Thursday, 28 February 2013

On The Eighth Day God Had His Appraisal Interview

Scene: Outside a large office block. Slightly dilapidated sign reads "Universe Constructions, Inc."

Scene moves into austere wood-panelled office. Desk; two chairs: One large, leather with arms; one small wooden, wobbly.

Important-looking man in suit (Zeus) open door for long-haired, youth dressed in white toga and sandals and holding a staff for no apparent good reason. Has a superior looking smirk, and a slight twitch in one eye.

Zeus: Ah! Yahweh. Nice to see you. Take a seat... No! That one is mine. That one, please.

Okay! Now the purpose of this chat is to give you a some feedback on how your probationary period is going, and for you to let us know if you're having any problems. Sort of two-way process keeping everything on track so to speak. The HR department insist on it but we all have our cross to bear, don't we, and the head of HR can get really cross. Ha ha ha!

I like to keep it informal but the important thing is that we are both frank and honest with one another. No elephants in the corner so to speak. Ha ha.

[Yahweh looks around at the corners, frowns. Eye twitches.]

So, you've been with us a week now. How do you think it's gone?

Yahweh: Great! Super! I'm not one to boast but I really am Supreme, aren't I! I've got a few ideas for my career I'd like to run past you... you know... job titles, unlimited power... that sort of thing. You must be very proud to have me here.

Zeus: Um... well, you'll have plenty of time for that later, let's not rush too far ahead. Let's look at your first week here first, shall we?

Yahweh: Yeah! What a week, eh? So much creating! I bet you're all talking about it.

Zeus: Um... well, we've certainly spoken about it... What were your objectives exactly? Do you remember? We discussed them on the first morning.

Yahweh: Er... was it to create a universe? Yeah! Create a universe and be the Supreme Ruler of it, starting with a planet in the middle of it.

Had to think outside the box there Big Z - can I call you 'Z'? Just creating a planet just didn't seem to be what a future CEO would do so I kinda re-wrote the objective a bit.

Zeus: A bit? (My name is Zeus by the way. You can call me Boss or Father of Gods if you wish).

Yahweh: A bit? Yeah, well, quite a lot really. But if you want a job done properly you have to do it yourself, I always say.

Zeus: We'll cover delegating later, if we ever get that far - which is not yet guaranteed you understand! No. That wasn't a question; it was a statement!

Remind me what your project specification was again. The actual specification, not what you thought it should have been. The specification that I wrote, by the way, which er... wasn't done properly, it seems.

Yahweh: Umm... to make a planet with life on it.

Zeus: Quite so. A planet with life on it. And we gave you a forming solar system to put it in, didn't we.

How did you go about planning the task?

Yahweh: Planning? I just got on with it. Being omniscient means I know what to do and exactly how to do it.

Zeus: I see. Did you look at any other planets to get any ideas? Did you talk to anyone about what planets are? Or did you just rely on this... umm... omniscience?

Yahweh: I thought that was for me to decide...

Zeus: You thought... You seem to have thought a lot, unfortunately not always about the right things.

Yahweh: That's the great thing about being omniscient. You just know things.

Zeus: [Sigh!] What makes you think you're omniscient?

Yahweh: Definition!

Zeus: Definition?

Yahweh: Of course! Definition! I defined my self as omniscient. I can do that because I'm omnipotent! Because I'm omniscient there can't be anything I don't know. [Eye begins to twitch]

Zeus: Ye Gods! So there is nothing you don't know and nothing we can teach you here? Hmm...?

Yahweh: Well, nothing I can think of... Nope! I don't know anything that I don't know. Which is why I'm such a great asset to you...

Zeus: You don't know anything you don't know, eh? Hmm... Well, let's press on.

What about this planet you ended up creating. How long did it take?

Yahweh: Six days! Worked on Saturday to get it done. No nine to five, five day week for a future CEO is there Z... er Boss!

Zeus: As I said, we can discuss the future... well, some time in the future... if you have one here....

Now. That planet you took six days creating... without looking at any other planets or talking to anyone...

Yahweh: Yeah! Great isn't it. Did a great job there even if I say so myself!

Zeus: Well, as you said, if you want something doing, or in your case, saying, you have to say it yourself.

But six days is rather a long time. It was supposed to be a quick Monday morning job just to see how you went about a simple task. Have you seen how many trillions of planets there are? If we had taken six days on each we'd have barely made a start by now.

But tell me about this planet, and the life you created on it.

Yahweh: Er... well, its a planet with living things like animals, fishes, crawly things, and a human who can talk.

I forgot the elephant didn't I!

Zeus: Just one?

Yahweh: What? Just one elephant... in the corner?

Zeus: Just one talking human.

Yahweh: Oh! Not the elephant then. Er... yes, just one human. Is that a problem?

Zeus: Who is it going to talk to?

Yahweh: Crickey! Never thought of that! I know! I can make another one so it will have someone to talk to! How about if I make a talking snake too? Or donkeys! Or an elephant!

Zeus: Let's wait till we're through before we decide if a correction plan is needed or whether we just write this off as a learning experience, shall we?

Yahweh: Correction? What's wrong with it? It looks perfect to me... well, apart from that little thing with the talking... and the missing elephant.

Look! If I'm perfect, how could I have made something which isn't perfect?

Zeus: Well quite! I was wondering that very thing myself...

Let's move on to the planet itself. Do you see any problem with it?

Yahweh: Problem? No. It looks okay to me. Quite pretty in fact. Lot of work there you know Z... er... Boss Father.

Zeus: It's flat!

Yahweh: What?

Zeus: It's flat! You made a flat planet!

Yahweh: Er... is that not right?

Zeus: No. Do you see any other flat planets? You didn't look did you! You didn't actually do any research you just assumed you knew it all...

What about gravity? Gravity would pull a big thing like a planet into a spherical shape so you've had to include a massive amount of wasted energy keeping it flat.

Yahweh: Well, I am omniscient, like I explained earlier... I wondered what that thing pulling on everything was. Gravity you say? Where did that come from? And where does all the rain go to if it hasn't got an edge to run over?

Zeus: You explained that you don't know anything you don't know. Do you not see any problem with that?

You didn't know about gravity did you. You didn't think to look at other planets and ask yourself why they are all spherical did you?

Yahweh: Not a problem! I can make it spherical later on.

Zeus: Well, gravity can make it spherical without your help.

And what about the dome thing you put on top of it? What on earth is that for?

Yahweh: That's a firmament. Smart, eh?

Zeus: A firmament? And what does it do exactly? Anything?

Yahweh: Yeah! A firmament! I'm glad you brought it up. It was a brilliant solution wasn't it! Dead pleased with myself there!

Zeus: Solution for what, exactly?

Yahweh: Two problems: first, the problem of keeping all the water out, and second, the problem of what to stick the sun, moon and stars to.

Zeus: [Head in hands] All the water?

Yahweh: All that water that the sky is made of - you know, where the rain comes from... that blue stuff.

Zeus: Write this down - "I must learn about weather and how it works, and what space is."

Yahweh: Not water then? So where does rain come from?

Zeus: That's why you need to learn about meteorology.

Yahweh: Meteorology as well as weather?

Zeus: And basic literacy... Yes, yes yes... meteorology.

Yahweh: But the firmament is still needed for the sun and moon and stars...

Zeus: [Sigh!] Add basic astronomy and physics to that list too...

Still think there is nothing you don't know? Don't answer that!

I hear you 'created' light before you created the sun. Is that right?

Yahweh: Surely did. I thought, how are people going to know it's daytime, so I put a sun on the firmament as a sign that it was daytime, then I put a moon so they could tell it was night. How neat is that, eh?

Zeus: Light comes from the sun. It's light during the day because the sun is in the sky. It's dark at night because the sun is not in the sky.

Yahweh: Is it? You sure? When did they start that then? What about moon light?

Zeus: Trust me!

The planet goes round the sun which was already there! Did you not notice that? It's that gravity thing again!

Heaven alone knows what those little lamps you hung on your firmament dome thing are for. I assumed it was decoration.

No leave it! Let's press on... Just a couple more things to cover:

Are you just going to leave it with just a few living things or do you want them to reproduce? What do you think we meant by 'living'?

Yahweh: I know that one! It means breathing, doesn't it!

Zeus: No. What about plants?

Yahweh: Plants? Are they alive? I thought they were just animal food?

Zeus: No. Plants are alive too, but what I meant was, what will happen when they've eaten all the plants?

Yahweh: Blimey! I need to think of a way to automate this so they make more plants, don't I!

Zeus: Well, at least we're getting past that delusion of omniscience. Now, what about the carnivores?

Yahweh: Aren't they great! You can have hours of fun watching them chase things then kill them. Have you seen how lions rip the guts out of things while they're still alive? You should hear them bellowing! And the way crocodiles drown things! Brilliant, eh? I could watch it for hours! Well worth creating planets and things just to see that!

Zeus: Pass me the waste bin will you, I think I might be sick. What will they eat when they've eaten all their food?

Yahweh: Gosh! Missed that one too! I've got a bit more work to do still, haven't I.

Zeus: Well, someone has... If we decide to continue with your... um... shall we call it your 'apprentice piece'?

Now, what about the carnivores?

Yahweh: What about them? We've just talked about how great they are with big teeth and claws...

Zeus: Well, for some unknown reason you made lots of small microbes and viruses that eat them and kill them. No doubt you find that great fun to watch too but what happens when they're all gone? What will the microbes do?

Yahweh: That means it's not just plants and plant-eaters which need to be replaced. It all does, doesn't it! Continually! I never thought about the longer term!

I know. I could let them use those sex organs things I gave them for reproducing. I wondered what they were for. That would solve it, eh? Job jobbed!

Zeus: Did you really not know that 'living' means reproducing? All the rest is just a means to that end. Maybe you should add ecology and biology to your list of things to study.

Yahweh: No need. I've just thought of sex so they all keep replacing themselves. Nothing can go wrong now! Omniscience you see!

Zeus: Apart from one little problem...

Yahweh: Little problem?

Zeus: When you were creating the rules, for what reason we will probably never know and I'm certainly not going to try to get to the bottom of it now, you made using sex organs for sex a sin so all the higher life on your planet will be sinful, according to your rules.

Yahweh: Sex is yucky! Touching all those yucky girly bits! Ughh! I'm not having them enjoying it. Why would they love me if I couldn't save them from myself for the sin of having yucky sex? No point in creating a planet in the first place!

And stop going on about foreskins! Have you ever tried to design one? It's not easy! I'll get them to cut them off! No body is to mention the foreskins! Okay! [twitch now includes cheek and ear]

Zeus: Foreskins? [shrugs, puts head in hands]

Anyway, as I said, I'm not going to try to fathom your thinking out now, but that's it then; your creation is doomed, just so it can love you, and because you've got a sex obsession. Nice one. [Shakes head]

Yahweh: Me! A sex obsession? It's all those animals who keep doing it!

I know! I'll let them have sex until there are millions of the filthy, sinful things, then I'll drown them all. That'll teach 'em for not being properly designed... [eye twitching get worse]

Zeus: Look! I think we're done here...

Yahweh: I know! I'll save a few so I can start again with those... That will save having to design new ones. Fingers crossed they'll be better next time... And when there are enough humans I can get them to kill one another. I enjoy a good war.

Women could be prizes if the men like touching their girly bits so much! Then I can punish them again! This is going to be great!

Zeus: Enough! The interview is over! Wait in the waiting room while I talk to colleagues and don't touch anything unless you have a supervisor with you. Close the door on your way out...

Yahweh: ... and I'll make a huge pit of fire to put everyone in so I can watch them writhing in agony and if that doesn't make them love me I'll just blow the place up and kill the lot of them with brimstone and treacle... No one messes with the Supreme Ruler of the Universe I tell you. I'll show those bastards.... [twitching extends to rest of face and includes shoulder]

Zeus: Mind you don't shut your fingers in the door... Ouch! You just did!

Jesus H. Christ! Can someone get some deodorizer in here! I think someone needs his diaper changing.

Ah! Come in Saturn! Good to see you again.

Look! I'm going to have to let that Yahweh fellow go. You probably heard the talk after last week's debacle.

Just tried to talk it over with him, god to god. Extraordinary! Completely clueless with the maturity of a spoiled ten year-old, and dangerously unbalanced if you ask me. We can't have an unstable psychopath who's too stupid to know he's silly about the place. Do you suppose he was home-schooled or something?

I don't know what the HR people were thinking of. Affirmative action is all very well but there are limits. I was wondering if we have a spare volcano we can put him in charge of, preferable a long-extinct one? Seems to have a thing about fiery pits and brimstone, and elephants - kept looking in the corner every time one was mentioned. Weird!

I wonder if HR have access to any counselling services we could point him to.

What is treacle anyway?

How are the children? Still keeping well?

Oh! You've eaten them! Sorry, I didn't realise...


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Monday, 25 February 2013

Why Your God Doesn't Exist

It's quite easy to prove logically that your god doesn't exist.

The proof is a simple deduction from certain basic assumptions which themselves are only assumptions in the sense of assuming the description you use for your god is true in the first instance. It goes without saying that if your description of your god is false then the god you are describing is also false.

Let's assume your god is real and has the following notional characteristics.

God is:
  • Omnipotent - all powerful - there is nothing your god can't do.
  • Omniscient - all knowing - there is nothing your god doesn't know.
  • Omni-benevolent - all-loving - there is nothing your god wouldn't do to defend and protect its creation.

Okay so far? Is there anything you disagree with here? Is there something your god can't do if it has a mind to? Is there anything your god doesn't know? How about all loving? Is there anything or anyone your god doesn't love and for whom it has anything less than the greatest possible concern?

If all these were true there would be no suffering in the world because your god would be aware of it, would want to prevent it and would have the power to do so.

It also follows that, if there is suffering in the world, at least one of the above must be false and if one of the above is false, the god you believe in does not have the characteristics you believe it has; in other words, the god you believe in does not exist

And yet we can see suffering exists. This is an observable, undeniable, inescapable fact.

For suffering to exist, your god must be deficient in at least one of the above. At least one of the following must be true. God is:
  • Unable to prevent it, so it isn't omnipotent.
  • Unaware of it, so it isn't omniscient.
  • Unconcerned about it, so it isn't all-loving

So, the undeniable existence of suffering in the world proves your god as described above does not exist.

Strange then that so much of your time is spent asking your god to either stop, reduce or prevent suffering, which is nothing more than tacit acceptance that an omniscience, omnipotent, omni-benevolent god doesn't exist.

Of course, you can escape the above logic by saying your god isn't omnipotent, isn't omniscience and/or isn't omni-benevolent, but a god who can't change things, doesn't know when they need to be changed and/or isn't bothered anyway, isn't much of a god and certainly not one worthy of worship. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we could distinguish such a god from a non-existent one.

I love these simple little proofs that gods don't exist. They are so much more elegant and simple than the cumbersome, convoluted and illogical 'proofs' which religious apologists have to try to get away with. That's the great thing about being supported by evidence, reason, logic and truth, and so not needing to fall back on the fallacy of faith and having to employ charlatans to make you feel better about being superstitious.

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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Does God Hate Bees?

Something nasty is attacking our honey bees.

If you believe a benevolent, loving god created Earth and all the creatures on it for mankind, then you have to be able to explain what's going on here and how it's all to the good.

First a brief outline of what bees do and why they are important to us and the world we live in, apart from providing us with honey. To understand this we need to go back to a time before there were flowering plants and before there was nectar out of which bees could make honey or pollen from which they make the wax to build their honeycomb with.

We need to go back to a time when the most advanced plants were the ferns which dominated the Carboniferous forests as large tree-ferns. Ferns, along with their more primitive ancestors, the mosses and liverworts do not produce flowers or pollen; instead they produce 'male' and 'female' gamete which depend on the 'male' gametes or sperms (yes, some plants have sperm too) being motile (i.e. able to swim with a flagellum) and finding a 'female' gamete with which to unite, rather like the system used by most higher animals. This means that ferns do best in a moist environment where the motile gamete has moisture to swim in, tied as it still is to the water in which green plants first evolved, with an aquatic form of locomotion.

This requirement to live in moist conditions obviously restricted the range of mosses, liverworts and ferns and made much of the planet inaccessible to them. However, there was a solution available in the form of the very many arthropods - insects, etc, which had colonised the land early on and had proliferated in the hot, moist, oxygen-rich conditions which prevailed in the Carboniferous Era. Clearly, anything which helped a fern sperm find a fern egg, and especially if this worked in dry conditions, would help ferns colonise new niches and would help ensure their success. So, something which attracted insects to crawl over the reproductive structures, picking up sperm on its body and transferring it to the egg would produce more ferns, and what better to do that with than a sugar-rich secretion which the insects were going to actively seek out?

