Thursday, 9 July 2009

Sit at my Right Hand

Throughout the Bible, the right hand is favored. If you want to honor someone, then you put them on your right hand. It is often argued that this is merely a cultural expression. Jewish and Middle Eastern culture favors the right hand. Indeed, this idea is supported by the numerous references to the "right" in the Qur'an, and specifically with the benefits of being on the right hand. Certainly, Muslims today take the concept much further than the West, with the right hand used for communication and the left for the...unmentionables. And of course, these cultural practices are probably based in the reality that the majority, 90% of us, are right-handed, and thus this is the preferred arm of use.

But now, we see a further biological justification. New studies indicate that we are more likely to grant a request if it is asked into the right ear. It seems that this idea of favoring someone at your right is not merely cultural, but is deeply ingrained biologically, and likely the authors of the Bible were unknowingly basing their descriptions of God on this. (Alternatively, God is communicating through our cultures, and what he knows of the cultures he designed.) Interestingly, women in the studies were more likely to grant the right ear than men, indicating perhaps a greater predisposition to grant requests.

Now, this may be simply a cultural expression in our right-handed cultures, and further study is warranted, looking at those who are left-handed to see if there is a different response, and performing controls with cultures that have a greater percentage of the left-handed. In the meantime, it appears that our understanding of God is based in part on God's understanding of us. Though we in the West may no longer be so tied to chirality, we still operate with an innate understanding of it's import. God speaks through culture, through his prophets, but regardless of our hope for free-will, we also operate under some basic instincts. We listen and grant a request if it is on our right. Though God of course has no body, and therefore no right or left, he also, figuratively, is more likely to grant the request to those on his right hand.

We should therefore strive for this, to sit at the right hand of God. We should not demand it, but rather ask. But as the pericope of the Sons of Zebedee indicates, the way one asks for this honor, to gain the place where God is more likely to hear your requests, is to become a servant of all, taking the last and lowest place. This brings honor, and God's ready ear, to grant our requests. And, I suspect, that the more we take this place of the lowest, the more likely we are to ask for that which God is more likely to grant, just as we grant the requests to those on our own right.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Controlling Love

A pet provides a means of control. We want to be able to control nature around us, not to live in harmony. We want to find a way to conquer- even if it means changing the very genetic code of wild animals to tame them. We try to to control animals emotionally, projecting our own thoughts and feelings upon them, as a recent study with dogs convincingly demonstrated. If the owner thought the dog had done something, the dog looked guilty to the owner. If the owner scolded the animal, the dog looked more guilty to everyone who observed the dog. If the dog had done nothing wrong, and was scolded, he looked most guilty.

This stems from communication barriers between dramatically different cultures. If I can mean one thing and communicate another to a human from a different culture, how much more dramatically will be the divergence in communication across species lines! Consider the simple hug, of arms around the neck, that we primates love to do. To the dog, even the pet dog, this is an act of aggression, going after the vulnerable jugular veins, and it is only with great effort that our tame wolves are able to control themselves- as evidenced by the enlarged whitening of their eyes in fear response. (Incidentally, a physical trait that we two species do share.) Thus love from one species communicates as attack to another.

But we are the dominant "wolf" in the pack, and we lay the ground rules. The dog tries desperately to follow them, and is happily assisted by some 30,000 years of selective breeding to more effectively read human expressions and emotions. Indeed, we have not been so well bred to them. So when the dog sees us angry and demanding that they have done something wrong, the dog knows the proper response to ameliorate the head wolf: act ashamed, or rather, lower the head and look up in the submissive posture- whatever it takes to make us happy. When the human sees this, usually, the anger begins to dissipate, for the human then feels they have asserted themselves to some degree over nature, have controlled something in their life.

We desperately want to believe our dogs and other pets are intelligent and can understand us. But intelligence is relative. They aren't intelligent when compared to whales, primates, or pigs. They are quite intelligent when compared to rodents. But that's not a level of intelligence that extends to the knowledge of good and evil, to the awareness that they have done something inherently wrong. It is an intelligence that is able to avoid discomfort and pursue comfort, regardless of inherent morality. Comfort comes from doing what the pack leader wants, what the human owner wants.

For us, comfort comes from loving, and being loved. Of course, the best way to do this is with humans. But for some, it just doesn't seem to work out. Because humans are messy. You can't control them, like you can a dog. When you try to, it's bad all around. A healthy human relationship is one without control, but with learning to love that which does not obey your every command, and should not obey it. Animals, on the other hand, can be taught to do whatever we want, or nearly everything. It is decidedly more convenient. It's a lot less messy. It's a lot less love, in the deep sense of agape, loving the unlovable.

And so, just as we all create God in our own image, we do the same to our pets. We look for ways to make them more human, to respond the way humans respond, or rather, the way one particular human responds- ourselves. We want to see a mirror image with fangs and fuzzy fur, that cocks it's head cutely and responds as we would want to respond. It is like a Bizzaro World reapplication of Christ's relationship principle. Not "Do to others as you would have them do to you," but "Expect others to do as you would do."

And this is not to say that this is in any way wrong, when applied to animals. But let us realize what we are doing, and realize what are reasonable expectations of our pets. Yes, our dog can learn to behave and follow our rules. It can not feel wrong, or be ashamed, or engage in a meaningful relationship. What we see there is our own projections of reality, and our pursuit of that is merely incestuous relationship, a bird enamored with its own reflection.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What do you do when your Theory is too good?

For so long now, we've been patiently explaining how evolution works, to all those who want to listen. It does not produce Hopeful Monsters, with an X-Men-like change in one generation. None of us are going to get Healing Factors or the ability to shoot lasers out of our eyes. It's a slow process, taking generations, and hundreds of thousands of years. This is why the argument by Literal Creationists that no dog has ever produced a cat is so silly. It is nothing but a straw man, for no biologist has ever argued anything remotely like that. Given the right environmental factors, over many, many generations, and a hundred thousand years, the remote descendants of dogs might appear to look more like cats than they do today- but that's a big if. And granted, fast reproducing species like bacteria and viruses do show evolution in our lifetime, with a high rate of Darwins (the units of evolutionary speed), so that we can easily trace how the HIV virus evolved in different environments into different "species", or types. (The environment in that case would be various populations of us, depending on our sexual activities.) But bacterial and viral selection has never been as sexy, if you'll pardon the pun.

Now, in the span of a few generations- twenty-six to be exact- and in eight years, guppies show selection towards various fecundity (birth) levels, depending on their environments. When put into two streams where there were no guppies, the stream that had predators produced guppies that had many offspring (since some of them would be eaten), and the stream without predators produced fewer offspring. (For those that say that no new species if formed, all that is required there is for isolation change producing a slight tweak in reproductive structures, or time of breeding, or proteins on the egg, etc.)

This study dramatically shows how it is environment which drives evolutionary change, and the formation of new populations and species. A stable environment is unlikely to produce major changes or many species; a quickly changing environment, like that the dynamic equilibrium of the coral reefs, produces the greatest diversity of any ecosystem. But who knew that evolution could actually happen so quickly.

The question isn't why organisms evolve so slowly. It is more, how is it that they evolve so quickly, with so little encouragement? And granted, this does nothing to help the macrofauna in the 6th Mass Extinction Event we are causing. But does it provide some hope for the more quickly breeding microfauna?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

An Inherent Right to Freedom?

?As much as physics is an inherently Arminianist science, so is biology inherently determinist. As a biologist, I believe everything is determined by my genetic code and my environment. This nicely dovetails with my belief in predestination, wherein I feel Calvin didn't go far enough but Augustine's ideas are right on (though sadly not completely accepted by the Roman Church). So it is with pleasure that I read another study affirming my perspective- the MAOA gene is found to be linked to aggression in males, and is more prevalent in more violent societies.

We often want to believe we are free to make our own decisions, especially in Western societies, especially in America. But to what extent is this true? We will trot out the arguments that one can not be held accountable for their actions if they did not freely make them- but if I go through every step of a decision, am I not as culpable, even if it can be found what actually motivated that decision? If I have a genetic disposition to alcoholism and grow up in a heavy car culture, it is more likely that I will drink and drive- and yet I am fully responsible when I do so.

