prolonged effort with little muscle fatigue. In fact, the action of the wing muscles actually increases the rate of respiration without additional effort. Mammals, on the other hand get no special assistance from their locomotory system and need to bring in additional 'accessory' muscles to increase respiration when necessary, imposing yet another demand on the system.

Creationists believe these two systems were intelligently designed by the same designer who appears to have used the worst design for humans. Biologists, on the other hand, point out that evolution is utilitarian and makes do with whatever works, provided each improvement gives some advantage. They also point out that with an evolutionary system based on accumulated small changes over time, and which can't go in reverse, large-scale reorganisations are impossible, so branches in the evolutionary tree of life are often stuck with whatever worked for their ancestors because evolution can't and doesn't plan ahead. Instead evolution often consists of evolving work-arounds for inefficient earlier 'designs' so far as this is possible.

An Inbuilt Mutation Maker

You might expect the system for copying DNA would be about as error-free as possible given the importance of our DNA to us. However, we have four different DNA polymerase enzymes for doing it with, three of which are not very good at it. The best one only makes about one mistake in one million bases copied but the worst can be as error-prone as one mistake in one hundred bases. The reason for this seems to be that to be accurately copied the DNA needs to be fairly perfect already for the enzyme to 'fit' in the right place. The problem with this 'perfectionist' enzyme is that it stops working when it hasn't got a perfect DNA to copy. The ones with a 'near enough is good enough' approach can happily plough on when they are copying mistakes but aren't too worried about adding a few more along the way. So, the tradeoff is between perfect replication which fails to complete the task, leading to cell death, or getting the job done but with mutations.

The advantage of this is that at least the cells replicate and repairs and growth get done and things like blood cells get replaced, and, in the case of the immune system, novel mutations are partly how new antibodies get produced. The downside is cancer, genetic defects in children and maybe ageing, about which more later.

It should not be beyond the wit of an intelligent designer to create a perfectionist enzyme which can cope with errors in the DNA it is replicating and to produce antibodies some other way, if indeed an intelligent designer designed the reasons for needing an immune system in the first place. Evolutionists however, point out the utilitarian and unplanned methods of the evolutionary process and how this process can produce exactly what we can see - a utilitarian DNA replication system, the negative side of which normally only expresses in later life after the genes causing it have been passed on to the next generation, and how it doesn't care if some of the next generation carry defects so long as some get an advantage from it.

Muddled DNA

Similar to the above but to do with how chromosomes swap chunks of DNA when they pair up to be divided in the first stage of egg or sperm production. We have one of each pair from each of our parents so in this stage, bits of our father's DNA can end up on the same chromosome as bits of our mother's DNA and vice versa. The problem is this often goes wrong and one chromosome ends up with two copies of the same gene and the other has none. Some chunks can even end up getting inserted the wrong way round. If the chromosome with the missing gene ends up in a egg or a sperm which results in a new individual, the conception might not be viable, or it can result in a child with a missing gene. Either outcome is unlikely to be an advantage. If the duplicated gene ends up in a new individual, the outcome is far less likely to be detrimental and, in the long term, because one copy is now free to mutate with no loss of function, there will now be increased variability and something for the environment to naturally select.

For some reason, primates have unusually high rates of gene duplication and the two with the most are humans, followed closely by chimpanzees. Presumably, creationists would dismiss this as mere coincidence and not indicative of a close relationship, even though a lot of the duplicated genes are common to both.

There would appear to be no reason at all for an intelligent designer to design such an imperfect method for passing DNA on to the next generation and one which can result in children with genetic defects and often a short life expectancy or a severely reduced quality of life and restricted opportunities, although creationists often dismiss this as somehow the fault of the victim and the intended outcome of the all-loving designer because they deserved it.

Evolution, on the other hand, explains it as an uncaring, unplanned, utilitarian process which may give the species an advantage in an environment in which species evolve in response to differential natural selection from variations in the population and where the advantages of evolving evolvability the better to cope with a changing, hostile and selective environment are manifestly obvious.

Left: Mammalian eye. Right: Squid eye

The Blind Spot

As almost any half-decent creationist fraud will keep pointing out, Darwin said the complexity and apparent perfection of the eye are difficult to explain. What they won't do, however, is tell you he was showing how this is a problem without an evolutionary process to explain it and he then spent several pages explaining in considerable detail how evolution can explain it. Creationist frauds are of course used to misleading people who want to be mislead and for whom even picking up 'Origin of Species' would be regarded as a sin, let alone reading any of it, so they can be fairly confident they'll get away with it with an audience notoriously averse to fact-checking.

