Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Evolution of Faith

James Dow, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has published a result from his program, called Evogod, that proports to study the evolution of religious feeling. His model of how religious ideas can spread as reported in NewScientist, is a rather unsophisticated application of game theory. (The source code is available from the link).

The "utility" of expressing a religious/supernatural belief was merely assumed. Any discrete value can be entered, and the higher the utility factor the sooner the trait spreads. What is absent is far more important than what was present.

The first question that was sidestepped is "Why would a group of non-believers attend to fantastic stories?" The answer is approximated from game theory as an attempt to minimize risk by minimized uncertainty. The second would be "What advantage would there be to the person promoting their "visions." This is also in the utility factor assumed by James Dow. From ethnographic and historical sources, we are aware that the role of shaman is very dangerous- witchcraft accusations are frequently lethal. So, this must be offset by an increased reproductive advantage. Dow has seemingly lumped these together as "attractiveness."

There is actual biological evidence for the evolution of religious experience, the responce that humans have to dissociative drugs is different from any other mammal. Most mammals when challenged by a dissociative, for example phencyclidine (PCP), will lose consciousness. Humans instead report euphoria, and hallucination as well as a dissociative state. These are hallmarks of mystic/religious experience.

What could the evolutionary advantage be to dissociation- the feeling of not being in one's body? This needs to be looked at as either a direct advantage, or as a disadvantage offset by some other advantage. Considering this as a direct advantage we recall that PCP was developed as a surgical anesthetic. It had the advantage of not being a strong CNS suppressant, and so respiration and cardiac function were not as depressed as with opiate anesthetics, or ether. Anesthesia was so effective that patients didn't even need to be unconscious during surgery. Dissociative states can be entered in ways other than drugs, and members of a group protected by warriors (temporarily) unaffected by pain would have a great advantage in intergroup conflicts. I think this direct advantage alone would be adequate to promote a dissociative trait.

The secondary benefits of "mystic" dissociation would be related to improved group cohesion, etc. which have long been considered in the spread of religious practices.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dinesh D'Souza: Ignorant or a liar?

Dinesh D'Souza writes an article for AOL. On May 4th 2008 he posted an item entitled "How Darwin Lost His Faith".

He wrote,
It's widely believed that Charles Darwin lost his faith when he discovered evolution. And many contemporary atheists proclaim themselves followers of Darwin in this sense. Michael Shermer, for instance, writes that he abandoned Christianity when he learned about evolution; finally he could see how there could be design--or the appearance of design--without a designer. Richard Dawkins writes that it was Darwin who finally made it possible to be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist."

This is OK, but has nothing to do with Darwin. The fact that the truth of evolution had altered the preception of scriptural "truth" on the part of Schermer or Dawkins has nothing to do with Darwin- who was long dead- nor of the fact of evolution. I have long maintained that the only sure path to atheism is to study theology.

But, D'Souza went on to claim, "Darwin was never a very devout Christian," and in complete ignorance and contradiction of the facts, D'Souza continued that Darwin was "a lukewarm Christian."

Charles Darwin actually wrote in his "Autobiography" (published 1904) a description of how over years his faith changed from a devout orthodox young theology student, to theist and eventually agnostic. His first realization was that the geological features of the earth did not correspond to those described in the Old Testament. There were no geological evidences for a global flood, no anthropological evidences for a Tower of Babel, and he came to reject the Old Testament theology of a violent "jealous God."

Much later in his life (particularly following the early death of his daughter Anna at age 10), Darwin came to reject the doctrine of damnation and eternal torture for all unbelievers- a doctrine he called itself "damnable." At no time in his life did he express contempt for Christianity. Indeed, you will see below that he generally admired the New Testament moral code, in spite of his growing doubts about religion.

The following quotes are from "Darwin Online."

"DURING THESE two years (October 1836 to January 1839 GH) I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come, by this time, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow as a sign, etc., etc., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian. The question then continually rose before my mind and would not be banished,-is it credible that if God were now to make a revelation to the Hindoos, would he permit it to be connected with the belief in Vishnu, Siva, &c., as Christianity is connected with the Old Testament. This appeared to me utterly incredible.

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,-that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,-that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,-that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,-that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;-by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;-I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws." (Autobiography, 85-87).

A few paragraphs later, Darwin wrote;

"Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist. And again later, "I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems (regarding the origin of moral thought, gh). The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."

