Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, September 20, 2013

Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part II

This is the second part of my review of Ray Comfort's new movie, Evolution vs. God. Even though I embedded the video in Part I, I'm going to do so again here for anyone who's interested in watching it.

As stated at the end of Part I of this review, this portion picks up about halfway through the movie, just over 17 minutes into it. Comfort doesn't have much more to say about science. And if you thought that with a title like "Evolution vs. God", that the rest of the movie would focus on creationism or a Christian explanation for the diversity of life, then you're not familiar with Ray Comfort. The rest of the movie is almost purely religious, and mostly evangelism at that.


Famous Atheists

Here is one of the areas where Comfort pointed out a legitimate problem in the atheist community, though not a universal one. But even in pointing out a legitimate problem, Comfort's response was misleading.

Comfort asked people to name famous atheists. One person shown named Neil Degrasse Tyson, and another named Isaac Newton. And of course, Comfort pulled out quotes from these men to counter the idea that they were atheists. From Tyson, "I can't agree to the claims by atheists that I'm one of that community." And from Newton, "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

Admittedly, Comfort was accurate when it came to Newton. Newton believed in a god of some sort, and even if there's a bit of controversy over just what exactly he believed (see Wikipedia), the consensus seems to be that he was an nontrinitarian monotheist - somebody who believed in God, but not that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different manifestations of a single God.

However, when it comes to Neil Degrasse Tyson's religious views, Comfort's being a bit misleading. Consider Tyson's essay, Holy Wars. Here are a couple excerpts from that essay.

Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.

and

But I do so knowing and accepting that if I propose a God beyond that horizon, one who graces our valley of collective ignorance, the day will come when our sphere of knowledge will have grown so large that I will have no need of that hypothesis.

Comfort's quote of Tyson is correct, but it's not implying that Tyson is religious. Rather, as he's said elsewhere, he prefers to be called an agnostic, if he's going to be categorized by religion at all. I don't know if Tyson doesn't like the implied certainty that goes along with the term 'atheism', or if perhaps it's the negative connotations, but there isn't really a huge difference between the two positions, and it's a bit like splitting hairs. Tyson could be included in the more 'umbrella' term of nonbeliever. (And of course, this assumes the more common uses of these words, not the more technically accurate definitions. For an explanation of why atheist and agnostic aren't mutually exclusive terms, see the article, Atheist vs. Agnostic.)

Comfort's next example was to show the poster below:

Misleading Atheism Poster

For those people still using Lynx, it's a picture of several famous people, with the caption, "Atheism: Good enough for these idiots". Unfortunately, most of the people shown weren't atheists. They included Earnest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sagan, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin. Hemingway is the only one in that group that would have called himself an atheist, while the others were agnostics, deists, or had beliefs that are a matter of debate.

But here's the first problem. Comfort's holding this poster up as an example of a popular atheist belief. Well, what about one of the most outspoken and infamous atheists on the Internet, PZ Myers? Here's his entry from a few years ago, An inspirational poster. His take:

I saw this poster and thought, "What? But most of these people weren't atheists!"

And that entry had a 500+ comment thread, with very few of the atheist commenters misrepresenting the beliefs of those on the poster. So, this poster is an example of isolated stupidity, not some universal problem.

Then there was Comfort's hair splitting over atheism and agnosticism. Perhaps the poster would have been more technically accurate if it said 'Non-belief in Gods' rather than 'Atheism', and dropped the deists from the picture.

But the worst was an especially despicable statement from Comfort, "Back in 1961, Hemingway quote 'pushed two shells into the 12 guage boss shotgun, put the end of the barrel into his mouth, pulled the trigger and blew out his brains' And there's your poster boy when it comes to atheism."

To be fair, Comfort at least pointed out that not all of those people were believers in the "one true God", and it is valid to call out the atheists that misrepresent the beliefs of famous and historical figures, but his presentation wasn't particularly representative, either.


Morality

Comfort's discussion on the atheist poster led directly to this ironic statement, "Then again, coming from those that claim morality is relative to each person, convenient dishonesty should not be a surprise." I think that 'convenient dishonesty' is something that Comfort is especially familiar with.

This transition to morality went on to discussing 'moral absolutes'. Comfort got into a discussion with PZ Myers on rape, and asked if it was "always wrong". He got Myers to say that it was, and then Comfort claimed that there were moral absolutes as if he had won that little debate. But let me give an absurd thought experiment. What if a sadistic madman had you and another person taken prisoner, and threatened to put poison into a city's water supply if you didn't rape the other person. And just to make it worse, the poison was of some type that would cause horrible, horrible suffering before finally resulting in death. Now, I'm not saying that this would be an easy decision to make, but (I'm shuddering as I write this because of how callous it sounds) would it be better to rape a single person or let an entire city of millions of people suffer agonizing deaths? i.e. There may be instances where even something as horrible as rape might be the preferable option. And in that sense, it wouldn't be 'wrong'.