But the mammalian eye is far from perfect and is actually built the wrong way round. Moreover, the squid eye is far more efficient and evolved much earlier than the vertebrate eye, as are some avian eyes which are even built on the the same basic plan as the mammalian one.

The consequence of being built the wrong way round is that the nerves from the retina, on which the image is focussed, run over the front of the retina so light needs to pass through them. They then have come together to form the optic nerve which must go through the retina resulting in the blind spot. To compensate for that, our brain needs to fill in this area of our vision otherwise we would literally see a black area just off center. In actual fact, our brain makes up what we think we see by 'seeing' whatever is around the missing area.

Try this for yourself. Take a sheet of paper and make a circular blob about the width of your little finger nail in diameter. Now mark an 'X' about 8 cm (3 inches) to the left of it. Now, cover your left eye and move the paper towards you focussing on the 'X' with the blob still to the right of it. The blob will seem to disappear but you will 'see' plain paper. Try it with different coloured or even patterned paper. A significant part of our field of vision is invisible because of our blind spot and a portion of what we 'see' is made up by our brain. And all because our eyes are built the wrong way round. Squid eyes do not have a blind spot because they got eyes built the right way round and there appears to be no good reason why a squid eye design would not work in a mammal.

There is no conceivable explanation for this stupid design in terms of an intelligent designer who had earlier designed the molluscan eye. In terms of evolution however, there is no way a design can be copied from a different branch of the evolutionary tree, so eyes have evolved independently several times, each with a different solution to the same problem. Once the mammalian eye started to evolve, even with the wiring the wrong way round, it would have given it's carrier an advantage. Any attempt to reverse the trend and start again would have involved a loss of function and so would have been quickly eliminated by natural selection. Apart from that, there is no planning or intelligence in evolution, so no mechanism by which evolution can decide to start again with a better design. Evolution can only work on what is, not on what should be. So mammals are stuck with an imperfect yet adequate eye, 'designed' by an uncaring, unconscious, unintelligent yet inevitable process.

Built-in Self-Destruction

Being built of eukaryotic cells, i.e., complex cells which, over time, have incorporated other prokaryotic cells like bacteria into themselves as organelles with particular functions, we have inherited these organelles on which our cells now depend. One of these is the mitochondrion which carries out the main energy supply function by burning glucose to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by adding a third phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ATP is then used to power metabolic processes by releasing some of the energy stored in this phosphate bond and being reduced back ADP and phosphate. The mitochondria brought their own genome with them, most of which has now migrated across into the cell nucleus to become part of our normal DNA, but thirteen essential genes have remained behind and, with mitochondria being essential to us, we are entirely dependant on these thirteen genes.

The problem is, the process used to make ATP from sugar, phosphate and ADP in the mitochondria produces highly damaging substances called free radicals which can damage DNA causing mutations to accumulate throughout our lives. These mutations are believed to be the main reason for ageing and may be partly responsible for age-related illnesses such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

If an intelligent designer intended us to develop age-related illnesses and to have built in senescence then putting the life-support system close to the furnace where it could be damaged and degraded over time was the right way to go about it, otherwise, it can't possibly be described as intelligent. As an evolutionary process however, it produces individuals which have time to breed and pass on these design faults before the faults manifest themselves, and that is all that evolution needs to work. In fact this may even be a long-term benefit to the same genes in the next generation as the senescence and death of the parents, once they have reproduced will free up resources for the next generation. No one ever accused a gene of not being selfish and having scant regard for the welfare of its carrier so long as their utility value has been realised in the form of another generation.

Ineffective Enzyme

This is not strictly a design flaw in humans as such but a flaw in something that, like almost all living things on Earth, we are utterly dependant upon. Probably the most abundant protein on Earth is an enzyme. The reason it is so abundant is that it makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality. It is called ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCo for short) and is also the slowest known enzyme. RuBisCo is the enzyme in photosynthesis responsible for taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and building the chains of carbon in sugars which form the backbone of all organic substances.

But RuBisCo is incredibly bad at doing what it does, only carrying out about three reactions a second against tens of thousands of reactions a second for some enzymes. And it makes lots of mistakes. It finds it difficult to tell oxygen molecules (O2) from CO2 and often incorporates it by mistake, causing a chain reaction which causes a loss of carbon and wastes energy. Some plants have evolved mechanisms for reducing these mistakes but they appear to have been evolved several times independently.