And yet, excessive drinking, or drinking and driving, or adultery, or violence- all of these are sins. They are all missing the mark, all not hitting the target that God has for us. So this sin, this tendency, that we all have, in different ways, is written into our genetic code. And since many studies show the same actions in other primates, we can be fairly well assured that this tendency in our genetic code predates our existence as a species, predates the humans who are Homo sapiens - "wise men" - with the ability to discern good and evil. That which we did without the knowledge of good and evil (note the text never says the far more reasonable "knowledge of evil") was in no way evil, for we were amoral, not immoral, not knowing good and evil. Once we obtained that knowledge, once our brains reached that magical point of being able to differentiate, we became culpable.

Thus our actions and very sins are predetermined, and every year we learn new ways in which our genes have dictated our lives. Does this mean that the individual who discovers they have MAOA should just give up- that there's no hope, and they will always be violent? No! It means they are now aware that there is something inside them making them violent, and they must work on it. Or the society with the greater prevalence of MAOA now realizes they have a greater work to do in that society. This is just as when we all learn that we have a certain tendency, we now know the area to work on to pursue spiritual growth, and salvation sola morphe, striving to change to be more like Christ, as he called us to do, picking up our crosses to willingly suffer at the hands of violence without being violent ourselves.

And if they do the concerted effort to change, and resist their genetic tendency, that resistance will have been predetermined too.

But this is not enough. It is unfair to those with MAOA, or any such gene. (For we all likely have some sort of detrimental gene with a tendency towards sin, and more than one!) Jesus speaks quite forcibly against violence, even calling the possession of weapons a sign of wickedness. But that doesn't mean there is no place for war and violence in Christianity. On the contrary! For Paul says, "Our weapons are not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers." As Christians, we are called to continuously fight against the demons. This involves prayer, yes, but the Pauline passage makes it clear that this fight also involves righteousness and discipline, truth and readiness, listening to the Spirit with faith, and love.

What is needed is a transference of the enemy, of the other, for those afflicted with MAOA. In this way, their resonance of the curse becomes a blessing for the entire body, as Jesus did with his death on the cross. This was the same transference that the early Christians went through, in that violent time of first century Roman rule, when they called those who did not believe pagoni, meaning "the civilians". The term "Pagoni" was not an insult or attack, but rather an indication of who we, as Christians, are called to protect, not through force of arms, never through force of arms, but through force of prayer and love.

Thus those afflicted with MAOA now become those empowered by it, with Christ's redemption of even a gene for violence, as they come to the forefront of spiritual warfare, working against the powers of evil, and for the care of those they once might have attacked.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Who wants to live forever?

The great band Queen once had a song "Who Wants to Live Forever", notably played as the theme song to the Highlander TV Series. (There should have been only one.) In Highlander, there were Immortals who could only be killed by having their heads chopped off. The drawback is they were incapable of having children.

Geneticists have recently discovered a mutant line of nematodes wherein their non-sex cells (somatic cells) behave like sex cells. (Nematodes are round worms that are the most populous species on Earth, present in nearly every living organism, to such an extent that if all other organisms were removed, the general outline of the organisms would be visible from the nematodes within them. Yes, that means you, dear reader.) This leads to stronger cells throughout the nematode, ensuring their longevity, which in turn fits with some hypothesis that organisms make a choice between reproduction and eternal life, wherein organisms get old because they are investing in creating and raising young.

So here's the question: if you could choose, to be like the Immortals or mutant nematodes, would you choose to live forever, if it meant you could never have offspring? Granted, this is really only a viable question for those who don't have kids, since of course any parent is going to say they wanted to have their kids. And for many, they believe they will live forever, in new bodies, in the New Earth and Kingdom. But my question is, if you could live forever now, in this body, but never have offspring- would you choose to? I'd be interested in hearing both from those who believe in eternal life and those who don't.

As for me, it's a no-brainer. I'd far rather have the kids, even if it meant dying in the next couple years.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

My Mom's a Monkey

Okay, not really, of course. She's an ape, a primate, but lacking a tail, she's no monkey, and her ancestors never were either. They were primates, like her, going back to the days of lemur-like creatures. And rather famously all over the news of late, we have discovered Ida, a precursor transition fossil, showing the links between monkeys and apes.

A note about terminology. The press loves to use the word "missing link", crowing about discoveries, as do the Literal Creationists, decrying the truth of those same discoveries. In truth, scientists don't talk about ideas like "missing links". It implies that there is something missing out there, in particular, linking two organisms or two species, and that it can be found. This makes for a convenient idea with Literal Creationists, as they can always suggest that the Missing Link has yet to be found. But there can never be such a thing.

As Zeno pointed out long ago, you can never reach the halfway point; as Heraclitus said, everything is in flux, so you can never jump into the same river twice. (His disciple pointed out you can never jump into the same river once.) Species are not concrete entities- they are constantly changing entities, in every generation. There is not a time when you can point to this and say it is Homo rhodesiensis, and to another, and say that is Homo sapiens. There is not an individual or fossil individual that would be exactly halfway in between, to be "the moment" when the transition occurred. It's not logically possible.

But evolutionary science dictates that you also can't find that transitional moment, even if it was there. Fossils are simply too rare, so that the vast majority of the 99% of species that have gone extinct will never be found. Certainly, it's possible that we have occasionally come across such an individual, who is roughly halfway between two other known species- but the odds are simply too much against it. And if we do find a halfway point, we would then have a new Missing Link to discover, between that species and the first, ad infinitum.

This is why scientists, as opposed to Literal Creationists and the media, discuss "transitional fossils". These are fossils that represent a half-way point, like the wondrous Tiktaalik, but we recognize that this species is not actually in our evolutionary history, but was probably a branching point, much as Homo erectus is a cousin, and not an ancestor. Evolution is not a tree with most branches reaching the top, but a Christmas tree, with the vast majority of species going extinct. We find only clues in different organisms that would give a sample indication of what would be a halfway point- a transitional fossil.

And Darwinius masillae, Ida, is just such a transitional fossil. And of course, as soon as she was discovered, there was the litany from Literal Creationists and Intelligent Designers that she wasn't a "missing link", and we still needed to find the real missing link etc. But there was another line of attack, suggested directly or indirectly by various people- that there is no way our ancestor could be a "monkey". Again, evolution doesn't suggest this, and Ida is no monkey. But more intriguing is why there would be such a visceral reaction to the idea of one's ancestors being monkeys.

One repeatedly runs into the idea that this in some way diminishes humanity, if our ancestors are monkeys. And though there is some resistance from the same groups to the idea of ancestors being fish, or bacteria, or amphibians, it is the monkey and "gorilla" idea that most offends. And this seems a bit odd. Why would this be the case?

There may perhaps be a relic from the egregious ties of African-Americans to monkeys, a legacy we thought was past, but is still used to this day in reference to even the First Lady. It may be that some few individuals still think this way, and don't want their (white) selves tied to the same insult they perceive of African Americans. But this can't be true for the majority who strenuously object to any ties between us and monkeys. Again, they reject Evolutionary Theory, but they have a more visceral reaction to this particular connection, claiming that it somehow diminishes humans to be tied in his manner. Continuously, in the objections to our tie to monkeys, comes the idea that it diminishes humans- and this is found in the earliest objections to Darwin's theory.

This is a mystery. For the majority of these people are Christians. And they follow a text that says humanity was made from dust, that God considers us as so still. We are but worms- even maggots! Is not a worm, and even a maggot, a far worse comparison that that of a monkey? The Bible makes it clear that we are nothing on our own, in our own status.

In the emotional objections of the Literal Creationists (as opposed to the reasoned objections), one continuously gets the idea that humanity must be elevated, as if they believed that what Hamlet says in jest should be so in truth- What a piece of work is man?!