So the symbiotic link between some insects and some plants was probably established which pushed the plants into producing more attractive reproductive structures at the cost of losing some of the pollen as food as well as supplying the sugars in the nectar in return for greater breeding success and being able to move into a whole range of new niches.

And so the class of flowering plants we call the angiosperms evolved and diversified into the vast number of different species we have today in which the motile male sperms have become passive pollen grains, and so a whole variety of insects species co-evolved, most, but not all of them, as flying insects like the bees.

This process has produced a complex system of mutual interdependence in a process so typical of mindless, unplanned, undirected evolution which can so specialise a species that it only takes a small change to put it into extinction mode. This is one reason why 99% of all species which ever existed are extinct.

Now very many plants are dependent on bees to be pollinated, some of them important crops to humans who have themselves co-evolved dependent on plants that are dependent on bees. Without bees, there will not be a next generation of these crops unless we adopt the hugely expensive and labour intensive method of hand pollination we now use for very careful plant breeding.

So, if you believe in an intelligently designed world, you're probably marvelling at the wonderful system which this has provided for us, though you may have had to find a reason to dismiss the evolutionary process I described as having produced it. Asked for evidence for your creator god you will point to 'everything'; you will point to our crops, to bees and flowers and to nature but for some reason you only ever point to the good, the positive and the beneficial.

Now you have to explain something else.

You have to explain a little mite, the Varroa destructor mite to be precise. V. destructor is busy wiping out honey bee colonies, apparently for no other reason than to produce more V. destructor mites. Not for humans, or bees, or flowering plants but for V. destructor. It's almost as though an intelligent designer has designed a system because it loves V.destructor mites. That's if you believe in intelligent design, that is.

You see, back in the Carboniferous, other arthropods, including the arachnids and their close relatives the mites were also evolving by a process which exploits the potential of new niches as they arise and become accessible. The mites evolved out of, probably, sap-sucking arthropods which learned to suck not plants but animals. Some of them were later to evolved to be parasites on mammals, such as tics; some evolved to be the normally harmless little mites that live in your eyelash follicles (yes yours!) and some of them evolved to suck the body fluids from insects, especially those which live in crowded colonies like bees do.

But that's not the worst of it. Bees could possibly survive the need to feed a few mites as well as themselves but what they can't survive is an even nastier little thing. V. destructor is host to an RNA virus which it almost seems to be designed to pass on to its victims. It causes deformity in bees wings so they can't fly. Other viruses they carry harm bees in other ways. Basically, a hive of bees which becomes infested with V. destructor has been given a death sentence unless drastic action is taken, but often it is discovered only when the colony collapses and dies.

Without honey bees many of our crops, as well as many wild plants on which other species and other ecosystems depend, will fail. The Varroa mite has pushed entire ecosystems to the edge of an extinction precipice, and, given the mindlessness of evolution, it is perfectly capable of going over the cliff and taking everything with it. If they go over the edge, the effects will be catastrophic not just for humans for but for much of the planet. The planet, of course, will recover and life will go on as though nothing has happened. New species will evolve and move into vacant niches and life will continue, leaving only vague fossil records that anything significant happened. But no species has a guaranteed right to be involved in its future. The future does not care whether we are there or not. It's up to us to ensure we are.

So, if you are an intelligent design proponent you can't escape the Varroa mite. You have to explain why it was designed and how it fits into your intelligently designed universe; designed as you believe by a benevolent god because it loves us. Regrettably, your inability to let go of that cosy simplistic answer may prevent us taking responsibility for our own continued existence and so may ensure we never do.


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How The Eel Was Designed

The European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) is a wonderful example of how God, sorry, the Intelligent Designer works.

One day the Intelligent Designer decided to make a strange creature that looked like a snake but which lived in water like a fish. He used gills like he had used for other fish so they could breathe in water and which He had decided not to use for some other animals which live in water, like seals, whales and turtles and He decided to include some small scales on their skin which don't seem to have any purpose because he designed them with a tough, slimy skin, but obviously these scales weren't there by accident.

But His most brilliant idea was how they were going to breed. He made it so they needed to spend many years living in rivers and lakes and places like paddy fields and even sewers to put on enough weight so they could go on a very long journey across the Atlantic all the way to the Sargasso Sea near America to lay their eggs, so the young eels have to travel all the way back to Europe again. This is obviously much more sensible than just laying their eggs in the rivers where they live, like most other fish do.

To make this journey, He designed eels so that, come the time for breeding, they strip their bodies down to the bare essentials - basically just the equipment for swimming, a large store of fat for the journey and a pair of gonads for reproducing. They have to take up to fifteen years getting fat enough before they do the journey and then they digest their own digestive system to make themselves lighter. This is obviously much better than needing to bother with eating on the journey through an ocean teeming with the sort of food they had been eating in the rivers they grew up in. As any experienced back-packer will tell you, it's obviously much better to be really big and fat before you start a long journey to save you having to bother eating on the way, and then doing away with your digestive system to make you lighter.

In fact, He brilliantly designed them to look like you would expect if they had once been sea-living at a time when their spawning ground was much closer to Europe but now someone had moved it all the way to America as though they were moving the sea bed around. The fact that very many of them don't survive the journey to the Sargasso Sea is all part of the plan obviously because this ensures that only those best at swimming to the Sargasso Sea get rewarded with breeding - and you can't say fairer than that.

He also made sure that they have no hope of ever returning once they've spawned because they can't eat and have used up all their fat, and He had another brilliant plan for them to go to all this trouble so most of their offspring would be eaten by other things on their journey back to Europe just as though their real purpose was to be food for other creatures.

Then, in a brilliant final move, the Intelligent Designer had the brilliant idea of designing a parasitic nematode worm which used to live only in a Japanese relative of the European eel but which He has now changed slightly so it now infects 80-100% of European eels, making it difficult for them to use the swim-bladders he had given them to make swimming easier, so the European eel is now an endangered species, as the number of young reaching Europe from the Sargasso Sea is down to a mere 2% of its former numbers in some places. But then who wants a lot of those ghastly slimy eels around, eh?

You have to hand it to God the Intelligent designer when He can come up with designs like that, don't you. Obviously nothing like that could be produced by a mindless, natural, undirected, purposeless process like that silly Charles Darwin invented.

(Er... no Creationists! That wasn't really a pro-ID blog. It's satire.)

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The Universe Is A Zero Sum Game

One question which seems to baffle creationists most is how can you get a Universe from nothing. I'm going to explain that now, so if you're a creationist who values your ignorance because it makes you think asking questions like that means you are cleverer than scientists who obviously have never thought of that before, stop reading now.

Ignoring the obvious questions, "How can you get a god from nothing, and what did it make everything out of when there was nothing to make it from?" creationists settle for the most infantile of all 'answers', "It must have been magic!". And of course it goes without saying that there must have been a magic man to do the magicking and that magic man must have been the locally popular one that mummy and daddy told them about.

This comes from the arrogant assumption that the Universe should be easy to understand without needing to learn anything and from the resulting ignorance about the nature of the Universe and in particular that the Universe is actually made not of 'stuff' but of energy. 'Stuff' is made of energy, as Einstein showed. Everyone can quote Einstein's e = mc2 and yet creationists in particular seem incapable of understanding what it means.

e = mc2 is the relationship between energy and matter and shows how they are the same thing. In fact, it shows that matter is simply a form of energy. 'c' being the velocity of light, which is very large, means that it takes lots of energy to make a small amount of matter and a little bit of matter contains lots of energy. Basically, that's why atom bombs are powerful.

So where did all this energy come from and why does it show how you get a Universe from nothing?

Well, the Universe appears to be made of four fundamental forms of energy which manifest as four basic forces:
  1. The Strong Force - which can hold a nucleus together against the enormous forces of repulsion of the protons.
  2. The Electromagnetic Force - manifests itself through the forces between charges and the magnetic force. Fundamentally, both magnetic and electric forces are manifestations of an exchange force involving the exchange of photons.
  3. The Weak Force - a force involving exchange of elementary particles in the atomic nucleus.
  4. Gravity - an attractive force proportional to the mass of an object.
Both the strong and weak forces have a very short range, while the electromagnetic force and gravity have a theoretically infinite range, but the important thing for understanding the fundamentals of where the Universe came from is that the first three in this list together total the force of gravity. Gravity is a negative force totalling the sum of the other three forces.

