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Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 12

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 12, Tricking Huxley and the World.

McCann once again brought up Haeckel's embryos.

As early as 1868 Rutimeyer, the Swiss zoologist, accused Haeckel of tampering with his illustrations. In 1874 the anatomist, Anton His of Leipzig, proved the charges of tampering to be irrefutable. In these frauds Haeckel caused the same plate to be printed three times in his "History of Creation," declaring that the illustrations represented three distinct objects extremely like one another. In 1906 the charges of Professor Arnold Brass published as "Ernst Haeckel als Biologe und die Wahrheit," against Haeckel's tampering with the illustrations of embryos attracted tremendous attention in Germany. Again, April 1, 1908, in an address delivered at a meeting of the Christian Socialists in Berlin, Brass renewed his attack upon Haeckel on the charge of having falsified the pictures of embryos. Brass showed that Haeckel in his "Anthropogeny," had not only falsified the illustrations of embryos but had assigned to them other names than those they had originally borne, thereby provoking Professor Anton His to declare publicly that Haeckel was lying. "I can make these charges," said Brat "from accurate knowledge, directly acquired, since I myself made the true drawings for Haeckel." (McCann 154-155)
So, too, was the falsehood of his "Anthropogeny," exposed by Professor Mimes Marshall. In true Haeckelian style the human embryo as described by the Jena mutilator was shown to be a description of the embryos of dogs, pigs, rabbits, even chickens and dogfish. Such were the frauds which the apostle of evolution did not hesitate to present to the world as "evidence" for "Darwinism." (McCann 157)

As I already wrote, this is nothing more than an ad hominem argument. Haeckel doctored some illustrations and misrepresented others. Haeckel deserved to have his reputation damaged because of it. But Haeckel is only one man. The reputation of evolutionary biology is not based on any single individual.

And, as I wrote before, even though Haeckel doctored the illustrations, it doesn't change the actual fact that embryos of different species really do look similar (here's a longer explanation). It's as if McCann never looked into it himself to see what embryos look like.

Immediately following the above, McCann showed that he didn't understand contingency in evolution. His statement also shows that idea that evolution has a purpose, or that it's guided.

In the writer's study of the chimpanzee at the Bronx Zoo, New York City, the conclusion was inescapable that this great ape, like the gorilla, gibbon, etc., never had a tail.

The evolutionist tells us that man's tail, inherited from the lemur, a monkey which had a tail like the tail of a fox, was gradually evoluted off (like the horse's toes) as he abandoned life in the trees for life on the ground, but Haeckel, off guard, describes "living human races who still live in trees" ("Wonders of Life," 1904). They have no tails - of course! Their tails were evoluted off! Presumptively the tails of the great apes were also evoluted off - during those millions of years of evolution - completely off, despite their usefulness for life in the trees. Yet with the "improvement" represented by tail-less-ness, there was no systematic improvement in other directions. The chimpanzee never lost those supra-orbital ridges which today are identical with the oldest fossil ridges.

Nor was there any gain in cranial capacity! Obviously the evolution of the great apes was limited - expressly limited - to tails - or rather to the loss of tails! Even the elephant has kept his tail, as well as the rat, though neither creature lives in trees. Natural Selection, confronted by the fact of tail-less-ness, must insist that the chimpanzee never had a tail. But this makes matters worse! Natural Selection demands that for his life in the trees he should have "developed" a tail because of its usefulness to an arboreal existence, just as the giraffe developed a neck for its arboreal usefulness. Haeckel did not see the consequences of his fraud; for his tailless embryo, designed to create an impression in one direction, merely serves to embarrass him the more in another. (McCann 157-158)

Okay, first let's set the record straight on the actual family tree. Here's a diagram focused specifically on apes.

Ape Family Tree

And here's a broader, less detailed, diagram on primates in general.

Primate Family Tree

Humans are a type of ape. We're most closely related to chimps and bonobos. All of us apes are an offshoot of the old world monkeys. In fact, another way to look at us is as a type of old world monkey without a tail. Old world and new world monkeys split some time earlier. And the lineage that led to lemurs split from our lineage earliest of all (among primates, of course). So, that clears up at least one misconception of McCann's - since humans are apes, the other apes didn't have to independently evolve the loss of a tail.

But why would us apes have lost our tails to begin with? If tails are so useful to monkeys for moving about through the trees, why wouldn't they also be useful to arboreal apes? One possible answer appears to be in our locomotion. Old world monkeys generally don't hang below branches swinging about. They tend to run along the tops of branches. In that lifestyle, a tail is very useful for balance. Apes (except humans) move through the trees differently. They do tend to hang from branches much more often. In the locomotion style of apes, a tail isn't nearly as important for balance. Whether there was any actual selective advantage to losing the tail or whether it just became vestigial and was therefore lost isn't really all that important in this discussion. Our ancestors lost their tails. Once a body part like that is lost, it tends to stay lost in all the descendants in that lineage. Hence, we don't have tails.

One could point to the new world monkeys, saying that they also hang from branches and swing around - why did they keep their tails when the apes didn't? Well, evolution's not guided. Even if there were optimal solutions for certain lifestyles, there's no guarantee that a particular lineage will hit on that solution. When tails were no longer needed for balance, the apes lost theirs, while the new world monkeys adapted their tails to be prehensile. With a new function as a kind of fifth hand, the tails of new world monkeys are certainly useful. Our ancestors just never hit on that solution (note that I'm anthropomorphizing evolution a bit here - obviously individuals can't consciously choose their own mutations).

After quoting a passage where Haeckel described the fundamental similarities between human tissues and cells to those of other animals, McCann had the following to say.

Obviously Professor Haeckel knew nothing of the chromosomes which differ in number, size and shape to an astonishing extent in the cells of all animals of different species, ranging in some from less than ten to the cell to more than one hundred and forty-six. It is precisely such statements as these that have inspired the great William Bateson, to whom we shall shortly come, to make what is recognized by scientific men all over the world as the most careful, most accurate and most truly scientific summation of the bankruptcy of the evolutionary theory now obsessing the popular mind. (McCann 159)

It's a bit funny to see someone using genetics as a criticism of evolution, but to cut McCann some slack, genetics wasn't really understood in his day as well as it is today. For a good example of how genetics helps confirm evolution, read Ein Sophistry's Genetic Evidence of Evolution.

Hmm. I think he's got things a bit mixed up.

Will Professor Osborn deny that the American Museum's Bulletin on the Evolution of the Horse discloses the hurried follies of the scientists who are eager to have their opinions accepted that they must themselves confirm as "truth" that which remains unknown, and reject, because it does not fit into their picture, that which is known? (McCann 163)

That's pretty funny to read, coming from someone who's already decided that a book written a few thousand years ago is completely accurate, and who discounts any evidence that doesn't fit with what's in that book.

I wonder how many fossil species McCann thinks we've found?

Professor Osborn must see the necessity of admitting that if the intermediate forms, the transition types, the missing links, or whatever else the pedigree manufacturers may see fit to call them, are not to be found, they never existed. (McCann 163)

I've already mentioned that there are transitional fossils to be found in abundance. But that's not exactly what McCann's saying here. He's saying, "if the intermediate forms... are not to be found, they never existed." The fossil record is incomplete. We haven't even yet found fossils of all living animals, so I don't see why anybody would expect that we'd have found fossils of all extinct animals.

Just look at some of the fossils we've found recently - Tiktaalik roseae, Ardipithecus ramidus, Georgiacetus vogtlensis. They weren't known in McCann's time, but they certainly exist. We only find new fossils by actually looking for them.

I suppose I've been giving creationism from McCann's time a bit too much credit. I was assuming that scientists of the day were still pushing a too linear approach to evolution, but this paragraph makes it clear that even back then, scientists were recognizing evolution as a bush more than a tree.

