Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Was Paradise Lost?

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one of the most symbolically important in the Bible. Coming right at the beginning of the pentateuch, it acts as a necessary set-up to much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and the religions they have inspired. The story holds within it one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity - the inherent sinfulness of man - and therefore the entire justification for the sacrifice of Christ.

Being of such central importance, the Eden story is one of the best known of the Bible, taught early to young children. The story and its apparent message are ubiquitously known by anyone who has any knowledge of Christianity or Judaism:

God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden to take care of everything inside it. God told them that they could eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - if they ate that, they would die. A talking serpent then approached Eve, tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit and to convince Adam to do the same. God found out and punished them (acting extremely surprised considering his omniscience), casting them out of Eden and never again allowing them the pure and idyllic life they had been blessed with before.

It has seemed to me for a long time that the general interpretation of this story, that the serpent leads the naive humans to sin and therefore turn away from God's grace, is extremely skewed and that an objective interpretation, unencumbered by our society's ubiquitous framing of the story, would lead to a different conclusion.

I believe a useful comparison to this story exists in sci-fi literature. This may seem like something of a digression, but bear with me a minute and consider almost any dystopian future story you can think of.

In Orwell's 1984, for example, the society is ideal. There is almost no crime or disorder. Citizens are patriotic and dedicated to their land and their leader. But the cost of this apparent societal harmony is the ability of its members to question, to enquire, to think freely. Thought Police exist to make sure that nobody starts to question their situation or to pull away from the herd. If anybody does, they are quickly disciplined and brought back into line, or quietly removed so that the greater peace can be comfortably maintained. In many ways 1984's society is without many of the problems that mar all modern civilisations, but the cost is true self-knowledge and the freedom to question.

Consider also the 2002 film, Equilibrium. Here the society has left behind crime, war and dissidence. People are comfortable, ordered and productive. But here the cost is emotion. Children are taught to suppress feelings and emotions and anything created to invoke these emotions, such as art, music and poetry, is destroyed. Mood suppressing drugs are routinely distributed to keep people in line and any dissent from the rules is dealt with quickly and efficiently by a military service comparable to the Thought Police. As in 1984, from which the film clearly take great influence, an apparently perfect society is created and maintained, but at the expense of its members' humanity.

The message in both of these examples is clear: that cost is too high. Order in society is not worth giving up the freedom to question and to express ourselves. While the ideals of crimelessness and concordance are worth striving for, the costs involved in these fictional worlds are too high.

It has long struck me that Eden is very much like one of these warning fictional futures. Adam and Eve live in happy and idyllic harmony, but the cost is self-awareness, inquiry, free thought, the knowledge of good and evil.

Think through the story again. Is the pre-fall garden really the blissful heaven Christians invoke, or the controlled and ignorant oppression of Orwell's vision? Is God really the benevolent and loving father disappointed by his children's harsh disobedience, or the watchful and unquestionable Big Brother, angry that his control has been questioned? Is the serpent really the evil tempter or the liberator? Are Adam and Eve fallen or enlightened?

The story is clear: God lied to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit. The serpent told them truthfully that their eyes would be opened. If George Orwell's disturbing versions of the future taught us anything, which many claim they have, then is it really sensible to go on trusting this God?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

What Do They Think? - Sid Cordle (CPA)

Politics is one of those areas I find it very difficult to be interested by. The attentional capabilities of my brain seem to have an automatic killswitch that is instantly triggered the moment I see a man in a suit standing in front of a green bench. However, at the European elections last year, I decided to try my hardest to become interested and educate myself about the decision ahead of me.
Now that the general election has been announced, I feel duty bound to bypass my indifference and educate myself again.

So, inspired by the laudable Skeptical Voter wiki, I decided to email my local candidates in the Erith and Thamesmead constituency and ask them a few questions that I thought would act as a useful barometer for me to understand what they think about the sort of issues that interest me.

The first response I have received back has been from Sid Cordle, candidate for the Christian Peoples Alliance. From my preliminary searches, Cordle was one of the candidates for whom the most information was available - little of it encouraging. This entertaining email exchange adequately demonstrates his views on homosexuality, for example.

Below are my questions and his responses:

1) Are you in favour of the idea of reforming the English libel laws as is currently being campaigned for by the Libel Reform Campaign (

Yes absolutely. The web site says Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and should only be limited in special circumstances. That is my view precisely.

2) What is your opinion on the funding of complementary and alternative medicines, such as homeopathy, by the NHS?

If there is scientific evidence thart they are beneficial, yes. Otherwise no. I am not convinced that all alternative medecines are a good thing.

