Posts Tagged ‘atheist blog’

SERMON: “The Snake in the Garden” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

This week there was a serpent in my evolutionary Garden of Eden.

I caught part of a PBS program that documents a bunch of scientists being let loose to dissect some of the largest animals in nature (a whale, a lion and some rather huge pythons, for example).  It’s a tough program to watch (a high “ick” factor for me), and yet it is a fascinating and unusual opportunity to learn about these animals’ (as well as our own) biology.

At a point in the program I was watching, they showed the way in which the windpipe in the python was configured in such a way as to extend out the front of the mouth while the animal was swallowing another creature (such as a gazelle or an alligator), but then snugged up against the back side of the nostrils on the front of it’s skull when the animal was swallowed and the mouth was closed (imagine that your windpipe could extend all the way out to your lips along the top of your tongue, but when you closed your mouth it would angle up to form a seal against the back opening of your nostrils).  How the hell — I wondered — did that come to be?

In that moment I was seized with a troubling feeling that suddenly made me see evolution the way so many of my fellow humans see it: challenging to comprehend.  Improbable, even.  An uncomfortable feeling lingered with me for days.

Snakes alive! (From a street painting by Bob Diven)

It’s scary to allow oneself to contemplate such unsettling ideas, but perhaps it is the only way to, well, know anything.  The high school students I worked with last semester had as their “essential question” the following: “Can you know a truth without challenging it first?”.  Though awkwardly worded, I think there is something worthy in that idea.  And so I challenged my own evolutionary “truth”.  (This is sort of recurring practice of mine: I let my mind “go there” — in this case allowing it to drift freely to a world in which some sort of other force — perhaps even intelligent — made that snake thus).

The trigger for my discomfort about that damn snake has as its genesis, I think, the sort of social dualism we have built up around science and religion.  Science states that if something is not yet explained or understood, it is likely that further investigation (or the development of new technologies) will, eventually, allow us to understand it.  Religion says that any thing that science cannot explain fully must (MUST!) be evidence of the mystery that is somehow supposed to prove the existence of God.  As has been pointed out many times, the latter is what is known as an argument from ignorance.  It’s default-style construct is: I don’t know how this happened, therefore God is behind it.

And so I allowed myself to question how the process of evolution and natural selection could have possibly created the “break” between the nostrils and windpipe of that damn snake.  I could not visualize or imagine just how such an anatomical oddity could have come to be (though I’m well aware that the animal world is nothing but a catalog of anatomical absurdities — most of which I can comprehend).  But the further I let myself go toward the idea of an intelligent god designing the snake, the deeper into the quicksand of absurdity I sank.

Truly — why would an all powerful God “design” such kluged-up machinery as that snake’s anatomy?  Almost everything about animal adaptation reflects not efficiency of design, but sheer, brute adaptability (whose practical functionality then mimics a sort of “design”).  Nature does not cry out perfection.  Not in the slightest.  What it screams from every detail is the power of the living impulse that makes every living thing make the most of whatever genetic inheritance it was blessed (or cursed) with.

And we must also consider this: we only see the “experiments” that worked — the results of accumulated advantageous traits.  The others simply do not survive.

And so whatever my doubts (based purely in my own ignorance of a particular process of evolution in the case of the snake), there turns out to be no answer at all in the hollow intellectual shell that is creationism.

What I’ve ended up learning through my week or two of discomfort and doubt is this: we may, indeed, never know the exact how and why of every detail of evolution (it’s pretty certain we will never know the “all” of anything), but no matter how massive our ignorance of nature may be, it can never match the sometimes willful ignorance of those that preach creationism.

The resort to an intelligent designer is often the default knee-jerk response to anything we cannot (yet) explain in nature.  But the introduction of the possibility of such a divine agent is, fundamentally, a non-answer.  Where is the explanation for why this intelligent designer used natural means at all for any of this?  Why an exploding, expanding universe over billions of years so that one tribal shaman could be crucified by an occupying Roman authority and thereby usher in a couple thousand years of human religious enlightenment before God the Father intervenes and — in the final act — makes earth the way He intended it to be in the first place?  Why have animals breath and eat and poop and reproduce at all?  Why give humans earthly bodies when their heavenly bodies are clearly ready to be assigned?  Why put vestigial hip bones in a whale and in the snake whose progenitor — one can assume — troubled Adam and Eve in the Garden?  (A snake that might have been capable of breathing out of a tube in its mouth while swallowing a large animal for supper)!