Professor Osborn himself, in an address before the British Association, asserted that more than a hundred more or less complete skeletons of horses and horse-like animals have been found in North America, and that although he thought he had established the fact that horses were polyphyletic, there being four or five contemporary series in the Miocene, the direct origin of the Genus Equus in North America was not established with certainty. (McCann 164)

McCann also seems to be trying to use this to cast doubt on evolution, that 'the direct origin of the Genus Equus in North America was not established with certainty'. But what's wrong with that? There are many, many related animals, all sharing common traits. Of course the picture of the exact lineages is going to be murky.

Updated 2011-04-29 - Added link to Ein Sophistry's Genetic Evidence of Evolution.


Proceed to Chapter 13

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Interesting Hovercraft Concept That Won't Work

Vortex Aerodynamic Platform AircraftAs the webmaster where I work*, I field most of the unsolicited e-mail to our company. Quite a few of those e-mails are from people who would like some help developing their concepts. Unfortunately, we're too busy developing our own concept to help others, but I still get to see some interesting ideas. Sometimes, though, it's obvious that things won't work out the way the potential inventor would like, such as the several proposals for perpetual motion machines that have been sent to me.

I've just received an e-mail for a hovercraft concept that looks very intriguing, but which won't actually work. For anyone who wants to test their aeronautical knowledge, go look at the concept, and see if you can figure it out yourself before reading the rest of this entry.

Vortex Aerodynamic Platform Aircraft

The basic concept is to have a blower blow air over fixed airfoils inside a chamber, then have an auxilliary fan above the airfoils to accelerate the air further, where it gets redirected by 'annular' wings and forced downward. Below are some of the images from the above link to illustrate this. I've reduced them a bit to make them fit here, so follow the link to see them full size.

Vortex Aerodynamic Platform Aircraft Concept

I've already responded to the person who sent me the e-mail (I hate to see someone wasting their time on something doomed to failure), so I'll adapt and expand that response here.

Sometimes, it's useful to take a step back from the details, and look at the big picture. Us engineers like to look at pressures on airfoils to calculate lift, but keep in mind Newton's 3rd Law, equal and opposite reactions, and Newton's 2nd Law, F=ma. From the 3rd Law, if you want to generate a lift force, the equal and opposite reaction is a force down on the air. From the 2nd Law, a downward force on the air must be accompanied by a downward acceleration. If the air isn't accelerated downward, there is no net force down.

So, looking at this concept, the only portion generating lift is the annular airfoils that are deflecting the air downward. The fixed interior airfoils aren't generating any lift at all. As a coworker of mine puts it, it's like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps.

Of course, it's possible to generate lift just by ducting air downward, but it's also important to keep in mind that it's much more efficient to take a big bite of air and accelerate it just a little bit, than to take a small bite of air, and accelerate it a lot. That's why the Harrier is so inefficient in hover, and why helicopters have big rotors on top. The way to get more efficient hover is to put an even bigger rotor on top.

The reason this concept struck a chord with me is that when I was younger, back before I'd studied engineering, I had a similar concept myself. A prop would blow air over interior wings to generate the lift, and a pair of side by side nozzles on the back could aim the airflow to provide thrust and yaw control. I had dreams of revolutionizing aviation with my invention.

My concept for an Inner Wing Aircraft from when I was a kid

With the simpler layout of my concept, perhaps it's easy to look at this another way to see the flaw. Right above the wings, there will be a low pressure region, lower than the pressure below the wings, so the wings themselves will be pushed upward. However, above the fuselage, the pressure will be higher than in the duct, so the fuselage will be pushed down. When you look at all of the surfaces and the pressures on them, the forces all cancel out so that there's no lift on the vehicle. In other words, since the duct is fully enclosed by the fuselage, any change in pressure in the duct only creates forces that act internally, and won't result in any net forces on the entire aircraft.

The pressure explanation is what I thought up years ago before college which led to my abandoning the concept, but I think the Newtonian explanation is easier to follow.

This idea of an inner wing airplane makes some sense given the standard explanation for how wings produce lift (the curved top surface accelerates the air, lowering the pressure). I certainly thought it would work when I was younger, and apparently, I'm not the only one that's thought of it. It's a shame that physics has to get in the way of our imaginations.

Updated 2011-04-29 - A few slight changes in wording to improve the explanation of pressure.

*It's a small company, so we all wear a lot of hats. I mostly do engineering, not website management.

I have a couple pages on the static portion of this site that are somewhat relevant to this, though not directly related:

There's a little puzzle that should be easy to answer when you think in terms of what I've described above. If a truck driver hauling chickens pulls up onto the scales at a weigh station, and discovers that his truck is overweight, if he scares the chickens into flying around inside the truck, will it change its weight?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 11

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 11, H. G. Wells.

Here is yet another example of how McCann didn't like tentativeness.

As if in defiance of all the palæontological and zoological evidence to the contrary, H. G. Wells devotes 103 pages, vol. 1, "Outline of History," to an elaborate moving picture of man's descent from the ape. His "logic" is a thing of awe and wonder. He elaborates exactly ninety-six premises for his conclusion "it follows, therefore."' These ninety-six steps of departure establish a new system in the tracery of deduction. There can be no more adequate or accurate method of describing an object than the exhibition of the object itself. Therefore, Wells' ninety-six steps, in the form of the very phrases he employs, are lifted from his stairway of "reason" without alteration, mutilation or change of any kind. Here they are:

         Phrases Used         Number of Times

Is probably or was probably ......... 20
It must have been ................... 12
It would seem ....................... 11
It may have been ....................  9
May or may not ......................  8
Perhaps .............................  5
It seems to be ......................  5
It is probable ......................  4
Possibly ............................  3
We may guess ........................  3
So far as we can guess ..............  1
This is pure guessing, of course ....  1
It is supposed ......................  1
They suppose ........................  1
If we assume ........................  1
It appears to be ....................  1
It is possible ......................  1
It may be possible ..................  1
It is doubtful ......................  1
It is commonly asserted .............  1
Almost certainly ....................  1
Are said to be ......................  1
Whole story is fogged ...............  1
As yet we do not know ...............  1
Confessedly jumbled .................  1
Inextricably mixed up ...............  1

This halting, faltering, stumbling gait is dignified by Wells' admirers as the logical stride of science from pure hypothesis to "it follows, therefore." Conscious always of the uncertainty, the fog, the darkness, the jumble, the inextricable mix-up through which he plods, Wells nevertheless is determined to get to man's ancestor, the lemur, as quickly as possible. (McCann 137-138)

I look at the above list, and that's exactly the type of wording I would expect. Like I said before, what other option is there? To pretend certainty where there is none? To assume that we have all the correct answers now?

McCann hasn't been shy about citing religion as a reason for his rejecting evolution, but this comment in particular struck me as a little funny.

The Son of Man is to be described, if described at all, as the Son of Ape. (McCann 142)

For some reason, this quote made me think of Charlton Heston.

McCann had an early version of, 'if we're just animals, why don't we act like animals?'

Why, indeed, should the descendants of such beasts yield reverence to Moses or Christ? Why should there be such speculation concerning an immortal soul, a future life? Why should the ouija board or the spiritist be worked overtime by the lineal offspring of the lemur? Why should men respect the commandment - "Thou shalt not kill" - or any of the other commandments now held in such contempt in a world in which killing, lynching, rape and graft can have no terror for the progeny of apes? Why meditate on chastity, mercy, justice, benevolence, honesty, truth? Why not take? Why not kill? (McCann 143)

First of all, it takes a person with a very weak moral compass to say that rape and murder are just fine if we weren't specially created. To people who actually believe such things, I tell them to keep on doubting evolution if that's all that keeps them in line. There's also the problem in thinking that understanding the history of life implies anything about morality. It's not as if understanding gravity implies that we should go pushing people off cliffs to test the theory. Besides, even if evolution somehow did away with morality, that still wouldn't be an argument for or against the reality of evolution. It's nothing more than an argument from consequences.