And yet, in those same passages, it is clear that because of our nothingness, God cares for us. It is precisely when God calls us worms that he says he will help us. It is when he calls us dust that he rises in pity. God cares about the outcast and the downtrodden first. He desires to be the servant king. He asks only that we ask for his help, that we affirm that we are nothing without him.

Which leads inexorably to one conclusion. The writings of Literal Creationist and IDists indicate that they reject the tie to monkeys because it lowers our status. Our lowliness of status is affirmed continuously in the Bible. Indeed, the Bible ties directly our lowliness of status to the compassion of God, and, to the extent that we affirm our lowliness and need of him, he comes to assist us. And so, when any of us reject our lowly status, or any status because we perceive it as lowly, we reject the offer of help from God, and reject the idea of God as God.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Creating Life is Easy

There's a short miniseries on TV these days, Impact, suggesting that the moon is hit by a Brown Dwarf, causing the moon to hit the Earth and destroy it, unless someone saves the day. The finale plays next Sunday, and I'm really hoping they don't repeat the tired last ditch save, and actually destroy the Earth this time. Because, really, there is no way that we could remove a Brown Dwarf from the moon and reverse the moon's trajectory enough to save the planet, assuming the Brown Dwarf had hit the moon and forced the moon towards us, and I'd like there to be some semblance of science in this movie. Because if the moon is headed for a collision with us, that's it- just like when the Mars-size body ran into us 4.5 bya (billion years ago), creating the Earth-Moon system. We have no idea what the Earth was like before that point, if there was life, or there was an Earth, because a Mars-size object hitting a Venus-size objects just completely remakes everything.

But it may be that a major bombardment of our planet by giant asteroids wouldn't liquefy the planet, or destroy all of life. I recently contemplated how the extermination of our species is not necessarily a bad thing, that life will find a way, and this study appears to be further thinking along those lines. The Earth was hit by many huge asteroids between 4.4 and 3.9 bya, and it has been assumed that they sterilized the planet. But numerous simulations were run in this recent study, and researchers increased the magnitude of the bombardment by ten times the level that is thought to have occurred, and still all of life wasn't sterilized. In fact, it may well be that this sterilization allowed life to develop- again, death and tragedy being the pathway to life.

More intriguing is that this Heavy Bombardment of the Archean Period may have actually helped life first evolve, providing a haven for creation. This is because of the massive heat energy being put into the open system of Earth, and energy provides what is needed to build the earliest cells. It was previously believed that the asteroids would have destroyed everything, so this energy wouldn't have helped, and the earliest life could have formed was only 3.9 bya. (Our earliest fossils, stromatolites, go back to 3.5 bya.) This string of studies indicates life could have formed 4.4 bya, a mere 100 million years after the final formation of our planet and satellite!

Literal Creationists love to focus on the origin of life, as the holy grail that evolution can't surmount, because it is just too difficult. (Though of course, the origin of life is not a matter of evolution or biology, but rather chemistry.) As I mentioned in an earlier post, we are increasingly finding with studies like this that making life is really not that hard. It has long been though that it took a mere billion years to first form life; now it may be a tenth of that, only 100 million years. Rather, the amazing feat is the formation of multicellular life, waiting some 2.5 to 3.5 billion years, and if Literal Creationists are looking for a deus ex machina of God's intervention, this is really where they should be looking- at the hard stuff! (Though of course, there are good hypothesis for explaining the delay, such as the need for collagen in multicellular life, and collagen requiring a lot of oxygen, and therefore we needed to wait billions of years for cyanobacteria to add that particular poison to the Earth's atmosphere.)

Life is cool, but that is not the amazing part. God's greatest creation is evolution, and I worship at his feet not only penultimately for the creation of life. The far more impressive feat is finding a way to link those cells together.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Where Magic and Miracles and Method Meet

It has been long known in science that acupuncture is just bunk, to use the technical term. We know this, because we have found no evidence that it is true, that it works. And in science, something is true only when it has been experimentally proven to be true. We might feel that it works, but until it is proven through the scientific method, we do not accept it as true. Thus scientists tend to look at belief in acupuncture as the same level as denial of Global Warming or evolution, or acceptance of alchemy.

A recent study found that acupuncture works better than normal medical practices for curing back pain. There have been a few studies that have indicated this in the past, but they have been largely discounted, due to errors like exceedingly small sample size. What was intriguing about this study is that it found that acupuncture works better than standard medical practice- and so did simulated acupuncture. People reportedly felt better about their backs to a statistically significant degree, whether or not the needle was put in at "acupuncture points" or randomly on the body, and whether or not a needle was used in the prescribed manner, or merely a toothpick. The conclusion is that acupuncture works through a placebo effect, or else simply pricking areas of the body is all that is needed for the alleviating of pain.

This is not to deny that there is a spiritual world out there, outside the realm of science. It may well be that acupuncture works because people put their faith in it. It may work in the same way that magic does. But that's where it gets dangerous.

The problem with acupuncture is the theory that is proposed behind it- energy fields. They might work just fine in Star Wars, but they have no place in science, because there has never been any established evidence for them. They can't be studied, or even identified. And so for science, they don't exist.

But as the Great One, Stephen Jay Gould, pointed out, there is NOMA- Non-Overlapping MAgisterium. Science and Religion both have their place, but they are different places. Now, Gould limited NOMA too much to merely the ethical realm, denying any possibility of the miraculous. If we accept the miraculous, then acupuncture can very well be effective, on the magical or miraculous level. And this is where it gets dangerous.

Science is real. It measures real physical effects. But - and I know some will be horrified to see me write this - so is magic, and so is the miraculous. And the latter two are different from each other.

Magic is believed in, and some would argue it effective merely because of that. If you believe in something enough, then through psychosomatic effect, it works. And that is probably true some of the time. But I have had too many experiences, read of too many, heard of too many by those I trust, to deny it's power. The same is true of the miraculous. But magic is something where we attempt to control reality through supernatural means. For the miraculous, there is never an attempt to control. It is an asking, from a "higher power", for assistance. It is the higher power that is in control, not us.

Of course, this rightfully indicates that the line between magic and the miraculous can often get blurry. There are many times when we approach God, asking for a miracle, with a demand, expecting him to come through. Or we try to manipulate him, by doing certain actions, saying certain words, speaking for long enough, going through the right motions, in order for him to come through. It is good to expect things from God, for this is faith. But our faith needs to be that which trusts that God will be there for us- not that God must work in a particular way. For when we believe that, or try to do certain actions or say certain words, we've stepped into magic.

Thus we can see that science and magic are similar. Both are attempts to control our reality. But science, I would argue, is a legitimate attempt. It is the understanding that we can change reality because of our experience in the physical; it is using physical means to change physical reality. I drop the ball and expect it to hit the ground because of my experiences with gravity, or because of experiments, but I know it will do so not because of any kind of supernatural intervention, by me or a god.

And this is the problem with acupuncture. Currently, as it stands, there is no scientific support for it. It is not changing reality through physical means. Is it then miraculous, or magical? The practitioner or patient rarely go in asking for God's help in the matter. But even if they do, as some do when they go in for radiation therapy or surgery, asking for God to miraculously be involved at the same time as modern science and medicine are operating, they are relying in part on this other thing. The woman who asks God to heal her of Swine Flu while taking antibiotics is trusting both God and the drugs; the man who asks God to heal him through acupuncture is trusting both God, and the needle. Since there is no physical proof for the efficacy of acupuncture, we are forced to conclude that it is a supernatural method to achieve material results. It is precise actions to bring a change. It is not science, nor miraculous- it is magic. It is an attempt to control our reality through supernatural means.

And while magic may be appropriate for some, it is never appropriate for the Christian, precisely because it is an attempt to control reality, rather than letting God control. It is warned against repeatedly, in the Old and New Testaments. It is the original sin of Babel. It is the belief that we can be God, that we can reach God on our own merits, through our own actions- that we can be the gods ourselves, and in control of all the Heavenly Realms.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Tragedy is in the Eye of the Beholder

It is an awful thing when people die. But death is not the end; it is always a beginning. A great man once said, "Life will find a way." It is true. No matter what we do to destroy our planet, life will find a way. The issues of Global Warming aren't that we will destroy all life (we won't), or that we will severely limit the amazing diversity of creation (we will, and we are), but rather that we will create an environment that is completely inhospitable for us.

