Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?

My wife spotted an interesting message on a sign out in front of one of the churches here in town. So, she took a picture of it and texted it to me.

Church Sign

For anyone that can't download images, here's the message.

IF MAN CAME FROM APES WHY ARE THERE STILL APES?

I've been seeing this as a parody of creationists for so long, that it's almost a bit surreal to see someone actually using it seriously. And it's not just some random commenter on a blog, but the message a church is putting out to the public. Even if the sign person at the church has enough freedom where the message doesn't have to get approved by someone else first, my wife tells me that the message has been up for over a week - plenty of time for someone in the congregation to say something about it.

I could just point and laugh at the sign, which may even have been enough for this entry, but that's not very productive. So, while I've covered this on the blog before, since the prior coverage was brief, I'll go through again explaining why this question sounds silly once you actually understand evolution. Since I have covered this before, some of the content below has been copied copiously from a previous post.

One of the easiest ways to see the error in this line of thinking is to use an analogy. I'll use myself as an example. My great great grandfather and grandmother on one side were German - not just of German ancestry, but born in Germany and immigrants to the U.S. So, I can quite literally say that I am descended from Germans. But it's also quite obvious that I'm not descended from any living Germans. A certain group of Germans and I share a common ancestry through my great great great grandparents. The descendants of my great great great grandparents split into two lineages - one that continued in the U.S., and one that continued in Germany. That lineage in Germany is composed of my cousins, not my ancestors.

Another way to see the error in this line of thinking is to pose it with a different group of animals. It's a bit like asking, 'If crows evolved from birds, why are there still birds?'

It's a very similar case with us and chimpanzees and bonobos. Around 6 million years ago, there was a population of apes that was neither human, chimpanzee, nor bonobo. Over the generations, this population split into multiple lineages, each of which evolved independently. Most of those lineages have gone extinct, but there are still three of us left. We are cousins. We can go back further in time and find the ancestor that we share with gorillas, and further to find the ancestor we share with orangutans, and on and on all the way back till life began. None of those ancestors will look exactly like any of their modern descendents, since evolution has been occurring in all of the lineages. (Obviously, we haven't actually found fossils of all species that have ever existed. But, in the same way that you know you must have a great great great great great great grandmother, even if you don't have any record of her, we also know that we must have common ancestors with Earth's other organisms, even if we haven't yet found their fossils.)

I think there's another misconception associated with this assertion. I think it goes back to the Great Chain of Being, where people feel that evolution is directed, and that us humans are the pinnacle. That's not the case. Much of the change that occurs in evolution is through mutation and natural selection (though those aren't the only drivers). Mutation is random. It just happens, without any conscious intent. Think about yourself - did you pick any of the mutations that make your DNA slightly different from your parents? Did you pick any of the mutations that make your children's different from yours? Natural selection isn't random. It acts like a filter - eliminating the mutations that don't work as well, while allowing the ones that do to pass through. But it's only a filter. It relies on the raw material from random mutations.

It's also important to keep in mind that mutations aren't good or bad on their own. It all depends on the environment an organism is living in, the animals lifestyle, and other factors. DNA to make gills is very useful for a fish, but wouldn't do a damn for us.

So, let's go back to that ancestral population of apes. Somehow, it got split into at least two lineages. Those lineages, once they became reproductively isolated, could no longer share DNA between each other. So, whatever beneficial mutations popped up in one population would have been available only in that population. Any mutations that made the eventual chimp lineage better at climbing trees, for example, would have been unavailable to our lineage. Likewise, any mutations that made or lineage better at walking on the ground would not have been available to the lineage that led to chimps & bonobos. So, once that population was split, the two lineages went their own separate evolutionary ways.

Environment could also have played a role. Now, I doubt the following is exactly what happened, but it's an interesting thought experiment. What could have caused that ancestral population to become split? Imagine that it was a new river, that cut through their range. Imagine that the river became so big that the ancestral apes couldn't cross it. And suppose that on one side of the river, the forest stayed largely intact, while on the other side, the forest gave way to savannah. Now, with one lineage living in forest, and the other in savannah, you can see how natural selection would have favored different mutations in each of the two lineages, causing each to evolve markedly differently.

So, once you understand a bit about how evolution works, the question 'If man came from apes, why are the still apes?' seems nonsensical, and even a bit silly.


Here's a related blog entry I wrote a few years ago:
Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?

