Posts Tagged ‘neil shubin’

SERMON: “What We Don’t Know” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

I think I’ve become a sort of anti-evangelist as I preach a non-spiritual gospel of naturalism, humanism and Darwinism.  (Wow, that’s a lot of “ism’s”).  An interesting aspect of my “church” work has been the realization that my materialistic brand of atheism is not only irksome to my theist acquaintances, but is also a bit of a bitter pill for my “new age” friends to swallow.

This came to mind this morning as I talked with a friend of mine at the Farmers Market.  We both shared a certain disdain for fundamentalism, but when I said that I didn’t think there was really anything else “out there” besides natural phenomena, she averred that she thought there were things out there that we did not understand, and were yet to be discovered.

This, of course, is true.  I’d be a fool not to allow for that.  And as is natural to my social chimp nature, I took her opinion in and rolled it around a bit, checking it against my own feelings and thoughts (it’s my view that we are such profoundly social creatures that it is almost impossible NOT to be swayed, even if only temporarily, by the opinions of someone we have a social relationship with).

Two humerus...or humeri. t.n.s.r. bob's and a brachiosaur's.

Although I do not think that there is anything “out there” to support the confidence of the preacher who claims to know God and His intentions, I have come to a certain awareness of the state of current human knowledge (informed by the stack of books on science I’ve read these last years) the upshot of which comes in two parts:  The first part is general sense of where the current frontiers of science are (which includes both the things we are pretty damn certain about, and the areas where — in the words of Christopher Hitchens — “We know less and less about more and more”).  The second part is a quietly buzzing awareness in my skull telling me that our base of knowledge — so vast compared to our ancestors living only a short time ago — is still a tiny fraction of a fraction of what there is to be known about life, the universe and everything.

If the last fifty years of scientific discovery have shown us anything, it is that the questions we seek to answer seem to multiply exponentially with each new discovery.  This is not to say that we don’t know much, or that what we do know is suspect.  Not at all.  I speak more to a certain humility in the face of what biologist E.O. Wilson calls “The Creation”.

Perhaps you’ve had the same feeling I have as I sit at this marvel of modern technology, my laptop computer.  The machine I’m using is only a year and half old, but the i-pad has come out and already seems to be branching itself off into new sub-species of personal computing devices.  And so, as much fun as this very useful tool has been to use, I can’t help but feel it aging under my fingers, and cannot shake the sense that it, too, may look as antique as a dashboard 8-track player at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The exciting thing about living in our time is the ever-increasing pace of discovery.  The molecular structure of DNA was discovered only seven years before I was born (though the Nobel prize for it was awarded when I was 3, at about the time we launched a man into space).  The first electronic calculator appeared when I was in Junior High School, the personal computer when I was in my mid-twenties.

When I was young, our view of human evolution was one of a single line from ape to man, with Neanderthal’s being our brutish “cave man” predecessors.  Now (thanks in no small part to DNA technology), our understanding of the actual process of evolution has become much more nuanced (and we now get it that most of those early humans were likely among the many dead-ends that make up most of the branches on evolution’s family tree).

Think about how our view of dinosaurs has changed in the last thirty years!  Those creatures seemed so exotic and other-worldly to me as a boy, but now they are like giant chickens and cows of another time, different only in detail than anything living today.  And the Neanderthals?  They, too, have undergone a rehabilitation, and only last year we got the answer to the perennial question of whether our “Cro Magnon”  human ancestors could possibly have interbred with the brutes (the answer is a resounding “yes”!).

Every week there are announcements of new dinosaur species in the popular press.  In 2006 Neil Shubin used the predictive tools of evolution and geology to locate depositional rocks of the right age to find Tiktaalik, a clearly transitional species between our ocean-dwelling and earth-walking ancestors.

(I am not so well-read on the current research in creating “smart” plants, and the ever increasing processing speed of computers, but I do remember my first “floppy” disk, and how amazed I was when I filled it up to capacity, and had to get another one).