Six months after her husband's death Mrs. Darwin annotated the passage above in her own handwriting. She writes:-"I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published (from "and have never since doubted" - to "damnable doctrine" GH). It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief- but very few now wd. call that 'Christianity, ?"

A few pages later she wrote in another note, " and [it] would give an opening to say, however unjustly, that he [Charles Darwin] considered all spiritual beliefs no higher than hereditary aversions or likings, such as the fear of monkeys towards snakes." She finished, "I should wish if possible to avoid giving pain to your father's religious friends who are deeply attached to him, and I picture to myself the way that sentence would strike them, even those so liberal as Ellen Tollett and Laura, much more Admiral Sullivan, Aunt Caroline, &c., and even the old servants.

Yours, dear Frank,

E. D."

(Notes and text adapted from Darwin, C. R. 1958. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins.)

All I can see here is that D'Souza is a very sloppy researcher, or he merely lies for advantage. He concluded his piece,
It's time to set at rest, however, the old myth that evolution is a scientific refutation of theism in general or Christianity in particular. Darwin himself knew it was not so, even if his dimmer acolytes haven't figured that out yet.

There cannot be a scientific refutation of any supernatural system that can call-in convenient miracles like some cosmic air support which conveniently leave no physical evidence. Zeus is as safe from science as Yahweh. So perhaps D'Souza and his dimmer buddies will stop denying science in the attempt to salvage their mythology.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

More on crystals and the origin of life

Creationists like to take advantage of the origin of life question for several reasons. The greatest is that few scientists even are familiar with the current research, and so will often fail to be able to discuss it. However, in the movie "Expelled" the question was further obscured by dishonest reporting.

A creationist remarked on a public bulletin board that, "The best part was Dawkins in the end admitting that life could have been started by intelligent design (but couldn't possibly be the God of the Bible), that the intelligent designers had to be started by some kind of natural selection and then intelligently designed us. By their own words Dawkins and his associates looked like they have their own flying spaghetti monster called aliens or crystals, ..."

In the case of Dawkins, he was asked if there were any scenario he could imagine that would allow for an "intelligent designer?" The space alien response was in fact one frequently given by Intelligent Design creationist superstars such as William Dembski, and Mike Behe. Intelligent Design Creationists, in their effort to hide their actual religious origins theology, have often asserted that spacemen or time travelers could be the creators of life on earth. When these ideas have been discussed by actual scientists, they have been discarded as silly, unworkable, or meaningless. But they have been reincarnated by the creationists who then exploited this absurdity in the movie.

The contribution of minerals to the origin of life is laughed at by Stein when mentioned by Michael Ruse. The derision given to the idea that crystals contributed to the origin of life is an excellent example of how scientific ignorance is exploited by the producers of Expelled.

Consider for a moment, your bones are made from calcite- a crystal of calcium carbonate. Those bones and your teeth also need another crystal, apatite, or hydroxylcalcium phosphate. Marine shells are made from calcite and aragonite- both crystals. Plants, particularly grasses need silicon crystals called phytoliths to exist. The bodies of diatoms are mostly crystal silicon. Silicon or calcium crystals are found in nearly all life on earth. Another crystal of iron oxide, magnatite, is found in nearly all life on earth, even bacterial.

Clays are crystals and have been implicated in the origin of earth's life for decades, particularly the crystalline montmorillonite. Recent articles are;

Wang KJ, Ferris JP
2005 "Catalysis and selectivity in prebiotic synthesis: initiation of the formation of oligo(U)s on montmorillonite clay by adenosine-5'-methylphosphate." Orig Life Evol Biosph. Jun; 35(3): 187-212

Saladino R, Crestini C, Ciambecchini U, Ciciriello F, Costanzo G, Di Mauro E.
2004 "Synthesis and degradation of nucleobases and nucleic acids by formamide in the presence of montmorillonites." Chembiochem. Nov 5;5(11):1558-66

Martin M. Hanczyc, Shelly M. Fujikawa, and Jack W. Szostak
2003 "Experimental Models of Primitive Cellular Compartments: Encapsulation, Growth, and Division" Science October 24; 302: 618-622.