Gravity is actually a very weak force but it acts over a theoretically infinite distance. Consider Newton's apocryphal apple clinging to it tree by the nuclear forces holding the molecules of its slender stalk together and yet able to resist the entire gravitational force exerted by Earth. Yet everything that has mass has gravity so the sum total of the Universe is, well, massive.

One explanation for what happened in the initial 10-43 seconds is that a quantum fluctuation large enough for relatively weak gravity to become stripped away from the other three forces and 10-43 seconds was enough for this to cause a hyperinflation in which almost unlimited positive and negative energy could be created but always totalling zero. This Plank Time is the minimum time that can exist so the instant the Universe came into existence, it was immediately 1*10-43 seconds old.

The sum total of all the energy in the Universe is zero.

The Universe is literally nothing. Not something, but nothing has come from nothing!

It's a bit like borrowing from a bank. The Bank lends you $1000. You now have $1000; the Bank has -$1000. You both have an asset which you can use (the Bank can actually sell your debt as an asset because it represents a bit of your future earning that the bank now owns and you can use the $1000 for whatever you borrowed it for) and yet no wealth was created by that transaction.

What followed after this initial 10-43 seconds is now very well understood and can be read in the first part of my blog, What Makes You So Special?

So when creationists ask how the Universe came from nothing, all they do is betray the ignorance upon which their superstition depends. That they are primed to ask these sorts of questions by the pseudo-scientists who feed them this ignorance in return for money speaks not so much of their credulous gullibility as of the criminal dishonesty of those cheats who sell them the stuff.

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Sunday, 17 February 2013

Dear Christians

An open letter to Christians.
The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismDear Christians.

You seem puzzled and shocked by the recent change in Atheists and appear to be mystified and confused because we have stopped being deferential and 'respecting' your right to be above questioning, and politely exempting you from the need to justify your beliefs and the claims to power and privilege you have traditionally exercised, unchallenged, for many centuries.

You appear to be affronted by, and indignant at, our sudden perceived 'rudeness', as though we are like surly servants who have suddenly refused to be servile and have declined to be at your beck and call.

This letter is my attempt to explain why this has happened. I speak for myself though I hope my fellow Atheists agree with me.

You may have heard it called 'New Atheism'. It is really just the same old Atheism but now without the polite and considerate deference to your sensitivities and your strange allergy to questions like how?, why? and what? to which you had for long been accustomed.

You see, we have realised you were simply taking advantage of our politeness - not so much because you saw it as your right to deference and to be immune from having to justify yourselves, though you undoubtedly did see it as your right - but because you saw it as a weakness in us to be exploited. You exploited our polite consideration by making us feel guilty for asking you these very reasonable questions.

We no longer feel guilty for upsetting you with questions which you should be able to answer if your reasons are honest, but which you self-evidently can't answer, hence your frequently loud indignation and cries of foul. You may not like it; you might kick and scream like a spoiled trustafarian Sloan Square brat, but you are now required to justify your claim to power and privilege; it is no longer yours by right.

Events like the 9-11 attack on New York, the 7-7 attack in London, the 3-11 attack on Madrid, the faith-based initiatives in Palestine, Sudan, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Nigeria, Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, East Timor, Bali, and many other points of conflict in the world, have shown us that religion is not a force for peace in the world but a source of conflict. The only 'peace' religion knows is the peace of total surrender and abject submission at the end of the war it has waged on those who dare to stand up to it.

We have come to see that you give permission to the extremists in your midst by sanctioning 'faith' as a means to determine truth and lending respectability to the idea that all truth can be found in an old book of primitive myths, barbaric tribal morality and forged and falsified Bronze and Iron Age legends, and to the absurd notion that a suspension of critical thinking and analytical skills is to be admired.

And you see, we remember the way you behaved when you held complete power over us and we have resolved to never allow you to do the same again. We refer to this period as The Dark Ages, before the Enlightenment began to open our eyes to the possibilities you were denying us and the fallacies you were using to justify your abuses.

We remember how you unleashed a murderous purge on rival beliefs and even rival sects of your own belief once your particular sect had gained total power within the remnant Roman Empire as it entered it's terminal decline, destroying any evidence that your own sect was based on systematically forged and falsified records.

We remember how you killed anyone who showed the slightest doubt or dared to question your handed-down dogma and how you promoted to positions of power and authority only those who signed up to your lies and deceptions and who conspired with you to foist your invented 'faith' onto the ordinary people.

We remember how you supported and validated a repugnant feudal system in which millions of people lived as slaves with their very lives at the disposal of the land-owners you gave authority to in return for privilege and patronage and protection and tolerance of your greed, debauchery and gluttony whilst those around you died of disease and starvation. We remember how you told the people it was God's will that these parasites ruled over us and God's will that we lived lives of abject misery and hopelessness because we could look forward to something better, like an unctuous trader in a bazaar selling us a pig in a poke and scarpering before we asked for our money back. Although, as you knew, we would never be in a position to ask for our lives back.

We remember how you unleashed murderous attacks on distant people on the pretext of liberation when your own position was under threat, or to whip a truculent people into line by imbuing them with paranoia about a distant enemy. Or simply to fill your coffers with war booty stolen from its rightful owners on the pretext of confiscation as punishment for sin. We remember how you threw young men into battle to die horribly whilst you cheered from the sidelines and rejoiced in the depths of the blood that flowed through the streets of Jerusalem and other cities, from the safety of your palaces, abbeys, castles and citadels.

We remember how you indiscriminately murdered tens of thousands of people in southern France because some of them dared to refuse to pay tithes, dared to question your dogma and preferred to follow a different one, just to secure the southern borders of a despot whose support you wanted.

We remember how you sold indulgences to the rich and powerful so they could buy exemption from the need to behave decently towards their people, and so they could live debauched and violent lives of greed and selfishness and be free to exploit those with whom they dealt unfettered by the need to behave humanely or treat others with the dignity that should have been their due as human beings.

We remember how you organised pogroms and persecutions and massacres against Jews, often just at the time a powerful ruler was being asked to please pay back the money he had borrowed from them, often under conditions they could not refuse, or simply to secure popular support for your favourite local despot.

We remember how you sanctioned and organised the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent women in frequent periods of witch paranoia usually as a distraction for something else which was threatening your power and privilege or to help out an unpopular despot who was having trouble controlling his underlings.

We remember how you blessed and sanctified the frequent wars of conquest, selling your blessings to the highest bidders or those who held out the promise of a share in the spoils and we remember how you created a Hell on earth for very many people throughout much of the last 2000 years with the disregard for human dignity of the homicidal psychopath.

We remember how you normally provided the advance guard for colonial imperialists by exporting your superstition to backward and ignorant people, selling them the same lies that you had sold us, with the same false promises, in return for handing over power over their lives, their countries and their natural resources to those with whom you were hand in glove and to whose ruling classes you cravenly capered.

We remember how you gave moral authority to the slave traders who treated whole races of people like animals the easier to buy, sell, breed and kill them at will to earn the profits for the people who paid you for this service. And we remember how you stigmatised, demonised and damned to Hell those who tried to end slavery, and then those who tried to bring equal civil rights to those who had eventually gained their freedom.

And we remember how you keep the descendants of those slaves in positions of economic and social inferiority by telling them the old lie that it is God's will and they will have jam and freedom tomorrow in return for the stale breadcrumbs and subservience of today and we remember how you have sold credulous people the deeply repugnant idea that the best thing that could possibly happen is that everyone is killed in a war to end wars which only your small sect will survive so they can have everything for themselves. We remember how you sold this unspeakable greed, selfishness and hatred for our fellow man as a good thing and a moral crusade.

We remember how you sell hate disguised as love; division disguised as unity; racism and plutocracy disguised as economic freedom and superstition and lies disguised as science.

We remember how you lie to our children and brainwash them with the fear of Hellfire and the guilt of 'original sin' and use that fear to keep them in servile ignorance and deluded into believing that ignorance, superstition and cowering compliance are preferable to questioning, learning, reason and self-reliance.

We remember how you relegated women to subject, sub-human, under-class status for most of history and regarded them as brood mares to be used and abused with impunity by men, and how you demonised and damned those women who stood up for themselves and their fellows and demanded the right to be treated as fully human with full human rights and full access to opportunities and justice. We remember how you used threats and guilt to prevent women exercising their right to control their own fertility and to plan their families and so liberate themselves from a life of drudgery and dependence.

We remember how you opposed every extension of human right to all socio-economic classes; how you opposed every extension of the franchise; how you opposed every move towards liberalisation and inclusion and freedom from discrimination for minorities and how you could always be relied on to find just the excuse the vested interests needed to justify their denial of democratic rights to whichever group it suited them to deny them to.