That entry also addresses the semantics of this a bit. In my opinion, we are just a type of ape, so saying that we evolved from apes just seems obvious.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheist Temples

Atheist TempleHere's a hell of an idea. A philosopher, Alain de Botton, who already has earned a bit of a questionable reputation for saying that atheists should copy the trappings of religion, has pushed this idea even further into the ridiculous. He thinks there should be atheist temples. He's proposing a 46 meter tall black tower - 46 meters to symbolize the 4.6 billion year age of the Earth, with a millimeter thick band of gold at the bottom to represent humanity's existence.

I find this to be incredibly silly, and I'm not alone. The comments to the article linked to above are nearly all atheists ridiculing the idea. Pharyngula also has a blog entry on it, with over 100 comments so far saying how stupid they think the idea is.

I touched on this before in my review of The Year of Living Biblically, but it's worth repeating here since it's so relevant.

Atheism is only a big deal in the present, because religion is such a big deal. There are lots of other things people don't believe in, but nobody notices because there's no countering belief. Let me use an example. I realize there are still a handful of people who believe in fairies, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most people are a-fairiests. But nobody would propose building a museum or a temple dedicated to the non-belief in fairies.

Right now, us atheists are vocal because religion has so much undue influence in society. But if society gradually shifts to become more atheistic, as appears to be the case, eventually being an atheist will just be the default position, and nobody will make a big deal of it.

In my case, and in the case of many of the 'new' atheists, atheism is really only a side effect of other, positive values. We're committed to rationality, critical thinking, evidence, the wonders of the universe. But there are already grand buildings dedicated to those values - museums, universities, libraries. These aren't like temples in that people go there to worship, but they do provide a setting for those values to thrive. I'd much rather see money going to support those existing institutions than see it go to some cockamamie temple of non-belief.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist, School Prayer, and Christian Love

This is old news by now, and has certainly made the rounds in the skeptical blogosphere, but like I often do, I'm repeating this for friends and family who don't frequent the same areas of the web that I do.

Cranston West School PrayerAt Cranston High School West in Rhode Island, there was a mural painted to look like a banner with a prayer on it. For reference, here's the full text of the prayer (per WPRI):

Our Heavenly Father, Grant us each day the desire to do our best, To grow mentally and morally as well as physically, To be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, To be honest with ourselves as well as with others, Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win, Teach us the value of true friendship, Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West. Amen

The mural had been there for decades, but just recently, it has become the focus of some controversy. The short story is that a student, Jessica Ahlquist, complained to the adminstration that the banner was illegal and that it marginalized non-Christians. The school didn't listen, so she went to the ACLU. The ACLU told the school that the banner was clearly illegal, and that there wouldn't even be a debate if it were to go to court. The school still did nothing. So, the ACLU followed through, filed a lawsuit, and unsurprisingly, a judge ruled that mural had to be removed. As part of his opinion, he wrote:

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer.

Well, as you can expect, throughout the whole affair the 'good' Christians of Cranston have not been happy about this at all. It really has brought out the worst in some people. The blog, JesusFetusFajitaFishsticks, has a collection of some of the comments that have been directed at Jessica. Of course, there are the usual Christian threats that she'll burn in Hell, along with lots of people calling her a bitch. There are some threats that get even more explicit, such as:

Fuck Jessica alquist I'll drop anchor on her face
Let's all jump that girl who did the banner #fuckthatho
"@Ry_Simoneau: But for real somebody should jump this girl" lmao let's do it!
@jessicaahlquist your home address posted online i cant wait to hear about you getting curb stomped you fucking worthless cunt

As that last comment pointed out, someone even published her home address in the comments section of the local paper. In fact, the threats were so bad, that Jessica had to get police protection.

And it's not just young students acting out against Jessica. Grown adults are getting in on the act. Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo, a Democrat, made some comments about Jessica on the John DePetro Show. He called her, perhaps somewhat jokingly, "an evil little thing". He also said, "Poor thing. And it’s not her fault. She’s being trained to be like that." When pressed on it, he relented a bit on her, but said that "she's being coerced by evil people." Seriously. An elected official is calling people evil for asking a school to take down a sectarian prayer.

On the petty side, local florist shops are refusing to deliver flowers to Jessica. The organization that was trying to send her the flowers eventually went to an out of state florist. According the the FFRF press release:

FFRF was forced to go to an out of state business, Glimpse of Gaia, in Putnam, Conn., which not only agreed to deliver the flowers but threw in a second bouquet from the shop with its own message, “Glimpse of Gaia fully supports our First Amendment and will not be bullied by those who do not. Here’s to you, Jessica Ahlquist.”