Proceed to Chapter 12

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review - More Than a Carpenter

Not too long ago, a friend of mine was in a place of business that had a waiting room (for anonymity, I'm leaving out details of the exact type of business). Among the reading material, he noticed a book titled More Than a Carpenter

If you don't want to read the whole review, I'll summarize. The book was bad. Practically every chapter relied on the Gospels being more or less reliable accounts, and then went off defending Jesus's divinity from there. As I've said plenty of times, if non-believers accepted that the Bible was true, we'd already be Christians. But we don't, so citing scripture as proof is nearly pointless. It would be like trying to prove Mormonism by quoting the Book of Mormon, or Buddhism by quoting the Buddhavacana. McDowell only spent one chapter (Chapter 6) trying to make a case for the Gospels being reliable, and didn't really succeed. And without that base, the rest of his book just falls flat.

Chapter 1. My Story

The first chapter was a short description of his background. I can't fault him on that, since many people do that in books like these (I even have a brief background in the book that I wrote). But his description revealed a shallow, unexamined life. He says that he went to church when he was in high school, but didn't find the answers or sense of meaning that he was looking for, so he quit going. In college, he continued looking for those answers, and would pester his professors after classes and in their offices. He even said that professors would close their doors and shut the blinds to hide from him. I hope that was just exaggeration, because I know how open my professors were when I was a student. It would have taken a particularly obtuse or arrogant student to get them to actually hide. He also mentioned the obligatory hedonistic partying. Anyway, he finally found a Bible study group that showed him the light. But even his description of the group seems strange. He mentioned that one of the girls was attractive, which surprised him, because prior to that he didn't think Christian girls were pretty**. Really? He already said he went to church in high school. Was there not a single attractive girl there? Even if his church was particularly homey, 85% of the people in this country are Christian. Did he really think that the only pretty girls were in that remaining 15%?

His background seemed a bit like a cliched 'I used to be an atheist, but then...' story, with a few outlandish statements making you question his sincerity. He certainly didn't offer anything but shallow reasons for why he was an atheist in the first place.

Chapter 2. What Makes Jesus So Different?

The second chapter was titled 'What Makes Jesus So Different?'. It was his attempt to show that Christ was unique. McDowell argued that only Christ claimed to be God, while Mohammed, the Buddha, and Confuscious never made any such claims. He then backed this up with more than 15 pages citing passages from the Bible showing that Jesus did claim to be God and the son of God.

First of all, every religion has some unique aspect differentiating it from other religions. If it didn't, it wouldn't be a separate religion. So, it seems a bit silly to point out a unique aspect of Christianity as if that's proof that Christianity is true.

Second, as I already pointed out, he was relying on scripture to back up his arguments, before even trying to establish the Bible as reliable.

The biggest problem for this chapter is that McDowell ignored many, many other religions and examples. Children of gods and mortals (demigods) are quite common - Perseus, Heacles, Theseus, Hanuman, and Garuda, to name just a few. Children of gods who are themselves gods are also common. In fact, pretty much every god or goddess in a religion with a pantheon was born of another god and goddess. The Olympian gods and goddesses were all descended from Cronus and Rhea. Osiris was the son of Geb and Nut (for more discussion of Osiris, see one of my previous entries - Osiris was the Egyptian god of the afterlife, having been killed and then resurrected.) And there's no shortage of people who claimed to be gods (or even people who claimed to be Jesus). Just consider the many such kings or emperors, like those of Egypt, Rome, China, or Japan, or cults of personality like those around Jim Jones or Father Divine.

It's also worth mentioning the hints of anti-Semitism in this chapter. Numerous times, McDowell mentioned how 'the Jews' killed Jesus. He could have easily written the Pharisees, or the Jewish leaders, but many places it was simply 'the Jews'.

Chapter 3. Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?

I've already discussed the problem with Lewis's Trilemma in another blog entry, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord... Or Something Else. The biggest problem is that people ignore whether or not Jesus was a myth. There may or may not have been an actual historical figure that Jesus of the Bible is based on, but just like Robin Hood or King Arthur, it's entirely possible that much of the story we have now is embellishment.

One quote that caught my eye from this chapter was the following.

Wherever Jesus has been proclaimed, we see lives change for the good, nations change for the better, thieves become honest, alcoholics become sober, hateful individuals become channels of love, unjust persons embrace justice.

In the Wikipedia era, I feel like saying, "Citation needed." I think it might be insightful for McDowell to read the study, Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies by Gregory S. Paul. To quote part of that study:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.

Chapter 4. What about Science?

This was a very short chapter (4 pages), that did little more than reveal that McDowell has a very muddled understanding of science. He seems to think that science requires experiments in a lab, which would exclude astronomy, or any study of the past, from the realm of science. I've seen this type of argument before, and covered it in my essay, Confidence in Historical Knowledge

Chapter 5. The Challenge of the New Atheism

This chapter was written by the son, Sean. It starts off bad, criticizing the 'New Atheists' for not really offering any new arguments, when in reality, so called New Atheists never claimed to have any new ground breaking arguments. They thought of themselves as merely carrying on in the tradition of previous atheists like Bertrand Russell or Mark Twain. The term 'New Atheism' was coined in an article in Wired magazine, not invented by the New Atheists themselves.

As a small point, he also hit one of my pet peeves, describing the New Atheists as 'militant'. Now, I realize that modern atheists may not be as deferential as those from the past, now that religion is losing some of its influence over society. But when Christians actually attack abortion clinics and plot to kill police officers, while Muslims fly planes into buildings and riot over the burning of a book, it seems a bit hyperbolic to call atheists 'militant' who merely write books and speak bluntly.

In this chapter, Sean showed that he didn't accept evolution. I guess that's not much of a surprise, but it always hurts someone's credibility when they refuse to accept something with so much evidence backing it up. He did ask a question I've seen before - if our brains are the result of mindless evolution, how can we trust them? The answer is two fold. First, natural selection will favor organisms that have brains that form relatively accurate models of reality. But second, we know we can't entirely trust our brains. They're prone to cognitive biases, illusions, faulty reasoning, etc. Recognizing and working around the faults of our brains is one of the unsung victories of science (you can also read more here, though the focus of that article is medicine).

The chapter trotted out plenty of stale arguments that us atheists are used to hearing by now. There were some arguments from consequences, such as saying that atheism leads to worse morality (again, see the study by Gregory S. Paul), or that a universe without God lacks meaning. I always wonder what ultimate purpose would be added to our lives if a god existed, but even if that could be addressed, how the answer to that question makes us feel has no bearing on the reality of a god.

A few of the other 'standard' arguments from this chapter were that New Atheists focus on Christians over Muslims, Buddhists, or other religions (I wonder if that's because most New Atheists live in countries where Christianity is the majority religion), listing prominent Christian scientists from a few hundred years ago, fine tuning of the universe (Douglas Adams' anthropic puddle argument is a humorous refutation of this - we also don't know if a different type of universe might have resulted in a different kind of intelligence), and bringing up communist China, communist Russia, and Nazi Germany (never mind that Hitler was a Catholic, and most Germans were Christians). He even used Antony Flew as an example of a prominent atheist who converted to religion (at most, Flew became a deist, and there's some controversy over how much he was influenced and misled as he entered his twilight years and his reasoning wasn't as sharp as it once was).

Chapter 6. Are the Bible Records Reliable?

This was the chapter I was most looking forward to. After more than a third of the book leading up to it, I wanted to see what arguments McDowell had for the Bible being reliable. Because, as I said before, so many of his other arguments rely on it, that this book just falls flat without some justification for accepting the Gospels as more or less true. Unfortunately, this chapter was long on generalizations and arguments from authority, but short on actual evidence.

The truth of the matter is that there are no contemporary accounts of Christ, save a few short passages I'll address in a bit. The most we have now are the Gospels and other books of the New Testament, but none of those were written in Christ's time. The oldest Gospel, Mark, was probably written between 65 and 72 AD, with the other three canonical Gospels being written a few years later, with Mathew and Luke borrowing heavily from Mark's account (McDowell quoted one scholar as placing the Gospels between 50 and 75 AD - a little early, but still not contemporary to Christ). Some of the other books of the New Testament were written earlier (such as Paul's letters), but these weren't written by eyewitnesses and are lacking in actual biographical details.