The notion of God, then, is a tool — an effective trick to spare us from thinking about the unfathomable that surrounds us.  When it comes to explaining the world around us (or the odd anatomy of a python) God is not the answer: it is the decision to not ask the uncomfortable question.

t.n.s.r. bob

(To see the python anatomy I saw, visit PBS on-line.  The breathing apparatus appears at about 31 minutes into the program.

SERMON: “Talk to the Animals” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 15th, 2012

We’ve all heard it: one half of a cell phone conversation.

“Nothing.  Just waiting to pay for my groceries.  What are you doing?”

Someone in their pajamas, at the grocery store, having all appearances of nowhere to rush to, and nothing pressing to do, nevertheless carries in her hand the technology to talk to anybody about nothing anywhere she wants to.

Our communications technology, it seems, has far outstripped our capacity to come up with something worth saying.  It makes me wonder just what it is that we’ve done with our much-vaunted ability to talk.  Though the creationists among us may see ourselves as the ultimate “purpose” of life on earth, I’m fairly certain that the rest of the animal kingdom is not (The Jungle Book’s King Louie’s plea of “I wanna talk like you” notwithstanding) desirous of our position.

Birds chatter all the time. What do they find to talk about?

Birds talk all the time.  I often wonder what it is that they find to talk about.  After all, how complex can the internal life of a grackle or sparrow be?  Maybe, for them, chirping is the calming act of repetitive sound making — sort of a sing song meditation.

Whales, I think, would really have something to say.  They live for a very long time, and must have interesting interior dynamics of affection, memory and even wisdom.  But, alas, they do not possess verbal language.  They do have a capacity for communication, to be sure (and something to say, I expect) but it is limited to clicks and rumbling sounds.  They simply have not been endowed by evolution with the mechanical capacity for speech.  Why not?  Can’t they simply “evolve” a voice box and the brain parts to activate it?

This question seems almost reasonable when seen in the light of the way evolution is often discussed in the popular press.  The language we use to describe evolution almost invariably borrows words that indicate intentionality: a shark is described as a perfectly-designed killing machine, we are told that dinosaurs evolved feathers and turned into birds, humans in higher latitudes developed blue eyes and narrow nostrils (as if they all got together one day and just decided to “do it”).

And this, it turns out, is a rather big deal, and it points us to a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution that is as maddening as it is widespread: individuals don’t evolve, populations do.

And populations evolve because of the way we reproduce: we make babies by combining the genetic material of two parent animals to form a new, single cell.  Once that cell starts dividing, there is a whole lot of copying and duplicating of genetic code going on.  And, like any such complicated endeavor, mistakes are made.  Most often, these mistakes do not cause harm.  But many times they do, and that future individual animal could be in serious trouble if the mistake is in a place in the DNA that causes a severe malformation (a missing limb, a heart condition, a lack of a pain response).

Most often such damaged fetuses are aborted spontaneously by the mother’s body before she even knows she’s pregnant (current estimates are at 50% among us humans).  But just every so often (it doesn’t have to be very often, when you take into account the long years over which evolution and natural selection have had time to “work”), a mutation occurs which provides some tiny, incremental benefit to the animal that has it.  In nature, it doesn’t take much — a touch more speed or agility, or a shred more smarts — to give you an advantage.  In fact, giant leaps of change are most often disastrous and, frankly, wasteful (there is a reason we have the body shapes we have and the huge brains to run them — but as it is we are living right at the hairy edge of disaster as women often have a very challenging time getting that huge human head safely past their narrow pelvises).

A lot of the idiocy around intelligent design has to do with a belief that one animal simply decides, one day, to turn into another animal.  And, since we don’t see that happening around us, evolution must be a fallacy.  Of course, evolution and natural selection aren’t based on decisions at all.  There is no “force” behind it that thinks about anything at all.  It is simply a process in which the success of any and all life forms is the product of the inherited characteristics of that particular life form in a particular environment.  If an environment is stable over time, then life forms will inevitably adapt to it (or fail to, and die off).  So that throughout the history of this planet, life forms that began as the most basic of units have had time and opportunity to keep on reproducing, over and over, mixing and mutating their DNA until, due to an ever-increasing accumulation of those one-in-a-million (or billion, or trillion, or???) beneficial inherited traits, you end up with entire animals built up of cooperative collections of bacteria and bone and muscle and blood.

At some unknowable and uncountable moments in our human reproductive history, the genetic frameworks for our capacity for verbal speech were set in place.  They did not evolve in order for us to speak, they just happened, bit by bit until, by chance, some sort of functional unit took shape that gave the first human that could grunt a slight advantage of the one who only squeaked and, voila, a line of grunting descendants was set to become dominant.  The rest, as they say, is history.  And this is the way that a bacteria becomes a mutlicellular creature, and then a fish and then a talking, thinking human being.

But it’s more complicated than just evolving the mechanical equipment of a voice box activated by air flowing from our lungs.  Surely the nature of our language shapes our thought.  We rightly wonder whether the internal, cognitive complexity of animals isn’t itself limited by a lack of verbal language (or, conversely, greatly enhanced by it).  After all, it is our language — our words with their shared meanings — that provides the sort of filing system of our experience of living.  Without language, I think much of our memory and ideas would remain undifferentiated, like our memories of very early childhood (or even of our birth).

(I mean, surely we were conscious during all of those early experiences, but they are ideas we had before we had words to form ideas with.  They are like digital files from our first computer in a program that no-one has anymore.  The data is surely locked in our minds, but we cannot access it).

Such is the power of language.

And this is also why we will never be able to talk to the animals.  As much as we are able to communicate with chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats, we can’t actually talk with them.  We do share a very real understanding, at times, with other creatures.  But it is not simply a problem of translation (in the way it might be when trying to talk to another human who does not speak our particular language).  For we don’t even know how whales, say, file the memories and ideas that they have.  To read a whales mind would pose the same problems as trying to recall the pre-language experience of our own birth: how can we translate thoughts that were not recorded in any language?

It’s like the aging floppy disks that I keep in now dusty boxes…well, sort of.  For though those disks carry data in an actual language readable by an actual (if out-of-date and-hard to-find) technology, they will soon be, for all practical purposes, impossible to read.  The difference is that our pre-language memories (and likewise, one assumes, the thoughts of the whale) were never recorded in a language at all.

As one scientist said to me: what we really assume in our inter-species communication fantasies is that the other animal will learn our language, and tell us what he or she is thinking.  But for that to happen, that animal would have to evolve the brain and body structures that we did.  And since evolution is not directed, there is no reason to expect them to do that over the next million years or so.  But even if they did, they would no longer remember life without language, and could not tell us some of the secrets to our own wild past that we seek.

So what we really hope for, I think, is for a dolphin to suddenly start talking to us.  But it should be obvious by now that this is a fantasy.  For that magical talking dolphin, too, would have no access to its pre-verbal memories (unless it were, truly, “magical”).  This is why the notion is such a potent subject for fantasy in film and fiction.  It’s appeal is only outweighed (or perhaps enhanced) by the sheer impossibility of it actually happening.

I think we should be appreciative of both the benefits and limitations of our unusual capacity for language.  I coo at dove, or moo at cows all the time, and talk to cats and dogs as if they have a clue.  It amuses me and doesn’t traumatize the animals.  And it serves as a kind of wry reminder that we humans are in this talking life alone, together.  Our capacity for verbal language is one of the highly unusual products of an incredible series of tiny historical mutations that had to rise or fall in our population in the living conditions of untold numbers of individual lives.

And make no mistake: our capacities evolved step by step, always built upon the body plan that came before.  There is nothing “irreducibly” complex about us.  We see analogues to our own eyes and hands and throats and minds in the animals around us.  They echo our sameness and shed light on our uniqueness.  It is a wonder that the whales would probably enjoy talking about.  If only they could.

Or maybe, like us, they’d quickly run out of things to say.  And then we’d be reduced to visiting them at Sea World where, instead of thrilling us by leaping out of water for their wet-suit clad trainer, they would instead entertain us by chattering endlessly on their own whale-sized cell phones:  “Oh nothing.  Just jumping for some fish.  What are you doing?”

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON “Confessions of an Evolution Nerd” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

It may not surprise you to know that I’m always sticking my evolutionary nose into other people’s world-views whenever opportunity allows.  Just in the time between typing the title of this sermon and writing the first sentence, I was interrupted by an acquaintance to chat about this and that, and by the end we were talking about the popular perception that the apocalypse is upon us (as evidenced by the ever-popular sign of earthquakes, or “superbugs’ — to cite the two examples in our conversation), to which I gave (in quick succession) the three following factoids: 1) Viruses evolve faster than we humans do (as clear evidence of evolution and also to show that the idea of disease as a directed judgement from God is absurd); 2) That the human body is more than half bacteria (by cellular weight — oh, and I threw in that we probably began as bacteria), and: 3) That we live on a cooling planet (my blanket answer to our constant surprise at earthquakes).

Yes, I'm an Evolution nerd.

Now, really, who but an evolution nerd would squeeze that much annoying science into a friendly conversation?

As if I needed more proof of my evolution nerd status, I took a series of on-line ethics surveys that were being conducted by two university psychologists, and one of those surveys asked a series of questions that were designed to show where one stood on the “conservative/liberal” political spectrum.  I was surprised to see that I was actually a bit on the conservative side compared to most of my fellow self-identifying liberals in all areas but one:  when it came to Evolution versus Creationism, I was way to the left of even the lefties.

I can’t help but be reminded of my Evangelical years when I get the feeling that I am barking like a voice in the wilderness about a subject that very few people consider relevant to their lives.  Of course I think it’s relevant because it makes so much about life make sense.  And so I have the fervor of a convert, which is about the most annoying thing there is on the planet (think of a friend that has just recently quit drinking or smoking — for a while their turn-around is the ONLY subject on their mind, and the source of a certain focused zeal).

Of course one of the reasons I’m so ready to leap to the defense of rational thought is that we humans seem naturally predisposed to jump to the most irrational conclusions when faced with natural disaster (in particular).  We are pattern-seekers, and will find one whether or not a pattern actually exists.  Hence the Facebook posting from an evangelical friend:

“Sept 11th (NY) Jan 11th (Haiti) and March 11th (Japan).Luke 21:10-11Then jesus said his disciples: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes’,famines and pestilences in various places,and fearful events and great signs from heaven. ‘Jesus says for behold I come quickly,’ * so ask yourself ARE YOU READY?* repost this.”

I also watched a video that displayed the “beauty of mathematics” (as a sign of God’s order) that assigned a numeric value to every letter in the alphabet, then took a series of phrases and “added” up the numbers, ending with “The love of God” adding up to 101% (the popular figure for the optimum human effort).  I couldn’t help but think, however that “The love of Dog” would also equal 101% by that test.

These are highly typical examples of what the human mind finds irresistible.  But is there really any harm in such nonsense?  Who knows.  Clearly I think it’s better to believe more in fact than in fantasy, but maybe that’s just because I’ve become such an evolution nerd.  Or maybe I feel like such an evolution nerd because I am surrounded by so much non-rational nonsense.

When I made a decision last year to start writing op/ed pieces for my local newspaper, my motivation was to counter the rising popularity of the TEA Party movement with a dose of rationality.  I decided that I had a sort of duty to at least be a “speed bump” to slow, if not stop, them.  Now, I have sympathies with the feelings of the TEA Party regarding certain things, but what I mostly saw was the panoply of hair-brained beliefs that were being swept along with their political agenda (the “Birthing” controversy, for example).  But in all of my engagements with that group, I came out feeling like I had charged valiantly against an impenetrable fortress of motivated ignorance.

There is clearly more to this sort of thing than the difficulties of countering a popular political movement (to take the TEA Party example).  Underlying it all is the problem of the ways in which our evolved primate brains work, and the fact that most of the operators of those brains have no frigging idea that they are operating under any sort of mammalian limitations to cognition (for more on that, see “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed on this blog).  But there I am again: proselytizing, preaching, evangelizing about my “version” of the truth, like a true nerd.

I am like every other human in that I have a sense of self so inflated as to believe that I can, on some level, achieve a workable knowledge of the “truth”.  On the other hand, I have enough of an awareness of the limitations of that self that I know that the best I’m going to get is a “workable” knowledge.  One thing about living in the age we do is that we cannot help but know that we are surrounded by a record of human knowledge such that no single human mind can hope to contain it, not matter how much study or time is given the pursuit.  And our collective knowledge increases incredibly every day with each new invention or discovery, so that our own store of knowledge can be seen as a mirror of the universe that is still speeding up some 13.6 billions years after it began.

Damn, I did it again.  I had to get that “age of the universe” thing in there, didn’t I?

Well, I told you at the outset what I was.  Now I’ve just gone and proved it.  Next thing you know I’ll be going door to door, asking folks if I could share a little literature about Charles Darwin…

t.n.s.r. bob


Monday, December 20th, 2010

The Santasaurus Rex. Street art by t.n.s.r. bob!