Saturday, August 27, 2011

When Dodos Cry

The astute reader of this blog may have noticed that I rarely, if ever, get drawn into blogging about creationism, intelligent design, etc. I did do it once, I think, but that was a long time ago and I regretted it immediately. Maybe it's that, being British, I find it hard to believe that anyone actually cares about this stuff. I mean, didya happen to notice that the global economy is collapsing at the moment? But I do agree with Richard Dawkins (whoa, never thought I'd write that in a blog post!) who recently proposed that acceptance of the theory of evolution is one possible litmus test for the suitability of presidential candidates. If you fail to be convinced by the evidence for natural selection, chances are that you're going to struggle to make sense of complex economic, national security, and societal decisions as well. He then undermined my cozy state of mutual agreement by going off on a rant about why we don't use the same process to select a president as we would to, say, make a new CEO or faculty appointment. My guess is that he's a bit offended that a stupid person's vote is worth the same as his. It is worth remembering, of course, that this principal is one that people are fighting and dying for across the world even as I write. Democracy is no respector of IQ.

The Dawkins article was one of a series of op-ed pieces published by the Washington Post on the subject of religion and evolution. The latest of these, by Paula Kirby, has left me scratching my head somewhat. I've seen many people try to claim that evolution invalidates religious belief, but this is the first time I've seen someone try to argue that evolution is so nasty that no merciful god would have used it as a mechanism of creation. Or, in Kirby's words -

"Evolution produces some wondrously beautiful results; but it happens at the cost of unimaginable suffering on the part of countless billions of individuals and, indeed, whole species, 99 percent of which have so far become extinct. It is irreconcilable with a god of love."

Let's stop for a moment and consider the concept of "species suffering." How, exactly, does a species suffer? Does it have a collective consciousness that is, in some way, aware that it is failing? Is there a sense of unrealized potential - "only 500,000 years? Why, oh Lord? Why?" Perhaps this is leavened by hope for the future; the expiring species takes comfort as it "sees" a closely-related sister taxon thriving and diversifying, much like an old man dying at home, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Was there, perhaps, a point where the last dodo, unable to find a mate, wept bitter tears at the thought that its species might have had an eternity of existence if only those pesky Dutchmen hadn't come along?

No, of course not. This is a silly line of argument and it illustrates why I don't waste my time writing about evolution and religion. It's a debate that is mostly characterized by ignorance. Critiques of evolution tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about evolutionary biology; critiques of religion tend to be written by people who know little or nothing about theology. Consequently the discussion never rises above the level of high school debate team. "Evolution is a 'theory' not a 'fact.'" "There can't be a god, because there are wars and bad things happen to good people." "Humans can't have evolved from apes, because apes are still alive." "If there's a god, why can't I see him?" "Flagellae and eyes are too complex to have evolved without the assistance of a designer." "I know there can't be a god, because of Occam's Razor." Call me an old stick in the mud, but if I was smart enough to be reading op-ed pieces in heavyweight papers like the Washington Post, I'd want something with a bit more academic rigor to go with my cornflakes.

Sorry for the rant, but that "species suffering" business really yanked my chain.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Minnesota Mystery Animal

It's a badger. But well done to Discovery blogger Benjamin Radford for taking the time to unpack the reasons why it's still a badger, even if it looks weird. As he says:

"...if we see a three-legged dog by the side of the road we don’t assume that it must be a previously unknown breed of three-legged dogs that science has not discovered. Instead we logically assume that the dog likely lost its leg through an accident or birth defect. Yet when it comes to other known animals with a strange appearance, people often reach for extraordinary explanations instead of logical ones."


The Smithsonian has launched a new blog called the Department of Innovation. Apparently it will cover “all things innovative, not just in science and technology but how we live, how we learn, and how we entertain ourselves.” Unfortunately, rather than highlighting the exciting new content of the blog, my fellows denizens of the blogosphere have gleefully latched onto its logo. Their amusement lies in the fact that there is apparently no way that the three interlocking gear wheels can move - the whole system is locked-up. Here at PoH, however, we pride ourselves with more detailed analysis, which reveals that there is - just - enough of a gap between wheels 2 and 3 to allow movement. So if this logo is, as some have claimed, a representation of the three branches of the U.S. Government, then perhaps that tiny gap represents compromise. I'll leave you to decide. (with thanks to Sally for sharing).