Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Designer Desperately Seeking Intelligence--Will Travel

Going Rogue, An American Life by Sarah Palin (HarperCollins 2009)
The Day the Universe Changed by James Burke (Little, Brown & Co. 1985)
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin Co. 2008)
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (Harper Perennial 1992)
The Republican War on Science (Revised Edition) by Chris Mooney (Basic Books 2005)
Judgment Day—Intelligent Design on Trial (NOVA and The American Experience, WGBH Boston 2007)
Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, opinion by Hon. Judge John E. Jones III, (District Court, Mid D. PA 2005)

In Ms. Palin’s book where she details her life as a Merry Rogue, at one point she opts to take a brief digression while describing her job "interview" for vice president. Mr. Steve Schmidt and Mr. Mark Salter, two of the McCain for President staffers, ask Ms. Palin about “theories of origins” (Ms. Palin’s expression). Ms. Palin describes her “position” (again, her word) as follows: “I believed in the evidence for microevolution—that geological and species change occurs incrementally over time. But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings –-thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from the trees; I believed we came about through a random process, but were created by God. Finally, I believe that for every drop of rain, a flower grows.”

Ms. Jayne Mansfield, posing for a
photo illustrating the concept of
"microevolution" for the Intelligent
Design textbook, "Of Pandas and
People."
Okay--I made up that last part. But then, Ms. Palin states that the following exchange occurred:

“But your dad’s a science teacher,” [Steve] Schmidt objected.
“Yes” [by Ms. Palin].
“Then you know that science proves evolution.”
“Parts of evolution,” I [Palin] said. “But I believe that God created us and also that He can create an evolutionary process that allows species to change and adapt.”
Schmidt winced and raised his eyebrows . . .
I had just dared to mention the C-Word: creationism. But I felt I was on solid factual ground.” (Rogue, p. 217).

Reading that section, I have to say that like Mr. Schmidt, I also winced—and not just because I think of a whole different reference when people mention the “C-Word.”

Ms. Palin then goes on to describe how her family spent many a meal time, chatting about the planets, the periodic table, and the defining characteristics of various Alaskan fauna “between forkfuls (sic) of caribou lasagna.” She then suggests that in the “fossil proof of evolutionary patterns . . . one could actually view [the patterns] as evidence of a grand design[.]” She adds that “. . . [I]n eighteen years of impromptu supper-table lessons and expert-guided field trips to American national parks, never had Dad or anyone else convinced me that the earth had sprung forth conveniently stocked with the ingredients necessary to spontaneously generate life and its beautify and diversity; in fact, I thought the idea flew in the face of the evidence I saw all around.”

Ms. Irish McCalla. My pick for the
goddess of the faux leopard print.
She almost invariably looked better
than the faux leopard did.
In defending her version of “creationism,” Ms. Palin writes “I know the word ‘creationism’ evokes (sic) images of wild-eyed fundamentalists burying evidence of any kind of evolution under an avalanche of Bible verses. But I needed the campaign to know they weren’t going to put words in my mouth on this issue. I would go with them reasonably to a nuanced position, based on facts. But I wouldn’t parrot a politically correct line just because some voting bloc might get upset.” She concludes that if “William F. Buckley—a devout Catholic and a world class intellectual—could believe in the divine origin of man, why couldn’t I?” (Rogue, p 216-218).

Here’s why not. Speaking as a member of the voting bloc that would find Ms. Palin’s reasonably nuanced position upsetting, my concern has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with scientific correctness.

So, What Does Ms. Palin “Believe” About Evolution?

Giving Ms. Palin the benefit of the doubt (i.e. that she is being sincere, and not simply pandering to morons professing divine inspiration), she doesn’t have a clue what she really believes. For Ms. Palin, the earth may very well have been created in six days, with “god” creating all manner of animals, vegetables, and minerals. However, Ms. Palin is also aware that some things that may have been present at "the creation” are not here now (like triceratops) and some things that are here now were not present at the creation (like goldfish, roses, and plutonium). Therefore, “some changes” (unspecified) are possible (the so-called “microevolution” of the creationist/Intelligent Design community) but change to the extent different animals became new species (“macroevolution”) is not possible.

Unfortunately, as to where the line should be drawn between “micro” and “macro” evolutions, Ms. Palin has no idea. But regardless of wherever that line may be, the whole process of “evolution” (to the Sarah Palins of the world) is directed by a conscious intelligence, who created this “grand design.”

Ms. Palin is not alone in both her scientific confusion and misunderstanding of natural selection. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center in 2005 found that 42% of Americans believed that human beings were “created” by “god” in basically their present form, as opposed to evolving over time. That same year, the Gallop Poll found 45% of Americans held that view.

Ms. Bettie Page. Popular opinion may
have her queen of the ugly leopard
outfit--but my heart still belongs to
Irish McCalla.
“You Can’t Prove There Was No Creation by God—You Have to Take It On Faith”

In a word: no. god (sic) did not create Adam and Steve and Eve and Adele (I almost went with Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.) How do I know this? Because, as Mr. James Burke points out in his wonderfully entertaining book The Day the Universe Changed, people in the eighteenth century faced the very real possibility that God had made a mistake. From that question about God's mistakes, arose the field of evolutionary biology. The following is a summary of Mr. Burke’s history of the Marvel Comics-styled Awesome Origin of natural selection.

In 1687, Isaac Newton published Principia Mathematica, explaining how the universe worked. It wasn’t the hand of God pushing the oceans that caused tides (for example), tides were caused by the gravitational pull of the moon. So, having discovered a grand design accounting for planetary motion, etc etc, it was logical to do the same with flora and fauna. Which is why in 1752, Carl von Linne, a Swedish naturalist writing under the name of Linnaeus, published the Philosophia Botanica, where he catalogued all plants according to class, genus, and species. For Linnaeus, the universe was static and unchanging: there were an exact number of plants and animals, and that number was a constant: there were neither too many, nor too few species. Why? Because it was self-evident: the number of species was part of the Grand Design (by now a proper name). The Grand Design was perfect, because God the creator was perfect. For there to be a “mistake” in the Grand Design, that meant to eighteenth century intellectuals that God would be capable of error—and that (by definition) could not be true.

At that time, the growth of the industrial revolution created an increased demand for metals. In an effort to satisfy this demand, specialists in both mining and analysis of the various forms of geological strata stepped forward. Following this new attention to geology, there was also the discovery of a variety of fossilized plants and animals in different levels of strata. It become apparent that some of the fossils present in the higher (and presumably younger) strata were not present in the older, deeper layers of strata. Then, in March 1793, a canal builder named William Smith noticed that the layers of strata were often in continuous, integral layers. While cutting one canal, Mr. Smith was able to identify three distinct layers of strata, by recognizing the different fossils in each layer.

Ms. Ava Gardner. You know when she
didn't look good in an outfit, that was
one butt ugly outfit.
In 1814, Smith published his findings about fossils in a book entitled Strata Identified by Organised Fossils. Without asking the question himself, Smith’s book set off a firestorm of controversy. If there were fossilized plants and animals that no longer existed, then did God change God’s mind about creating those organisms? Were those now extinct organisms God’s “mistakes”? And what did that mean if God made mistakes?

A French biologist named Georges Cuvier offered a partial solution. Mr. Cuvier had developed a technique where he could reconstruct the shape of an entire animal, just using only a small number of bones. Cuvier’s method was that immortalized in the song “The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone. The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone. The ankle bone’s connected to the…” you get what I mean. Cuvier called this process “comparative anatomy.”

Cuvier went on to describe how some parts of animals are so basic, that those parts were common to all animals. However, each species’ environment demanded that those common characteristics adapt and become specialized. Cuvier then identified four branches of animals: vertebrates, mollusks, jointed, and radiates. While Cuvier still believed each animal species would remain fixed within its branch, he did suggest that there was the possibility of individual species developing and changing. Following Cuvier’s conclusions, the principle of simultaneous creation became suspect.

Lots of other really fascinating stuff happened, so if you care, you owe it to yourself to read Mr. Burke’s book. The whole book is a blast and a half—as are all his other books.

The Biblical view of creation took its hardest blow at the hands of Charles Lyell, a friend and intellectual forerunner to Charles Darwin. Lyell was a talented botanist and a creative geologist—but a horrible barrister. Lucky for him though, that didn’t matter: Lyell’s family was rich. Forgetting about law, Lyell traveled to Italy to study limestone strata containing marine fossils. Lyell was able to identify a particular layer of strata that was comparatively more recent, because it contained fossilized marine life that were identical to present day forms. "Older" strata were layers that contained extinct forms of animal life; that is, the fossilized animals no longer existed.

Lyell was shocked to find a particular layer of limestone strata that contained only present forms of marine life (and none that were extinct) continued underneath a mountain named Etna. While digging at the base of Etna, Lyell discovered that mountain had been built up over time, from literally thousands of separate and distinct lava flows. Etna (at that time) was 10,000 feet high and ninety miles wide, so forming that mountain (given the rate of individual lava flows) had to have taken millions of years. Therefore, if a strata containing only contemporary fossils passed under a mountain (a mountain that had to take millions of year to form), then the current population of marine species must have existed for millions of years—meaning the strata with extinct species had to much older than even that. Lyell (and lots of other folks) concluded that the Christian Bible’s account of a 6,000 year old earth was untenable.

Ms. Jayne Mansfield. She will always
be one of my favorite thinking, loving
beings--despite all the mean things
tree swinging monkeys have to say
about her.
By 1830, Lyell gave up his law practice, brutally disappointing his mother (okay—I made that up). But he did start writing what would become a three volume work, Principles of Geology. At the conclusion of the third volume, Lyell suggested a way to “measure” the age of the earth. Beginning with the premise that uniform actions through time implied a uniform rate of change, Lyell proposed that the “age” of the earth could be calculated by the ratio of fossils of extinct species to the number of fossils of species that still existed. To “calibrate” his geological clock, Lyell uses mollusks to determine his ratio of extinct to surviving species of clams, and showed that the earth was really, really old (I hope that jargon wasn’t too technical for you. Read Burke’s book. He’s way smarter and a much better writer than I am anyway).

Lyell’s work introduced two other radical ideas. First, the fact that some species continued to survive while others disappeared suggested that the species that died out were not able to survive because of changes in their environment. For the species that did survive, they survived because they were able to adapt to whatever environmental changes that occured. Second, just as the evolution and change in geological formations could be explained as a response to a changing environment, so too could the changes in animals and plants be attributed to the species' responses to a changing environment. In other words, Lyell had suggested a rational, materialist explanation could account for how the world came into being. As with Newton’s explanation of how the tides were not created by the hand of god, Lyell tried to explain how the growth and destruction of species were not unfathomable mysteries, attributable only to unknowable supernatural forces.

Ms. Leslie Parrish. Her nice smile
carried not only many ugly outfits (for
example), but also several really
awful films.
Then, in 1831, another guy (luckily from a rich family, just like Lyell) signed up as the unpaid “naturalist” aboard the HMS Beagle. In 1844, that naturalist’s thirty-five pages of notes from the voyage became The Origin of Species—and the rest is history, as they say in the funny papers.

Both Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed andConnections give a wonderful and detailed history of the impact of Darwin’s work, both in Darwin’s time and today. The point I want to make, though, all the very same exact objections raised by Ms. Palin (complete with face flying evidence) about evolutionary biology were raised, debated, and discarded before the end of the nineteenth century. So, you may ask, why hasn’t any of this history and scientific research convinced Ms. Palin of the error of her ways? Because—in a word—Sarah Palin is the worst kind of idiot: she’s remains convinced in the truth of her incorrect position, only because she is too lazy to actually crack a book and learn something. But to be fair, throughout Going Rogue, Ms. Palin shows that her modus operandi regarding evolutionary biology is not limited to that area. She’s proud to be a fool in a wide variety of disciplines.

But What About All Those Mean Things Shouted from the Peanut Gallery?

FOR EXAMPLE:

Good story. Only what you said proves nothing, except there IS such a thing as microevolution. And I was lying about the “good story” part.

First, read The Day the Universe Changed. I’m giving a very crude summary, leaving out many key contributions, such as Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. If you need a bigger picture, James Burke will provide it. Next, another biologist and contemporary of Darwin named Alfred Russel Wallace, after working in the Malayan archipelago, independently reached the same conclusions that Darwin did. So even if Darwin had listened to his mom (and not snuck off on that fun cruise), evolutionary biology still would have been “discovered” at that same time. The intellectual development in Western Europe dictated that SOMEONE (if not Charles Darwin) was going to “discover” both "micro" and "macro" evolution at that time, so all the same arguments against evolution would have been raised and discarded, regardless if the "discoverer" was Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, or some other disappointment to a set of rich parents.

But the point remains: because of the work Smith, Cuvier, Lyell, Darwin (and dozens of others I did not mention), there is a rational, materialist explanation for how we got here from there--as opposed to the supernatural explanation: “god did it, and it was a miracle!” Therefore, anyone who isn’t convinced about evolution, that person is unconvinced only because they are too lazy to look at the science.

Ms. Mamie Van Doren. See what
happens when you go right from
fish to human, without stopping
at monkey?
There is still no proof of macroevolution, because there are no fossils of animals that are transitions between species.

Actually, every fossil and every animal is a “transition” from one species to the next. Evolution does not happen by a snake laying an egg one day, and the next day, from that egg out jumps Daffy Duck. Snakes and dinosaurs became birds over innumerable small adaptations, from generation to generation.

Here is a crude example I read at Roger Ebert’s web site. Imagine that we are flipping a coin, with each flip a new generation of a species. If the coin comes up heads, that is an adaption that will give that generation an advantage. If the coin comes up tails, there is either no change (or the adaptation is a disadvantage). Next, let’s say that for a species to “change” and cross the line from “microevolution” to “macroevolution,” there needs to be a hundred (or a thousand or a million or a trillion—pick the number as big as you want) coin flips that come up heads. Can there only be macroevolution if there is a million “heads” in a row, and no tails? Of course not. Because while all the “tails” generations will die out (they are the genetic losers), each one of the “heads” generations will continue to out-reproduce the “tails,” until a hundred “heads” (or a thousand, million, gogol-gazillion) have been flipped. The number doesn’t matter, because the time it takes to go from a fish to a fish with legs to a tree swinging monkey to a thinking, loving being to an obnoxious, egotistical jerk (I’m the acme of evolution, if you haven’t guessed)—that’s the time it takes.

After all, what really is the difference between “microevolution” and “macroevolution”? If you are going to allow for adaption and change within the “branches” (as Cuvier did), then the only difference between the “micro” changes and the “macro” changes is that the macro changes take longer.

But you have no proof of macroevolution. Show me your proof!

Let’s go back to what Lyell speculated about, and Darwin saw: islands (like the Galapagos and Falklands) contained organisms that are related to—but nevertheless distinct from-- plants and animals on the nearby mainland. The island animals adapted and evolved in response to different environmental conditions than their mainland cousins faced. Whether you call that “micro” or “macro” evolution, the point remains: the only difference between the two is time and succeeding generations’ response to different environments.

But here’s another proof that Darwin did not know about: closely related species have more DNA in common with one another than more distant relatives. How close and how much DNA? In The Third Chimpanzee, Jared Diamond points out that human beings (homo sapiens) are a species of big mammal (if you don’t accept that, look up “mammal” in Wikipedia). However, there is a big stinking difference between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom. What is it that creates that difference?

Ms. Elaine Stewart. You can tell she's
trying as hard as she can, but a body
can only do so much to carry an
outfit.
Diamond suggests a reason for those differences, by pointing out if an Outer Space zoologist decided to categorize mammals on earth, that zoologist would list “humans” as a third species of chimpanzee—along with the pygmy chip in Democratic Republic of Congo and the common chip in the rest of Africa. Why? Because homo sapiens share 98% of our genetic program with the other two chimps. We are closer to the other two chimps than such closely related bird species as the red-eyed and white-eyed vireos.

Diamond then points to taxonomy (DNA) studies showing that common chips and pygmy chips are more closely related to homo sapiens than those chimps are related to gorillas. And those chimps' relation to “tree swinging monkeys” are even farther away than their relation to gorillas. My point is, from a genetic perspective, the line between our propensity as “thinking, loving beings” and monkey “tree swinging” is much finer than Ms. Palin appears willing to admit.

Later in Third Chimpanzee, Diamond explains that roughly six million years ago, a generic “upright hominid” split off from the rest of the “apes” family. Following that split, there were a few intermediate stages in our development as a species, with two branches of “humans” not surviving: Australopithecus robustus and what Diamond refers to as a “third man.” Identifiable homo sapiens began to appear roughly 500,000 years ago. Two hundred thousand years ago, identifiable Neanderthals appeared—and then died out approximately 40,000 years ago.

Here’s something unusual about Neanderthals. They lived in western Europe, though southern Russia and the Near East, extending through Uzbekistan to its border with Afghanistan. If you dig up different camp sites/residences of Neanderthal communities, there are no cultural variations between the different sites: the tools and shelters built by the communities in France are virtually identical with the communities in Russia. Neanderthal tools from 100,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago look essentially the same: after 60,000 years, nothing in Neanderthal life changed or improved. So, what was it about our ancestors (the non-Neanderthals) that gave us the ability to become the thinking, loving beings we are today (well, some of us), while Neanderthals stayed not all that different from their cousins, the tree swinging monkeys? Here’s what: some roll of the genetic dice that we (okay me) don’t understand.

But the fact remains there are many who do understand, and the evidence is there for Ms. Palin so she too can understand—if she’s interested.

In the immortal almost words of Jerry Maguire: Show me the monkey! You can’t, can you?

Well, not me personally. But since On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Manwere published, fossilized bones of hundreds of creatures that were various intermediate “steps” between the tree swingers of yesteryear and today’s thinking lovers have been discovered. In 1974, Lucy Van Pelt—I’m kidding, Lucy (Australopithecus) was discovered: approximately 40% of the skeleton from a hominid who lived 3.2 million years ago. In 1984, Turkana boy was discovered: a nearly complete skeleton of an eight to twelve year old hominid boy who lived 1.5 million years ago.
Not Lucy (Australopithecus).
For kicks, go look up List of Human Evolution Fossils in Wikipedia. There’s lots of bones of hominids who stopped being tree swinging monkeys but weren’t yet thinking loving beings.

But what about Piltdown Man? I notice you jerks never mention THAT one!

I talk about Piltdown Man all the time, because it’s a hilarious story. So does James Burke (Universe Changed, p. 322-323). For those of you too lazy to even click on the hyper link (and don’t think I don’t know who you are. Okay, I don’t know you personally, but I know your type), Piltdown Man was a notorious hoax perpetrated by an amateur paleontologist named Charles Dawson. In 1912, Mr. Dawson presented parts of two skulls, that Dawson insisted were “evidence” of prehistoric man, and confirmed Darwin’s theories. Nearly FORTY years later, fluorine tests discovered Dawson’s skulls were (at best) medieval in origin. The skulls had been stained with iron to give the appearance of age, and the teeth PAINTED brown.

I’m too lazy to summarize how Burke explains how the creation and continued belief for something as silly as Piltdown Man fits within Burke’s theory (essentially, when belief in a theory is strong enough, “evidence” will be found to support that theory, whether there is evidence or not), so you’ll have to read the book. Burke also gives several wonderful, terrible—yet ultimately hilarious—examples of scientific whoopsies, like the N-ray.

But the fact that one hoax lasted until the late 1940s, in and of itself, does nothing to negate the existence of all the other positive (i.e. non-fraudulent) evidence.

But none of this changes the fact you believe in “evolution” like Ms. Palin believes in God.

No, dear.

When I finish reading all the books, I will write a quick and dirty analysis (okay. I’m lying on the “quick” part, but it will be DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY!) of Karen Armstrong’sThe Case for God, Christopher Hedges’s god Is Not Great, and The God Delusion, by my favorite evolutionary biologist and troublemaker, Richard Dawkins.

Until then, in the preface to the paperback edition of The God Delusion, Mr. Dawkins quotes geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane. Haldane was asked what kind of evidence would he (Haldane) have to see that would change Haldane’s belief in evolution. “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian,” Haldane said.

Ms. Bettie Page. I can't tell you what
it is about her, but those stupid bangs
and clear eyes--there has never been
a lewd or untoward picture of her,
ever. I am ready to go to the wall
on that one.
So, not to tip off my hand or anything, there are no fossil rabbits in Precambrian strata. In other words, there were no rabbits some time after life began on earth—but there are rabbits now. How did the earth go from no rabbits to rabbits? Because God said "Let there be rabbits!" I'm kidding--it was the forces of natural selection and random probability: rabbits became rabbits over time, in response to environmental conditions. No faith in supernatural forces required.

How is everything you just said different from Ms. Palin’s assertion that she “believes we came about through a random process, but were created by God”?

Ms. Palin (again, giving her the benefit of the doubt) appears to be trying to have it both ways: There IS a random process of evolution, BUT the hand of God hovers over all. And what’s wrong with that? Here’s what: if there is a rational, non-supernatural explanation for a phenomena, what is the point of adding a superfluous magical component? That’s like teaching a physics class about the moon’s orbit, and how gravitational pull from the moon causes tides on earth—also, the hand of the Flying Spaghetti Monster helps push the water around.

Or how about if in a chemistry class, the teacher explains how the ionic bonds that hold sodium together with chlorine are broken apart in water, so when salt “dissolves” in water, the water has individual sodium and chlorine ions floating freely. Plus the Cowboy Buddha sends legions of angels armed with nutcrackers to help break up the more stubborn bonds.

Superimposing a magical, spiritual component does not explain or help predict anything. Which is why Chris Mooney quotes an evolutionary biologist who dismisses Intelligent Design as “an unknown intelligent designer did something, somewhere, somehow for no apparent reason. That is not a model.”

But what about the “holes” in evolutionary theory? What’s wrong with teaching kids about the holes, and letting them make up their own mind?

First, the purpose of “school” is not to teach students different options, and then let the students make up their own minds. Have you ever taken a class that operated that way? I have, and it sucks butt.

Not all arguments are equally valid and merit equal attention. That’s why we have teachers and historians, to tell us what is important. Personally, I’m not going to take the time to wade through tens of thousands of pages of documents, just to make up my own mind if Franklin Roosevelt was a better president than Warren Harding (that’s what grad students are for). No, the role of schools—especially in the sciences—is to teach “science;” in other words, give us the answers.

Finally, even if you believe there are “holes” in evolutionary biology, I can’t imagine how introducing a supernatural component is supposed to be an improvement. Neither, I am reasonably sure, can Mr. Sidney Harris:

But that’s not what they say in "Big Daddy?"

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m flattered and appreciate the attention and all—but if your education on evolutionary biology comes from Chick Publications, why are you reading Samsara Samizdat?

If William F. Buckley—a devout Catholic and a world class intellectual—could believe in the divine origin of man, why can’t Sarah Palin?

There are actually three different points to this question.

First, regarding the fact that Ms. Palin chooses to DON’T STOP BELIEVING, that’s between her and her gods. As a self-identified Marxist-Buddhist-political dissident-economics-legal-peacenik-feminist-internationalist-environmentalist-secular humanist-social gospel kind of guy who is also dedicated to the principle thatmanuscripts do not burn (рукописи не горят, baby!), I am in a poor position to tell ANYONE what they should or should not be believing in. Nevertheless, as noted boxing aficionado Oliver “Ollie” Wendell Holmes says “Your right to swing your arms ends at the tip of my nose” (Holmes was calling the play by play in that immortal fight, “Kid” Chapinsky vs. “The People” New Hampshire). In other words, take your VISA, but leave your beliefs at home. Or, if you have the money and time to kill, go ahead and bore the crap out of all who know you by leaving long notes on your Facebook page (cough cough). But keep your supernatural beliefs out of the public square.

Second, did Bill “The Devouter” Buckley not believe in evolution, preferring the literal truth of a six day creation complete with talking snake? Frankly, I don’t know. But I do know someone who did not.

If you watch Mr. Bill Mahr’s film Religuous, of the many stand out characters, George V. Coyne S.J. is someone whose charm and intelligence will catch your attention. Father Coyne is a Jesuit priest and astronomer, and at the time of the filming, was the director of the Vatican Observatory. When the conservation turns to “fundamentalism,” or the belief that the words in the Christian Bible are the literal, historical truth (including the one about the talking snake), Father Coyne points out that Pope John Paul II had said that the theory of Darwinian evolution was beyond dispute. In other words, if the Pope rejects the argument that Ms. Palin is putting into Mr. Buckley’s mouth, then Mr. Buckley can’t be THAT devout of a Catholic—because as they say where I come from: You can’t be more Catholic than the Pope.

Ms. Mara Corday. Some faux leopard
can be smashing (sort of) . . .
Finally, as to Mr. Buckley’s street cred as a “world class intellectual,” just like most people who live long lives saying and writing lots of stuff, I would argue that more than a fair amount of what Mr. Buckley asserted (looking back from the perspective of someone in the 21st century) puts Mr. Buckley firmly in the category of “asshole.” See above, point one re “belief,” but it is my personal opinion and belief that a strong case can be made that of all the assholes in the world, William F. Buckley was an asshole’s asshole of an asshole, standing head and asshole above his contemporary assholes, in the field of being a real asshole. I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain. HA HA HA! But we digress.

But what about where Ms. Palin writes about her idyllic school days (oh, those golden rule days!) when “. . . [a]t least sixty of us met in public classrooms for Bible study and inspirational exchanges that motivated us to focus on hard work and excellence. In those days, ALCU activists had not yet convinced young people that they were supposed to feel offended by other people’s free exercise of religion”?

Or as they say where I come from: let’s play Poke the Bear!

If anyone thinks I am making that up, the quote is on page 28. After reading it, I had to wait three days or so before continuing, because the risk of brain aneurysm was too great.

This might be a good time for you skip the rest of this note (and go back to looking at the pictures), because I am about to go off on a rant about the first amendment.

. . . While other leopard just cannot
be made to look good, regardless.
Ms. Martha Hyer, here taking one for
the team.
In the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution (which are the first ten amendments), one of my favorites is the first amendment, because it presents a very broad check on state power. One of those checks involves a proverbial one-two regarding religion. First, the federal government (and now State and local governments as well, via the fourteenth amendment) “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” If you want to sound hip (and don’t care about scoring with babes), you call that the “establishment clause.” The “two” comes in the form of the very next clause: “. . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (the “free exercise clause” for the hip and celebate).

After 217 odd years of jurisprudence, those two clauses have come to mean the following: do what you feel (free exercise clause), but don’t expect public funds or a state endorsement in what you do (establishment clause). And damn it—Sarah Palin knows this. She is just being a jerk here.

Here’s how the rules espoused by these two clauses work. Let’s say I found the First Church of Bert Russell is GOD, and spend much of my days reading Why I am Not a Christian and “praying” to Old Man Bertrand. I do this in the privacy of my own home, at shopping malls, in government owned office buildings—even on the property and in the classrooms of the local community college I attend. It’s all good (and not just because nobody cares), because the state is not prohibiting the exercising freely of my religion. More to the point, have I OFFENDED anyone at the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU)? No.

Now, let’s say I just got done watching The Blues Brothers, and have decided that I’m on a mission from Bertrand. For me to able to go forward and teach all nations, unbaptising them in the name of---you know what I mean, I demand the following: Government money to build and maintain a shrine to Bert on public land, and all my leftwing America hating commie pinko fellow traveling friends employed by the public schools must now spend some class time talking about why Bertrand Russell is God. NOW have I offended anyone at the ACLU and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State? Big Time (as Dick Cheney once said). For me to get any of those things would mean an “establishment” of my religion.
Ms. Eartha Kitt. Back in the day, all my friends idolized Billie Holliday, but I preferred Eartha Kitt--and was roundly mocked for it. I still like Ms. Kitt (and am still mocked).

Here’s the point: manger scenes complete with Baby Jesus are just ducky--as long as they are on private property and maintained by private funds. But they are NOT okay when the displays are on public property, using public funds, or have the endorsement or approval of a state actor, acting in that person's official capacity—especially in the schools. The fact I am prohibiting Sarah Palin from using MY resources to promote HER religion in no way interferes with her free exercise. Again, Ms. Palin knows this, but here she is pimping on that part of her readership who don’t know.

But what about Allegheny County v. ACLU, 492 US 573 (1989) and Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 US 668 (1984)?

Shut up.

Still, don’t you have to admit (in the immortal words of the Forty-Third President of ‘Merika) that the jury is still out on evolutionary biology?

No. Not only is the jury not out, but summary judgment has already been granted [Note: Trust me on this one: that’s a hilarious joke in legal circles. A real knee-slapper]. If you are even remotely interested in this stuff, one of the best episodes of WGBH Boston’s American Experience is Monkey Trial, on the 1925 trial of Mr. John Scopes for (apparently) teaching evolutionary biology. The web site also has atranscript of the show. It’s fascinating.

Ms. Barbara Eden. I'm not saying you
need to be a genie to make leopard
print look good on you--but it
certainly can't hurt.
Since the Scopes Trial, the US Supreme Court held in 1968 that bans on teaching evolutionary biology violate the establishment clause of the US Constitution (Get it? Get it? Establishment Clause? I thew that in just to see if you were paying attention), in the case of Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 US 97 (1968). Later, the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 US 578 (1987) held that teaching “creation science” was unconstitutional. What to do? What to do?