McDowell mentioned textual variants, and rightly pointed out that most are of little consequence to the meaning of passages. However, the sheer number of variants shows that the surviving manuscripts are works of people, prone to making mistakes. McDowell also failed to discuss at all some of the more significant variants, such as not casting the first stone, or the final 11 verses of Mark.

He also mentioned that "In the Jewish culture it was important that a teacher's actual words were carefully preserved and passed down", but completely ignored why such a culture would produce at least two sets of last words for Jesus (possibly three, depending on your interpretation).

McDowell did mention that we have limited manuscripts of other ancient writings, which is true. However, I'm not sure I follow his argument. For example, he wrote:

Caesar composed his history of the Gallic Wars between 58 and 50 BC, and its manuscript authority rests on nine or ten copies dating one thousand years after his death.

Is his point that we have to question The Conquest of Gaul because of the late date of the manuscripts? If so, I'd agree. There are doubtless mistakes that have been made during the copying process. Is his point that we should question whether or not Caesar actually conquered Gaul? In that case, I would disagree. There are other contemporary accounts besides Caesar's. There is archaeological evidence.

Later, McDowell wrote:

If one discards the Bible as unreliable historically, then he or she must discard all literature of antiquity.

'Discard' is a strong word, but 'questioning' is reasonable. Going back to Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, we have to keep in mind that this wasn't just an unbiased historical document. It was a bit of political propaganda to make Caesar look good back in Rome. Modern readers would do well to remember that and question Caesar's reliability when reading the book.

When it came time to listing source of external evidence, he cited Eusebius quoting Papias of Hierapolos. Unfortunately, Eusebius wasn't writing until the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, and even Papias wasn't writing until the early 2nd century. He also used Iranaeus as an example, but Iranaeus wasn't writing until the late 2nd century. So, none of his examples were contemporaries of Jesus.

When he discussed archaeology, he didn't give any examples of evidence unique to Christianity, only a little general geography. Going back to my Robin Hood example, the existence of Sherwood Forest doesn't lend credence to the myth that the Merry Men lived there.

McDowell also operated under the assumption that early Christianity was more or less uniform. He discussed the books of the New Testament as if they were part of a larger narrative. He just never considered that the different authors might themselves have had different beliefs, nor that there could have been other competing beliefs in early Christianity. Keep in mind the old saying, that history is written by the victors. Early Christians were split into multiple sects. There were Ebionites, Jewish Christians who rejected Paul of Tarsus as an apostate, adoptionists, who thought Jesus was born due to a normal conception and didn't become the son of God until he was adopted at his baptism (Bart Ehrman has argued that Mark was originally an adoptionist work), Gnostics, who were heavily influenced by pagan mystery religions, and others. What we consider mainline Christianity today is the beliefs of the sect that won out.

Throughout the chapter, as well as elsewhere in the book, McDowell tried to indicate that a myth as complex as Christ could not have formed in so short a time. I've mentioned this in other blog entries, but just consider the stories you read on Snopes. These are legends born in the modern day and age, when we have newspapers and worldwide communication that make it easy to fact check stories. But you still have people who think Obama is a foreigner who was sworn in on a Quran, or that George Bush was in on 9/11, or that the Mayan Calendar predicts the world will end on December 21st, 2012. Some of these modern day legends are quite involved, and have easily had more written about them than is contained in the New Testament. So, it's not difficult to see how a legend about Jesus could have arisen quickly, especially in a time when stories were spread by word of mouth, and in a time when people were even more open to religious/superstitious explanations.

Rather than write more on the reliability of the Gospels, I'll direct readers to some webpages that discuss this concept, especially the historicity of Jesus:

Chapter 7. Who Would Die for a Lie?

Many Christians were killed in first and second centuries. That's not really controversial. However, McDowell makes the assumption that those martyrs must have believed in the currently mainstream version of Christianity to have had enough conviction to die for those beliefs. He assumes that if they didn't believe in the resurrection, then they must have believed Christianity to be a lie, and therefore wouldn't have died for it. This was his way of dismissing all the other religious fanatics who have died for false causes (Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, or the myriad forms of suicide bombers). But, considering how many different beliefs early Christians had, it's possible that those early martyrs didn't believe in the Resurrection.

This chapter also assumes that all the accounts of the apostles are accurate. It would be a bit like using the behavior of Little John or Will Scarlett to try and defend the historicity of Robin Hood. He doesn't entertain the idea that they could all be part of the same myth.

In this Chapter, McDowell mentioned Josephus and Origen (I would have expected those in the last chapter), but without actually quoting what those historians wrote about Jesus. This is a bit surprising, since Josephus is just about the best evidence there is for there actually being a historical Jesus. The passage now known as the Testimonium Flavianum is the most explicit description of Jesus in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jews, but its authenticity is rather dubious. Many historians consider it to be a forgery inserted by later Christians (or at the very least, that the passage has been heavily altered). However, there is another passage, considered more likely to be authentic, which reads:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others...

But aside from that, there aren't any contemporary accounts of Jesus. It's also worth considering that Josephus discussed Hercules (though in a slightly different manner).

Another argument from this chapter was that the rapid spread of Christianity, even after Christ's crucifixion, was an indication that it must have been true. By that same logic, we should consider that Scientology might have some merit.

Here again, McDowell operated under the assumption that early Christianity was monolothic, which I already discussed above. And of course, this chapter relies on trusting the gospels as reliable, which McDowell has still failed to demonstrate.

Chapter 8. What Good Is a Dead Messiah?

McDowell here at least admitted that many people die for their beliefs all the time, but then he tried to argue that the Jewish understanding of the Messiah would have made people lose hope if he had simply died, and they would have abandoned the movement. So, this chapter is simply a case of special pleading - Yes, people die for false beliefs all the time, but Christians wouldn't have done the same thing.

It's also worth mentioning here the failed prophecies of Jesus, such as Matthew 24:34 ("I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place.") or Luke 9:27 ("I tell you the truth, some standing here right now will not die before they see the Kingdom of God."). Obviously, those failed prophecies haven't kept people away from Christianity. In the same way that people rationalize those, I'm sure early Christians could have found ways to rationalize the death of their prophet in an era before the myth had grown to what it is today.

Chapter 9. Did You Hear What Happened to Saul?

This chapter dealt with Paul of Tarsus. He described Paul's vision on the road to Damascus, and his subsequent conversion and change in personality, and considered Paul's change as evidence that his vision was real.

In a chapter on the importance of Paul's visions, you'd think McDowell could have addressed the contradictions. Why does Acts 9:7 ("The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone's voice but saw no one!") not agree with Acts 22:9 ("The people with me saw the light but didn't understand the voice speaking to me.")?

This following quote was something I would have parroted myself when I was still a Christian, but now, it seems baseless to me. It's merely stating that the Crucifixion forgave humans of their sins without explaining why (McDowell tried to address this in Chapter 12, so I'll come back to this).

Paul came to understand that through the Crucifixion Christ took the curse of sin on himself for us (see Galatians 3:13) and that God "made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:21). Instead of seeing the death of Christ as defeat, he saw it as a great victory, completed by the Resurrection.

Chapter 10. Can You Keep a Good Man Down?

This chapter dealt with the empty tomb after Christ's crucifixion. McDowell assumes that nearly everything described in the Gospels is true, and argues against alternative explanations for how the tomb could have turned up empty (women and disciples checked the wrong tomb, disciples hallucinated, Jesus had merely fainted instead of died, the body was stolen by the disciples, the body was moved by authorities without the disciples knowing it). He only briefly addressed that the whole thing could have been made up. In two pages, he dismissed the idea that Jesus's resurrection could have been copied from other mythologies, such as Osiris or some mystery religions. He relied almost entirely on arguments from authority, quoting Paul Rhodes Eddy & Greg Boyd, and T.N.D. Mettinger.