Tomorrow a diligent anthropologist could dig up the bones of an early hominid that could rock our world and re-shuffle timelines and theories.  This is exciting stuff.  And it leads me to be ready to have my ideas changed by new discoveries.

The question that a theist (or spiritually-minded) person might put to me (and that I put to myself) is: “What if they discover that God exists?”  Interesting question, that, and one that puts a certain chill in my colon.  Why?  Well, for one, because I think that would be very bad news for us humans, on a par with finding out that there are aliens from other planets, and that they do, indeed, want to suck our brains out.  (Now that is assuming that whatever God they discovered would turn out to be anything like the ones that most humans have been imagining for the last couple thousand years!)

But once my colon calms down I realize that the probability of such a discovery — that life on earth has, indeed been consciously-designed and is kept in motion by a divine will — is pretty damn small.  That’s why there are agnostics (who take the position that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved).

I think I take a position more like that of a scientist who would continue to call “evolution” a theory though it has, in fact, been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.  And even though the ignorant will take this as meaning that the theory of evolution is on a par with their irrational belief that God formed Eve out of a rib stolen from a sleeping Adam, the scientist understands that he or she is merely stating that every truth of science remains subject to revision, modification or rejection based upon new evidence, remote though the possibility might be.

On the other hand, I’m not a scientist, so I can let myself dance crazily off the edge of belief and swim and splash in my pond of natural causes and god-less humanism.

I once believed in God, sincerely.  But I experienced a dramatic declension from faith when the persistent erosive force of life experience and reality caused that particular castle to crumble into the surf.  Having had that experience I now hold lightly to any belief, knowing full well that the thing that will blow my mind is likely to be something that I can not even imagine right now.  But having already spent so many years of my life imagining God, I don’t think that is where the big surprise will come from.

Having said that, who knows what we will soon understand about how the realm of the “spiritual” is created in our mammal brains.  And since this is a very active area of current brain research, be prepared for some news from that front over the next few years.  Whatever comes from this research, I think we can expect it to be another series of blows to the those still clinging to a bronze-age world view of gods, demons and lives guided by external intelligences.

Oh, we’ll be surprised, to be sure.  But so far, the answer found by science has never been God.  No matter how many humans have believed it for however long, the bones, the DNA and the rocks seem to cry out not for God, but for nature in all it’s mindless complexity.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Taking it to the Streets” by the not so reverend bob

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

I’m writing this on International Darwin Day: Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday.  In honor of the occasion I created some special street art this morning at our downtown Farmers Market, depicting a classic portrait of Darwin being bussed by a living, breathing “missing link”, the famous Tiktaalik of the Devonion (discovered by Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, reviewed on this blog).  It was a bit of “in the moment” inspiration to add the word balloons that had Darwin saying “Mom?”, and Tiktaalik saying “Son!”.  Inspired by Alaskan artist Ray Troll’s droll song “Your Mamma is a Lobe Finned Fish”, I added the phrase “our momma was a lobe-finned fish”.

A great image from Alaska artist Ray Troll.

Needless to say, a lot of people seemed confused (though the creationists that expressed themselves were not what I would call “confused” about the message of my art).  But it was a great opportunity to tell people that it was International Darwin Day, and talk about the discovery of Tiktaalik (a recent discovery, and a beautiful example of a transitional form between our ocean-dwelling and early tetrapod ancestors).  I wasn’t being facetious calling Tiktaalik “mom”, because she represents the fish body plan upon which our modern human bodies are based (after all, evolution and natural selection can only work upon what is available, adapting and mutating, but never creating anything new from whole cloth, as it were).