Studies of the earliest pre-biotic chemistry in the origin of life shows that interactions between mineral crystals and naturally occurring molecules leads to increased complexity, and more abundant yields. Here again we see an important role for the mineral calcite. Robert Hazen has studied the binding of amino acids to surface of calcite crystals and discovered that they are aligned according to their atomic configuration, or isomer. Another crystal, borate, stabilizes the naturally forming sugar ribose, which is an important molecule needed to form the cellular workhorse RNA. Finally, one of the most common creationist objections to origin of life research is their insistence that the famous Miller-Urey experiment was a failure. This 1953 experiment was the first to demonstrate that a simple energy source, an electrical spark, could induce the spontaneous formation of amino acids from a mixture of gasses. Creationist organization such as the Discovery Institute and the fundamentalist young earth creationists of Answers in Genesis Ministries all claim that the gasses used by Miller could not have been found on the early earth. Disregarding that this is untrue, Stanley Miller’s last paper (published after his death in 2007) demonstrated that the presence of the crystal calcite, and the iron crystal pyrite in the reaction leads to high yields of amino acids even from neutral gas mixtures.

Hazen, R.M., T.R. Filley, and G.A. Goodfriend.
2001 "Selective adsorption of L- and D-amino acids on calcite: Implications for biochemical homochirality." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98(May 8):5487.

Hazen, RM
2005 "Gen-e-sis" Washington DC: Joceph Henery Press

Ricardo, A., Carrigan, M. A., Olcott, A. N., Benner, S. A.
2004 "Borate Minerals Stabilize Ribose" Science January 9; 303: 196

Cleaves, H. James, John H. Chalmers, Antonio Lazcano, Stanley L. Miller, Jeffrey L. Bada
2008 “A Reassessment of Prebiotic Organic Synthesis in Neutral Planetary Atmospheres” Orig Life Evol Biosph (2008) 38:105–115

There are many more. Is it then silly, or irrational to think that these essential crystals were part of the origin of life? Not at all. Only the ignorant will be fooled by Stein et al and their propaganda movie.

Another book review

I have been writing reviews of books that I have about science v. creationism. They are posted at Here is one that apparently was blocked by an staff member.

“Old Testament History” was recommended to me last week, and as it was only $6.99 I ordered it and another title by John H. Sailhamer, “Biblical Archaeology.” These are more pamphlets than books, under 100 pages of large print, and lacking indexes or bibliographies. They are part of a series of Bible study aids published by Zondervan.

I can judge my reaction to a book by how many ‘post it’ notes I use, and for books that I find poor, I soon switch from ‘post its’ to folding page corners and writing in the margins. “Old Testament History” lasted until the 9th page of text before I was dogging corners. The section heading on page 18 is “The “Days” of Creation.” The question was obviously regarding the literalist interpretation of Genesis 1 versus the biblical interpretations which view Genesis 1 metaphorically. This is a topic of serious weight, and is the focus of entire books. Sailhamer gives less than a page response, and even after reading it several times you could not guess the range of current opinion.

The very next page begins about 9 pages of contrasts between scientific and fundamentalist positions. This is where I nearly broke the lead in my red pencil. Toward the end of page 19 Sailhamer makes a strange statement that, “ … many scientists assume that the material world is without beginning or end (materialism). The first error is using “scientist” without any qualification. The study of the origin of the universe is known as cosmology, which is a sub-discipline of astrophysics, which is a sub-discipline of physics. Cosmologists are uniformly in agreement that our universe had a definite beginning, and are converging on understanding the timing and mechanism of its end. This is not “materialism” either. Science is materialistic as the topic of science is the material universe. Plumbing is equally materialistic. The scientific notion that the universe had a beginning and will have an end is a scientific result that is seen even by fundamentalists as consistent with Judeo-Christian belief. Sailhamer edged into the bizarre when he then builds on his false assertions to argue that, “A scientist has every right to make such an assumption and thus contradict Scripture, but it should be acknowledged that it is an assumption.” This is wrong in so many ways.

It only gets worse.

On page 23 he falsely claims that Hubble astronomers determined the age of the universe to be “about eight billion years.” He also imagines that this means the universe is expanding at a much faster rate than expected. The age of the universe has been determined, 13.7 billion years, by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Let me recommend the NASA website on this;

These errors of fact, and logic continue for page after page. Sailhamer is grossly ignorant of what science is generally, and it is rare that he makes any true statements about the content of any scientific topic. Worse, he applies his useless presentation of science to issues related to biblical knowledge. Sailhamer and any of his followers should take counsel in the words of Thomas Aquinas (c.a. 1225 – 1274) who in Summa Theological (1273), wrote, "In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches. The first is, to hold to the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing."