Posts Tagged ‘pbs’

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.  http://www.pbs.org/programs/inside-natures-giants/)

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “What Darwin Never Knew” PBS/NOVA

Saturday, December 24th, 2011

This two-hour program begins with the question of how such a wide diversity of life came to exist on our planet.  The answer, of course, is evolution.  Tracing first the beginnings of Darwin’s great idea, this NOVA special then begins to fill in the gaps in Darwin’s own understanding of just how natural selection actually created diversity in living organisms (there is a lot of great explanation of DNA research and discoveries).

This is the kind of quality science program I’ve come to expect from NOVA: bracing and informative, with interviews of important contemporary researchers in various fields of science.  (I was particularly pleased to see a segment devoted to Neil Shubin’s discovery of Tiktaalik, the most dramatic transitional fossil find of recent years.  Shubin is the author of the great book “Your Inner Fish” — reviewed this blog).

As an extra bonus, I heard new theories about the unexpected genes that may have had something to do with the dramatic increase in human brain size (as compared to our primate cousins).  Very exciting stuff.

The writing is fine, and the two-hour program carefully builds the case for evolution in a way that is really kind of exciting.  My only criticism would be of the style of the presentation — the overly-dramatic music, too many quick edits and a remarkably un-helpful (and often replayed) animation to represent the branching “tree of life” (as I watched it I kept wondering if it would make sense to someone new to the idea, especially since it was unclear to me what it was actually showing).

But other than the one graphic designer who should be sacked, this is an engaging and worthwhile overview of where we are in our understanding of just how we came to be the walking, talking humans that we are.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Japan’s Killer Quake” NOVA/PBS

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I watched this program when it first aired, and it was everything I’ve come to expect from NOVA and more.  It ran in two parts, with an addendum made up of more personal stories from the survivors.

There were several things that struck me in this show.  One was amateur video of a phenomenon geologists have described, but that I’d never seen: liquified soils squirting up from fissures in pavement.  It is an amazing thing to see, and not a little disquieting.  The other was the animated timeline map showing the location of all of the earthquakes and aftershocks that made up the totality of this event.  They appear as red dots along a series of fault lines over a period of two months.  It is a stunning overview of an earthquake event the likes of which I had not seen before.  It is also a testament to the forces of geology that so many are willing to dismiss as “acts of God”.

The program can be viewed on-line.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!

 

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Human Spark”

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Originally broadcast in 2010 on PBS, this series is now available on-line.  Hosted by Alan Alda, it documents a quest for a clear understanding of just what it is that makes us humans uniquely, well, human.

This is an entertaining and deeply interesting series in three parts.  What I found very interesting was the two schools of thought that were given equal representation: the one being that we are very similar to our primate cousins, and the other that we are profoundly different from them.  Of course, both are true in a sense, but it is really intriguing to see just what a difference the two philosophical starting points can make when interpreting data.

Alda is a good host, as he is clearly and genuinely curious about the subject himself.  I found it very worth watching, and I would watch it again given the chance.

t.n.s.r. bob

The rev gives it four Dimetrodons out of four!