He then spent the remainder of the chapter quoting lawyers (not archaeologists or historians) who believed that the Resurrection was a true event.

Chapter 11. Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up?

This chapter dealt with the propecies fulfilled by Jesus. I have one small gripe - he listed chapter and verse for several of the prophecies, but not the text of the prophecies themselves. It would have been nice to be able to read the prophecies without looking them up in another source.

He did mention one possibility I hadn't thought of before - that since Jesus was familiar with many of the prophecies, that he would have tried to fulfill them. McDowell dismissed this because some prophecies would have been beyond Jesus's control. But, as I've said for just about every chapter, he never entertained the idea that the gospels could have been fabricated, and that maybe the reason it appears that Jesus fulfilled so many prophecies is because the Gospel writers wrote it that way.

He focused a bit on geneaology, but never even addressed the discrepancies between Jesus's genealogies given in Matthew and Luke.

McDowell also never addressed failed prophecies, or misinterpretations. For example, Isaiah 7:14 is usually presented something like:

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means 'God is with us').

The problem is that 'virgin' is a mistranslation of 'young woman'. Further, Jesus is never referred to as Immanuel in the New Testament except when the writers are referencing this prophecy.

As another example, Zechariah 11:12 states:

And I said to them, "If you like, give me my wages, whatever I am worth; but only if you want to." So they counted out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.

But Matthew 27:9-10 incorrectly cites Jeremiah for this prophecy:

This fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah that says, "They took the thirty pieces of silver-- the price at which he was valued by the people of Israel, and purchased the potter's field, as the Lord directed."

And of course, there are all the other failed prophecies of the Bible, but those above are specific to prophecies about Jesus (for general examples, see Skeptics Annotated Bible, RationalWiki, or the Secular Web).

Chapter 12. Isn't There Some Other Way?

This chapter was an attempt to explain why acceptance of Christ is necessary for salvation, and why you can't just be a good person. I think the following passage is a good representation of his argument.

When Jesus was executed on the cross more than two thousand years ago, God accepted his death as a substitute for ours. The just and righteous nature of God was satisfied. Justice was done; a penalty was paid.

In truth, I think that's barbaric. Even if a sense of justice demanded a penalty, what is 'just and righteous' about killing a scape goat to forgive others? It makes no sense.

Chapter 13. He Changed My Life

This last chapter explained how horrific McDowell's life was before (drunk abusive father, sexual abuse from farmhand, an empty hedonistic lifestyle, anger, etc.), and how much he'd changed for the better after accepting Christ. For all I know, McDowell may be a better person now that he's a Christian, but there are many other possible explanations to consider (such as the social support structure of a church) before jumping to the conclusion that Christianity is true.

After thinking it over, I think there are two big problems with the book. First, as I've repeated many times, McDowell takes the Bible at more or less face value, and never seriously considers that the stories might be myths. But the other is that many of his arguments are focused so narrowly on Christianity, that he ignores the larger context of other religions. Of course Christianity has some unique aspects, but many of the arguments McDowell has made could be adapted to other religions with very little change.

The back cover of the book has the following lines (punctuation and capitalization copied faithfully).

read the story. weigh the facts.
experience his love.
and then watch what happens.

I'm still awaiting a book that actually presents this evidence, because McDowell didn't do so here. This book won't convince anybody who's given serious thought to the question of Christianity, and doesn't even present any particularly thought provoking arguments.

*To be honest, the book was so bad that I've decided to take a break on Christian apologist literature before tacklng The Case for Christ. I've read a couple light, entertaining books already - Dragon's Keep and Castle (which was great, BTW), and am in the midst of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Maybe by the time I'm done with that, I'll be ready to start on Strobel's book. It's quite a bit longer than More Than a Carpenter, though, so I don't know if I'll put the effort into marking up the margins like my friend asked for, and I'm so burnt out on apologetics that I doubt the review for that one will be as detailed as this review.

**His exact wording was, "So I turned to one of the students, a good-looking woman (I used to think all Christians were ugly), and I said..."

Updated 2011-04-20: Made a few slight revisions to improve readability, but nothing major.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 10

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 10, The Descent of Farce Comedy.

If McCann were alive today, I think he would be of the variety that says that mutations are all harmful, and can't ever add new information.

One year later, January, 1903, Sir Oliver Lodge, writing in Hibbert Journal, p. 218, declared himself in similar fashion. These are his words: "Take the origin of species by the persistence of favorable variation; how is the appearance of these same favorable variations accounted for? Except by artificial selection not at all. Given their appearance, their development by struggle and inheritance and survival can be explained; BUT THAT THEY AROSE SPONTANEOUSLY, BY RANDOM CHANGES WITHOUT PURPOSE, IS AN ASSERTION WHICH CANNOT BE MADE." Nor does he stand alone in this conviction. (McCann 122)

I think Richard Lenski's experiment, where e. coli developed mutations that gave them the ability to digest a new food source (citrate), certainly show that random mutations can result in new functions (unless people want to argue that an Intelligent Designer manipulated the bacteria in Lenski's lab).

McCann even talks of thoughts very similar to what we would now call punctuated equilibrium.

Speaking before the International Congress of Arts and Science, September 22, 1904, he employed illustrations from the history of fossil fishes which were his specialty and from the evidence thus afforded announced: "It must be confessed that repeated discoveries have now left faint hope that exact and gradual links will ever be forthcoming between most of the families and genera. Even approximate links would be much commoner in collections than they actually are if the doctrine of gradual evolution (infinitesimal steps in gigantic periods of time) were correct. Palæontology indeed is clearly in favor of sudden changes which have lately received so much support from the botanical experiments of H. De Vries." (See the Congress Report, vol. iv.)

We have had "early changes of great violence followed by stability;" "slow changes so gentle and infinitesimal in gradations as to require millions of years before they could be observed;" "sudden changes under our very eyes." Alas, what have we not had? And this is what they call evolution! - this ceremonial burial of "Darwinism." (McCann 122-123)

This is one of the funnier attempts I've seen at arguing that vestigial organs aren't evidence of evolution.

An instance in point is cited by Professor Vernon Kellogg ("Darwinism Today," 1908, pp. 37-38): "Spencer's example of the femur of the whale is a striking illustration of the reality of the absurdity connected with the argument of change (evolution) on a basis of the selection of infinitesimal differences. The femur of the whale, says Spencer, is evidently the atrophied rudiment of a bone once much larger. It weighs now about an ounce, less than a millionth the weight of the whole body. Let us suppose that when it weighed two ounces, an individual (whale) had a femur which by variational chance weighed but one ounce, what advantage over other whales would the difference give it - and yet this is the argument for the reduction of useless organs through the influence of natural selection." (McCann 124)

From our modern vantage point, we're very lucky to have a good understanding of whale evolution. We can actually see the transformation of that rear leg into the vestige that now exists.

Let's look at McCann's question, though, of why natural selection would favor reduction of the femur. In the ancestors of modern whales, when the leg was still large enough to protrude from the body, I think the advantage of reducing its size would be obvious - reduced drag, allowing the ancient whales to swim faster and more efficiently. It's also important to remember that nothing comes for free. To grow a leg takes resources, i.e. food. If a whale didn't have to grow a leg, it could either put those same resources into other parts of its body, or get by on less food.

There's also another possibility. Sometimes people have a tendency to attribute too much to natural selection. The adaptationists look at every trait of an organism, and assume that it must have conferred some selective advantage. That's not always the case. What if, for example, a trait has very little effect on an organism one way or the other? The whales' vestigial femur is, at this point, minuscule. The selective advantages from the above paragraph wouldn't be very great, and probably wouldn't have much effect on the survival of a whale who's femur was slightly bigger or slightly smaller. But, consider the types of mutations that could occur on the genes that produce the femur. What if those genes become damaged? In animals like us that need our femurs, those types of mutations would be weeded out very quickly, because the affected individuals wouldn't have many offspring (in the wild, they'd have none at all). But for whales, mutations that damage the development of the femur, so long as they had no other effects on the whale, wouldn't be a problem at all. They wouldn't get weeded out of the population. In fact, given how common mutations are, they would probably start to pile up. So, if there's no selective pressure to preserve an organ, deleterious mutations will begin to pile up, destroying the original function of that organ. (This is also the explanation for why cave dwellers lose their eye sight.)