3) Do you think it was appropriate for the government to sack Prof David Nutt from his scientific advisory role last year following his provision of scientific advice that ran in opposition to the government's drug policy?

No. This was absolutely wrong

4) Do you believe that religious belief should have any legal protection from ridicule or criticism?

In general No. I prefer free speech to legal protection, but Elton John is very wrong to say recently that Jesus Christ was a homosexual for no good reason. These sort of statements only encourage those who want legal protection.

5) Do you believe it is appropriate to allow any schools to omit the teaching of certain areas of the scientific curriculum for idealogical reasons, or for the teaching of such topics to be impacted for such reasons (such as Christian schools being able to teach creationism/creation science/intelligent design alongside or instead of evolution)?

Education is about understanding every point of view whether you agree with it or not. Of course schools need to teach both creation and evolution and help children to understand both points of view. If we take a view that this or that should not be taught we are moving from education to propaganda. Personally I am quite certain that the world was created by God. The idea that it happened through a random explosion has no bearing in scientific reality. I would expect this to be taught and also the theroy of the big bang with all its limitations to be taught.

So, apart from the obvious and fairly predictable enthusiasm for creationism, I found the rest of the responses unexpectedly reasonable. He is in favour of libel reform and evidence based health policy and sides with the scientists on the Nutt sack incident. This just shows that the prejudicial assumption I (and others, I am sure) often make that any proponent of one world view I find crazy is likely to subscribe to all the rest of them doesn't always hold up.

I will write up the rest of the candidates' responses if and when I receive them.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Prostitution is popular in France, that doesn't mean it's right.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee today met for an evidence check on homeopathy. This was done over two sessions in which panels of scientists and homeopaths were brought in to answer questions of evidence for the committee.

The first panel was made up of Prof Jayne Lawrence (Royal Pharmaceutical Society), Robert Wilson (British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers), Paul Bennett (Boots the chemist), Tracey Brown (Sense About Science) and Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science blogger/columnist).

The second panel was made up of Dr Peter Fisher (London Homeopathic Hospital), Prof Edzard Ernst (Peninsula Medical School), Dr James Thallon (NHS West Kent), and Dr Robert Mathie (British Homeopathic Association).

The whole session can be watched here, and the Guardian's Ian Sample live blogged the whole thing here.

This is a good session chaired by a committee who are clearly adequately sceptical of homeopathy's evidence of efficacy. There are a few interesting points where the pro-homeopathy panel members are held against the ropes and forced to give rather telling, squirmy non-answers to the committee's questions.

Phil Willis, who chaired the meeting, was responsible for some particularly excellent moments, such as answering Robert Wilson's point that homeopathy is an old tradition and popular in France with the point that so is prostitution but that doesn't make it right. Even better was his incredulous response to Wilson's argument that if they didn't work people wouldn't keep buying them with, "that wasn't a serious comment was it?"

It's well worth watching the video and it's heartening to know that at least there are people in the Commons who value evidence and take a sceptical view of alternative medicine and that they don't all lobby the government to have lunar effects taken into account.

However, the important question, I'm sure, will soon be whether the probable future Conservative government shares this committee's interest in evidence.

Update: Read Ben Goldacre's review of events here.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The Science of Scams

Magician and sceptic, Derren Brown has recently taken part in an online project about the ways that apparently paranormal feats can be reproduced in believable looking ways. In each of the seven episodes of The Science of Scams, a different paranormal skill is demonstrated and then explained in terms of the scientific principals behind it. The topics discussed include ghost sightings, telekinesis and psychic readings among others. All the videos are well put together and are certainly worth watching.

The first video in the series is below:

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Ray Comfort "not an expert on evolution" shock!

USNews has been holding a written debate between Ray Comfort and Eugenie Scott on the subject of Comfort's decision to distribute a version of Darwin's Origin of Species with a self-penned creationist introduction. Comfort's first statement is here and was followed by Eugenie Scott's first rebuttal here. Comfort replies here and finally Scott comes back again here.

It's not a huge surprise to anyone who has followed some of Ray Comfort's writing and media appearances that he uses both his statements to trot out the same oft-refuted creationist arguments that he brings to every debate. It's also not a huge surprise that Eugenie Scott knocks back those arguments with huge skill and clarity of thought, especially in her final statement, which is excellent.

Ray Comfort's second statement was so full of unintelligible non-arguments that it was impressive even for him, so I thought I'd have a little go through it as well.

Scott quoted a famous geneticist, who said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." I would like to drop one word, so that the quote is true. It should read, "Nothing in biology makes sense in the light of evolution." For example, evolution has no explanation as to why and how around 1.4 million species of animals evolved as male and female. No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery.