Photosynthesis was one of the big steps in evolution when the cyanobacteria evolved this ability to almost literally eat the atmosphere instead of having to eat other organic substances. Some cyanobacteria then got incorporated into eukaryotic cells similarly to the way mitochondria became incorporated and so green plants were able to evolve. This gave life on Earth a huge boost in biomass but produced a toxic atmosphere containing molecular oxygen - the waste product of photosynthesis spat out from the carbon in CO2. This led to the first mass extinction until other bacteria managed to evolve ways of using all this spare oxygen.

And that's probably why RuBisCo makes its frequent mistakes. It evolved in a low oxygen environment where such mistakes were rare and insignificant but it gave its carriers such a huge advantage that the mistake has become fixed. Any tendency to change it would result in something even worse so living things have to make do with what they've got. No planning; no ability to go in reverse, and no one to stand back and think of a better way and start again. The fact that lots of plants have evolved different ways to compensate for RuBisCo's inefficiency shows that it not ideal for purpose. No omnipotent intelligent designer would come up with something which has to be compensated for. Evolution, on the other hand...

Further reading:
The Unintelligent Designer.
The Unintelligent Designer - Arms Races.
Unintelligent Design - The Head Case.
Unintelligent Design - Forming Alliances.
Unintelligent Design And Vitamin C Deficiency.
Creationists Don't Have A Leg To Stand On.
Ungodly Complexity.
Unintelligently Designed Brain.
Evolution. It's Enough To Give You Goosebumps.
Tasteless Rebuff To Intelligent Design.
Unintelligent Design.
Unintelligently Designed Teeth Cause Ray Discomfort.
Edible Frogs And Unintelligent Design.

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Thursday, 3 April 2014

Turin Shroud Forgery Shows Changing Fashions in Art.

Shroud of Turin depicts Y-shaped crucifixion - life - 02 April 2014 - New Scientist

The 14th-century medieval forgery known as the Shroud of Turin, which some Christians still insist was the shroud used to wrap the body of Jesus in following his legendary crucifixion, may show how perceptions of crucifixion and how it was depicted in art changed over time.

Carbon dating has shown that the flax used to make the linen cloth grew in the late 13th or early 14th century, not long before the shroud made it's first public appearance in France. This evidence confirms the evidence from the image itself that the shroud is a medieval European forgery. Strangely, the claim that it is the genuine shroud of Jesus never explains how the linen travelled back in time some 1400 years to 1st-century Palestine and then came forward again to 14th-century France, but such details are of little consequence to people who are desperate for evidence or to a church which habitually tries to trick people with fakes and phoney tales of miracles.

The image on it appears to have been a crude attempt to reproduce a body around which the shroud was wrapped and to make the body look like it had been crucified by painting some 'blood' on the arms. The artist appears to have either been unaware that wrapping a cloth around an object does not reproduce a three-dimensional image of the object, or he/she tried to reproduce an image that many people would assume such a process would produce.

If the forger had thought about it at all, it must have been something of a dilemma to either reproduce a realistic image as produced by wrapping it round the body, that no-one would recognise as the figure of a man unless projected onto a cylindrical mirror, or to produce something laughably unrealistic to an unbiased observer but that uncritical people would recognise as a human figure and allow confirmation bias and an eagerness to be fooled to gloss over the errors. The latter psychological process is the one normally used by religions to fool people with similar 'miracles'.

From the Gorleston Psalter, c.1320-30
Now a study has shown that the forger either deliberately or by chance, reproduced a pattern of blood flow on the left forearm which would be expected if the crucified body depicted had been crucified not in the traditional cruciform position, with arms outstretched, but in a 'Y' shaped position with arms raised above the head. This may well reflect the changing perception of how crucifixions were carried out, and might be because the forgery, like many of his contemporary 14th-century artists, depicted it as a 'Y', like Rubens did less than two hundred years later but unlike the more traditional poses depicted by more contemporary artists.

It could be that the artist just decided to draw the rivulets of blood parallel to the arms for artistic reasons.

Matteo Borrini, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
We can see how the forger was influenced by other artistic and cultural traditions and assumptions of his/her time in the depiction of Jesus as a European in the same pose used for the effigies of important people on their tombs. The hands, which are too small for the size of the face - a common mistake in early art - are discretely folded over the genitalia - something that would have been difficult to maintain whilst wrapping a body in a shroud and something that would not have been regarded as important since there was no expectation that anyone would see the body naked again. But obviously, if you're going to put an image of Jesus on display you don't want to show his naughty bits because that would be disrespectful and you can't use the traditional artistic device of a loincloth because bodies aren't normally buried in them.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Life On Mars? Death For Creationism?

Search for Martian Life Clears Another Hurdle

I wouldn't want to add to the discomfort and general air of despondency which must be pervading creationist pseudoscience circles these days, so any creationist frauds reading this should stop immediately.