Taking a step back, some folks tried arguing that some parts of biology are TOO COMPLICATED to have naturally evolved. Examples include the autoimmune system and the function of some single celled organisms, such as the flagellum of E. coli. That argument would be impressive—but for the fact it’s the SAME ARGUMENT that the Reverend William Paley raised and Darwin answered in the second edition of On the Origin of Species. Paley had insisted the function of the eye, with it's ability to change focus without conscious effort by the observer, meant that the eye was "too complex" to have evolved, so (minimally) the eyeball must have been created by a divine power. James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed includes a section of how the same objections now raised by the Intelligent Design movement were raised—and put to rest—in Darwin’s time.

But never say never. In 2004, a flock of goons (using a value neutral, non-judgmental expression) on a local school board in Pennsylvania adopted the following resolution by a 6-3 vote: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.” Before you could yell “Screw MTV—I want my Thomas Jefferson!”, everyone was in court before the Honorable John E. “Johnny Angel” Jones III, of the federal district court.

Where I come from, it’s a tried and true cliché that hard cases make bad law. But Judge Jones, perhaps heeding the call of Bob Marley to Get up, stand up for your right. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight (or perhaps not), cut through the crap and delivered a phenomenal opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. If you are at all wondering just how “Intelligent Design” is not a science, and is instead a “supernatural” belief, read Judge Jones’s opinion. If you’re not a hopeless law nerd with no friends or even hope of having any, you might find the beginning sections describing the Parties (and the procedural background) tough sledding. Skip them, and jump right to section E.
Ms. Cleo Moore. Okay, so she's not WEARING the leopard skin per se, but there is one in the photo. I can't be sure, but I think this is a still from a film about the hazards of choosing the wrong bed & breakfast.

For me, reading that opinion is like watching a great Arnold film—only with more action. But if you are a normal person, NOVA and American Experience teamed up to present Judgment Day—Intelligent Design on Trial (NOVA and American Experience, WGBH Boston 2008), a tremendous documentary on the controversy and trial. I especially loved the scenes where WGBH recreates the trial, and then breaks to get opinions from the actual people involved.

By the way, here’s a tip kids: do not lie to federal judges. They don’t like it. If you are still not sure why lying is “bad,” watch Judgment Day.

The point is, though, that from the perspective of the science community--and now in the legal community—the jury is not “out” on evolutionary biology.

Disproving the Existance of an Intelligent Designer. A Fun Dice Game You Can Play at Home!

A few months ago, I was wasting time quibbling with some idiot about Intelligent Design. Somehow, the concept of dice came up, and this Idiot insisted that the simple existence of dice “proved” Intelligent Design, because some intelligence had to design the dice. I immediately stopped talking to that person (because in that direction madness lay), and began to wonder how to structure an experiment to test for “Intelligent Design.” This is what I came up with.

Begin with a pair of dice. After rolling them bones, the dice total would be a number between two and twelve. If the outcome of my dice rolling was dictated purely on the basis of random probability—meaning there was no intervention by an “designer" (intelligent or otherwise)—I would expect the following results:

For a total of 2, the odds are 1 in 36
For a total of 3, the odds are 2 in 36
For a total of 4, the odds are 3 in 36
For a total of 5, the odds are 4 in 36
For a total of 6, the odds are 5 in 36
For a total of 7, the odds are 6 in 36
For a total of 8, the odds are 5 in 36
For a total of 9, the odds are 4 in 36
For a total of 10, the odds are 3 in 36
For a total of 11, the odds are 2 in 36
For a total of 12, the odds are 1 in 36

Ms. Chili Williams. Instead of all that
dice rolling, Ms. Williams's outfit alone
demonstrates no intelligence in this
design.
Now, say I threw about 5,000 rolls, and discovered that instead of rolling a total between seven and twelve roughly 21 out of every 36 rolls, I was hitting a seven or higher about 27 times out of every 36 rolls. Perhaps some Intelligent Designer is putting their supernatural thumb on the scale, and effecting my dice shooting? But no, that is not the case. Having watched a lot of westerns back in the day, I smash the dice with a hammer--and discover some scallywag has “loaded” the dice by embedding lead shot inside each die close to the number one face of each die. The number one side of each die is heavier than any of the other five sides (because of placement of the shot), so the number one side lands face down on the table a disproportional number of times—meaning that I will be rolling more sixes than would be dictated by pure chance. AH HA! I cry. There is an outside force effecting the outcome—but it’s not supernatural (or “god”): it’s the cheating scumbag who sold me bad dice.

So, I correct for the loaded dice (I get new dice and shoot the varmint who did the loading—see above re watching too many westerns), and try again with new dice.

After another 5000 rolls, my score is now averaging a roll between two and six about 20 out of every 36 rolls. That’s also a sign of something wrong, because probability dictates I should hit those numbers only 15 (as opposed to 20) out of every 36 rolls. So, I x-ray the dice. They are clean (no loading). But with a fine tuned laser measuring thingy (I have no idea how the thingy works, it just does), I discover that each die has been milled at a slightly awkward angle, so that the size of the number one face is a slightly smaller surface area than the number six. As a result, each die will roll more when the number one side is face down (as opposed to how the die will roll if I am using a set of dice milled evenly on all six sides), and the dice will not land with the number one side down (facing the table) as often as expected. The poorly manufactured dice, and not a supernatural force, is the reason my dice rolling varied from what would be expected by chance.