This whole ordeal has revealed quite a bit of hatred and bad behavior over someone simply asking a school to follow the law of the land and respect the Constitution. It's certainly revealed the ugly side of Christianity, and shown Jessica Ahlquist to be a very courageous young woman.


Here are a few sites where you can show your support for Jessica:
jessicaahlquist.com
Support Jessica Ahlquist
Evil Little Shirts

Here's one more link to a news story:
Rhode Island Teen's Battle Against Prayer Banner Has Gone 'Too Far,' Mayor Says

And I'll also note that The Digital Cuttlefish has devoted quite a few blog entries to creating verse about this situation. It's well worth browsing through that site to read them (as well as all the other poems).

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Much Gas to Charge an iPhone?

iPhone GasI got a link to an interesting article recently, How many gallons of gasoline would it take to charge an iPhone?. The article was published on ExxonMobil's Perspectives blog. It was an attempt to put into perspective just how much energy there is in gasoline, and why it's so useful as a fuel.

Early on, the article presented a 'fact', without any rationale to back it up:

All of the energy concentrated in one gallon of gasoline is enough to charge an iPhone once a day for almost 20 years.

So, I thought I'd run some numbers to see just how reasonable this was.

First, what's the energy content of a gallon of gas? According to Wikipedia's Energy densities page, the energy density of gasoline is 47.2 megajoules per kilogram. A gallon of gas weighs about 6 lbs, for a mass of about 13.2 kg 2.73 kg. Multiplying by the energy density gives 623.04 MJ 128.73 MJ in a gallon of gas.

Now, for something that took a little more work, what's the energy content of the iPhone battery. According to Wikipedia's iPhone 4 page, the battery is 3.7V at 1420 mAh. (An Ah is the "the electric charge transferred by a steady current of one ampere for one hour" - Wikipedia). So, doing a simple calculation on that, let's figure out the power the battery is putting out, and then how much energy that would be after the one hour for the Ah:

P = IV
P = 1.42A * 3.7V
P = 5.254W

As a sanity check, that's in line with what some random guy on the Internet claimed on Yahoo Answers, according to his kill-a-watt power meter.

And since energy is equal to Power times time:

E = Pt
E = 5.254W * 3600s
E = 18,914.4J

So, if we simply divide the energy content of the gas by the energy content of the battery, we get 32,940 charges 6806 charges. Assuming a charge every day for a year, that's 90.2 years 18.6 years. Now, of course, there are inefficiencies in the systems, so that's not right. Gasoline engines in cars are typically on the order of 25% - 30% efficient (per Wikipedia), and their alternators are typically on the order of 50% - 60% efficient. However, permanent alternators run optimally can have efficiencies in the high 90%'s (again, per Wikipedia).

So, the claim that there's enough energy in a gallon of gas to charge an iPhone every day for 20 years seems pretty reasonable (in reality, when you look at the efficiencies, you won't be able to put all that energy into charging the phone).

An iPhone may not be huge, but 20 years is a pretty long time. It really just goes to show how much energy gasoline contains, and why it's so useful for powering vehicles.


As a side note, this is why I personally think that biofuels offer so much hope. If a way can be found to efficiently convert biomass into a gasoline like fuel (such as some of the studies on algae), we'd have a high density energy source that could take advantage of existing infrastructure. No waiting overnight to charge batteries - just a quick 10 minute stop at the pump to fill up with dead algae.

Update 2012-05-08 As a reader pointed out, I made a boneheaded error in my conversion from pounds to kilograms (stupid metric system). I corrected it, striking through the wrong numbers and replacing them with the correct ones.

Monday, December 19, 2011

War on Christmas, 2011

Santa in the CrosshairsWe're well into the War on Christmas, with less than a week left to try to destroy the holiday this year. I've already written my post this year complaining about the Salvation Army, and I've written in years past about the whole War on Christmas, so there's not much for me to add this year. So, I think I'm just going to post a bunch of links.

But first, I think I'm going to make a tradition of something I did last year, and embed a YouTube video of Tim Minchin's 'White Whine in the Sun'.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

The Digital Cuttlefish has quite a few Christmas poems. At the bottom of the first link below, he's provided a list of everything he posted this year. So, I'll just link to that one, plus a poem he wrote last year that I really like.


And that's it for my War on Christmas this year.


Added 2011-12-19 - Okay, one more thing. Here's a spoof on the Charlie Brown Christmas special that I couldn't resist posting (from Calamities of Nature). Just click on the image to see it full size.

Calamities of Nature Comic on Charlie Brown Christmas

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