As a sort of tangential consideration, if morals are supposedly absolute, is rape always wrong when other animals do it. There are several different types of insects, such as the Acilius genus of water beetles, that reproduce only through the males raping the females (more info: Wikipedia). Or take a look at this article on Cracked. Rape of guppy females is so problematic that the females will actively seek out predators to be near to deter males from approaching them. Female guppies will also seek out more attractive females, 'hoping' the males will go to the more attractive females. And for a few more examples, consider the following articles, Deep Sea News - A great day for a little Traumatic Insemination which focuses mainly on bed bugs, Spiegel - An Undersea Kama Sutra: The Disturbing Sex Lives of Deep Sea Squid which discusses multiple mating strategies in squid, or Wikipedia - Traumatic insemination which discusses traumatic insemination in multiple animals. Now, I can imagine Comfort saying that these are merely animals, not human beings, so they're not held to the same moral standards. But consider Comfort's common line that creation requires a creator, and that the existence of the creator is obvious just from looking at the world around you - what type of creator would intentionally create such horrid mating strategies.

Comfort quoted Richard Dawkins saying, "Evolution in its rawest is incredibly cruel," and used that to segue into a discussion of Hitler (of course), implying that Hitler was just practicing 'survival of the fittest'. Aside from the 'is vs. ought' fallacy (I don't go around pushing people off buildings because of Newton), the obvious reply is that Hitler was copying breeding practices that had been known for centuries, not natural selection. And it's not as if pogroms were an invention of Hitler. As horrible as the Holocaust was, it was carrying on an old tradition.

Comfort then began asking people if they had dogs, and presented them with a moral dilemma - if their dog and another person were drowning, who would they rescue. And he showed the handful of people who either hesitated or chose the dog (four people in total). A few of them mentioned that we were just animals. Comfort even got a couple of them to agree that it was 'survival of the fittest'. Now, this was a bit weird and uncomfortable that people would think that way, but it was only a few people, and you have to wonder about their motivation after spending a while talking with Comfort (were they just trying to get a rise out of him?).

Comfort took another dig at Dawkins, quoting him as saying, "Any fetus is less human than an adult pig." I'm sure Comfort was using this quote to try to make Dawkins look callous, but I think Comfort's looking at it in the wrong way. Comfort thinks it's so damning because he thinks so little of non-human animals. But considering that humans are just one branch of the grand family tree, it's clear that we're similar to the other animals in many ways. Something as intelligent as a pig actually has a pretty complex set of thoughts and emotions, even if they're not quite as smart as us. Dawkins' statement points out the hypocrisy in placing some mythical importance in an undeveloped cluster of cells simply because they have human DNA, while not thinking twice about slaughtering fully developed thinking feeling organisms.


Atheism & The Afterlife

Comfort moved on to discussing atheism, and showed one kid mentioning that when you die that's it. Comfort asked him, "How do you know?" He tried to tell the kid that he wasn't just a mechanical system because he had "life" in him, and that this was the soul. I'd like to see someone ask Comfort the same question he'd just asked that kid - "How do you know?" Where's Comfort's evidence for a soul?


Are You a Good Person?

Now ,just over 24 minutes in, Comfort got into his 'Are you a good person' schtick. "How many lies have you told in your whole life?" - therefore you're a liar. "Have you ever stolen something in your own life, even if it's small?" That's called theft, so what are you?" "Have you ever used God's name in vain?" "That's called blasphemy. It's very serious to use God's name as a cuss word."

That last one on blasphemy struck me as particularly odd since it wouldn't even be a moral consideration for anyone who's not a Christian, let alone atheists. Someone brought up basically that very objection, and Comfort responded, basically, that ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Comfort went on to discuss lust, and Jesus's statement that even by looking at a woman with lust, you've committed adultery in your heart. This is stupid. Ask your husband or wife which would upset them more - that you looked at a person and momentarily lusted for them, or that you approached the person, talked to them long enough to form a relationship, possibly with several days, weeks, or even months of covert meet-ups and dating, took them back to a discrete location, took them to a bed, undressed them, undressed yourself, and had sex with them (compounded by the fact that you've probably been lying about it if it was an ongoing affair). Is lusting really comparable to adultery in any real sense?


Hell, Get Out of Jail Free

As if Comfort's tactics as described above weren't bad enough, this part gets to be just downright insulting. The examples below include scare tactics, attempted emotional manipulation, and Comfort blatantly telling people that he knows what they're really thinking about God, and it hasn't been what they've been saying out loud.

At one point, he made the statement, "Just not believing in Hell doesn't make it go away. A judge must see that justice is done if he's a good judge, and it's the same with God." Talking to a girl, he said "If you died in your sins and God gave you justice because he's holy and perfect morally, you'd end up in Hell and I'd hate that to happen to you." Really? Just consider those statements. Should 'holy and perfect' entail punishing people for eternity for finite sins? Is it really just to make someone burn in hellfire forever and ever just because they're skeptical of something that happened 2000 years ago and is only attested to in a book of questionable credibility?

Here was something Comfort actually told somebody.

Now let me tell you something you know intuitively. You know that creation is proof of the creator... I have an inside story. I have a whistle blower, and it tells me that you know God exists, and the reason you choose evolution is it gets rid of moral accountability.

The expression on the kid's face that he's talking to at this point is classic - like he can't believe this crazy guy is saying the things he's saying. But really, this is basically accusing atheists of being liars. Comfort is insisting that everybody knows deep down that God is real, and it's only because we want to be immoral that we choose to reject him. That's quite an insulting accusation. Speaking for myself, not only am I sincere in my belief that there are no gods, but I also strive to be a moral person, and struggle to determine the best course of action in tough situations.

Just a bit later, Comfort made a similar accusation to a different person.

Your struggle at the moment is because of your love of sin, because of the pleasure sin gives you and you don't want to give it up.