And here's a real doozy on appendicitis, attempting to explain that it isn't really a problem.

"But why," asks the evolutionist, "if there is really a design behind creation, should there be an inflammation of the appendix resulting in disease?"

In answer to this, leaving out all hint of theology and relying solely upon pathology, one can go direct to Germany where the whole theory of evolution, as now popularly presented, was born. One of Germany's most eminent pathologists, Professor G. Bier, the successor of von Bergmann, propounded and established the thesis (Virchow's Archiv, 1897) that inflammations are not instances of inexpediency, but are, on the contrary, beneficial prophylactic devices on the part of an organism to rid itself of bacteria or other injurious matter that may have penetrated the system. A splinter driven into the flesh and left alone will be driven out again by inflammation and pus, most expedient and beneficial. (McCann 126)

Go talk to a doctor, and ask them what they think about appendicitis. I don't think you'll find too many people agreeing with McCann.

Here's a statement of McCann's that I would agree with, though I don't think he meant it seriously.

To be strictly orthodox as evolutionists we must now say that sheep and man, goat and man, and horse and man are related by blood. (McCann 128)

It's as if McCann has some mental block that keeps him from understanding what evolutionary biology actually says. It's like he thought of the human-ape connection, and couldn't get past that. Looking to the human goat connection seems outlandish to him. I suppose the human onion connection would be completely beyond his comprehension.

Just to be clear, universal common descent really does mean universal. All life that we know of on this planet, from bacteria to blue whale, shares a common ancestry.

I wonder what McCann would say if he were alive today and able to see the work of modern scientists, such as Jane Goodall.

It is difficult to understand why certain types of scientists consider bodily differences or bodily resemblances of such vast importance when even to the lay-man the mental divergence constitutes the chief difference between man and beast. The rational soul of man, as distinguished from the brute instincts of the ape, constitutes a gap over which science makes no effort to throw a bridge of any kind. (McCann 131)

In a recent article in the New York Times, primatologist Frans de Waal wrote the following, which is very relevant to the above quote.

In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable... True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don't hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another's point of view.

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee's, doesn't contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

Proceed to Chapter 11

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Alex Uba, R.I.P.

Growing up, I had two friends that I met in kindergarten, and we remained very close throughout elementary and middle school. When I moved to Maryland at the start of high school, we stayed in touch for a while, making several back and forth visits, but we began drifting apart, until eventually we lost contact. A little over a year ago, I joined Facebook, and discovered that one of them, Alex Uba, was also a member. So, we contacted each other then, but after so many years, there wasn't much to say, and our friendship went back to silence.

A little while ago, I found out that Alex died just a few months after our latest contact. I was shocked. After so little contact over the years, you'd think it would have lessened the impact, but it still hit me hard. I guess I'd always maintained some hope that the next time I made it up to my hometown, I'd give him a call and get together for a few beers. Hell, I still have his old phone number memorized, which I thought might still be his parents' number, so I envisioned giving them a surprise call out of the blue. I'd even occasionally have dreams where our old group met up. Now, I guess I can go look for his grave to pay my respects.

I was flooded with childhood memories of all the things we'd done together. We went through Cub Scouts together, then Boy Scouts. We went camping together nearly every month, shared tents, had the same cabin at summer camp. One year, at the end of the week pool competition, he, the other kindergarten friend, and I won the three person human raft swim race. I helped him on his Eagle Scout project. I went to his birthday party every year, and he always came to mine. I slept over at his house more nights than I could count. In elementary school, we made fun of his name calling him Uba the Tuba, and they made fun of me calling me deaf Jeff. His family took me along to Sunnybrook pool for years when they had a membership, and then we swam at his house once they got their own pool (Sunnybrook Pool has since been filled in). I rode my bike over to his house. We rode around in the go kart that his dad built for him. We towed each other on sleds behind the old used snow mobile his dad fixed up. We flew kites in the field behind his house. We played backyard football and kill the carrier. We even invented our own game that we called Spanish football. I remember the time we bought little balsa wood airplanes and flew them in the field across the street from his house, mixing and matching parts to customize our planes. He loved golf, and took me to a real golf course for one of only two times in my life I've ever played 18 holes. We went to Waltz for miniature golf, the driving range, and the par 3 course. I even caddied for him for a tournament one time. We bowled at Jay Lanes. He played baseball. I didn't, but I'd still be the catcher for him so he could practice his pitching when we played catch. He didn't like his one neighbor, so one night, along with another friend, we toilet papered their trees, threw crabapples into their pool, and tied toilet paper bows around their cars. We fessed up the next morning and had to clean it all up. He found his dad's girlie magazine stash in the attic, and we used to thumb through those every chance we got. We played Hardball and 4th and Inches on our Commodore 64s until our thumbs hurt. They took me to Dorney Park a few times every summer. We went trick or treating together, saving the Huff's house for last, where we always went in for cookies and hot apple cider. He built models, and had his best on display up on his dresser. We were both in the band - I played trombone and he played clarinet. We played tennis together the year one of the middle school teachers tried to start a tennis clinic. We went to the same church, and were in the same CCD class. We went through First Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation together. We were both altar boys, and served together a few times, though he usually served on Saturday night, and I usually served Sunday morning. There was one time when a new altar boy combined the two collections into one sack, and me and Alex tried to split it back up again, only to get caught by the deacon just as we were finishing and scolded not to mix up the money between the two (we never told him it was all screwed up to begin with). We'd even snack on the non-consecrated wafers. I remember the time we used a Ouija board, and we were amazed at how well it worked, until we asked it which one of us was the coolest. Most of all, I remember a good friend, and I can't believe he's gone.

Knowing how I feel after not having seen Alex for 15 years, my heart goes out to his parents, his sister, and his wife that I never met. Alex, you will be missed terribly.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Just in case you haven't watched this yet, here is the animated version of Tim Minchin's Storm. It's a 10 minute beat poem, describing a dinner party where one of the guests was a credulous new age proponent. It includes one of my favorite lines of all time, "You know what they call 'alternative medicine' that’s been proved to work? Medicine." Warning: contains some mildly NSFW language, depending on where you work.

Modified 2011-04-26 Added a bit more explanation of just what the video was about.

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapters 8 & 9

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 8, Hybrids, Haeckel and Confusion and Chapter 9, The Swan Song of Darwinism.

Chapter 8

If only McCann had talked about crocoducks...

Even before Darwinism was abandoned by the modern scientist it was strictly scientific to believe that cats are always cats, whatever the variety, and that though they differ in many and wonderful characteristics within the limit of cat variation, they nevertheless remain in all their variations just what they are-cats. They never mate with dogs, and there are no half-dog half-cat animals even in the dime museums. (McCann 103)

This line of thinking involves two misconceptions tied into one. First, we get the notion of Platonic ideal forms, or Biblical kinds. This, to me, seems like a misfiring of a useful feature of the way our brains work. We categorize things. It's a useful way to make sense of the world, but we have to remember that the categories are in our heads, and there's no reason that the universe needs to oblige us by sticking to those categories. People sometimes extend this concept to say that microevolution is possible (i.e. small changes within a species), but not macroevolution. This seems to be what McCann is saying - that no matter what variation, a cat will always give birth to another cat. But the question is, where's the stop sign in nature that tells organisms to stop changing. Enough small changes added up over generations can result in big differences.

Next, is this weird notion that evolution predicts cats and dogs should be able to mate. This makes no sense whatsoever. Cats and dogs aren't particularly closely related, so there's no reason to suspect that they could interbreed. And evolution certainly doesn't predict that a cat would give birth to a dog, or even a half-dog.