And we remember your frequent abuses of the power and authority you have held over vulnerable people, especially, but not only, children, and how, when you have learned of these abuses you have conspired to keep the perpetrators from justice and free to continue their abuse and how you have withheld information from and obstructed the authorities who were investigating these abuses.

And we remember how you lied about condoms and AIDS and so hampered attempts by humanitarians to bring relief from famine, poverty and sickness for much of the third world.

In short, we remember how you abused every little bit of power you had and how you continue to abuse the little power we have still to take from you. We remember how you have almost never (or only very rarely and then only because you have demanded a monopoly on 'charity' which you have often used as a cover for your other abuses) been a force for good in the world but have almost always been a force for bad; for reaction, for repression, for division and discrimination. And we remember how you shamefacedly posed as the guardians of our morals from your position of moral bankruptcy and how you demanded the right to tell us how to live our lives.

We have now realised that all the arguments you have traditionally deployed in defence of your superstition and to justify your power and privilege have been refuted and falsified and that science has never found a single scrap of evidence for the supernatural you defer to or the magic being you tell us inhabits it and from whom you derive your authority.

We have discovered that your claims are fraudulent and the disreputable claims of the confidence trickster and the charlatan.

We will no longer stand in polite deference and allow you to continue your abuse of the human race on the pretext of the fraud you have systematically perpetrated against humanity. They have done nothing to deserve you and we need to be rid of you. The future of humanity depends on it.

We accept that some of you do some good in the world and that a few of you perform great acts of self-sacrifice out of love for your fellow man, and thank you for it, but we regret that you do so little to expose and oppose the harm that so many of your co-religionists do.

Begone! Go now! I wish to have no more of you.

Yours sincerely.


p.s. Should you mend your ways and resolve to be decent, productive and useful people, you are more than welcome to be part of the brighter future which freedom from religion will bring. You have nothing to fear from Atheists when we are the majority and hold the power that you once abused. You will have the same rights and privileges as other people, no more and no less. We will accord you the same respect as others and with the dignity which is your right as a fellow human being - a dignity which was so conspicuously lacking in your treatment of other people, especially those who dared to disagree with you and stood up to your bullying, and which would undoubtedly be lacking again were you ever to regain the power you once held.

You have nothing to fear from us because the very last people we will behave like is you.

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Thursday, 14 February 2013

Saint Valentine

St Valentine Kneeling In Supplication, David Teniers III (1638-1685)
Saint Valentine is one of many similar legendary saints of the Christian Church who appear to have been invented or is at best based on highly embroidered and increasingly elaborated accounts of one or more ancient people.

He first makes an appearance as a saint in 496 when Pope Gelasius I designated February 14 as his feast day, saying of him, apparently without the slightest hint of irony, that he is amongst those "... whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God." In other words, they're great men who undoubtedly should be revered - but we just don't know what they actually did.

'Knowledge' without any evidence was just as common amongst religious people, especially clerics, in those days as it is today it seems.

There are various accounts associating Valentine or Valentinus with being executed by the Emperor Claudius II in around about 270. In fact there appear to be at least three claimants to the title.
  • A Bishop of Interamna (modern Terni)
  • A Roman priest
  • Someone called Valentinus who was killed along with several companions in the Roman province of Africa.

All these are reputed to have been martyred on February 14 but, as is often the case with church 'history', when a saint is designated as having died on a given date that becomes the date on which they died, so it's hardly surprising that all three contenders for the title 'Saint Valentine' are now said to have dutifully been martyred on the official date. How dare it have been otherwise? The first two are also claimed to have been executed by Claudius II outside the Flaminium Gate but, again, how much of that is official church 'truth' and how much is real truth is probably impossible to say.

It has been suggested by the eighteenth century English antiquarians Alban Butler and Francis Douce that the Feast of St Valentine may have been an attempt to supplant the mid-February pagan feast of Lupercalia with a Christian one.

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

Plutarch - Life of Caesar

So the connection with love and fertility may come from an ancient, even pre-Roman, pagan festival which subsumed the even earlier Februa from which we get 'February'.

Most of the traditions now associated with Saint Valentine's Day in the English-speaking world are believed to have come from Geoffrey Chaucer's Parliament of Foules which is set in the context of a fictional tradition. There does not appear to be any basis for associating Valentine with lovers and a fourteenth century French Vies des Saintes has Valentine overseeing the building of his basilica at Terni but makes no mention of him being a patron of lovers. Of course, a great deal also owes it's origins to the commercial interests of the greetings card and chocolate industries.

Like so many early Christian martyr and saints, Valentine seems to have contrived to die in a way which provided the hundreds of relics which are now scattered throughout the Christian world. Valentine's various body parts can be found in Prague in the Czech Republic, Rome in Italy, Dublin in Ireland, Glasgow in Scotland, Birmingham in England, Roquemaure in France, Vienna in Austria, and Balzan in Malta, where they continue to attract visitors with gifts of money to show their devotion and to buy the cheaply-made tacky and mawkishly sentimental souvenirs.

As with so much else about the Catholic Church in particular, and Christianity in general, the distinction between legend, myth, invention and fact is obscure, irrelevant and merely incidental. The important thing is to keep the people ignorant, credulous, superstitious, fearful and in awe of the priesthood as the only means by which they can hope for jam tomorrow whilst accepting the hopelessness of today, and allowing the priesthood to get away with it.

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The Miracle of Miracles

Lourdes - A nice little earner.
Sorry theists but religions like Catholicism which rely heavily on claimed miracles are hoist by their own petard. Their over-dependence on miracles betrays their awareness of the lack of any substantive evidence.

With the Catholic Church, as with other superstitions, miracles are a way to keep simple, credulous people in awe of the supernatural and the mysterious which they need the Church and its priesthood to explain. Miraculously, they always play into the hands of the Church and its priesthood and almost always encourage the inward flow of money.

By definition, a miracle can never be proven, hence it can never be evidence for anything, for the simple fact that, to qualify as a miracle, there can be no natural explanation for the phenomenon, otherwise it's just an unusual event. The mathematician J. E. Littlewood calculated that the average person should experience a million-to-one event about once a month - in other words, the highly unusual is actually commonplace.

There can be no verifiable evidence for a miracle simply because, by definition, it wasn't natural. The only thing to go on is the word of someone else, and their unverifiable claim that they saw something which couldn't have a natural cause. As Elbert Hubbard said, "A miracle is an event described by those to whom it was told by people who did not see it."

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact which it endeavours to establish.

David Hume
So, religions which rely on miracles and claim to have evidence for them are actually saying their evidence... er.... isn't.

A miracle which can be proved is not a miracle.
A miracle which cannot be proved is not evidence for anything.

Some claimed miracles are so patently absurd they can be dismissed as mass hallucination, Emperor's new clothes, or downright lies; claims that the sun did something strange for example. It is inconceivable that a handful of villagers, or a couple of peasant girls saw the sun zigzagging across the sky when no one else on earth saw it, and yet the Catholic Church doesn't hesitate to promote these plainly absurd 'miracles' as real events. And of course, they attract eager visitors keen to see the site of this wondrous miracle, and to buy the tacky, mass-produced, crudely made plastic souvenirs to carry the magic home in.

All the tales of miracles, with which the Old and New Testament are filled, are fit only for impostors to preach and fools to believe.

Thomas Paine
Which is the more likely explanation; that a bunch of peasants, already conditioned to believe what the priest told them, and fearing the opprobrious of being the one not faithful enough to have seen the miracle, agreed that they had seen it, or that the entire rest of the world failed to notice the sun moving in a strange way (as though the sun moves relative to earth, and not vice versa any way) and there were no gravitational effects or astronomical effects because of it? Even a simple assessment of the relative likelihoods should be enough to dismiss the miracle without further ado. Only someone ignorant of basic astronomy could be persuaded of its truth. Only someone who still believes the sun orbits Earth could believe such nonsense.

And yet the Catholic Church ships in tourists to Fatima by the coach-load to sell them magic and hocus-pocus and priest from the Pope down assure them it was all real. In 1950, Pope John XII 'remembered' seeing the miracle himself from the Vatican garden, thirty-three years earlier. He never revealed why he considered it unworthy of mention at the time.

And if you believe that, I have this bridge I'm trying to sell...

By way of illustration of how 'miracles' arise and gain traction, here is one such 'miracle' from 17th Century Spain, the so-called 'Miracle of Calanda' in which a pious young man's amputated leg allegedly suddenly re-grew overnight.

Miguel's Leg
In July 1637 a 20 year-old Miguel Juan Pellicer, a devotee of the Madonna de Pilar, fell from the mule cart he was driving and a wheel ran over his lower leg, breaking his tibia. He was taken to hospital in nearby Valencia, and then he decided to walk on his broken leg to a hospital in Zaragoza dedicated to Madonna del Pilar, a journey which, because of his injury, he claimed took him fifty days. On arrival there his leg was allegedly so gangrenous that that it had to be immediately amputated below the knee. It was then buried in the hospital cemetery as was the custom. After convalescing, he earned his living as a beggar in the vicinity of the basilica to Madonna del Pilar in Zaragoza. He later claimed that every evening he asked the servants at the basilica for a spot of oil from the lamps which he rubbed on his stump in the belief that the Madonna would restore his leg.

After a couple of years he returned home to Calanda where he continued to earn his living as a disabled beggar.

On the evening of 29 March 1640 at about ten o'clock, Miguel found his bed occupied by a soldier from a platoon temporarily billeted in Calanda so he went to sleep in a provision bed in his parents' room, covered by a cloak. Sometime between ten thirty and eleven o'clock that same night his mother came into the room and noticed there were two feet sticking out of the bottom of the cloak. Thinking it must be another soldier she called her husband but when they removed the cloak they found Miguel deeply asleep and displaying the normal full complement of legs. When they shook him from his deep slumber he said he had been dreaming of the Madonna del Pilar and rubbing oil on his stump. They decided the restoration of the leg must have been due to the Madonna's intercession.

In those parts of the world where learning and science have prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in those parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue.

Ethan Allen
In April of that year Miguel and his parents went on a pilgrimage of thanks to Zaragoza where Miguel was recognised by several people as the (formerly) one-legged beggar. In all, 24 witnesses were found who testified to the miracle and the leg was identified as Miguel's original leg by some bruises and scars that were there before the accident (do bruises last for more than two years?). The place where the leg had been buried in the Zaragoza hospital cemetery was excavated and found to be empty. Quite why a divine intersession involved removing the actual original leg from its grave and restoring it, and not simply regenerating a new one was not explained. A year later, the archbishop of Zaragoza declared that an authentic miracle had occurred. Miguel was summoned to appear before King Philip IV who piously kissed the restored leg.

That's the official version with everything documented and official, some documents even still to be seen in Zaragoza Cathedral. A small industry has since grown up in Calanda to cater for the tourists who come to see, amongst other things, a sculpted image of the leg of Miguel Pillicer at the Templo del Pilar.

Author Brian Dunning has done extensive research and notes that "there is no documentation or witness accounts confirming his leg was ever gone." He presents a non-miraculous explanation that Pelicer's leg did not develop gangrene during the five days at the hospital at Valencia. He spent the next 50 days convalescing, during which he was unable to work. He turned to begging, and discovered that having a broken leg was a boon. After his leg had mended, he decided that if a broken leg helped, a missing leg would be better. Travelling to Zaragoza, he bound his right foreleg up behind his thigh and for two years played the part of an amputee beggar. Later, back at his parents home in Calanda, forced to sleep in a different bed, his ruse was discovered. The story of the miracle was a way to save face. Dunning notes "that no evidence exists that his leg was ever amputated — or that he was even treated at all — at the hospital in Zaragoza other than his own word. He named three doctors there, but for some reason there is no record of their having been interviewed by either the delegation or the trial." That the hole in the cemetery of the hospital of Zaragoza in which the leg had been buried was found empty is consistent with the leg never having been amputated.

Source: Wikipedia - Miracle of Calanda
So which is the more parsimonious explanation: that a beggar's ruse was rumbled, a pious tale was hurriedly cobbled together which the Catholic Church, over-eager to declare a miracle, failed to investigate properly, and that at least twenty-four people had been taken in by the ruse, or that an amputee really did have his dead and buried gangrenous (and long-ago rotted) leg miraculously resurrected from its grave in Zaragoza, teleported to a bed in Calanda, restored to life, complete with original scars and bruises, and reattached to its original owner, because he rubbed some oil from a shrine on it?

Does no one ever ask why, if restoring a dead leg to full health and reattaching it, as though nothing had ever happened to it, is so easy, why it doesn't happen more often no matter how fervently a miracle is prayed for?

Perhaps the real miracle of miracles is just how easily credulous people can be persuaded to believe them. That is almost unbelievable.

As I said, I still have that bridge for sale...

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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

In Darwin's Day

Charles Darwin
When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace jointly submitted their papers to the Linnean Society in 1859, few people could argue with the fundamental truth of their argument.

There is undoubtedly variation in living things; the environment is undoubtedly selective and organisms compete for resource; and organisms undoubtedly reproduce. So all of Darwin's three prerequisites for evolution were present: variation, selection and reproduction.

It was so manifestly obvious to a mind of sufficient grasp that, as Huxley said on reading Origin, "How stupid not to have thought of it oneself!".

The physical evidence of kinship between closely related organisms, which becomes less as they become less closely related, is self-evident, so Carl Linne's classification system fitted with and is explained by the theory Darwin and Wallace were proposing. Cats, dogs and bears are more like one another than they are like humans and elephants; humans, chimps and gorillas are more like one another than they are like bats or whales; humans, bats, elephants, whales and dogs are more like one another than they are like birds or frogs or cabbages, so if you arrange organisms according to decreasing similarity you get a hierarchy, which can be explained by natural selection from small variation, accumulated over time, like the branching of an ever-growing tree all growing from a single origin.

So biological classification, diversification and development had an explanation.

However, there remained a few major problems for the theory; not with the theory itself, but with how it fitted with the rest of 'known' science.

Alfred Russell Wallace
Evolution depends on a slow accumulation of small differences so eventually they may add up to a big enough difference to prevent interbreeding, so producing two species where there was previously only one or at least producing two or more new varieties where there was previously only one. Evolution had to account for all the accumulated differences from species as divergent as a blue whale and a barnacle or a bacterium and a giant redwood. Yet the received wisdom of the day was that earth was only a few thousand years old - far too short for evolution to have worked at the pace it had to work at.

So earth had to be much older.

For earth to have been old enough, the sun would have to be at least that old, and yet the received wisdom was that it must be only a few thousand years old otherwise it would have used up all its fuel by now.

So the sun had to be much older.

But the received wisdom was that the universe and the sun were created at the same time so the universe was not old enough for the sun to be old enough for the earth to be old enough for evolution to have had enough time.

And yet a mind of sufficient grasp could see that Darwinian evolution was so obviously true and explained just about everything about biology and how life came to be the way it is.

Then guess what!

Geologists found that earth was very much older than received wisdom thought. It was certainly many millions of years old, maybe even a few billion, so earth was certainly old enough.

But what about the sun? What about the problem of it having enough fuel to burn for many millions, even billions of years? Surely, if the sun wasn't old enough then the geology must be wrong.

Then guess what!

Physicist found that the received wisdom was wrong and the sun's energy came not from oxidation of combustible fuel like a conventional fire, but from fusion of hydrogen to form helium, and the mass was just enough for the sun to be old enough for earth to be old enough for evolution to have happened the way Darwin and Wallace said.

But what about the age of the universe? And what about the heavier elements that earth was made from? Where did they came from?

Then guess what!

Cosmologists found that the universe was expanding at a rate which, projected backwards, meant it started out very small fourteen billion years ago, and other physicists found there was an echo of a vast burst of energy and that echo was exactly as 'loud' as it should be if the universe was as old as its rate of expansion suggested.

The age of the universe was enough for suns to have formed, to have burned up their hydrogen and exploded to form the heavier elements; and then formed again from more hydrogen, and the cosmic star dust of heavier elements from earlier suns, and maybe a third time, to throw out accretion discs of these heavier elements in which rocky planets like earth could coalesce around stable orbital centres.

And so physicists and cosmologists and geologists proved that the universe was old enough for earth to be old enough for evolution to have occurred just like Darwin and Wallace said.

But there was one more major problem for evolution.

No one had any idea how the information about difference was stored and passed on to the next generation or where the accumulated differences were stored and built up from one generation to the next, and how this information translated into different organisms.

Then Gregor Mendel found that there were rules of inheritance and that these rules must be the expression of some entity which was passed from parent to offspring, so we knew that there was something carrying the information but we didn't know what or how.

Then guess what!

Biochemists found the structure of DNA and how it acts as an information store and governs the growth and development of new organisms and so we now know how evolution works and where natural selection operates and where the information about variation is stored and how it is used to make different organisms.

But there was just one little nagging doubt left. Clearly related land-bound species had a habit of living on land-masses that weren't joined, so no one could satisfactorily explain how they got there and land bridges between Africa and South America seemed so unlikely. Didn't this mean that they couldn't have evolved from a common ancestor?

And then geologists discovered plate tectonics, which not only explained very much of why earth is the way it is, complete with mountains, oceanic trenches and volcanoes, but occurred in a way which exactly matched what it would need to be to explain why animals on disconnected land-masses evolved from a common ancestor, just the way Darwin And Wallace said they had.

And so now we know that Darwin and Wallace were absolutely right all those years ago and the science which was thought to have falsified it, or at least cast severe doubt on it, was wrong.

The geologists and physicists and cosmologists should have listened to the biologists and recognised that biology had discovered a fundamental law so powerful it can be used to validate other science. In fact, many of the more enlightened ones do, of course. Just like the laws of thermodynamics where we can be as sure as it is possible to be with science that if the science seems to contradict the laws of thermodynamics, the science is wrong, so we can say that if science seems to contradict evolution, the science is wrong.

Ah! But what about theology? Isn't that a major objection to the Theory of Evolution?

Not at all. Just as we can say that the science is wrong if it contradicts evolution, so we can say that theology is wrong if it contradicts evolution. Science is the tool we use for telling what's right from what's wrong. If theology fails the test of science, theology is wrong.

Unlike science, which can revise and correct itself when the evidence changes or more is added, just as it did when it seemed to conflict with evolution, theology is capable of revising and correcting itself only with immense difficulty and usually after much kicking and screaming, and so becomes progressively at odds with reality as time goes by, until it is forced to do an about turn and look silly as it does so. Like it did with the flat earth, geocentrism and the age of the earth and the universe it formed in, it has now been forced to pay official lip-service to basic science but still behaves as though the old ideas are right - which is why an increasing number of educated people are laughing at it as it tries to ride two horses going in opposite directions and simply makes an ass of itself.

That is a problem for theology, not for science.

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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Infallible Errors And Moving Mountains

Don't you just love it when a holy book shoots itself in its foot?

Here's one such passage from the Qur'an. You've probably seen it quoted or alluded to by fundamentalists who've been convinced that the Qur'an is a science book dictated by Allah and therefore whatever it say is genuine science. By that gloriously hilarious circularity of 'reasoning' with which fundamentalist comically reinforce their self-delusion, it follows that because the Qur'an has 'genuine' science in it it must be the word of Allah. It's the same trick Christians use for fooling themselves and their gullible victims with, in respect of the equally absurd Bible. It neatly circumvents the need to look for extra-koranic or extra-biblical evidence for either the god or that the book is real science.

Unfortunately, the test of whether something is genuine science is whether it equates to observable reality... or not.

This one fails that test big time. No one who knows more than the average five year-old about geology could mistake it for real science.
"Have We not made
the earth as a wide expanse,
and the mountains as pegs?"
Qur'an 78:6-7
Um... well... No, actually!

The earth can't really be described as a vast expanse, because it all depends on your relative scale. On a cosmological scale earth is a tiny dot; an insignificant little speck that would go completely un-noticed by the rest of the Cosmos if it were to disapear tomorrow. You can't even describe the entire solar system as vast on a Cosmological scale, or even the entire Milky Way Galaxy for that matter.

But that's not the main problem here. We can maybe forgive the parochialism and lack of appreciation of the real vastness of the Cosmos as mere naivety, what with the state of scientific knowledge when the above was written. From the Arabian desert earth must have seemed both vast and flat.

The main problem is with the description of mountains as pegs.

Pegs to do what, exactly? Pegs to hold the ground down, maybe? Possibly like the wooden pegs in a dhow which held the planks together?

The problem is that we can't even stretch the definition of 'peg' to make it mean anything like what mountains really are and what they are for, if being 'for' something makes any sense when talking about geology. The earth's geology doesn't have function; it has form and what it does follows from that form. Mountains are folded up from the earth's crust by geological forces, mainly tectonic movement but also volcanic action (which is a consequence of tectonic action). There are merely consequences of other geological forces and have no function as such. The uplift of large sections of rock is due to potential energy being released by being converted into kinetic energy, so allowing two plates to move together of for one to slide under the other so the only function mountains could possible described as having is to act as energy dumps.

Mountain formation is not a mystery; it is something well-known to science and it has nothing whatever to do with pegs and mountains have no 'pegging' function by any stretch of the imagination.

Sorry, Muslims, but the only honest answer you can give to the question asked in 78:6-7, when you've subjected it to the test of comparing it to observable reality, is, "No!", or allowing for the superfluous 'not' in the first line, "Yes, you have not!"

In fact, you can only claim this verse equates to anything approaching reality if you give that 'not' a significance not normally accorded such hyperbole and translate this as stating that Allah has not done these things and is simply asking for your agreement. If it's being used in its normal English form as a short-hand for "Do you think I have not...?", then the only sane answer is, "Yes! You have not!". I hope the original Classical Arabic has a more logical grammatical structure than this clumsy English one.

What you make of the consequences of this error is up to you but error it undoubtedly is. There is no sense of the word 'peg' in which mountains can be so described. You can of course continue to pretend that the Qur'an is a book of science and the infallible word of an omniscient god, or you can accept the observable reality and the consequences which flow from it. What you can't in all honesty do, is hold both views simultaneously and claim to be a rational, honest person.

It would be astonishing is a god of truth and honesty required you to be dishonest to yourself, and to call the evidence you believe it created a lie, as a precondition for believing in it.

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Creationists, Flying In The Face Of Reason

A rather beautiful, but also rather nasty, large African fly bites Creationism, and especially its subversive undercover wing, 'Intelligent Design', on their exposed rear end.

Superficially, the tsetse fly resembles most other typical flies but, due to some important anatomical difference it is placed in its own separate family the Glossinidae. All 33 species belong to the single genus Glossina. Fossil tsetse flies have been found in 34 million year-old deposits in Colorado, USA, so we know the family is fairly ancient. In Africa, diseases carried and transmitted by tsetse flies kill an estimated 250,00 - 500,000 people a year, 3 million cattle a year and cost an estimated 1-1.2 billion US$ a year (2010 figures).

Tsetse flies have an interesting and rather unusual life cycle. A single female breeds about four times a year and can produce about thirty broods in a lifetime. However, unlike most other insects, which produce many eggs at a time and so rely on just a small percentage reaching adulthood to maintain the population (and so, incidentally, producing a constant supply of larva as prey for species higher up the food chain) tsetse flies have evolved a different strategy. They produce just a single egg at a time.

Normally, with most higher insects, the eggs are laid and hatch and the larva grow, shedding their skins at stages, so having several 'instars', each instar being larger and sometimes distinctly marked. Female tsetse flies however retain the single egg in a uterus where it hatches. The larva lives and feeds for the first two instars inside the uterus where it is fed on a milk-like substance (I'm not making this up!) produced by a special gland in the uterus, complete with teat (I'm really not making this up!). The tsetse fly suckles its young internally and gives birth to a large offspring in the form of a third instar maggot. This process of egg retention, development and feeding from a gland in a uterus in insects is known as adenotrophic viviparity.

Third instar larva of other higher insects tend to spend a while in this stage laying down their final stores of nutrients to see them through pupation and into adulthood, and sometime even through adulthood since some fully formed insects don't feed at all but simply exist to mate and lay eggs, then they die. The tsetse fly third instar stage lasts only for a short period however, during which it finds some earth soft enough to burrow into, gets itself a few inches below the surface and sheds its skin for the last time to form a hard-cased pupa. This third instar stage lasts such a short time that it has rarely been observed in the wild. We know about it from observing laboratory strains.

What this process means is that the tsetse female has to supply her single offspring with enough nutrition to grow an entire adult tsetse fly because the larva doesn't feed at all outside her body but pupates and develops into an adult fly using only the nutrients she supplies to it. This represents a huge investment on the part of the female who not only has to find a mate but also enough food for itself and its developing offspring. It literally needs to eat for two.

It does this by feeding off the blood of mammals, which it finds with a sophisticated heat-seeking system.

