Monday, November 30, 2009

Rethinking Darwin

This is the 200th anniversary year of Charles Darwin's birth (Feb 12, 1809). It's also the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, my candidate for the most important science treatise ever written, and certainly one of the most readable.
I read recently an interview in which the interviewee suggested that we should rethink Darwin. The reason, he opined, is that the ideas Darwin put forth have been misused. He referred to the "Social Darwinism" of early 20th Century thought, and the "survival of the fittest" mentality of some nutcase people.
The idea that we should "rethink" Darwin is pure nitwittedness at its simple-minded best. For one thing, how do you rethink what Darwin did? All he did (!) was to give a cogent explanation for the way species are born and change. How do you rethink that? It's like saying, "We have to rethink gravity, because all those people out there are falling down." This sort of thinking I've noted before. It's a sort of fuzzy, treacly belief that if something is unpleasant or harsh it must be wrong, and if something ought to be so, then it is so.
At times I get so exasperated that I wonder which is worse -- crazy kids with AK47's or people who would have us turn our backs on reality.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whom should I believe?

There is so much information and opinion out there today, that it's very difficult to know who is on the right track and who is blowing smoke. Even crackpots seem to be able to produce data to support their views ("tests show," "studies indicate," "evidence suggests").
In Pilgrim's Progress, the author creates a Slough of Despond, with the pilgrim has to go through. Well, the Slough of Despond is nothing at all when compared to the Morass of Misinformation.
So, how do we get through? I do it by borrowing a 19th Century technique: Using touchstones. Touchstones are proven principles, guides to help us understand the ambiguous. In my case, the touchstones are people. I compare ideas with those of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Mark Twain. In natural science, biology, anthropology, and psychology, it's Darwin. The central question I ask of anything is, "How can this be explained in light of evolutionary theory?" In the harder sciences, I ask, "What would Al think." For everything else, there's Mark Twain. After all, wasn't it Twain who said, "Suppose you were a member of Congress, and suppose you were an idiot; but I repeat myself."

Friday, November 20, 2009


I'm reading a history of the Protestant reformation written by a Catholic priest, so I'm not too sure how even-handed it will be. However, the author does something I appreciate: He defines what the Christian religion was before the reformation. He begins by recounting the story of the Garden of Eden. God sets Adam and Eve in the garden, and they immediately break the rules.
Now, in story-telling, if there's a taboo, it must be broken, or there's no story. So, from a story-telling viewpoint, the incident with the snake and the apple has to happen.
But in a larger context, it doesn't really make sense. I mean, here's God, the creator of the universe, the most intelligent being in that universe, the one who knows all, sees all, and can foretell all, and the first thing he does is to create an intolerable situation. If he's all that smart, he should be able to do better than that. Heck, a 10th grade geography class could create a better scenario.
Of course, in Christian theology, the Adam and Eve story is necessary. No major sin, no fall, no need for a redemption. No redeemer.
This is a Christian invention, by the way. Neither Christianity's papa, Judaism, nor its uncle, Islam, needs a redeemer in the sense that the Christian tradition has it.
And that's always bothered me. The thought that I need an intercessor because of Adam's stupidity has always seemed to me an unnecessary complication. I can sin well enough on my own, thank you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Literary sins

I just finished a book that's a historical mystery, a genre that's becoming increasingly popular, with historical figures either participating in solving crimes or being part of the cast. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens are two who have been so featured.
The book I just finished was about Charles Darwin, one of my heroes. In the book, an intelligent, brave, strong, handsome man and his intelligent, brave, strong, beautiful partner unearth a succession of manuscripts that prove that Charles Darwin stole the theory of natural selection (The keystone of his whole theory) from another man and may have actually killed the other guy, the HMS Beagle's naturalist, Robert McCormick.
The novel infuriated me. I almost couldn't finish it, for two reasons. The first is that the novel is dishonest in its craftsmanship. What the author proposes is wildly improbable, so he constructs a giant, intricate god in the machine to make it all happen. The protagonists discover not one, but four manuscripts which do not so much fill in gaps as create the story of Darwin the plagiarist. Without those "discoveries" there would be no story. It's not as if the author were tinkering with history -- he's inventing it. It is part of the writer's craft to make what happens seem natural. The possibility that there would exist four manuscripts, each linked to the other, and each meshing with the others into a seamless narrative, well -- that's a little too much.
Also, so much of the novel revolves around the Beagle's surgeon, Robert McCormick, who, according to the published record, left the Beagle in 1832. In the novel, he came back on board, and died in a volcano around 1834. In reality, McCormick outlived Darwin, traveling and writing copiously until he was retired in 1865, and dying in 1890. So, the novel contradicts the available records, which is, at least, clumsy.
The second reason the novel infuriated me is that the author has basically slandered the name of one of history's greatest scientists. If there were suspicions abroad, I might (just might) understand the motives, but there's nothing around to suggest that the author's thesis is even remotely near correct. It's made up of whole cloth for one reason, to sell books.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The thing that fascinates me about beliefs like reincarnation is to speculate on how they happen. I mean, you die as a human and you're reborn as a cucumber. In between, what happens? Let's say that in your version of reincarnation, there are strict rules. You are always reborn as a human. Whether you are reborn as a king or a slave depends on how you lived this life. So, I'm say, rich merchant good in this life, and I die. What happens? Do I go to a holding pen and wait until a proper kid is ready to be born? And how do I get matched up? Is there an accountant? A gatekeeper? Some one should be there to tell my soul, 'Number twenty, it's your turn." See what I mean?
But the common response seems to be, "It just happens," or "It's all in the mind of God." But things don't just happen, and even if it's in the mind of god, there are procedures, events in time, that have to occur. I mean, with six billion people in the world, dying and being born, it's a jungle out there. Someone is awfully busy. And if you factor in the possibility that I could be reborn as an insect, they problems increase exponentially.
So, it seems to me that people who believe in reincarnation have to accept a very big deus in a very complicated machine.


I'm not against miracles, mind you. I just want to know how they happened. Even a miracle needs to go from state A, pre-miracle, to state B, post-miracle. To say, "That's what makes it a miracle" is to fudge the answer.
Consider Lazarus. He was pretty far gone by the time Jesus got there. I think the Bible says, "he stinketh." So, between the time of "Lazarus, come forth," and Lazarus walking out saying, "Can someone help me with these wrappings?" something happened.
See, the little devils that come to life when we die were busily working inside Lazarus, having a wonderful time, but Lazarus' body was already degenerating, bloating, liquefying and all that other disgusting stuff.
So, one of two things could have happened. First, Lazarus could have simply been re-animated. Made alive. I don't have too much trouble with that, because we can nearly do that in the lab now. On the other hand, Lazarus wouldn't have been all that attractive. We have a name for people like this -- Zombie.
Second, Lazarus' body could have been reconstituted. Not just firmed up, you understand, but rebuilt completely, on a cellular level. Including the brain, which, in case you forgot has 100 billion neurons and countless memory traces.
Such a process would take a tremendous amount of energy, and would probably generate a lot of heat.
"Yes, but," you say, "That's what makes it a miracle." And that's what bothers me. I'm sure that there are lots of fidgety laws any god worthy of the name can get around, but it seems to me unlikely that even a god can alter the fundamental building blocks of the universe.
At this point, people will either say, "God can do anything he wants to," or start to spout some post-modern stuff about sub-atomic physics and Schroeder's cat. In either case, they've lost me, since I don't buy either point.