So, I throw those dice away, stop being such a cheap-o, and buy good dice.

Ms. Carole Landis. I KNOW this isn't a
LEOPARD skin--but come on!
By now, you get the idea: when my dice throwing outcome is different that what would be dictated by randomness, I could say “It’s the hand of an Intelligent Designer, intervening with the Designer’s will to alter the outcome!” Or, I could find some rational (ie non-supernatural) explanation: the dice are loaded, or the dice are machined incorrectly. Or I have such an all-powerful intellect, my brain can exert a telekinetic effect on the dice, making sixes come up more often (which is why I always win at Risk, by the way). Regardless, every time there is some variation from the anticipated statistical outcome, I find some rational, materialist explanation that causes the variation.

So, if my dice rolling follows the outcome anticipated by random probability, then there is either no otherwise unexplained supernatural force (ie an Intelligent Designer or creator's will) at work—or if there is such supernatural force, then that force is remaining silent. With the latter possibility, I would argue a perpetually silent force is a non-existent force. So, for my dice rolling to show the presence of Intelligent Design, there must be some variation from what is expected by randomness, and that variation cannot be otherwise accounted for.

Now, if there is going to be a force at work, altering the results of my dice rolling, that force can make itself known in one of two ways. First, there could be a consistent, predictable outcome that could not be explained by any other source. I would argue that a consistent, predictable, and yet unexplainable outcome does not happen. The physics of our existence cannot be random: objects fall at a rate of 32 feet per second per second (absent air resistance and any otherwise immeasurable variations in gravity). The effects of air resistance can be taken into account. However, no matter how hard I tried, I have been wholly unable to convince any physics instructor on the principle of variable gravity (I insisted that I should be excused from having any degree of accuracy in labs, due to the unstable nature of gravity at my particular lab table. If you don't know, physics instructors are notoriously unsympathetic to that line of argument, the callous bastards). Therefore, a predictable and regular distortion of experimental outcomes due to an unknowable supernatural presence cannot, and does not, happen. If it did, our planet would dissolve into unpredictable chaos. On the plus side, though, I'd finally pass those stupid physics labs.

The other possibility is that a non-predictable, random, and non-reproducible event occurs, that can be attributable only to supernatural forces: The oil in the lamp burned for eight days! It’s a miracle!

Ms. Allison Hayes. When the 50 Foot
Woman Attacked, she was the woman.
I am forced to concede that if there
has to be an Attack of a 50 Foot
Woman, designing Ms. Hayes as same
is clearly evidence of intelligence.
If God, the Wonder Intelligent Designer, makes God’s present know via non-predictable and non-reproducible events, “proof” of God (or an Intelligent Designer) is still not possible. Here's why. I “know” salt dissolves in water because of a chemical reaction, and salt will continue to dissolve until the water solution becomes super-saturated. Then, salt crystals will still continue dissolving, but the "salt" will also precipitate out of solution at the same rate that other crystals dissolve. How do I know this? Because I have had to take first year chemistry three times, that’s why. In other words, I’ve seen that experiment done lots of times, and it's worked every time. To prove an event in terms of cause and effect, that event must be both predictable and reproducible. Miracles, by definition, are not reproducible nor predictable, and therefore cannot be proof of any proposition.

But then, how do I explain the fact that (apparently) some (but not all) people who visit Lourdes throw their crutches away and go on to run marathons? This way: I don’t know why that is.

My point is, I either “know” because an event is predictable and reproducible, OR I do not know why an apparent miracle has occurred. Those are your only two choices. You can feel, think, believe, have a mystical revelation, guess, or even fool yourself—but you cannot “know” about about non-predictable, random, and non-reproducible events.

The concept of “knowing” is a product of the scientific revolution, and exists in (sort of) opposition to “belief.” “Belief” is defined in the Kierkegaard sense, in that you “believe” some concept to be “true,” even though all your reason and experience would tell you that that concept cannot possibly be true. With belief, you take a leap of faith in order to accept a proposition. On the other hand, if you "know" a proposition is true, because it is predictable and reproducible, there is no reason for you to “believe" it: your experience and reason confirm the proposition is true.

In conclusion, notwithstanding the possible presence of a divine intervention or the will of an Intelligent Designer, individual ants still can't move rubber tree plants, either in a predictable fashion or as a random miraculous event (irrespective of high hopes). You certainly are free to believe ants can move rubber tree plants—but your beliefs are spiritual in nature, and belong in the spiritual realm. Your beliefs must not be confused with my knowledge, and have no place in a rational and secular forum—like a school.

So, until someone finds a fossilized Precambrian rabbit, don't talk to me about “holes” in the theory of evolution.
Not a fossilized rabbit from the Precambrian.


Dedicated to three budding young evolutionary biologists who are an endless source of pride and inspiration to me, but who should remain nameless--because they probably would be embarrassed to not only learn how much they inspire me, but also that I think of them as budding evolutionary biologists . . .

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