As the morning progressed, and my street painting took shape, I became aware of an interesting dynamic.  Several people complimented me on my work, adding a tag such as “It’s really great…and brave”.  Brave?  I began to realize there were moments where I felt as if I were drawing a pornographic picture that some people felt they needed to shield their children from.  One woman remarked as she walked past me “You don’t look like the type!” (later she came back by, and I asked “What type is that?”, to which she replied “A Darwinist”).  As I was telling one group of people that Tiktaalik was our ancestor, an older woman (with her military veteran husband — he had the ball cap) turned away as she huffed “that’s not one of MY ancestors!”.

One man asked me what I thought of Darwin (only later did it occur to me that the painting could have been taken as satire as well).  Turned out he was evangelical, and tried out the line of “well, that’s (meaning Darwinism) a religion too”.  I told him it wasn’t, as science is based on evidence, and so scientific “beliefs” change based upon new evidence, unlike religions.

One woman really liked the work, and told me so, but also said “That’s pretty brave to do around here”.  Assuming she was referring to the prominence of Catholicism, I said “But the Catholic Church officially accepts evolution”.  “Yeah, but still…” she said, in a sort of lowered voice.

We humans are idiots.  That’s what I felt like shouting.  Here I am, in 2012, making a statement supported by hundreds of years of science and evidence from geology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology, cosmology, biology and genetics, knowing full well that only about 20 percent of those passing by in this public market are going to be people that truly accept that evidence as the best understanding of where we humans came from.  I felt more like I was living in the intellectual middle ages.

Of course, to be fair, there were many, many people who were thrilled to see such an unequivocal expression of, well, reason.  One young woman snapped lots of pictures to send to her boyfriend who was going to be attending a Darwin Day Dinner in (of all places) Midland, Texas that night.

Lots of people thought I was drawing a fish, or an alligator, or a salamander.  But that’s about par for the course (I’ve become enough of a nerd about this stuff that I often gush about arcane details in that annoying, geeky way).  But Darwin, everybody knew.  Especially those that view him as an anti-Christ (quite literally, the god of a false and competing religion).

“You’ve been getting pretty political lately” a nearby herb vendor (who happened, by the way, to be the spitting image of the gray, fully-bearded Darwin I was drawing!).  I guess that’s true.

I’m always walking that line between entertainment and evangelism,  stumbling over it this way and that.

Not everyone was offended by my Darwin Day street art!

A great many people are really, really uncomfortable with the idea that we humans are descended from earlier life forms.  I understand that discomfort only because I know it to be a reality that I have observed myself.  But I’ve moved so far beyond such a view that I find it increasingly difficult to comprehend.

For myself, I am comforted, fascinated, humbled and intrigued by the facts of evolution.  Today, as I painted (for the first time) my little life-sized Tiktaalik, crawling across the street in my hometown, I truly felt a kinship: as if I was, indeed, making a portrait of my own grandmother.  And why shouldn’t I feel that way?  The very hands I used to create the painting are the same ones that made up Tiktaalik’s front fins/feet (the same bones, the same structure).  My hands are connected to wrist and upper arm bones and a shoulder structure that were present in Tiktaalik.  My internal plumbing bears the marks of that earliest walking fish body.  That chalk fish and I are the same creature, separated only by millions of years of gradual (and sometimes rapid) evolutionary adaptation, mutation and natural selection.

The evangelist in me wishes to share those feelings and insights with my fellow hominids, and so I took my message to the streets.

Now I can’t wait to paint “Lucy” for Mother’s Day weekend.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “March of the Humans” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

I think that one of the most difficult notions to dislodge from our brain is this one of a steady progression of life over time.  Perhaps without even realizing it (even among those that accept evolution) many people think of evolution as being teleological, and even though most would not claim to actually believe that we humans were the point of evolution, they might nonetheless sense a certain inevitability in our arrival on the stage of the living.

As the dinosaurs died off, our ancestors came out from the shadows.