What an !#@%!#%. Does Comfort really think people are so shallow that they really do believe in this all-powerful being who can punish them in hellfire for all eternity, and they're just going to ignore that for the sake of a bit of carnal pleasure? Now, as I wrote in another essay, The Benevolent Dictator, there would be very real reasons to withhold worship from a deity like Yahweh if he were to exist, but temporary pleasure is not one of them.

And you know what God did for guilty sinners so we wouldn't have to go to Hell? Any idea?

Of course you do.

He suffered and died on the cross taking the punishment for the sin of the world.

Because that's how justice works. If one person commits a crime, it's just fine if somebody else goes to jail for them. I mean, as long as somebody gets punished, right? And of course, if you stole even one piece of penny candy when you were a kid and told your mom that you didn't, then you're a lying thief who deserves to rot in jail for the rest of your life with no possibility of parole. Only with God, it's even worse. The punishment lasts forever.

Then we got the Christian 'get out of jail free card'.

And then what God can now do is clothe us in the righteousness of Christ so that on Judgment Day, you're safe from God's wrath and his justice.
So because our fine was paid by another, God can legally dismiss your case.

This part of Christianity is one of the parts that bothers me the most now that I've left it behind. I realize that most Christians are still good people and don't see this aspect of their religion in the way I'm about to describe, but this aspect removes all moral accountability. It doesn't matter if you struggle your whole life to be the best person you can be, or if you're a lying murderous thug. The only action in your whole life that affects your eternal afterlife is a decision on whether or not you believe Jesus died for your sins.

The Bible says God is love, you know, and is kind and generous and merciful, and in his great kindness, he became a human being and suffered for us. Does that make sense?

No! It makes no sense at all. Scape goats are not a reasonable way to transfer guilt. A 'loving' god wouldn't threaten eternal punishment for finite sins. And an omnipotent god sure as hell wouldn't have to go through such a convoluted process to forgive people.


Scare Tactics

Comfort presented the following series of questions and statements to a girl - "How old are you?" "When are you going to die?" "Well God knows exactly the moment of your death. And it could be tonight, it could be tomorrow. I'm not using scare tactics. This is just straight reality." No, that's not a scare tactic at all. You're just reminding someone that they're going to die before trying to promote your point of view.


The Bible

Comfort began asking people if they had Bibles, and started preaching some more, especially the part about grace over works.

I've been reading the Bible every day for more than forty years. There's no mistakes in it, mate. Any mistakes that we think are in it are our mistakes.

I'm reading the Bible right now myself. You can follow along in my Friday Bible Blogging series. If there aren't any mistakes, then God sure has a weird way of inspiring people - contradicting details in different tellings of stories, breaks in continuity, stories that contradict each other. Really, if Comfort has been reading the Bible every day for forty years, it makes me further question his honesty to make a statement like the one above.

He went on to say, "and you can trust God's word. Think of how you trust professors and science books that tell you you're a, you're a primate." That word, 'primate' was practically dripping with condescension. I mean, that's a pretty uncontroversial fact. Even Linnaeus, a Christian who didn't accept evolution, classified humans as primates. We're mammals, too. Why would anyone doubt that?


Fallibility

Comfort pulled a little trick where he asked people to spell the word, 'shop', a few times, and then asked them what you do at a green light. When they answered with 'stop', he used that as an example to show how fallible we are, and by extension, that us evolutionists could be wrong.

We're all fallible. We make mistakes. So imagine if you can make a mistake when you say this whole of creation came together because some explosion of nothing that produced everything...

It's true that we're all fallible and can be mistaken. But what about when the tables are turned? Here's a conversation that took place that really illustrates Comfort's mindset.

Comfort: Peter, could you be wrong about God's existence?

Peter: Yes, and could you be wrong about God's existence?

Comfort: No.

Peter: Well, then. I think you're rather close minded.

Comfort tried to defend his position with some explanation about knowing your wife and being positive about her existence, and that's how Comfort knows of God's existence. But it should be clear to anybody that these aren't comparable. Comfort's wife is physical and tangible. He can talk to her directly, and get real, spoken responses. Nobody interacts with God in that way (because he's not there). It's a silly comparison.


Imagination

Nearing the end of the movie, Comfort showed a woman saying, "You know, the problem with those who are unable to see evolution - I think it's they don't have imaginations." He then showed a series of headlines, presumably to show the 'imaginative' nature of evolution - "Anatomical clues to human evolution from fish", "Human ears evolved from ancient fish gills", "Heavier dinosaur arms led evolution to birds", "Proof that fearsome T-rex evolved into a chicken", "When whales walked the land". While a few of those headlines are a bit misleading, they're not hugely off the mark. The fact that Comfort showed them in an attempt to discredit evolution reveals more about Comfort's own ignorance than any problems in evolutionary theory.


Closing

The movie ended with the following monologue from Mr. Comfort.

Darwinian evolution rests on faith, and once again, according to Richard Dawkins, 'Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think, and evaluate evidence. Darwinian evolution requires great faith. The knowledge of God, however, is clearly seen by all mankind. But since the creation of the world and its invisible attributes are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made, even as eternal power and godhead, so as thou are without excuse because although they knew god, they did not glorify him as god, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.

And with that, the movie closed by fading out on an image of a chimp. But even that final scene reveals a couple major problems in Comfort's position. From what he says, at least, it seems that he really does believe that God is clear to everybody, and that deep down, everybody does believe in him. It seems beyond Comfort's comprehension that people really don't believe in God. And by closing with a picture of a chimp, Comfort seemed to be making an emotional appeal - as if his problem with evolution is that it suggests that we're related to those damned dirty apes.