But in death there is life. Not a sparrow falls, that God is not with it, and not a creature dies that it is not returned to the web of life. In every death, there is food for others. In every birth, there is the survival of one sperm among millions, and that life resulted only through the death of those millions. Even in that theological dreadnought, the ichneumon wasp, whose larval children devour the living caterpillar from the inside, it is through death that we find life. This is the message of biology, and the message of Christianity. Without the central tenant of death bringing life, the religion has nothing to offer itself. But this message was woven in the very fabric of the last 3.5 billion years of life, in the thread of our DNA.

These thoughts are prompted by a long-term undersea study of a continuously evolving volcano near Guam. The researchers have found that the newly erupting vents are quick to be colonized by never-before-seen species. The oceans there heat up and acidify, killing thousands of creatures, who rain down as seemingly magical food to the waiting acidophiles below. As our penchant for fossil fuels increasingly acidifies the ocean, this study helps scientists understand how these organisms can adapt.

I am reminded of another recent paper, suggesting that volcanoes or artificial aerosols could be a helpful last-ditch attempt to stave off Global Warming. It may well be that we end up praying to God for great eruptions throughout the planet, as we once had, in order to reverse what we have done. These eruptions could destroy millions of lives, and have been viewed throughout history as the judgment of God- and yet we would be reduced to praying for their onset.

But God may not choose to answer those prayers. We may destroy the planet as a livable place for us, and most of the species. But the organisms left- they will find a way. There will only be a few, but given another hundred million years, and life will have evolved in glorious new ways. We will have destroyed the beauty of creation, but we don't need to be around to see how it rebounds. Who knows if this is not the Apocalypse spoken of by John? We will still enter the Kingdom one day, but we don't need to be the final species that God deals with. He can make the rocks cry out in praise of him- he doesn't need Homo sapiens to do it. Another intelligent species, looking far different from us, can evolve in a few hundred million years, to fill in the niche gap we left. And they may well do a better job of caring for the Garden than we did. It's hard to imagine them doing worse.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

I thought by now I'd ... date a girl made out of wires...

Five studies have dove-tailed recently. Four studies indicate that a TV will help take the place of relationships. Something we all already knew- if you have lost a relationship, or fear that you might, the TV becomes a surrogate. But not just any TV- it must be shows that you really enjoy. Any TV won't help. TV fills in that gap of relationship when you are watching characters that you really care about- like Cheers, or Friends, or whatever you personally enjoy.

A separate paper looks at the increasing use of automation and computers in research, to the extent that they are beginning to replace scientific researchers themselves. The authors caution that humans will always need to be in the loop, but we are increasingly seeing that we need computers to accomplish what humans once did, due to the complexity of certain studies.

There is an obvious synergy in these two studies. We are looking at that which is artificial to replace people- in one case, relationships, and in another, one's livelihood.

The authors of the first studies are quite clear that TV is not as good as real relationships. In this regard, it is much like the manner in which some lonely people look toward their pets for comfort, and others speak of how they have much better relationships with animals than humans. It is easy to have a relationship with an animal, as you can read so many of your own emotions into the animal. Humans are more complex, and more messy. Easier still is to watch passively the characters you care about, where you can imagine your own response to them, and how they would act. The end result is the entire relationship takes place exclusively, or largely, in one's own mind.

Is this an entirely bad thing? We are created in the image of God. What does that mean? The word "image" was the same word as "idol" in ancient Hebrew, referring to the seat of the god. No one believed that the god was the same as the stone image they made- they believed it was the seat of that deity. We were created to be the seat of YHWH, the one true God. But the Hebrew of Genesis makes it clear- it is not we as individuals who are created in the image of God. No, rather, "He created humanity in his image, male and female he created them." It is the male and female together that are in the image of God. It is the relationship of love that holds the seat of God. And, one might argue, the relationship of those most different, for the different is more difficult to love, and therefore shows a greater love- and therefore, to an ultimate degree, it is the relationship between men and women, whether erotic or platonic, that shows this image of God most greatly.

So we are in God's image. And God is creator. Is it an entirely bad thing if we create life- even intelligent, sentient life? Is this not fulfilling God's destiny for us, that we also create, just as he did? It does not make us God, for he is still the ultimate, but it would make us attempting to follow in his steps. And since all life has evolved, including us, we have in that sense already participated in the creation of life, along with every other species on this planet (particularly the 99% of species now extinct). It is indeed God's gift to us, through evolution, to allow his children to participate in the process of creation through evolution. And in this, the passive process of evolution, we come closer to God himself. How much more so in the active process?

These are only possible suggestions. Hesitationally offered, much as Origen did when he suggested the pre-creation of the soul, though those works were still declared heretical centuries after his death.

But even if this is so, certainly this is not what we see on TV. For just as it is the most difficult relationships where love still exists that most show the image of the eternal God, so it is the heart of relationships that one has no control over them. A relationship of command and fiat is no relationship at all. Relationships by nature are messy, and praise God. Relationships are those things where I have no control, and I must give up my pride and concept that I can do as I want. And it is only in that humility, not considering equality with God a thing that must be demanded, that I find real love.

But the relationship of the TV is par excellant the relationship of control. It is in the imagination, it is self-fulfilling and self-filling. It is no relationship at all. When one is down and depressed, it may seem to be a filled hole, but that hole is only sinking sand.

Likewise, the creative process may soon be replaced by computers. Computers are learning to be creative, though humans are still necessary for research- and probably always will be. Computers are needed for analyzing data, and will increasingly be needed for this. But we lose something of ourselves when we give up those most human of traits- curiosity and creativity- to machines. For those of us like myself who find the appreciation of nature a moment of worship, there is here, also, a loss of relationship, with God, and yes, with the data itself, when one gives up these opportunities for joy to a computer. Were these computers with all of the abilities of humans, with all of the independence of thought and emotion, it would be different. But we aren't there yet- and aren't likely to be for centuries. As such, our increasing use of computers in research decisions would lead to a loss of what it means to be human- what it means to be in relationship.

The great band Swirling Eddies/Daniel Amos had a song once, "It's the Eighties (So Where's Our Rocket Packs?" One line stated "I thought by now I'd have a robot run the vaccum, and date a girl made out of wires..." What matters is not what the individual is made of, but what is inside. Do they have the soul, the independence, to make love a challenge- and therefore to make love real? But we aren't there yet. Any techonology we use becomes a replacement, and a removal from our status as the image of God.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Our Responsibility in the Infliction of Pain

For years, I have taught what I was taught in college, the central maxim of invertebrate research: "No brain, no pain." You must have a brain in order to comprehend the notion, "Ouch- this hurts!" Yes, you can respond to stimulus without a brain, much as a bacteria would- it is too bright, so it moves away, it is too hot, so it moves towards the cold. But it requires a bit more than a collection of ganglia to process the concept of pain.

We all have pain receptors as one of our nine senses. (Smell, Taste, Sight, Hearing, Touch- and separate receptors in the skin for Heat, Cold, Pressure, and Pain. It's just that five of our senses are in the same organ- skin- so we lump them together.) Without those pain receptors, we wouldn't know pain. Those rare individuals, such as some lepers, who lose the ability to sense pain realize at their own peril how valuable a sense this is. Much as we might like to get rid of it, it helps us avoid problems like losing a limb because we didn't know how much it was being damaged by the acid.

But it is more than pain receptors. All of us (capable of reading this blog) also have brains, and rather impressive ones at that, capable of comprehending elementary thoughts like those here, or the sublime, like, "Ouch! This hurts!" You don't need to be self-aware to comprehend this, but you do need to be able to experience subjective reality, much as your dog or cat do. Your dog doesn't sit there contemplating his existential existence- he does know when something is happening to him.