What evolution does predict is that there will be grey areas (in fact, observation of these grey areas was one of the pieces of evidence Darwin used in Origin of Species). If speciation occurs, and evolution is a gradual process, it just follows that speciation won't be instantaneous. Consider a group of animals that gets split into two isolated populations. Just by genetic drift, these two populations will start to acquire different genetic makeups. Now, if you bring the two groups back together after just a few generations, they'll have no problem breeding with each other (like when Europeans and American Indians came in contact). Wait a little while longer to bring the populations back together, and breeding might become more problematic. Maybe some of the offspring will be sterile. Wait even longer, and maybe most of the offspring will be sterile. Wait yet longer, and perhaps even sterile offspring will be rare. Wait long enough, and the populations just won't be able to produce any type of offspring at all.

This is the whole reason why there's a problem in classifying organisms as varieties vs breeds vs species (see lumpers vs. splitters). Just how distantly related do two groups need to be before we call them two species? For example, most people would consider Grizzlies and Polar Bears to be separate species, but they can, in fact, breed and produce fertile offspring.

Another example, which McCann used below, is horses and donkeys. They can mate and produce offspring, but the resulting mules are almost always sterile.

Whatever the variety, dogs always remain dogs, horses always remain horses, jackasses always remain jackasses, and mules, like every other hybrid repugnant to nature, are cut off without offspring. (McCann 103)

Poor mules. Apparently, nature hates them.

Here's another example of McCann not understanding that common descent means humans are related to all organisms, not just that we have a common ancestor with the other great apes.

Darwin, be it remembered, was trying to uphold the theory of natural selection. He had not gone so far as to declare that man's ancestor was one of the great apes. He really did believe that man's descent was from some form of lower ape-like animal, and the student of his "Descent of Man" will recall the illustrations designed to show similarity between the embryo not of man and monkey, but of man and dog! (McCann 109)

Universal common descent really means just what it says.

Of course, McCann brought up the biogenetic law. Creationists still bring up Haeckel, and admittedly, Haeckel was wrong in thinking that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." However, McCann's rationalization for the similarity between embryos is a bit funny. Did he really think this was a good explanation for why all of us humans had tails as embryos?

The apparent repetition of many previous stages of development is accounted for by the fact that it is essential to the very nature of development to advance from what is simple to what is complex. The more highly any animal is organized, the more stages of development must it pass through, before reaching the complex final stage, and it is quite in accordance with nature that the previous transitional stages, being simpler, should resemble the final stages of other animals, which have remained stationary at a lower degree of organization. This constitutes no proof that the human race has passed through all these stages, but it only shows that the evolution of the individual goes on from the first sub-division of the impregnated egg through various stages, until the final form of the perfect organism is reached. (McCann 111)

To quote something that I wrote previously, "evolution is not a transformation of adult animals into adult animals. It is an adjustment of the developmental process - of growing up." That is why early stages of the developmental process look so similar across species.

I know I've already pointed out a couple of quote mines from McCann, but this particular quote mine is one of my pet peeves, after having read On the Origin of Species, and seeing how much space Darwin actually devoted to explaining the evolution of the camera type eye.

However, his comfortable though futile certainty, with regard to the truth of a conviction that has no truth in it, is quite sufficient to him, as an ape-man evolutionist, to offset the deadly complications and massive obstacles involved in the evolutionary riddle: "How did the eye first start?" Darwin himself was baffled by that all but miraculous organ. Referring to Virchow's reverential appreciation of its "beautiful crystalline lens" he says ("The Origin of Species," Appleton, 1920, vol. 1, p. 227) : "To arrive at a just conclusion regarding the formation of the eye, with all its marvelous characters, it is indispensable that the reason should conquer the imagination; but I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at others hesitating to extend the principle of natural selection to so startling a length." Let the skeptics pause, for here again Darwin voices belief in God. The succeeding paragraph contains the following: " ... a living optical instrument as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man."

Of course there can be no explanation of the origin of the eye, about which evolutionists are quite as silent as, in the case of the gills, they are vociferous. (McCann 113-114)

Saying that 'evolutionists' are 'silent' on the evolution of the eye is absurd. It makes one wonder whether McCann had even read On the Origin of Species, as Darwin devoted several pages of the book to discussing eye evolution leading up to that quote that McCann used. If you want to read it for yourself, it's in Chapter 6 of the book.

While Darwin didn't put illustrations in the first book on natural selection, we don't have that shortcoming today. Just take a look at the following illustration showing existing mollusc eyes. Yes, those are existing species, which means that the pinhole eye of Haliotis didn't evolve from the deeply cupped eye of Leurotomaria, which didn't evolve from the cupped eye of Patella. Rather Haliotis and Leurotomaria shared a common ancestor that probably had an eye more like that of Leurotomaria, and in the lineage that led to Haliotis, the eye evolved into the pinhole type, while in the lineage that led to Leurotomaria, the eye didn't change much. What this clearly shows, however, is the usefullness of each stage in the evolution of a complex camera type eye.
Evolution of Complex Eyes

If you want to really read up on eye evolution, take a look at this free issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach.

Chapter 9

I almost didn't pick any quotes from this chapter, so I settled on its closing paragraph just to have something.

We have had "early changes of great violence followed by stability;" "slow changes so gentle and infinitesimal in gradations as to require millions of years before they could be observed;" "sudden changes under our very eyes." Alas, what have we not had? And this is what they call evolution! - this ceremonial burial of "Darwinism." (McCann 123)

McCann seems to be bothered by the fact that evolution doesn't always proceed in the same manner. But why should we expect it to? By way of analogy, consider the path rain water takes back to the oceans. Sometimes it's a mighty river like the Amazon. Sometimes there are waterfalls like Niagara. Sometimes it's a meandering river. Sometimes there are rapids. Sometimes it's an inland delta like the Okavango, and the water must evaporate and fall again before going back to the ocean. The point is, even though water flow is controlled by simple laws of physics, the ways in which it flows vary based on local conditions.

Similarly, evolution need not always progress in the same manner. Gradualism is the term for constant, slow change. Punctuated equilibrium is the term that describes periods of stasis, interspersed by short periods of rapid (in a geological sense) change. Both modes of evolution have been observed in the fossil record. It all depends on the conditions.

Proceed to Chapter 10

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Texas Education in the Budget Crisis

TEA LogoI moved to Texas several years ago to start a new job. For the most part, I like Texas, but the politics and the consequences thereof can be infuriating.

Texas has never had a stellar reputation for education. There were the shenanigans in our Board of Education over the past few years (Chris Comer resignation, language arts standards, science standards, more on science standards, social studies standards), where a bloc of ultra right wing board members have passed some standards that can only be described as counter to reality, and in very underhanded ways, doing a deep disservice to our students.

There's the TAKS Test, originally set up to try to make some accountability for students and teachers, but which has resulted in teachers training students for that particular test, rather than giving them a well rounded education.

There's our abysmal sex ed, which is abstinence only and focuses on scare tactics, resulting in the third highest rate of teen pregnancy in the country. (If you want to get involved in reforming Texas Sex Ed, take a look at the Texas Freedom Network 'Help Change Sex Ed in Texas' page.)

And then, there's just the depressing state of the general welfare of children in the state. According to the executive summary of the report mentioned in that article:

Texas ranks 50th among states in health care coverage for children; mental health services for children with diagnosed challenges; preventing childhood homelessness; preventing childhood food insecurity; and preventing obesity among adolescent girls. The state also has the most fatalities from child abuse or neglect among states and ranks 50th in per-capita spending on child abuse prevention.

So, what have legislators decided to do for children here in our state? Cut funding! Here's the headline that greeted me the other day when I looked at the local paper:

School district asks for 134 resignations

I realize that the state is facing a big budget shortfall (thanks Republican dominated state government), and that cuts need to be made. But damn, is it frustrating to see the cuts being made to education, when the education system was already so underfunded to begin with. If it really came down to it, I wouldn't mind my taxes going up a bit to keep education funded, because education is one of the most important foundations for a functioning democracy (not to mention for those kids' futures).

