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.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.