It was the well-known paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that expressed (based on his study of the now-famous Burgess Shale) the notion that a re-shuffling of the evolutionary deck would likely produce very different results:  “…if we could perform the great undoable thought experiment of “rewinding the tape of life” back to the Cambrian and “distributing the lottery tickets” at random a second time, the history of animals would follow an entirely different but equally “sensible” course that would almost surely not generate a humanoid creature with self-conscious intelligence.”   [ Simon Conway Morris and Stephen Jay Gould, “Showdown on the Burgess Shale,” Natural History magazine, 107 (10): 48-55. ]

The insidious idea of inevitability shows up in the way evolution is discussed in the popular press.  Today I was thinking about our human diet, and how many times we hear the word “design” when talking about what we think our optimum diet should be, as in “we weren’t designed for living on fast food”.  True enough, but then, we weren’t designed for anything.  We were naturally selected by blind forces.  But even that is incorrect, for the “forces” that, in the end, do the selecting (for life and for death) aren’t forces at all in the way we might think of them, for “they” possess no physical power, intention or intelligence.  In fact, they aren’t even a “they” (nor a “who”).  Again, just like the Theory of Evolution, neither evolution nor nature are actual discreet agents, but are the realities of the physical world in which we are born, live and die.  “Nature” and “Evolution” are terms we use to describe complex realities in order to organize our own ideas about them, study them and communicate our knowledge to other humans.

So, in a sense, it’s a perfectly natural mistake to make when talking about the timeline of evolution to think of it as an ever-progressing narrative, starting in one place and arriving in another.  Of course, from our perspective, it seems to have done just that — going from a barren planet to one teeming with life.  But I don’t think that’s close to what actually happened (and continues to happen) with, well, life.  Of course time does play out: year follows year (whether there is a human to define it thus or no), but life itself is more a teeming cauldron of reproduction, random mutation, population explosion and extinction that is too varied and vast to be seen as following a steady upward progression  toward any inevitable future.

For example, based on the evidence of human DNA it’s believed that the human population went through a rather severe population bottleneck in our very recent history (we may have been down to a few dozen individuals at one time).  But we bounced back.  Apparently, Cheetahs experienced a similar crisis, and the reduction in genetic diversity in that line of animals has led to frequent maladaptive mutations in modern Cheetahs.

The intelligent design folks get a lot of unearned mileage out of their assertions that we humans are too wonderfully “designed” to be the products of “random mutation” and “blind chance”.  Of course, they can only hold this view of humans (or any other life form, for that matter) through ignorance of the reality of our assembly process.  Now I won’t argue that it’s not a wonder that we are what we are (and that we come out of the reproduction process as well as we generally do), but to hold us up as examples of “intelligent design” becomes laughable once you know a bit of just how much we are a grab-bag of traits old and new held together by our dogged DNA’s blind drive to reproduce (see “KLUGE: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” — reviewed on this blog — for example).

So, to get back to our diet, we weren’t designed for any particular food.  We are omnivorous to a degree that nature selected for — meaning that those individuals that could survive on the widest variety of foods were more likely to live to reproduce.  What’s interesting to me is that through modern science, we are studying ourselves to find out what the optimum human diet really is.  This is fascinating, as we are trying to discover a standard that never existed and creating an ideal that I think will prove to be problematic due to the variation within human populations.  Think about that for a moment: we are writing an owners manual for a human body that started as a bacteria, evolved into a multicellular organism, then a sort of lungfish that eventually walked on land, then further evolved into a small, furry mammal, them a small primate, then a larger primate and finally (well, as far as you and I are concerned) an upright-walking hominid.  Buried in both our DNA and the architecture and organs of our body are the leftover, re-tooled and adapted remnants of every step of that evolution.  So our tricky backs, complicated internal plumbing, weak eyes and what-have you are the less-than-optimum evolutionary adaptations we live with today.