The remainder of the video was a commercial for LivingWaters.com and many of Ray Comfort's various products.


Final Thoughts

So, I managed to make it through the whole video, and it wasn't very good. I know that I probably shouldn't have expected any better, but Comfort really did a horrible job in trying to discredit evolution. And it was especially odd that in a movie titled "Evolution vs. God", that only about half of the movie was about evolution and the history of life on this planet, while the rest was pure evangelism. Oh well, that takes care of my obligatory coverage of Ray Comfort for a while, so I can ignore him until his next big stunt.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Response to E-mail - 1400 years of In-breeding

Crescent Moon & StarI've just received another e-mail that I couldn't resist responding to. This one was entitled '1400 years of in-breeding', and tried to argue that Muslims are genetically inferior because of rampant inbreeding. For anyone interested in reading this lunacy in full, I've included the full text of the e-mail below the fold. It appears to be adapted from the article, A huge Muslim problem: inbreeding, by somebody named Bryan Fisher (http://action.afa.net/blogs/blogpost.aspx?id=2147498193). It's worth noting that in the e-mail chain I received, Nicolai Sennels himself confirmed the content of the e-mail (Sennels' work was cited in it extensively).

Marriage between first cousins does seem to be particularly high among Muslims, especially in the Middle East. However, there were several other aspects of this e-mail that were either misleading or not backed up very well.

First of all, marriage among first cousins has not been "prohibited in the Judeo-Christian tradition since the days of Moses". Nowhere does the Bible prohibit marriage between first cousins, and in fact, it has several examples of such marriages. If you go to that Wikipedia entry on 'Cousin Marriage' that the e-mail mentioned (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cousin_marriage), you'll find a good discussion on the prevalence of cousin marriage in different cultures and throughout history. Here's a good excerpt from the top of the article about social acceptance:

In western culture, they have been legal in most jurisdictions through most of history and were considered socially acceptable until the first half of the 20th century; indeed, they were the norm in royal families, with Queen Victoria-Albert and William-Mary being two of numerous examples.

And here's a good excerpt of the prevalence of cousin marriage throughout history. It seems that it used to be extremely common in the distant past.

According to Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, it is likely that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer.[9] It is generally accepted that the founding population of Homo sapiens was small, anywhere from 700 to 10,000 individuals, and combined with the population dispersal caused by a hunter-gatherer existence, a certain amount of inbreeding would have been inevitable.

However, the article also noted that by the 19th century, marriages between first cousins accounted for less than 5% of marriages in Western Europe and the U.S., and that it has dropped even lower in modern times.

The e-mail made a questionable declaration, "This practice of inbreeding will never go away in the Muslim world, since Muhammad is the ultimate example and authority on all matters, including marriage." By way of example, polygyny is also permissible according to the scriptures all three of the Abrahamic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And there are examples of polygyny in all of their scriptures, including Mohammed himself in the Quran. However, according to another Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygyny_in_Islam), polygynous marriages only make up 1-3% of all Islamic marriages. In other words, Muslims don't blindly emulate Mohammed in all regards, even in marriage, so there's hope that given enough education, first cousin marriages could be reduced among Muslims.

The writer doesn't seem to have a good understanding of genetics. The danger of marriage to a close cousin is that a deleterious recessive allele (damaged recessive gene) has a higher chance of finding a match in someone you're closely related to. According to that first Wikipedia article, in populations where first cousin marriage is rare, marrying a first cousin only increases the risk of a birth defect by "1.7-2.8% over an average base risk for non-cousin couples", so it's not a huge risk. To put it in perspective, that's about the same risk for a birth defect as when the mother is over 35. However, when marriage among close relatives is common, the danger increases. This is because the gene pool is reduced, so effects like genetic drift and the founder effect become more prevalent. A good example is the Amish. While marriage among first cousins is rare in their culture, the breeding population itself is small, and derived from a small group of founders, so the risk of birth defects among the Amish is quite high.

But understanding that the risk of inbreeding is deleterious recessive alleles, the following statement seems particularly ignorant, "The massive inbreeding in Muslim culture may well have done virtually irreversible damage to the Muslim gene pool..." Inbreeding doesn't itself break genes, and aside from founder effects or genetic drift, it doesn't change the prevalence of broken genes. It just increases the chances that broken genes will find a match when two people have children. The problem in the Middle East right now isn't widespread damage to the gene pool. It's that all these family groups have isolated themselves into small breeding populations. If Middle Eastern Muslims were to stop marriage among close relatives and force everyone to marry outside their own families, they would be mixing their genes in the larger gene pool, and there would be a much, much lower risk of them marrying a person with the same problem genes. Basically, it would be the same risk as the rest of the world.

I didn't look into most of the stats, but the first thing I noticed is the misleading way that they're presented. For example, just consider the statement, "The risk of having an IQ lower than 70, the official demarcation for being classified as "retarded," increases by an astonishing 400 percent among children of cousin marriages." If the risk is low to begin with, even multiplying it by 400% is still a small risk. The webcomic XKCD has a humorous take on this (http://xkcd.com/1252/). To paraphrase, if you go to the beach 4 times instead of just once, you've increased your chance of being eaten by a shark by 400%. But it's still a small chance. It's not as if regular beachgoers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Likewise, even if the risk of lower IQ is increased with inbreeding, it doesn't mean that populations with high rates of inbreeding have huge amounts of low intelligence people.

It's also important to remember the old adage that correlation is not causation. There are many, many factors that affect how people develop and what they do with their lives. Even if it's true that "Seven out of 10 Turks have never even read a book", this article doesn't come anywhere close to making a case that that's caused by genetics and not social factors. Take a look at the literacy article on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy). To quote a caption on that page, "World illiteracy halved between 1970 and 2005." That's way too rapid of a change for it to be genetic. It must be a social issue.

As far as intelligence, that's notoriously hard to measure. Just consider the Flynn Effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect). IQ tests are normalized such that the average score is 100, with a standard deviation of 15 or 16 points. However, IQ tests must be re-normalized on a periodic basis, because the raw scores tend to go up as time goes on. If the tests weren't re-normalized, then it would appear that average intelligence increased at around 3-4 IQ points per decade. Just as with literacy, this is way too rapid to be caused by genetics. This also must be a social issue. So, even if Middle Eastern immigrants don't perform well on Danish IQ tests, there's just not enough data to even suggest that this is a genetic problem.

So, while marrying first cousins is riskier than marrying only distantly related individuals, and this type of marriage is a problem more common among Middle Eastern Muslims, the broad conclusions reached in this e-mail aren't really backed up. The generalizations seem more like plain old racism than any type of real science.


Here's a related article if you want to read more:
http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/robert-spencer

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Friday, September 6, 2013

Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I

Ray Comfort's new movie, Evolution vs. God, is finally out on YouTube. I mentioned this movie a few weeks ago in the entry, Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God. At that time, the movie was only available by paying for a download, which I obviously wasn't going to do. Now that the movie's out for free, I actually took the time to watch it and write this review. By this point, I'm a little late to the party in my critique, and there are already pretty good reviews out there. But I figured I'd add my voice, especially given Comfort's special significance to this blog*. And since this review grew so long as I was typing it, I've decided to divide it into two parts. This first part covers the 'sciencey' portions of the movie.

But first, for anyone who's interested, I've embedded the video below.

My original expectations for the movie weren't far off the mark. Comfort still doesn't understand evolution, at all, despite all the years he's spent trying to debunk it. The movie also made extensive use of selective editing of interviews, arguments from semantics, misconstrued definitions, and Comfort's trademark series of leading questions on whether or not you're a good person. To be charitable, the movie did highlight a few real problems, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes on purpose. But overall, this movie is just one more example of Comfort's colossal lack of understanding of evolution, combined with his questionable ethics in trying to get his point across. And to be honest, I didn't particularly like the documentary style. The constant jumping from interviewee to interviewee, never showing any of them for long enough to give a detailed response, wasn't very engaging, and several times I found myself bored.

I'm going to try to review the movie pretty much chronologically, breaking up my review into the same topics that Comfort used. Since he didn't exactly use headings, and some transitions were a bit fluid, this will be a bit inexact, but still pretty close. I'll begin each section with a few examples before adding my commentary.

One note I'll add up here concerns Comfort's method of jumping so fluidly from one scene to the next. It was done in such a manner as to give the appearance of continuity, but without the viewer actually knowing what conversations were taking place. For example, he might ask one person a question, and then jump to several people giving answers. The impression is that he asked the same question of all the interviewees, but there's no way to be sure. Similarly, sometimes after a person gave a response, he would jump to another clip, where his statement or question seemed like a response to the previous person. And maybe he would have responded that way to the previous person, but you don't get to see their reaction, nor whether they would have had a reply of their own.

Meeting the Interviewees

The movie began by briefly displaying a Richard Dawkins quote ("Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence") with eerie background music, and then a short title sequence, before beginning in earnest by introducing the interviewees who would be shown responding to Comfort's questions throughout the movie. These began with the interviewees stating their religious positions - atheist, agnostic, or leaning that way, and confirming their belief in evolution. Next was a quote describing evolution, " 'Live Science' says of Darwinian Evolution: 'It can turn dinosaurs into birds, apes into humans and amphibious mammals into whales.' " with an authoritative voice over reading the quote verbatim. Following that was a professor giving a brief statement about evolution removing the need for the supernatural in explaining the origin of life, and then back to brief responses from interviewees, this time concerning whether evolution is a 'belief', when people started believing, their reasons for believing, the majors of the students he was talking to, etc. Just to give an idea of how fast all the cuts are in this movie and how superficial all the discussion is, everything mentioned in this paragraph was covered in just a little under 3 minutes.

Observable Evidence

Now it was time for another quote read by the authoritative voice, "A scientific method is based on 'the collection of data through observation and experimentation...' -Science Daily" Actually, that's not such a bad statement, but notice that he's quoting a popular news magazine. If you're going to play the definition game, here's another definition of science, this one from Wikipedia, "Science ... is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, 'science' also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied."

Here's where Comfort's mangling of science first comes into the documentary. He asked a man, "Could you give me some observable evidence that evolution is true, something I don't have to receive by faith. Some observable evidence." The man responded by saying to take a look at what happened 65 million years ago, and Comfort jumped in to say that something that happened 65 million years ago isn't observable. Fair enough from a strict point of view. That's not exactly evidence. But then the movie starts cutting to other interviewees, without showing exactly what questions they were asked, showing them discussing deep time, with Comfort periodically interjecting that that means it can't be observed. This was all followed by a quote from Richard Dawkins that our lives are too short to "see evolution going on", and a similar quote from Charles Darwin.

While talking to PZ Myers, Comfort described that there are different kinds - feline kind, canine kind, human kind. He then asked Myers, "Darwin said there'd be a change of kinds over many years, so could you give me one example of observable evidence of a change in kinds." Myers began discussing fossil evidence, and Comfort asked how long ago all these evolutionary changes took place. When Myers responded that it was around 60 million years ago, Comfort seamlessly jumped to another clip, stating "I don't want something I have to accept by faith. I want it to be observable." It wasn't a direct response to Myers, but it seemed to imply that Myers hadn't given observable evidence. He then moved on to showing students who couldn't provide any good observable evidence, and getting them to admit they had 'faith' in evolution.

Next it was back to PZ Myers again, who began discussing evidence from the genetics of stickleback fish. But when Comfort learned that they were still sticklebacks, his somewhat incredulous reply was, "They stayed as fish". He went on from there asking more people about 'observable' evidence of change in kinds, always objecting that since these changes take longer than a human lifespan, that they're not observable.

This whole section of the documentary is either dishonest, or Comfort really isn't thinking things through. Observable evidence of an event does not necessarily mean directly witnessing the event. And in no other aspects of studying history do we call it faith to accept something as true that we haven't directly observed. I'll use an example. Mesoamerican history really interests me. Civilizations like the Maya or the earlier Olmec are fascinating. But nobody has directly observed those civilizations. The 'observable evidence' that we do have is what archaeologists find when they go investigating sites. We didn't see the artist who made The Wrestler, nor did we see it in that distant time period, but it is an artifact that can be observed. Likewise, we never directly observed any inhabitants of Tikal, but the ruins themselves are observable evidence. It would be ludicrous to say that we accept the existence of those civilizations on faith. We accumulate the evidence we have to form the most likely picture of the past.

Evidence for evolution is similar. A fossil is observable evidence, even if we didn't see the organism while it was alive. Studying genetics is observable. Anyone can go out and replicate the procedures used by geneticists to verify that they get the same results. It may take a little reasoning to put all the evidence together into a coherent picture, but that's how science works. For example, have you ever directly witnessed the Earth orbiting the Sun? Nobody has. We're inside the system, and nobody has ever traveled 'above' the solar system to directly observe it. Heliocentric theory is based on studying the evidence that we can see, and then reasoning out the motions of the planets from that.

Besides, the type of direct observation Comfort is asking for is ludicrous. Evolutionary theory doesn't predict that one 'kind' will evolve into another 'kind' in any type of timescale that humans can directly observe. It's true that we have witnessed a few speciation events (see Talk Origins - Observed Instances of Speciation, but when Comfort talks of changing kinds, he's talking of much bigger changes. It's almost as if he wants to see a cat give birth to a dog. If I give Comfort the benefit benefit of the doubt here, maybe he's trying to argue that since a change of kinds can't be witnessed because it's such a slow process, it must therefore be taken on faith. He'd still be incorrect, but not so bad as expecting a cat-dog. Though, even giving him the benefit of the doubt here might be too generous, considering how ludicrous his arguments can be (for an example, scroll about halfway down this page for his strange interpretation of dog evolution.)

Darwinian Evolution

This is closely related to the above discussion, but I want to make a different point. A bit later, Comfort asked Myers, "Can you give me an example of Darwinian evolution? Not adaptation or speciation, but a change of kinds." When Myers replied that he had been giving examples of a type of fish evolving into multiple distinct kinds of fish, Comfort again went back to his retort that "They're still fish." Myers also brought up Lenski's famous e. coli experiment (see The Loom - The Birth of the New, The Rewiring of the Old), and Comfort had the nerve to say, "That's not Darwinian evolution," and then a seamless transition into the next scene where he says "That's not a change in kind." He went on to say, "To summarize, the observable evidence you've given me for Darwinian evolution is bacteria becoming bacteria." He kept on harping on this topic, asking for an observed instance of one kind becoming another kind. There was a discussion on the Galapagos finches, and of course, Comfort's reply was "They're still birds", and that it therefore wasn't Darwinian evolution. He spent a fair amount of time showing students getting stumped again, not being able to instantaneously offer observed evidence of one kind changing into another. After insisting on this unrealistic expectation of evidence, he said that evolution therefore wasn't scientific, and showed the students he was able to get to go along with that statement, and then just a bit later students that he was able to convince that they were going on 'blind faith', with a repeat of the Dawkins quote from the start of the documentary.

First, it's a bit strange to keep harping on 'Darwinian' evolution 150 years after Darwin. Modern evolutionary theory is the modern synthesis. It owes much to Darwin's theory of natural selection, but it's more than that. It takes into account genetics, which Darwin didn't have a good handle on. It incorporates genetic drift, kin selection, Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and much that Darwin never even dreamed of.

Even if we were to pay homage to Darwin and refer to modern evolutionary theory as Darwinian evolution, Comfort doesn't seem to understand the real definition. Here's a biology professor's definition, "Biological evolution is the change that species (kinds of living things) undergo over time. More precisely, it is the change in the gene pools of living populations of species which occurs over time. A gene is a hereditary unit that can be passed on. A gene pool is the set of all genes in a species or population." That's pretty consistent with definitions I've seen elsewhere. All the examples described above, from the Galapagos finches, to stickleback fish, to Lenski's e. coli experiments, show changes in the gene pools of populations. Lenski's experiment is particularly exciting, because it shows an entirely new biochemical ability that developed in a population.

However, this is one of the areas where Comfort did highlight a legitimate problem - not enough people understand the evidence supporting evolution. However, contrary to Comfort's interpretation, this is not because the evidence doesn't exist, but rather because of the nature of our education system. So much of science education, especially in grade school and undergrad, is teaching concepts, with only a bit of the evidence of how we know those things. For example, I don't think that even Comfort doubts atomic theory, but how many people can explain the evidence for why atomic theory is true? How do you know we're composed of these weird particles called atoms, with a nucleus full of protons and neutrons, and electrons flitting about outside the nucleus?

Lungs AND Gills?

This next bit was actually part of the above discussion, but I wanted to pull it out on its own. Here's something Comfort actually said in the movie.

So did we have lungs or gills when we came out of the sea? ... If we came out of the sea, we had gills in the sea.

The reason this stands out to me is that he said nearly the same thing in a CD that I listened to years ago, the very CD that inspired me to start this blog. It's such an ignorant argument, implying that it would be silly for an animal to have both lungs and gills. But guess what, numerous such animals exist today, not just as inferences from the fossil record.

Here are a few animals with both gills and lungs:

And of course, many amphibians go through a metamorphosis, and so have gills and lungs at different stages of their lives.

Here are a few fish with vascularized swim bladders that can be used to breathe air:

And here are a few fish that have evolved independent means of breathing air:

Really, it seems quite useful for organisms to be able to breathe above and under water. And it's not as if it's a terribly rare trait. The list above contains quite a few vertebrates with that capability. And that's not even considering invertebrates (such as crabs). And further, some of the fish above, including lungfish and bettas, are actually required to breathe air - their gills can't get them enough oxygen to survive.

Intelligent Design

Just for reference, it's now just about 14 minutes into the documentary.

So, with his ludicrous demands for observable evidence of one kind changing into another out of the way, he moved on to discussing Intelligent Design (ID). He started off by asking people to make a rose. And when people responded that they couldn't, his inane response was "Hang on. Now it's not intelligently designed, so you should be able to whip me up a rose real quick." What type of sense does that even make? Simple vs. complex doesn't denote intelligently designed vs. natural. A hammer is intelligently designed. It's also very simple, and I'd have no problem making one. A geode is naturally occurring, but I couldn't make one of them.

He transitioned from that into saying that nobody can make something from nothing, not even a grain of sand. That's not what evolutionary theory even says. Creation ex nihlo is a religious concept. Evolutionary theory starts up with the universe already existing.

Next was another example of how badly he represented the scientific understanding of the history of the universe, "There was nothing in the beginning, a big explosion of nothing, it become something. It became into a rose, and giraffes and horses and cows." It's as if he's trying to represent the history of the universe as the big bang leading directly to fully formed organisms, completely ignoring the expansion of the universe, stellar evolution, the formation of our solar system, abiogenesis, and finally biological evolution.

Vestigial Traits

Next came a discussion of "vestigials". The student he was interviewing said it was a left over organ with no use, and Comfort jumped on that 'no use' part. In particular, he pointed out that tail bones anchor tendons, ligaments and muscles, and that the appendix is actually a part of the immune system. Since I've already played the definitions game once in this entry, let's do it again and take a look at how Meriam Webster defines 'vestige'. This is the second definition given, the one with the biological connotation:

a bodily part or organ that is small and degenerate or imperfectly developed in comparison to one more fully developed in an earlier stage of the individual, in a past generation, or in closely related forms

Where does that definition say no function at all? It doesn't, because that's not what vestigial means. Many body parts have multiple functions. For example, our larynxes allow us to breathe, but they've also been co-opted for communication (speech). Same with tongues, though for them it's eating and speaking. Our hands have many, many functions.

If you go back far enough, our ancestors had tails. Those tails did all the normal functions tails do - especially balance in our simian ancestors, and also providing an anchor point for tendons, ligaments and muscles. At some point, our ancestral line lost their tails - probably due to a change in locomotion through the trees where they weren't as important. But all those tendons, ligaments and muscles for our leg muscles still needed anchoring points. Evolution doesn't do a whole lot of creating new parts from scratch, but rather modifying existing features. So, as our ancestors lost their tails, they couldn't lost the parts that anchored tissues for the legs, so they couldn't lose those bones entirely. And we still have that vestige of the past - a short 'tail' that's not even long enough to poke out through our skin. It still has a function, but it is "small and degenerate" compared to our simian ancestors.

As far as the appendix, I'll direct readers to the TalkOrigins article, The vestigiality of the human vermiform appendix: A modern reappraisal. Comparing the human appendix to the caecum of other animals, it's pretty clear that the human index is greatly reduced. It also seems rather unnecessarily complicated for the limited functionality it might have (though even any functionality is disputed).

And of course, appendices and coccyges aren't the only examples of vestigial organs. While the following article may not be the scientifically rigorous, it does provide some good examples, Top 10 Useless Limbs (and Other Vestigial Organs).

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At this point, just over 17 minutes into the movie, or about halfway through, Comfort's pretty much done with any discussion of science. So, that makes for a good breaking point for this review. Look forward to Part II, which will focus more on religion, in about a week.

Continue Reading: Part II

Friday, August 23, 2013

Follow Up, Part III: Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution

Archaeopteryx - Berlin SpecimenWell, it appears that my back and forth with R. K. Sepetjian has come to an end. If you'll recall from a few previous entries(Leaving Comments on Other Sites - Birds as Dinosaurs and Fossil Evidence for Evolution, Follow Up, and Follow Up Part II), I caught a case of SIWOTI syndrome after reading a couple entries on the blog, Across the Fruited Plain - Are Dinosaurs Alive Today As Birds?: Refuting Archaeopteryx as "Evidence" for Evolution and Refuting Fossil "Evidence" for Evolution: The Data is NOT in the Strata. I left a comment to each of those articles, and after a few weeks with my comments held up in moderation, Sepetjian saw and approved them, and then responded to them. Well, the conversation didn't exactly go the way I would have preferred it to. I wanted to discuss the original topics, mainly evolution. But Sepetjian turned it into a discussion on epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. As I wrote in the last installment of this series, "It wasn't very productive - neither of us did any convincing of the other."

So, I left a comment saying I was no longer interested in going round and round in such an unproductive conversation, which I quoted in full in my last entry. What I found especially amusing is that I predicted what path the conversation would take if it were to continue. In particular, I said:

And you'll keep making arguments of the sort, 'Aha! You admit you don't have absolute certainty, therefore you can't know anything. Whereas I believe in God, and can therefore have absolute certainty.'

And look at what he wrote as a part of his final reply:

I have been doing my best to answer you and in so doing, believe I have demonstrated that my truth claims are unassailable, while yours are unjustifiable.

His final statement in his last response was as follows:

Therefore, if you'll permit one more question: By what objective standard of morality are you appealing to when you express that those things are wrong?

So, once again, the conversation wasn't getting back to evolution, and once again, I was drawn into responding. If you follow this blog at all (which I'm guessing is the only reason anybody would have read this far into this entry), you can probably guess at my response, which included, in part, "I don't think there is an objective morality. Morality is based on values, which are in the realm of the subjective." I went on to mention the Euthypro Dilemma in anticipation of Sepetjian claiming God as the source of objective morality, and gave a couple examples.

But Sepetjian hasn't responded in almost a week, whereas at the peak of our discussion, we were each posting something daily. So, I fear that Sepetjian has grown tired of arguing with me, or sees me as a lost cause, or feels he has better things to do with his time. At this point, I'm not expecting a response on his part, but if he does, I'll be sure to mention it here.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Atheist Chaplains, or Another Case of Christians Not Being the Ones Discriminated Against

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI was having a conversation with someone the other day, and the topic turned to the types of things I discuss on this blog. I made a comment along the lines of, 'It's not as if Christians are a persecuted minority in this country', and the other person responded that 'No, they're a persecuted majority'. From my interactions, it seems that this is a relatively common perception. As an example, here's an article from Townhall Magazine, Persecution of Christians ... in America. Granted, there are examples of Christians being mistreated, but these mainly seem to be isolated cases. For another set of examples, look to the ACLU's ACLU Defense of Religious Practice and Expression. Those are mostly local school boards, city governments, or bureaucrats misunderstanding the law.

For an example of a group being discriminated against by not just local government, but the United States House of Representatives, consider the recent case of the ban on atheist chaplains in the military.

Currently, there are around 2800 chaplains in the military. These chaplains are all specifically for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews (and maybe a few more religions, I'm not sure). However, there are no specifically secular chaplains, even though around 20% of those in the military have no particular religious affiliation, and around 1% are specifically atheist/agnostic. So, some atheist organizations were pushing to get a few secular chaplains to support the non-religious in the military. One congressional member tried to create the post in an amendment to the defense appropriations bill, but it was voted down. Not content with merely voting it down, the opponents came back with a separate amendment requiring chaplains to be associated with a specific religious institution - an attempt to effectively ban atheist and secular chaplains. And that amendment had no trouble passing - 253 to 173 (with only 2 Republicans voting against the amendment).

The guy who sponsored the amendment called atheist chaplains an oxymoron, insisting that chaplains are there to perform religious duties. But, in practice, the religious aspects of their post only constitute a small portion of it. As one of the commenters in the link below put it:

Military Chaplains do a lot more than hold church services and prayer meetings. They counsel guys that are going through a lot of hard stuff. Anyone who has served in the military knows this. If a soldier isn't a Christian, he may not feel comfortable talking to a Christian Chaplain about his issues, and there are a lot of guys out there committing suicide without having seen a Chaplain. Whatever we can do to prevent these needless deaths, even if you guys think it's "stupid" or an "oxymoron" is fine by me.

And I know some people might say those soldiers have the options of counselors and psychologists, but there's still a big stigma with those. More importantly, it goes down in the soldier's record if they see a psychologist, whereas a visit to a chaplain is off the record, making it more likely for a soldier to talk with them.

Don't get me wrong. Atheists don't have it terribly bad in the U.S. For one, it's not outwardly apparent, so even living in one of the reddest areas in a very red state, I've never felt the type of personal harassment that a victim of 'stop and frisk' would experience. But I'm also careful not to be very vocal about my atheism in the wrong crowds. Years ago when my daughter was younger, she made the mistake of simply telling another kid at daycamp that she didn't think you needed to believe in God to be a good person, and she ended up being teased by a bunch of other kids for the rest of the day. My main point is that I'm tired of the false narrative of Christians being the ones persecuted in this country.


More Info:

Other than the headline and opening paragraph, this is a pretty even handed article:

This issue has been covered extensively in verse by the Digital Cuttlefish, going back to before the above mentioned law was even proposed. Go check out some of his posts for more info:

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