Trypanosomes in blood film (stained)
(Designed by God oops! the Intelligent Designer)
This, as with very many other blood-sucking insects like mosquitoes, has opened the tsetse fly up to exploitation by a parasite, in this case a group of protozoans known as trypanosomids. Typically, these parasites have at least two hosts, spending part of their life-cycle in each. In this case the hosts are tsetse flies and their victims - humans and other mammals, including herds of domestic livestock.

Tsetse flies don't appear to be affected by the trypanosomes although it is possible their behaviour could be modified. Humans, however, suffer from the debilitating and fatal disease, trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness. Their livestock suffer from a variety of diseases including nagana from the Zulu N'gana meaning powerless/useless. Most wild African animals are resistant to it, having evolved for millions of years in its presence. Domestic animals, mostly imported into Africa in the last few thousand years however have no such resistance.

This begs the question why then are humans not resistant since they and their ancestors have lived in Africa for many tens of millions of years. The answer to this is that it is very likely, because of our narrow genome range, that humans went through an evolutionary bottleneck of maybe just a few thousand individuals possibly just an isolated group in one small area. We also know that some of our closest ancestors lived in the Afar region of Ethiopia, from which the tsetse fly in absent, so we may all be descended from a population which never actually had much contact with the tsetse fly until relatively recently. Unlike zebra, wildebeest, elephant, giraffe and rhinos, we are comparative newcomers to much of Africa.

The tsetse fly, together with it protozoan parasite, probably had a profound impact on human development in sub-Saharan Africa where it prevented two things which were of major importance to the rest of Euro-Asia and North Africa:
  • Establishing herds of cattle to supply meat and (later) milk and dairy produce like butter and cheese.
  • Using the horse as a beast of burden and as a source of energy for work such as ploughing, harvesting and threshing, so manpower remained the sole source of energy. A man can just about, using only his own labour, feed himself and his family by agriculture, with maybe a small surplus for trade or barter if the soils is especially fertile and watered. Otherwise the only existence possible without a source of energy greater than manpower is that of hunter-gatherer. Anything more requires at least beasts of burden and draught like horses, donkeys or oxen

It is believed that the single most important cause of sub-Saharan Africa remaining economically and technologically underdeveloped was the tsetse fly coupled to the fact that there are no domesticable wild African animals, unlike Euro-Asia from where almost all human domestic animals came originally. Imagine if Bantus had domesticated the rhino both as a working animal and for war. As Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, says, "Imagine what the course of history would have been had the Roman Legions come up against Bantu cavalries mounted on rhinoceroses" (paraphrased from memory). We could well have seen seventeenth and eighteenth century West African slavers raiding Western Europe and up into the Mediterranean to supply slaves for the new African colonies in the Americas and in South Asia and the Pacific whilst their priests condemned the white-skinned races as sub-human, backward and barbaric, fit only to be toilers and beasts of burden for the superior black races.

What has all this got to do with Creationism and 'Intelligent Design'? Just a couple more things to point out, then I'll get on to that and pose a few questions for those Creationists who have managed to get this far. If they've seen the questions coming they'll most likely have scuttled off somewhere by now to save the embarrassment of avoiding them later.

The trypanosomes which tsetse flies infect humans and their livestock with, is a flagellate protozoan, i.e. it has a flagellum. The flagellum is one of 'Intelligent Design' exponent-in-chief, Michael Behe's favourite example of 'irreducible complexity', a concept with which he made his name and his fortune and which he still pushes as scientific proof that the flagellum could not have evolved and so must have been intelligently designed. This is despite the evolution of the flagella being known at the time he wrote his book (Darwin's Black Box) and despite being forced to admit under cross examination in the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District trial that there was no peer-reviewed scientific support for intelligent design.

But okay, for the purpose of this blog, let's let Michael Behe have his intelligently designed tsetse fly trypanosome flagellum in the knowledge that it'll come back to bite him soon.

The other little snippet of information about the tsetse fly is one I personally find fascinating, showing as it undoubtedly does, how genes acting selfishly can produce mutually beneficial cooperation, contradicting Creationists claims and quite paradoxical to what one might expect from a superficial understanding of evolution.

Each tsetse species harbors from one to three prokaryotic symbiont species, and these symbionts may provide opportunities to reduce the vector competence of tsetse flies. The most important symbiont, Wigglesworthia glossinidia, resides in a special bacteriome in the anterior part of the midgut and probably was a symbiont in the ancestor of all extant tsetse species; it likely produces one or more substances that are essential for tsetse reproduction. Sodalis glossinidius, a secondary symbiont not known to be essential for any tsetse species, is found in the midgut and other tissues of several tsetse species. Wolbachia is found in the gonads of some tsetse species and is probably inherited through a strictly maternal lineage. Its effects on tsetse flies have not been established, although in other insects Wolbachia has a variety of effects on their hosts, including inducing cytoplasmic incompatibility.

So, tsetse flies would not now exist if it were not for a group of bacteria with which they have formed a symbiotic alliance and which are essential for their reproduction. For that matter, neither would their co-symbiont Wigglesworthia glossinidia. This alliance evolved out of a host-parasite relationship because it was mutually beneficial to both species.

Okay, so lets look at this from the point of view of an intelligent design proponent:

Surely, the tsetse fly is a wonderful example of intelligent design, isn't it? It has beautifully 'designed' heat-seekers system so it can find the highly nutritious food it needs to supply both itself and the young tsetse fly growing inside it. It has wings which enable it to fly like an Exocet straight onto its target once the heat-seekers have locked on. It avoids the waste of laying lots of eggs and producing lots of offspring only as food for other species like so many other insects do, by protecting and nurturing its young in a specially designed uterus completes with milk-producing breast and teat. And, because most African wild mammals are immune to the parasites it carries, it can feed without risking killing its hosts - always a useful strategy for a parasite.

The only problem is that it is quite easy to explain how ALL of these systems could have evolved, and we know that they have had enough time to evolve because we know that tsetse flies have been around for at least 34 million years, so we can explain them all by a known, observable natural process without needing to add the infinite complexity of an unexplained supernatural entity whose own 'design' has to also be explained and which itself remains not even a hypothesis but a mere notion (and merely one notion amongst an array of such notions limited only by human imagination) so multiplying entities needlessly. Hence evolution is the most vicarious hypothesis and the only one which is scientific in that it is the only one which is theoretically falsifiable and the only one to contain verifiable entities.

Evolution also explains the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of an obligate symbiotic bacteria in the tsetse fly reproductive system, including the special anatomical adaptations for housing them. There is simply no rational way this can be described as intelligent design. No amount of special pleading can make this design look like the work of an intelligence in any normally employed use of that term

Why would an intelligent designer infect its creation with trypanosomes, complete with their 'irreducibly complex' flagella? Was it so they would have something nasty to give their hosts by way of a thank you for the meal they just took, or so their hosts would then need to be intelligently designed to resists it? Or was the intelligent designer really only interested in trypanosomes?

And lastly, and this is the hardest point for the intelligent design movement to explain, bearing in mind that they are almost invariably Bible literalists too although they deny any connection and expect us to believe in the fantastic coincidence of them all just happening to be religious fundamentalist, or at least subscribers to the Abrahamic creation myth from the Book of Genesis, including the fundamental belief that the earth and all its creature were created by the 'intelligent designer' for mankind.

(Trypanosomiasis) Sleeping sickness
Did your intelligent designer REALLY create the flagellum of the trypanosome and create the tstse fly as its vector, complete with the Wigglesworthia glossinidia bacteria to allow it to breed, just so it could kill 250,000 - 500,000 Africans a year together with 3 million of their cattle, prevent Africans from being able to benefit from domestication of cattle and beasts of burden and draught, and hold Africa back in the early iron age both economically and technologically and unable to exploit her natural resources and metals that most of the developed world was able to use, for most of its history?

If so, how was this the act of a loving god and how can we distinguish such a god from a malignant, evil god, or a mindlessly unintelligent stupid god whose 'plan' is indistinguishable from no plan at all?

Fortunately, as an evolutionary biologist, I have no such conundrum to cope with so I don't need the mental gymnastics and moral ambivalence Creationists need to cope with these little obstacles reality keeps putting in their way. And I can marvel at the process that created the tsetse fly without needing to dismiss it and without inventing barbaric, patronising, condescending, racist and judgemental reasons to explain what Africans did to deserve it. And nor can I use that latter invention as an excuse not to help do something about it.

Further reading:
Parasites and Vectors - The history of African trypanosomiasis
South African Medical Research Council - Tackling the tsetse fly

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