I remember seeing the popular (and rather amazing) film “March of the Penguins”.  Just about all that I could think about during that movie was how those poor penguin bastards found a way to make the most ridiculous (ridiculous — hell — horrific!) situation survivable.  It was painful to watch a huge penguin (with legs the length of a chicken drumstick) march mile after mile over snow and ice to the ocean to stuff him- (and her-) self with enough food to carry back to the poor parent left behind in howling icy winds caring for an egg that would freeze within seconds if left alone on the ice.  This is not intelligent design (it would be cruel, stupid design were it design at all), it is obstinate adaptation that allows those penguins to carry on in spite of nature.

But those penguins are just a rather stark example.  You and I are no different.  Two bones from our fish jaws migrated up to become our inner ear bones, we mutated away from our simian tails, the routes that some of our inner piping takes make sense only when you realize they developed originally in the bodies of fish (see Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” — reviewed on this blog).  You see, if an engineer were to look at us, he or she would go back to the drawing board and fix many of these problems.  But then that is the key difference between intelligent designers and the “forces” of evolution: we can design from scratch, evolution cannot.  Evolution has to “work” with what it has, and build upon it, adapt it, switch a gene off or switch it on again.  That’s it.   The creatures we are owe a lot to the creatures that developed during the Cambrian Explosion that Gould was studying: our modern forms were built, in a meandering, chancy, luck-filled way, upon the very first life forms that developed.

That we happened to evolve into the thinking, talking, walking hominids that we are is an event worth celebrating, but we can’t make more of it than it really is, at least in terms of science or religion.  We can (and should), however (or so I believe), make the most out of our remarkable opportunity to live out the lives we won from the evolutionary lottery!

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-year History of the Human Body” by Neil Shubin.

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

innerfishNeil Shubin is provost of The Field Museum, and a professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago.  He also happens to be the paleontologist that discovered Tiktaalik, a long-sought “missing link” between our fully-fish ancestors and the first Tetrapods.  In short, he found the fossilized remains of one of the first “fish” to walk on land — a fish that had evolved a neck, shoulders and a flattened head with eyes on the top.  In other words, he found an early version of “us” (or, more correctly, an ancient cousin of ours).

This book begins as a fascinating yarn of discovery by a paleontologist who has been pressed into service as an instructor in the gross anatomy lab of his university’s medical school.  As in many great stories, it turns out that the author’s unique mix of training and past experience makes him the ideal person to uncover one of the most dramatic fossil finds in recent history.  And it is also the author’s mix of experience and training that makes this a much more important book than it appears, at first, to be.

“Your Inner Fish” begins as a fascinating story about a breakthrough fossil discovery that becomes an increasingly profound treatise on the amazing natural history of the bodies that you and I take for granted (and struggle with) everyday.  Following the development of the “body plan” we share will all other mammals (as well as many reptiles and, yes, fish), we are finally brought face to face with both the wonders and the physical limitations that eons of continual tinkering with our “inner fish” have brought us.  Using the Volkswagon Beetle as a metaphor, Shubin writes:

“In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle.  Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers — and you have a recipe for problems.  We can dress up a fish only so much without paying the price.  In a perfectly designed world — one with no history — we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.”

This book has the best treatment I have yet run across of the insights the last 150 years of science have brought us regarding the evolution of our walking, talking human bodies.  Later chapters discuss our eyes, our gut, our knees, our ears, our ability to talk and even obesity, (the above-mentioned) hemorrhoids and heart disease.  I came away from this book with a much deeper awareness of my own inner fish.  This book packs more useful information about our shared natural history than any other book I have found, making the vital connections that exist between us and the most ancient of organisms.

Nature, it turns out, is not in the business of creating something out of nothing.  It is, however, endlessly managing to create ever more complex things out of less complex things by re-tasking genes, bones and cells to do so.  Fortunately for the scientist, Nature leaves evidence of its work: a trail that leads us all back to “our inner fish”.

I heartily recommend it.

And, as we say at the church of bob (or will if this ever catches on): “Nasplashte'” (“The fish in me greets the fish in you!”).

t.n.s.r. bob