I guess I don't really have much of a point to this entry, other than just venting. And with the way politics goes down here, I don't have much hope that the representatives that got us into this mess will be voted out anytime soon, or that the quality of education in the state will be improved in the near future.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 7

This entry is part of a series. For a bit of an introduction and an index of all entries in the series, go here.

God or Gorilla PicThis installment covers Chapter 7, "Theologians" Versus "Scientists".

First, we get a taste of some vitalism.

The writer has seen "scientific" milk made of the soja bean. The writer has also seen artificial honey made on a "scientific" formula. The former kills babies: the latter kills bees. Henry Ford, the biologist, or Henry Ford, the bio-chemist, or Henry Ford, the metabolist, perhaps has not yet learned that science misses the essence of life's formula which the scriptures nowhere attempt to reveal and that this essence has ever eluded the scientist who dabbles with synthetics. (McCann 98)

I wonder what McCann would have to say about Ventner's current artificial life project. The truth is - the more we learn about how life works, the more we learn that it's really all just chemical reactions. Sure, they're pretty complicated chemical reactions, but there's nothing fundamentally different between the reactions in a cell and the reactions in a test tube.

Just a bit later, McCann shows his contempt not just for biology, but for modern medicine, as well.

But-synthetic wintergreen when prescribed by the physician does not conduct itself, for some mysterious reason, in the human body, as does natural winter-green, although the chemical symbols of both, as far as science is concerned, are identical. (McCann 99)

Knowing how alternative medicine proponents operate in the present day, I have to wonder if McCann really did have a source of data for this claim. After all, chemicals don't 'care' if they came from biological or synthetic sources. They'll still behave the same way to given conditions.

To his credit, McCann actually gave a very good description of natural selection.

They did not know that the term "Darwinism" as popularly misrepresented by Haeckel is not the theory of evolution, but rather the theory of natural selection. Darwinism does not mean that man descended from an ape. It means that animals, under certain conditions, accommodate themselves better than others to the circumstances of their life, by reason of which they triumph in the struggle for existence while the others are wiped out, so that the victors eventually transmit their special qualities to their descendants, and by such transmission these qualities become more and more prominent until a new variety, a new race, a new species has been developed. (McCann 100)

Unfortunately, he had to follow it up with this paragraph.

These critics did not know that under the theory of natural selection the blood-red robber-ant ought not to make the mistake of selecting its worst enemy, the lomechusa, as a guest to live with, because in doing so it follows an instinct that leads to the destruction, not to the perpetuation of its own species. If the blood-red robber-ant selected a guest that would prove harmful from the moment when it deposited its larvae to be brought up in its own nest for the purpose of wiping out its own offspring, its idea of the theory of natural selection must have been the idea of suicide. (McCann 100-101)

This idea of intent behind evolution on the part of the organisms doing the evolving has to be one of the most common misconceptions I encounter. Look at it this way - did you pick which genetic mutations you wanted, or pick the mutations in your gametes that would go on to your children? Of course not. Genetic mutation is basically a random process.

McCann's example, though, misses the obvious. While the blood-red robber-ant may not be benefiting from the lomechusa, the lomechusa certainly benefits from the robber-ant. Like many parasites, it's 'discovered' how to evade its host's defenses. In this case, along with tactile cues, it uses the same pheromones that the ants use to fool the ants into thinking it's one of them. Lomechusa that are more convincing con artists will be more successful than their less convincing brethren. (more info).

Quote mining seems to be irresistible to creationists. Here's another example of how McCann quoted Darwin.

In "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin," edited by his son, Francis Darwin, volume 1, p. 210, is the famous letter written to Bentham, which most people never read but in which Darwin emphatically declares: "When we descend to details WE CAN PROVE THAT NOT ONE SPECIES HAS CHANGED."

On the following page he says: "I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief in immutability." (McCann 102)

First, as a minor note, according to the edition of the book I found, the quote is from Volume III, p. 25 of the book. Here's Darwin's actual quote from the first letter McCann quoted. The part in bold is the part McCann used.

P.S. -- In fact, the belief in Natural Selection must at present be grounded entirely on general considerations. (1) On its being a vera causa, from the struggle for existence; and the certain geological fact that species do somehow change. (2) From the analogy of change under domestication by man's selection. (3) And chiefly from this view connecting under an intelligible point of view a host of facts. When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed]; nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory. Nor can we explain why some species have changed and others have not. The latter case seems to me hardly more difficult to understand precisely and in detail than the former case of supposed change. Bronn may ask in vain, the old creationist school and the new school, why one mouse has longer ears than another mouse, and one plant more pointed leaves than another plant..

The second letter was one long paragraph, but it wasn't too long, so I'll just quote that entire letter. Once again, I bolded the part that McCann used.

MY DEAR BENTHAM,--I have been extremely much pleased and interested by your address, which you kindly sent me. It seems to be excellently done, with as much judicial calmness and impartiality as the Lord Chancellor could have shown. But whether the "immutable" gentlemen would agree with the impartiality may be doubted, there is too much kindness shown towards me, Hooker, and others, they might say. Moreover I verily believe that your address, written as it is, will do more to shake the unshaken and bring on those leaning to our side, than anything written directly in favour of transmutation. I can hardly tell why it is, but your address has pleased me as much as Lyell's book disappointed me, that is, the part on species, though so cleverly written. I agree with all your remarks on the reviewers. By the way, Lecoq* is a believer in the change of species. I, for one, can conscientiously declare that I never feel surprised at any one sticking to the belief of immutability; though I am often not a little surprised at the arguments advanced on this side. I remember too well my endless oscillations of doubt and difficulty. It is to me really laughable, when I think of the years which elapsed before I saw what I believe to be the explanation of some parts of the case; I believe it was fifteen years after I began before I saw the meaning and cause of the divergence of the descendants of any one pair. You pay me some most elegant and pleasing compliments. There is much in your address which has pleased me much, especially your remarks on various naturalists. I am so glad that you have alluded so honourably to Pasteur. I have just read over this note; it does not express strongly enough the interest which I have felt in reading your address. You have done, I believe, a real good turn to the right side. Believe me, dear Bentham,

Yours very sincerely,


So, the full meaning of what Darwin wrote, when seen in context, differs from what McCann would want you to believe. And of course, the veracity of evolution doesn't depend on what Darwin thought. He was merely one of the first people to recognize how it worked.

Proceed to Chapters 8 & 9

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for March 2011

Top 10 ListIt's time for the monthly update to the top 10 list. But first, a quick note about a small update to a page. Prodded by a blog comment, I revisited one of the factoids on the page, Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part V. The particular factoid was "Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan, carries the designation M-1, so named because it was the first paved road anywhere." The commenter added that "it is claimed in 1909 to be the first highway mile paved with concrete." Go read that page to find out whether those factoids are true or not.

I was a bit surprised this month. My Autogyro History & Theory page had been the most popular page on my site ever since I first published it back when this site was still hosted on my college account. This month, for the first time ever, not just one, but two pages have exceeded the autogyro page in views - the blog entries, A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes and My Favorite Airplanes. It's not that the autogyro page has gotten less traffic, but that those pages are getting more.

My popular pages are actually spread pretty evenly over when I wrote them. The top 10 list this month has 3 blog entries from 2007, 1 from 2008, 3 from 2009, and 2 from 2010, along with the autogyro page. So far, nothing I've written in 2011 has made the list. Maybe I'm not writing as well anymore, or maybe it's just taking time for enough people to link to those pages to get the traffic coming in.

My total monthly traffic just keeps going up and up. I wonder if this blog finally is getting popular, or if spammers are just all of a sudden getting more prolific. Anyone else out there with a blog care to comment?

Anyway, here's the top 10 list for March:

  1. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  3. Autogyro History & Theory
  4. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  5. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  6. Blog - Excel 2010 - Fixing a Slow Solver, XP 64
  7. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  8. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell
  9. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  10. Blog - Book Review - Voyage of the Beagle

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