Creationist pseudoscientists have recently had to endure (and ignore) the discovery, which is surely beyond any reasonable doubt now, that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and formed a ring species with them and other species of humans, typical of an evolving and diversifying group of closely related species. Then we had confirmation of the Big Bang inflation and so the virtual certainty of the multiverse theory being correct.

Now they are now getting closer to what must be their nightmare scenario - the evidence is growing that there was formerly life not just on another planet but on Mars, our near neighbour in the solar system, and that it evolved there may millions of years ago when there was flowing water and habitable lakes on Mars.

The Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in Woodlands, Texas, USA was told that the Curiosity Mars rover team are now reasonably confident that contaminants from Earth can't account for the carbon compounds Curiosity has obtained from martian rocks. In controlled experiments using Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) equipment the team have eliminated accidental contamination from an organic reagent brought from Earth for future analysis. They report that the findings are persuasive and offer "compelling" evidence that chlorinated methane, ethane and propane found in the rocks are of martian origin.

This is a long way from proving that there was even simple life on Mars but, apart from it raining down from the Cosmos in the cosmic dust, meteorites and other space debris left over from the formation of the solar system, it's hard to account for it any other way.

So, things are looking bleak for creationism these days.

Not only has the DNA evidence of our interbreeding with Neanderthals knocked on the head any idea of us being a special creation and all descendants from a first couple a few thousand years ago, but it also refutes any notion of original sin - one of the main selling points for religions which diagnose the 'problem' and sell the cure like an 'alternative medicine' fraudster. The DNA evidence is entirely consistent with the scientific explanation of human origins in which no magic and no gods are required.

The confirmation of the mechanism of the first few billionths of a second in the Big Bang, together with the virtual certainty that universes are continually popping into existence so that all possible universes will exist. This refutes so many traditional creationist 'arguments' that it's hard to know where to begin. It destroys the Cosmological Argument which depends on the assumption that there must have been something to cause the Big Bang. Not only does there not need to be anything because quantum events don't require a cause but the probable existence of 'inflatons', which give rise to masses of space, means universes are very probably commonplace.

Of course the 'God did it!' conclusion was always circular anyway. "Look! God must exist because I can arbitrarily designate it as the cause of something I don't understand (and I've no intention of doing so because I already know the answer)"! At least creationists who would like to be honest if only they could be, don't need to use that dishonest tactic any more.

That brings us to the 'fine-tuning' argument or, in the form in which it's sold to children, the 'Goldilocks' argument. This argues that the probability of the Universe being exactly right for life is so infinitessimally small that it must have been designed. And this is entirely consistent with insisting that life only exists on this single planet out of the trillions in the entire fine-tuned-for-life Universe. Now we know that all possible universes pop into existence, of which this one is just one. Of course, if life couldn't have evolved here we couldn't be discussing it, so a Universe in which intelligent beings are discussing anything must be one in which intelligent life can evolve. And now we know there must be very many of them with the same conditions as this Universe.

In fact, this refutation of the 'Goldilocks' creationist fairy tale must come as something of a relief to any intelligent theists who will surely have realised that arguing that their god can only create life which needs a very tightly controlled set of conditions, is arguing that it not only isn't omnipotent, because an omnipotent god could create life anywhere it wanted, but that it is itself constrained and needs a fine-tuned environment in which to work. Who fine-tuned the creator's world and set the constraints under which it has to work? And yet another creationist argument disappears up its own infinite regress.

And of course, should their nightmare ever come true and we find evidence of life on another planet, this will remove any vestige of logic from their fond notion that their god created Earth especially for them, its special creation, to live in and that the chances of life arising even in the 'perfect' conditions their god created are so small that it couldn't have happened spontaneously.

If it turns out that life also arose on the only other planet we definitely know about where the conditions could once have been similar to those on an early Earth, that argues strongly that it happens spontaneously and quite readily. The 'Goldilocks zone' will need to be expanded and the definition adjusted accordingly using creationist circular reasoning - life can only exist in a 'Goldilocks zone' so a 'Goldilocks zone' must be wherever life exists!

Creationist frauds must consider themselves very fortunate that their target marks are almost guaranteed not to read any science and if they stumble accidentally on any will simply wave it aside anyway. In any case, when did having an argument refuted mean a creationist fraud wouldn't try to get away with it on someone else?

I wonder what the chances of proudly ignorant science denialism arising spontaneously in an otherwise intelligent ape are? Surely it must have been created by design. It certainly seems to require very careful maintenance.

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