For a long time, we have found this not to be true of the invertebrates. Excluding the amazing cerebral Cephalopods, invertebrates just don't really have brains. They have collection of ganglia- nerve cells- but nothing really complex to call a brain. And therefore nothing capable of understanding subjective reality, such as pain.

Thus, when scientists work with invertebrates, we have some greater amount of leeway. When pithing a frog for dissection, one must be very conscious of the pain inflicted. You do so only for a greater good, such as helping students understand how a frog works, and you do it quickly, to minimize the pain. This issue isn't present when vivisecting a crawdad, or an ant, or a snail. It is a great responsibility and burden to inflict pain on an animal, and you do so only when necessary. That necessity is removed when dealing with vast majority of invertebrates.

This is not to say that we can then willy-nilly kill any sort of invertebrate creature we want. For we are psychological beings, some would say with a soul, and when we kill another creature, or inflict pain, or appear to do so, it has an effect on our own souls. Much as a child playing non-stop Halo learns that it is okay to kill others without repercussions, stepping on ants who don't feel pain teaches the child that our actions that appear to harm life can be done with impunity. The lobster sounds like it is screaming when being boiled alive, but it is only the air escaping from between the animal's carapace. It has no brain, so therefore can't feel pain. Yet, that sound of screaming has an effect on the chef or any human, and can lead to a deadening of the emotive center which is the very definition of sentience- our own sentience. It is the effect of our actions on all creatures which matter even when dealing with those lower lifeforms, as evidenced by the clear trend of boys stepping on ant hills, often leading to boys harming dogs and cats, and then to seeing even other humans as mere fodder for their schadenfreude tendencies.

But we clearly distinguish those creatures that we care for for our own mental health, and those we care for because of the mental health of the creature itself. And lest an individual think they do not- that they care for all creatures because they are creatures, that they are vegetarian, or following Buddhist principles- I challenge them to fully apply that concept. Quit eating the yogurt, full of so many bacteria. Quit using antibiotics, killing off those nasty bacteria. Quit living, in fact, for your body is constantly fighting off those bacteria in the inner replay of evolutionary force. This is not merely rhetorical allegory. As pointed out in the introductory paragraph, bacteria sense- but not one suggests they have the ability to feel pain. There is a line, and everyone draws that line, albeit at different points. Even the Buddha did not care for germs in the same way (though of course he could not possibly be aware of their existence). Sensing does not entail sentience, although it is a precondition for it. Where, therefore, do we draw the line?

As I said, at the place where there is a brain. And it can be argued where there is enough of the animal to have a brain, or how much ganglia and brain is needed to comprehend pain. Clearly a virus does not have it, nor a sponge, nor an anemone- and certainly not a plant, all the pseudo-scientific theories out there not withstanding. And for a long time, we have been bolstered by the teaching that the invertebrates, excepting the Cephalopods, also fall into this non-sentient category.

Until now. Until today. For a study has just come out indicating that small hermit crabs also feel pain. They subjected the crabs to mild shocks, not so much that it would make them leave their shells, but enough that, when offered a better, shockless shell, they rejected their old home for the new one. This indicates a step towards not simply responding to stimuli, but actually remembering what is negative- or being aware of one's subjective environment and feeling pain.

More study is certainly needed before final conclusions can be drawn. Technically, if true, it would apply only to hermit crabs, but could be extended out reasonably to other Crustacea. It does not indicate that organisms with less of a brain, such as the adult Tunicate or earthworms, could also feel pain, and one would hope for similar studies on other groups of animals to determine if there is a like response. Similarly, one would like control studies conducted on organisms like jellies and sponges, who obviously have no way to comprehend pain, being completely brainless, to see if they respond in the same way, indicating that the study does not indicate surprising new sentience.

All those caveats withstanding, it brings one to pause for a moment. To consider. As the authors of the study rightly bring up, it has an effect on all those Crustacea we catch and eat. Is the best being done to minimize possible pain as they come up in the net. (No.) Certainly little is done for fish, but we also know that fish have very few pain receptors. If this study is born out, it may, and should, revolutionize the way we approach fisheries management.

But closer to home, it causes me to consider how I have treated all those organisms in the past. Like I intimated above, I have always been careful even with the organisms that don't seem to be sentient, if only for my own sentience. But there is care and there is care. And I can assuredly state that I have not cared for these worms and crawdads and snails with the thought that they were capable of experiencing pain. I have considered this for months now.

And it troubles me greatly.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Revenge might be a good cold dish, but not a lifeplan.

A new study indicates that people who engage in revenge are less likely to find work, or keep it. There is "positive reciprocity" and "negative reciprocity". The positive is when you do something nice for someone who does something nice for you; the negative is the opposite. Some people are more positively reciprocal, others more negatively reciprocal. Those who are positive have more friends and make more money, because, the study found, they work harder for more pay. Negatively reciprocal people are not encouraged by higher pay, but will work less for lower pay, or try to harm the company they're working for. They also are less happy.

I personally would prefer a study that doesn't relate to pay. I look at money as a necessity to get by, but not as something I inherently want. Nor am I interested in the mammon that one can gain with the money. Certainly, I like the occasional book, but money is an inherently negative concept to me, because of my cultural upbringing. This study looks at something that is a root of all kinds of evil- money- as the primary incentive. It could be argued that those who are inspired by money do better by the standards of their society, when working in a capitalist system. The study therefore has some flaws that need to be addressed.

But let us take it at face value. Let us accept the basic premise as it stands. I still find it a rather primitive motivating force- Utilitarian, rather than Kantian ethics. Certainly, Kant leaves a lot to be desired, but what was positive in his ethics was the Categorical Imperative- the good is that which, if done by everyone at all times, would still be good. It bears a resemblance to the Utilitarian ethic (also known as the George Bush ethic) - "Do what is best for the greatest number of people." And yet the Categorical Imperative is worlds apart from the ethic of the Utilitarians. Ultimately, the Utilitarian ethic degenerates into mob rule, where the majority dictates upon the minority. Kant asked us to consider what was best for everyone, and not just what served the greatest number. He argued that ultimately, if it was not something that everyone could do, then it was not worth doing.

The Categorical Imperative bears a more than passing resemblance to the ethics of Jesus- "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Jesus' ethic was rather often that the good of the one, or the few, outweighs the good of the many- for in Jesus' ethics, there was no differentiation between the good of the many and the good of the one. (Witness the story of the Garasene Demoniac, where Jesus condemns the livelihood of ten cities so that one man might be saved from demonic possession.) The ethic of Jesus takes it a step further, best exemplified in the Gospel by Luke- the best action is not that which serves the majority, or even all people, but that which serves the minority- those outcast- for our needs and desires are (and should be) inseparable from those so outcast. It becomes the ethic of the minority, but not those who rule. It is rather the ethic of the minority who do not rule.

This is rooted in the the difference between the ethic of Jesus, and how that ethic is commonly interpreted. It is not "Do unto others so that they will do unto you." There is never any expectation of return. It is how you would want them to treat you. But it is love of your enemies, which Jesus also calls for. It is love for those who mistreat you, who hate you, who despise you- to pick up your instrument of torture and gruesome death and follow in the path of Jesus.

We come back to the root of the study. The difficulty with the premise is that those who get ahead are those who are considering their own best interests. They are happier than those who desire harm for another, attacking those who attack them, for they are motivated by doing good for those who do good to them. But this motivation is ultimately selfish in origin. It is more limited than the Utilitarian Ethic, considering what is good for the greatest number. It is more limited than the Categorical Imperative, considering what is good for all. It is more limited than the ethic of Jesus, considering what is good for the lost sheep. It has no place for doing good to those who mistreat you.

Yes, it undoubtedly works. You do better in this society if you are positive and encouraging. It would make sense that you would have more friends. But that does not make it right. One would want to see further studies, looking at less materialistic societies, to see if the "getting ahead" was dictated by the materialistic basis of society. And one would want to compare those who are encouraged by an Positive Reciprocal Ethic, with those motivated by Utilitarianism, Kant, and Kingdom Desires.