The bizarre strawman argument that evolution implies that a single male and a single female of each species must have evolved at the same time by coincidence is one of his absolute favourite arguments. It's even in the foreword of his laughable (but pun-tastically titled) You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but you Can't Make him Think (available with Look Inside on Amazon).

This argument is borne out of an incredible misunderstanding of how evolution works. In Comfortian evolution, a species, let's say a horse, will spontaneously decide to undergo evolution with the specific end goal of becoming another species, let's say a giraffe. In the time intermediate between being a horse and a giraffe, this species becomes a freakish chimera beast and also apparently stops engaging in sexual reproduction. Eventually, one of these asexual girorses (or hiraffes?) will give birth to a male giraffe, signifying the male line's attainment of the pre-ordained finish line. However, this single male giraffe must wait around hoping that a compatible female giraffe will be born to another hiraffe within its lifetime.

If this mechanism were even tangentially like Darwinian evolution, I would agree that the chances of a male and female of the new species co-evolving at the same time would be astronomically small and Comfort would have a valid point. Unfortunately, however, never has a concept been so badly misunderstood.

In fact evolution works at the population level. The immediate evolutionary ancestor to a giraffe would have been something very very like a giraffe, almost imperceptibly different. Each of these incredibly giraffe-like pre-giraffes would have been reproductively compatible with the giraffes that followed them and the pre-pre-giraffes that preceded them, which would themselves have been very much like a giraffe.

At no point would there been a single male or female unable to mate with other members of the population at large because Darwinian evolution occurs at the population, rather than individual, level gradually and over a very long time. So Comfort's argument is meaningless.

Nor does any evolutionary believer adequately address the fact that all those 1.4 million species managed to evolve into maturity together in our lifetime.
Nothing we have in creation is half evolved. The cow has a working udder to make drinkable milk. The bee has working apparatus to make edible honey. We don't find a half-evolved cow or bee. None of the 1.4 million species on the Earth has half an eye. All have the necessary functioning equipment, from the brain, to the teeth, to the eye, to limbs, to reproductive necessities. Everything that we see in creation is in full working order—from the sun, to the mixture of the air, to the seasons, to fruit trees and vegetables, to the animal kingdom—from the tiny ant right up to the massive elephant.

This assertion comes from a similar position of ignorance. Evolution is a gradual, directionless and blind process. The evolutionary predecessors of the bee were not working towards one day becoming modern bees. Rather, modern bees just happen to have been the outcome of the effects of natural selection on those predecessors through history.

The same is true of humans, although this can be difficult for people to reconcile with the natural and reasonable desire to believe that we are somehow special and sit apart from all other creatures. The truth is that humans are as we are largely because of chance and if any number of factors in our evolutionary past had been different, we would be different now - perhaps in noticeable and significant ways or perhaps not.

Every species represented on Earth today is equally evolutionarily suited to life. If it were not, it would go extinct. This has been true at every point in the history of the planet. Evolution is still going on today and many of today's extant species may be the transitional species of another age.

Maybe in a hundred thousand years, there will be a new flying insect on the planet, let's call it a penk, the ancestor of which will have been our familiar honey bee. No doubt a Ray Comfort of the day will snort scornfully at the idea that that penk evolved because he cannot be shown evidence of a half penk but only other similar insects. The point is that each of those links in the chain that bind the bee to the penk would have been themselves no less a complete and functioning creature than those at the arbitrarily selected beginning and end points of that journey.

Towards the end of the paragraph, Ray moves away from animals and brings the sun and the atmosphere into the argument, stating that if these had not been exactly as they are now, life would not have been possible. But this is a logically confused argument. If the sun had not formed, we would not exist. But the fact that it did and we do does not imply that it had a creator.

If the sun or the atmosphere had formed differently, life might still have existed, but in a different form, just as if any other factor in our evolutionary history had been different. If the atmosphere contained different elements, or different proportions of the same elements, life as we know it would not exist, but other life might. And if any of that life had reached the sort of intelligence that humans hold now, there would probably be another Ray Comfort using exactly the same argument.

A lot of creationist misunderstandings of evolution and cosmology stem from the belief that humanity is special and so any explanatory system must set the existence of humankind as an end goal. This is not the case. Humans are no more special than chimpanzees, rabbits, sponges and viruses. Our existence in our present form is the chance outcome, neither fortuitous nor otherwise, of a blind non-random natural selection process applied over hundreds of millions of years.

Scott continues, "There are more specimens of 'Ardi' (the newly described Ardipithecus ramidus) than there are of Tyrannosaurus . . . We and modern chimpanzees shared a common ancestor millions of years ago . . . ." But that's another evolutionary "Oops!" if you believe the learned scientists on the Discovery Channel. In a recent two-hour documentary about Ardi, the scientists said, "Ever since Darwin, we have bought into the idea that humans evolved from ancient chimplike creatures. That's because modern chimps seemed to share a lot of anatomy and modern behavior with humans. So the idea that we evolved from something like chimps seemed to make sense. But now, the discovery of Ardipithecus shows that this idea is totally and completely wrong." Did you hear what they said? This idea that we evolved from ancient chimplike creatures is totally and completely wrong.

This demonstrates a common creationist tactic: to jump on any disagreement about relatively minor scientific details as a major failing of the whole theory. The actual contention of the Discovery Channel documentary, as I understand it, was that the common ancestor shared by humans and chimps was not as much like a modern chimp as previously thought. However it certainly did not call into question the well established fact that we and chimps did share a common ancestor.

Plus, I believe the convention in science is to get your information from a source slightly more academically weighty than a TV documentary, even a two-hour one.

I am aware that it is the learning process of evolutionary "science" to continually discover itself to be wrong. So there can never be a time when believers can claim they have the truth. This is just as well, because each new and believed hypothesis, like the crazy fashions of a superficial teenager, is in time discarded in favor of the new.

Actually, to discover mistakes and adapt accordingly is a feature of all science and is actually one of its greatest strengths. Imagine if astronomy had stopped with Ptolomy's model of the solar system because science was not interested in changing to get closer to the truth. Or if nobody had bothered to work on the concept of alternating current because direct current was already in place.

However, the foundational fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection is not in doubt because no reason has ever been given to doubt it. It is only the details and the fine print that undergo revision when new evidence gives reason.

After addressing my arguments from the portion of the Introduction she doesn't want students to read, Scott says, "More fossils will provide more details, but this outline of human evolution is not in serious doubt among scientists." Hear her own words: "More fossils will provide more details." In other words, they still don't have the undisputed fossils. That's what Darwin lamented 150 years ago! He said that when a skeptic "may ask in vain, 'Where are the numberless transitional links?' " Darwin's answer was that the missing links "may lie buried under the ocean." They are still buried somewhere, 150 years later. Scott said that "human evolution isn't in serious doubt among scientists." But I say, it should be.

Finally, after all this foreplay, Comfort has made his way to every creationist's favourite argument - that there are no transitional fossils. Creationists' dismissal of the plethora of transitional forms that have been discovered comes from their bizarre mischaracterisation of the theory of evolution itself, as discussed above. Comfort's belief that any extant species must be linked to its ancestors by a lineage of bizarre chimeras like the crocoduck leads to the incorrect expectation that there should be fossils discovered that document these odd, twisted creatures of his imaginings.

We have numerous transitional fossils, but they all look too disappointingly normal and, superficially at least, too much like other extant animals to satisfy the expectations of the twisted, straw-filled version of evolution held up by creationists.

There is also the problem, when asking why we don't have numberless fossils, that for an animal to fossilise is pretty rare. A quite specific and unlikely set of circumstances lead to a dead animal fossilising, so only a tiny percentage of the animals that have ever lived have done so. Nevertheless, despite the necessarily patchy nature of the fossil record, it is full enough to be useful and to inform our understanding of our planet's past.

She also says, "There are splendid fossils of dinosaurs that have feathers and of whales that have legs—and even feet." But she doesn't give me any details of such splendor. Where are they?

In answer to this, I can do no better than to quote Eugenie Scott's own reply:

Comfort complains that I didn't provide enough detail in my brief essay about those fossil whales. You want a list of fossil whales showing the transitional features marking the evolutionary transition from land animal to marine, such as changes in the ears, nostrils, and limbs? Indohyus, Icthyolestes, Pakicetus, Nalacetus, Remingtonocetus, Ambulocetus . . . . Never mind. Start here, for a nontechnical review by a team of whale paleontologists.

Ray Comfort concludes:

There are so many gaps and holes in the theory of evolution that you could drive a fleet of a thousand fully laden 18-wheelers through them. The irony is that I can see them, and I'm not an expert on the subject of evolution. So, what does that say about the theory's experts, whoever they are? It says (as a wise man once said) that man will believe anything . . . as long as it's not in the Bible.

The declaration that he is "not an expert on the subject of evolution" is the first thing he has said that I agree with and perhaps he should consider whether perhaps it is his understanding, rather than the subject itself, that has the gaps and the holes.

Update: The National Centre for Science Education (NCSE) has an excellent page up refuting point by point Ray Comfort's introduction.