All of this is not to say I'm at that exalted Kingdom level. Or the level of Kant. Or the level of even John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians. For I have to merely think back to my last time driving on the freeway, and see how much more I was focused on Negative Reciprocity. But how, pray tell, could one possibly apply the ethics of Jesus to the American freeway system, and expect to ever get anywhere?

Saturday, 21 March 2009

God with us, in our Death

John Haught writes one of the finest works in the emerging genre of evolutionary theology. In it he describes how Christianity is really only fully fulfilled in the light of evolution; and evolution only makes sense fully within the Christian myth. His central point in this is the kenosis, Christ's emptying of himself by becoming man, suffering as a human, and dying on the cross, all for love. Haught extends this out to the central Christian principle of panentheism to answer the troubling question of theodicy. God is not everything, but rather everywhere, and in everything. He then contemplates, how does this then answer the problem of suffering? Evolution did not invent theodicy, but it certainly accentuates it, as there are constant billions of creatures who suffer and die, even if one excludes those lacking in brains and therefore the capacity of suffering. And these countless creatures are doing this long before "sin" entered the world through humanity, and death through sin.

It is answered in part, that God cares for all his creatures- and even those items that he did not breath life into. He cares not only for the moving animals, but the growing trees, and the sitting-and-doing-nothing rocks, waiting to erode. He may care for some creatures more than others, but each and everyone is his creation, and he loves them dearly. And he is present with all of them, at each moment of their lives, no matter how long or short the lives are. And for those capable of suffering, long before the cross, Christ took up their suffering upon himself, suffering with them in every moment, mourning with them, feeling the splagxnizomai compassion of identification and empathy.

The journal Ac­ta Pa­lae­on­to­log­ica Po­lon­ica denotes an extraordinary find in Inner Mongolia in China. An entire herd of young Sin­or­nith­o­mi­mus dongi has been found entrapped in mud. It's rare to find a herd of fossils of one species; rarer still to find some with their last meal in their stomachs, and such details as eye bones preserved, and how they died.

From World Science's summary:

These an­i­mals died a slow death in a mud trap, their
flail­ing only serv­ing to at­tract a near­by
scav­en­ger or preda­tor.

The skele­tons showed si­m­i­lar ex­quis­ite pre­serva­t­ion and were mostly fac­ing the same di­rec­tion, the re­search­ers said, sug­gest­ing that they died to­geth­er and rath­er quick­ly.

Two skele­tons fell one right over the oth­er. Al­though most of their skele­tons lay on a flat hor­i­zon­tal plane, their hind legs were stuck deeply in the mud be­low. Only their hip bones were mis­sing, the likely hand­i­work of a scav­en­ger work­ing over the meat­i­est part of the body bod­ies shortly af­ter the an­i­mals died.

Plung­ing marks in mud sur­round­ing the skele­tons recorded their failed at­tempts to es­cape.

What do we do with such details, of suffering and death? It happened so long ago, 90 million years ago. Like a tragedy on the other side of the world, or watching one unfold in a fictional drama on TV, there is nothing we can do about it. But we can remember,

That God was with them.
He was with them in their suffering, and their
dying.
He knew them, and remembered them.
He was with them in their
coming in,
and their going out.

And he wept with them too.

And we can pray the prayer we always pray, knowing that God's will will be and is and has been done, but we pray to align ourselves with the Spirit of God, that we might follow him in this kenosis:
Lord, be with them, even the least of these your creatures.
As you have been, as you will be, as you shall be, in the enternal now.
And teach me your compassion.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Warning: This Post X-Rated

Did that get your attention? Did you start reading this because of the title?

Are you still reading even though you feel like you shouldn't, because you want to see what is written next, or better yet, what pictures are included below the fold? (Yes, there are pictures.)

A new study came out showing what many have long believed- warning labels on games make it more likely that youth will rent and play the game. The violence and sex that are offered are too alluring. Though the study was limited to games, it is reasonable to extrapolate that a higher rating of MA, R, NC-17, or X also make it more likely that youth will want to watch the program or movie. And let us not limit it to youth, but be honest, that there is a certain titillation that attracts most adults as well.

Why is this? Why do we want to see what we feel we should not see? Why does a warning make it all the more enticing? Why do we sometimes believe that what is hidden is more enticing and needs to be revealed?

This is an ancient issue, of course, going back to the Garden, when the forbidden fruit proved too enticing, and the man and woman were convinced by the serpent to eat of it. (Medieval Europe thought it was an apple.. I tend to believe the fruit was a coconut, and thus Eve's first words after biting into it were, "Ouch.") From the writing style, this is obviously myth, but that doesn't make it untrue- rather myth is often more true than the cold logical progression of events we often describe as reality. This is a reality the Genesis authors are expressing- that we find we do that which we should not do, especially when we have been warned against it.

And yet, we also know that God is omniscient (by definition), and certainly knows the hearts of humans. He knew that warning humans to not eat would cause them to eat. (Again, not that there was an actual fruit and eating experience, but rather the story reveals something of the nature of humanity and the nature of God. Thus, the authors are describing a God who would entice humans in precisely the way he knew they could be enticed.) God does not tempt, but he certainly leads us into temptation- else why do we pray that he not? And this is a story of a God who placed a pleasing fruit- or more to the point, placed a pleasing commandment, in front of our eyes, practically begging us to disobey. Why? Because this is the way he created us. This is the way the laws he set up guided the evolution of our brains. We want what we can not have, or even better, what we should not have.

Why would a good God do this? Why would he give us a law when he knows the very giving of the law would lead us to disobey it? Without laws, we wouldn't have known it was wrong, and would have continued in our ignorance, without doing wrong. Without laws, we would not have been tempted to disobey, and feel impelled to disobey though we knew it was wrong, just because we knew it was wrong. There was a time long ago when we acted without a knowledge of good and evil, like the other animals. The actions we then did were not immoral, but amoral, but when we learned the difference between good and evil, the actions we had done in innocence were now evil. Had God not allowed this greater awareness to rise in us, we might never have had the brain capacity to worship him, but we also would no longer be acting in evil.

In the same passage where Paul speaks of his body warring against itself, he also states that, when we do what we don't want to do, we affirm that the rule is good. It is in this context that he has perhaps the most complicated and dense portion of all his letters (and yet the summation of all his theology), describing how the law is not sin, but rather the law showed us what sin was. Its presence meant our actions became sin, and its presence made it that more enticing to commit sin. And there is here no hope- there is law, and sin, and condemnation.

Until the next pericope, where Paul points out only one hope- the grace of God, as expressed in the death and life of Jesus the Christ. Pelagius was wrong. Without this grace, we can not succeed. He was right in what the Eastern Church took up to a more fuller extent- our Spirit must work with the Spirit of God to find this life-changing. This is the divinization of Athansius, that God became human that we might become divine.

There is no hope. A 14-year old boy will continue to buy the games rated M and AO. I will continue to want to go to the NC-17 movie. You will continue to want to enter the website stating "For over age 18 only." There is no hope on our own, because it is our nature. We were evolved to this. We can only change when we accept the divinization by God, allowing his Spirit to work to change us through the death of Jesus, in the hope of following him into that glorious resurrection when all things are made new. Even he said, "Not my will, but yours be done." We must make an active choice to subsume our will. And this can only be done by the presence of the living Spirit.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Tony Campolo's Great Mistake

I don't know that I've ever been more disappointed to read something online. I respect Tony Campolo so much. I have been lead to the Truth by his words so often. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Pasadena Tab, when I was with the Salvation Army and he lead a conference there. This is a man who has consistently upheld the liberal end of evangelicalism, who calls for us to honor the social justice cries of the Gospel. He has truly helped me come closer to Christ. And now, he publishes this.

If you haven't heard, or haven't read, in the latest issue of Christianity Today, Campolo comes out strongly against the teaching of evolution, or "Darwinism", as he calls it. (Darwinism is a dismissive insult purposely used by Literal Creationists, to try to turn evolution into a religion.) Campolo doesn't come out and say that evolution is wrong, but rather argues that it should not be taught, for the philosophical, social, and religious implications and beliefs of Darwin are monsterous.

I was shocked to read this. Campolo is a level-headed guy, with great reasoning and logic, who speaks for a non-literalist interpretation of the Bible. Yet down the line he quoted the standard Literalist arguments used against evolution. I would have wished that someone else had emailed this article in under his name, and that he was the victim of identity theft, rather than believing that you actually wrote this.

Evolution should or should not be taught in schools because it is either the truth, or it is not. What the results are of the theory, or how people use it, are rather irrelevant. The truth shall set you free, regardless of what kind of truth that is. And it just so happens that there is probably no other scientific theory out there that has more evidence for it than the Theory of Evolution. In this article Campolo proved that he might be a great theologian and pastor, but that he knows very little about science.

Campolo claimed that Darwin directly advocated eugenics and the wiping out of inferior races. In truth, Darwin is rather famous for being an abolitionist, and speaking against what would be later known as eugenics. Certainly, the Intelligent Design crowd and the Discovery Institute often quote him out of context to try to say the opposite, ignoring the very next line where he says (to paraphrase anachronistically), "If eugenics were actually practiced, it would be horrible." And I have no doubt that his beliefs on race aren't up to our standards today- but the same could be said for Lincoln, and more easily said.

Campolo points out another common Literal Creationist argument, that the long title of "Origin of a Species" refers to the preservation of the races. This is true, but the long title of Origin isn't used as much in referencing the work because the word "races" in the 19th century means more than just humans. Indeed, today, the same is still true in biology. My professors would speak of races of seastars, meaning different colors of the same species of Patiria miniata. Since Darwin doesn't really ever get to the evolution of *our* species in Origin, when he used the term "races", he was quite clearly referring to animals in general.

Campolo brings up the rather tired argument tying the Nazis to evolution, the same one that was brought up in the awful Expelled movie by Ben Stein. These arguments are completely inaccurate every time they are blindly repeated. In Campolo's condemnation of the ethical implications of evolutino, he ignored, or more probably had not read, the numerous statements by Darwin that his biological theory should not be used as an ethical paradigm. Yes, the Nazis used evolutionary theory incorrectly to support their beliefs. (Indeed, their distortion of evolution was so great as to advocate the opposite of what evolutionary theory advocates.) They also used a distortion of Christianity to do the same. Campolo knows that Satan loves to distort the truth, and to use lies to advance his agenda. That doesn't mean we should throw out the Christian faith.

Campolo then refers to some others who were tied to the Nazis and evolutionary theory. Tod o this, he refers to Ernst Haekel as German, and therefore is to be lumped with the Nazis. This smacks too much of the same that Campolo accuses Darwin of. Haekel made mistakes, but he also contributed a great deal to biology. His drawings of plankton were immaculate and advanced our understanding of them a great deal. Though he fudged his drawings of ontology recapitulating phylogeny, his basic premise was sound and is still followed today. Indeed, it is a foundational principle of EvoDevo Synthesis that has supplanted the NeoDarwinian Synthesis of Evolutionary Theory.

Remember, if evolution is true, and the evidence indicates it is, than it is also a work of God. And for my money, a more powerful God creates in this manner than in the Q snap-your-fingers style of the IDists or Literal Creationists. There are many authors and theologians now who are discussing not only how Christianity and evolution are compatible (see Kenneth Miller), but how the theology and the science of the two are interwoven and dependent on each other (see John Haught, Darrel Falk, and Denis Edwards). Yes, we affirm with Campolo that humans are in God's image, and unique in that way. But if evolution is true, then by attacking evolution, one is attacking the very work of God.

Friday, 27 February 2009

I Love the Taste of Love in the Morning

More holistic societies are aware of the connection between morality and the body; of how our emotions and our logic are intertwined. Job speaks of tasting "bitterness of the soul", the Psalmist calls us to "taste and see that the Lord is good". In our society with it's Greek dualistic inheritance, we seek always to divide the sayings, and thus the physical can never have an impact on the spiritual. The best it can get is a symbolic representation, such as baptism and communion in most Protestantism. And this is not even symbolism in it's original sense, participating in the referent, but rather simply an icon- in the sense of those computer images on our screens.

Thus it is encouraging to come across a study indicating that the physical reaction to immorality is very similar to the physical reaction to bad taste. It is what one would expect, if there isn't a neat division between the spiritual and the physical. Our awareness of morality should develop from both our endocrine and our nervous systems. If there is an inherent morality out there, and it isn't merely arbitrary, then it should pervade all of creation, and not only our thought patterns.

But the authors of the study seem to have gone down some odd rabbit trails, in their attempt to argue that morality is not absolute but only defined by the individual or society. Their words use phrases like "the origins of morality", rather than merely the origins of our awareness of morality. Quite obviously, it can not be proved that morality is absolute- or at least, not in the space of a single blog post. But equally, it can not be proved that morality is not. And if so, the assumptions on morality and ethics should be clearly stated by the authors of a study of morality and ethics. This is especially true when such bias is so evident. For there is nothing inherent within the discovery - that our facial reaction to bad taste is eerily similar to our facial reaction to something morally disgusting - to suggest that it was our morality that was evolving, with those that were selected against unable to be aware of the negative consequences of poison, disease, and behavior that we today describe as immoral but previously was simply dangerous. It is equally likely that it was our response to morality that was evolving, as those who were selected against were those who did not realize the negative consequences of immoral behavior.

Indeed, the study authors, in their conclusions, are comparing apples and oranges. For them, poison and disease are all too real, and we develop a response to them. For them, morality is simply something that evolved, without an appeal to Plato's Perfect Forms, and our development was coming up with this marvelously marvel notion of morality.

But if anything, our notion of morality is precisely what did not evolve. Certainly our awareness of it did, but not the morality itself. For we have to only look around our world and quickly discover that it is those who are most unjust who advance. The race in this world is to the strong, the fast, and the lier. He who cheats wins, and seldom gets caught. Various notions of the evolutionary development of altruism are quite true, but they run against the stronger cord that not playing by the rules will more often lead to success. Were morality successful in evolutionary terms, we would not so often forget it, and yet still hold it as a goal. Were it merely an arbitrary idea and not inherent in the very reality of being, we would not so often forget it and yet still believe it should be followed. A couple of years ago we found that our close cousins, the chimpanzee, have gone on hunting parties with fashioned weapons, even killing other primates with them. Their actions are immoral when they attack their own species, if they were human, and had the awareness of good and evil. As it was, their actions were completely amoral (and not immoral)- but also horrifically successful.

To succeed, go out, and sin boldly. But recognize that that nagging feeling in the back of your mind comes from centuries of evolutionary development- the awareness that there is another reality, a moral reality. And when you breach it, it tastes a bit like MSG.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Going to Church Can Cause People to Kill

A new study out of New York and BC suggests that the single greatest correlative factor between suicide bombings is regular attendance at religious gatherings. It is not devotion, or piety, or prayer, but participation in corporate worship. This was true for both Jews and Muslims. Among groups that lack traditions of suicide bombings, like Hindus and the three largest branches of Christianity, the same underlying principle was found- those who regularly attended places of worship were more likely to display parochial altruism- willingness to die for your group combined with a strong negative perception of "the other".

What am I to make of this study? Obviously, it is not accurate to say that when you attend a mosque or church you have to be concerned that someone in attendance is likely to blow themselves up or support others blowing themselves up, nor was this study suggesting that. Rather, it was stating that the best single indicator of this willingness or support was attendance at corporate worship.

There are so many questions, that remain unanswered, that we would need further study for. I want to know to what extent do good things result from this tendency, like feeding the poor. It is harder to have major social justice action when you are on your own. I'd like to know how this tendency to view the world as us vs. them, or to kill people by killing yourself, compares to membership in other corporate entities, like clubs, political groups, or the military. And I wonder to what extent this study is simply revealing one aspect of how we are more likely to get things accomplished, positive or negative, when we are part of a group. Perhaps it is that one can more easily get fired up for a cause, for good or bad, when you're part of a group- which kind of makes sense.

Perhaps the study reveals that a small subset of those who are more inclined to groups are more willing to get fanatical if they are part of a group, and those who are not inclined towards groups but are inclined towards violence, we call loners who go on shooting sprees in colleges. This could be particularly true when you consider the inherent biases towards individualism that scientists from Canada and the US would hold, as opposed to the group-think present in most of the world. Thus it may be the presuppositions of the scientists themselves that are expressed here, as individualistic Western societies tend to see less value in working with groups, and tend to fear any coherent group as a cult.


Perhaps more disturbing than the tendency to suicide oneself is the tendency to look down on other groups. It is one thing to be willing to die for your group, and perfectly understandable. It is a good thing to die for a cause greater than oneself, to do something far, far better than one has ever done before, to go to a place far, far better than one has ever known. In Christianity, it is to follow in the way of its founder, and to do it with love of one's enemies and murderers, without harming another- this is the way of true martyrdom.

But when this laudable attitude is combined with hatred or mere dislike of another group, it is a dangerous attitude indeed. It may therefore imply that any religion or group that does not have embedded in its very core a love for enemies - perhaps, if the Parable of the Good Samaritan is any indication, an even greater love for one's enemies than one's friends- is inherently dangerous. For such a belief system, that values one's group over that of the other, when combined with the power and motivation the group can create, is a dangerous entity in this world. Of such a way lies the Crusades, countless jihad, and every nationalism the world has berthed.

And perhaps we need to pay attention to the aspect of prayer. For the study juxtaposed those who prayed regularly (as a definition of fervor in religion), with those who regularly attended religious services. Thus those who pray regularly did not correlate with support for suicide bombers; attendance at the mosque regularly did. And perhaps for some, the rituals of corporate worship in any faith come to supplant the intimate, direct relationship in prayer, something possible individually or corporately. The study didn't measure the amount of non-ritualistic intimate prayer of those who do or do not attend public services. But it is this direct relationship with God that allows us to learn to depend on him, and to be able to forgive the insults and attacks of others, most notably by definition our enemies. It is this dependence that allows us to know God's love for us, and therefore to truly love the other with the love that God had for them before the world began.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Tales from the Lorax

Long ago, it was told to us that the care for the land was intimately connected to the care for the other. How we treat another human can not be divorced with how we treat the environment. Saving the land is saving the poor; ending war is protecting nature itself. We see this in the call to the Year of Jubilee, in which the Israelites were called to depend on God by letting the land lie fallow every 7th year. Incidentally, this allowed the land to rejuvenate, and provided a fuller crop in subsequent years- a practice we now know as sound farming. This was a time connected with a restoration of justice, and a return to equity- a practice we now know as socialism. In other places the prophets command to not

add house to house
and join field to field
until there is no more room
and you alone are left in the land.

There was an awareness that greed can become unbounded, and lead to devastation. In a culture that was intensely corporate, so unlike our modern American individualistic society, the concept of being left alone was horrible indeed. It would come about because some had desired "modernity", cities and human construction, taking over nature, and acquiring more and more for themselves at the expense of the masses of the poor. And this was because, as far as we know, the Year of Jubilee was never applied, save perhaps once, under King Josiah. God's people ignored his teachings on equality, poverty, and the environment. And when people refused to give up their land, those with wealth and power would take by force what was not freely given, as predicted by the prophet Samuel.

Years later, another prophet, and more than a prophet, a leader in the Early Church, James, again tied in the concern for the poor with war and strife, as he pointed out that fighting comes from coveting, in turn coming from desiring with wrong motives- just before he has perhaps the strongest condemnation of the rich to be found in the Bible, whom he argues inherently gain their wealth on the backs of the oppressed, through exploitation and murder.

Now we find studies to back up these basic principles. Conservation International has recently found that most of the world's hotspots directly correlate with the areas of the greatest war and killing. Hotspots are places with extreme biodiversity and extreme endangerment- they have a disproportionate number of unique species, that are disproportionately likely to soon go extinct. 81% of major human conflicts in the last fifty years took place in these hotspots.

An intriguing corollary to this is the suggestion that perhaps we innately prefer the areas with greater diversity, hearkening back to something in our ancient, more natural roots before cities, and thus tend to fight over what we don't have, but all want. There may be an evolutionary mandate to desire these spots, but there is a Biblical warning for why we fight over them. Contrary to groups like the Quiverfull Movement, recently highlighted on NPR, the Biblical mandate is not simply to always have more children. For another aspect of I Isaiah's warning on adding land to land until there is no room left is that we can produce too much for the land to sustain- as has happened in the areas where species are most threatened, and the areas of greatest warfare on the planet. When this happens, we desire more for us, and our offspring, and those in our group, be that nationalism or religious bigotry. The easiest way to achieve this is by manipulating others to give us more, as James warns of. When that doesn't work, force of arms is often very convenient.

And the result of all this is always foremost the death of others: the troops of one's own country, the enemy, and the innocent civilians. This is always by far the greatest tragedy of war. But we now see, what we should have always seen, that warfare and murder also leads to the deaths of countless other species of animals and plants. And since we don't exist in a biological vacuum, but are intimately connected with the rest of the planet for our very emotional and physical survival, the continuation of war could lead directly to our own extermination as a species.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Unintelligent Designer

Scientists have been able to create a model of what our Australopithecine ancestor's heads looked like- and in particular their jaws. They've found that our ancestor-cousins had much stronger jaws than we do.

I know everything is a trade-off. I know that if they had really strong jaws, then there was probably some detriment too. It's not like evolution dictates that things get better and better, but rather that every organism just gets continually adapted to changing environments. I still want those strong jaws that could crush large hard nuts.

I wish I didn't have lower back problems. But I know I must, as all humans do with age, because I walk on two legs. I know my back works better for a four-legged animal, but evolution works with the material it has. If I walked on four legs, then it's unlikely that I would have developed the intelligence I have to post blogs, for it is believed that intelligence was a byproduct of being able to see for greater distances and judge distance when standing on two legs in the savanna- not to mention the ability to use tools because my hands are freed from walking. If I had a narrower stance, then the vertebrate I have would work just fine on two legs, thank you. But then women would have a narrower stance. (Sure, women could have lower back problems only. But 1) that would be sad and unfair, and 2) evolution works with what it gets.) If women had a narrower stance, then they would be unable to fit our rather bulbous heads through the birth canal. If we had smaller heads, they could do it, on two legs, without back troubles. They could even have fewer birth pains, for they could keep us in longer, and allow us to develop further, as our head wouldn't be too large for the birth canal upon emergence. The trade-off of intelligence is so great, that our heads are not only too big to fit through a narrow birth canal, but we have to be born neotenously, born with fewer developed features than most animals, including other primates. That means we are dependent for post-natal development on our parents, to a ridiculous degree not seen in other mammals or primates.

If God is a smart God, could he have created us with all of these features? Could he have found a way to have us walk on two legs, be smart, give birth without pain, have short gestation periods, have short post-natal development, have working back bones without pain, and yes, most importantly, super strong jaws capable of crushing hard nuts? Yes, of this I have no doubt. The God I believe in could have done that all. So why didn't he? Why didn't he make us with bodies that work better than they do now, with cooler add-on features?

I have forced to conclude he is stupid. He made mistakes. If, that is, I believe he created using a snap-your-fingers-with-a-brilliant-flash-of-light style, like Q of Star Trek. And I just have trouble believing that a stupid God rules the cosmos. If however, I believe that God created using the process of evolution, then suddenly everything falls into place. Evolution is an incredibly beautiful and complex theory, and it would take the truly divine- and truly intelligent- to come up with such a process. And evolution doesn't create novel structures and processes; it works with the material it has, using work-arounds, to develop new features that are in truth new ways of using old features. And I have the confidence that one day, we will receive just such a body as here described, when we receive our new, fully physical bodies, made like Jesus' post-resurrection body, able to do far more than we can now imagine, where there will no longer be any pain or suffering.

So, the choice is: A smart God, using evolution, or a Literal Creationist God, who is rather stupid. You decide.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.