Saturday, October 31, 2009

Misconceptions part 2.

I thought I'd continue with the misconceptions about evolution topic.

1.Macroevolution has never been observed

Until the creationist 'anti-evolution' movement started, there was no distinction between macro and micro evolution, and among scientists there still is no distinction. The reason for this is because evolution works by accumulating small successive mutations, and there is no natural limit to how far the mutations can go. 'Microevolution' accumulates into 'macroevolution', so what is the point in creating a false distinction between the two?
Macroevolution I suppose would refer to changes that go beyond the species level, more commonly known as speciation. We have observed speciation, where two lineages of the same species have evolved apart from one another to the point where they can no longer interbreed. If this is what creationists mean by macroevolution, then indeed we have observed it.
There are also transitional fossils that show us that macroevolution has indeed occurred. One notable example is the series of transitional fossils that show the evolution of the horse. We have a full fossil record of the evolution from three-toed ancestors to the one-toed horses we have today.

2.Apes don't give birth to humans

This misconception is propogated by people like Kent Hovind, who happens to be in prison for fraud, nevertheless his son Eric continues to spread his disingenuous nonsense on his behalf.
The funniest thing about this misconception is that it's a complete strawman, this isn't the way evolution works at all. In fact, if an ape were to give birth to a human today, it would discredit the theory of evolution completely. If this is really the kind of evidence that Ken Ham and Kent Hovind would accept as proof of evolution, then the creationists and the evolutionists would switch places. The creationists would say "An ape gave birth to a human, therefore evolution is true!" and the scientists would say the complete opposite "An ape gave birth to a human, therefore evolution is false."
As I mentioned in the first point, evolution occurs by accumulating small successive mutations/adaptations, we do not ever see large jumps like this, which makes this creationist idea seem all the more ridiculous.

3.Mutations do not produce new features

'New features' is a misleading term because every 'new feature' is rather a modification of an existing feature instead of something new altogether. Take for example bird wings, are modification of tetrapod dinosaurs 'arms', which were themselves modifications of what used to be pectoral fins in their water dwelling ancestors.
In 1988 a scientist called Richard Lenski started a long term evolution experiment with E-coli bacteria, an experiment that is still continuing today. Lenski and his team have indeed seen mutations produce what would have to be classified as new information to the bacteria, the methodology and results can be found in that wikipedia link for all who are interested.
This creationist claim that mutations do not produce new features has been debunked by people who actually do science, yet this myth still continues to be spread like the plague.

Friday, October 30, 2009

What does it matter to you?

I was on a forum I regularly post on recently and a topic came up that got me thinking. The thread was called 'what does it matter?' or something along those lines, and it was asking the question of why does it matter so much to creationists that evolution is false? Unless a creationist answers this question for me I'll still be puzzled, but I can still speculate..

It confuses me because many Christians have already conceded that many of the biblical stories are allegorical or metaphorical, so why not genesis? In fact there is a particular breed of creationists known as old earth creationists, many proponents of the 'Intelligent Design' movement also fall under this category, who believe the Genesis account isn't meant to be taken completely literally, but still reject the fact of common descent.

Their position definitely isn't one supported by evidence, as every single fossil ever uncovered, every strand of DNA, and every living creature support evolution not special creation. Unquestioning faith seems to be the root of this issue, and for some creationists no amount of evidence or reason would ever convince them otherwise. What really irks me about creationism, is that most sophisticated theologians have already accepted the fact of common descent, and have adjusted their theology slightly to accommodate this, but this hasn't trickled down to the rest of the believers.

While I'm on the topic of why does it matter to creationists, I may as well ask myself the same question.
Why does it matter to me that evolution is true?
To put it simply, it doesn't matter to me at all, it's just a matter of fact. It matters as much to me as the fact that the grass is green is. If evolution was proved wrong (This will almost certainly never happen) I would no longer accept it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

If you'd never heard about...

Here's something to think about.

Imagine you had lived your entire life without ever hearing anyone mention gods. Every other aspect of your life is exactly the same, you received the same education, lived in the same houses, you were born in the same hospital and so on.
You reach the age of 20, and you hear someone talking about their god. Can you imagine how ridiculous the concept would sound? That there is an eternal being that transcends time and space? Who is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent (which happen to contradict each other anyway)?
Bertrand Russell came up with a concept that is now known as Russell's teapot. The teapot was an analogy used to show that the person making the claim is the one who needs to present evidence for it's existence. Russell said that if someone were to make a claim that there was a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars, it would be up to them to provide the evidence for it's existence. It is not up to the non-believers of the teapot to prove that it doesn't exist.
To me, the notion of a teapot orbiting the sun is far less ridiculous that the concept of gods. I say this because we know teapots exist, we can see them, we can feel them, we can define them easily and not contradict each other. We also know that things orbit the sun. On the other hand, we do not know that gods exist, we can not see them, we can not feel them, we can not hear them, we can not define them without contradicting each other.

On that note, I'll leave you with a question to ponder.
Just what the heck is a god anyway?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Relationship Between Evidence and Belief

I thought I'd write a post about the way I see my beliefs, and how evidence (whether for or against) interacts with my beliefs. This post is just about my personal views, and I'm not speaking for anyone else here.

I'll start with the big question of god(s). I don't believe in any deities, you probably already knew this though. What many people don't seem to understand, is that disbelief is not a claim of having all knowledge. When it comes to the issue of belief in god, there are two separate axis, lets say the X axis is belief, and the Y axis is knowledge. On the far left of the X axis is Theism, on the far right is Atheism. Agnosticism is not a statement of belief, but a statement of knowledge. Agnostic is literally 'a'-'gnostic', where 'a' is the negative prefix and gnostic means possessing knowledge. So our Y axis is knowledge, with Gnosticism being on the top of the axis and Agnosticism being on the bottom. This is important to realise because Agnosticism is not some sort of 'middle ground' between Atheism and Theism, it's on an entirely separate axis.

I would place myself on the far bottom-right corner. Meaning that I do not believe in god(s) and I have no knowledge pertaining to god(s). This is where evidence comes in to play. There is no positive or negative evidence concerning deities. We have nothing that confirms or denies the existence of gods. The default position (or rational position) on a subject where there is neither positive or negative evidence is non-belief and I'll explain why.
If someone made an outlandish claim, that little green men are dragging the earth around the sun with a rocket-powered go-kart would you believe them? Most certainly not, as there is no supporting evidence. However we do have evidence concerning the actual causes of the phenomena that the outlandish claim was purporting to explain. We DO know why the earth orbits the sun.
This situation is very much like the situation with belief in gods, and in religion. For example, the Bible says that God created the earth in 6 days, and then has a genealogy from the first man all the way until Jesus (though the genealogies are contradictory and incomplete) which is where people get the idea that the earth is 6000 years old from. Whether or not you believe this story to be literal or not is besides the point because for years and years, it has been the status-quo among believers. Although we may not have evidence concerning the existence of god itself, we do have evidence concerning the biblical creation account. We DO know how old the earth is, we DO know where humans came from and we DO know what causes the phenomena attributed to god in the creation account.

So while we may not be able to prove or disprove the existence of gods, we can certainly determine the truthfulness of claims about the nature of god, the universe and everything. This is the main method of reasoning that caused me to become an atheist. I refuse to believe extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence.

EDIT: Here is the graph I mentioned at the beginning

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Missing link...." Ardipithecus Ramidus

As you may be aware, very recently paleontologists uncovered a skeleton of a hominid, now known as 'Ardi'. When I saw the news article titled "Missing Link" I covered my face with my palms. By using the term "missing link" reporters are only feeding the ignorance of people who refuse to accept scientific findings. The reason the term 'missing link' is misleading is because it is to say the least misleading and it shows a severe misunderstanding in how evolution works.
For one thing, it wasn't "missing" to begin with. 'Ardi' is one what we call Ardipithecus Ramidus. The first Ardipithecus Ramidus fossil was discovered in 1992, and was named in 1994. What was spectacular about Ardi and definitely worthy of a news article, was that she was a relatively complete skeleton. Most fossils that are found are fragmentary, and that is because the process of fossilisation is actually a very rare occurrence.
"Missing link" shows a misunderstanding of evolutionary processes, because every fossil that is found is transitional between one species and another, as I explained in my last post about common misconceptions about evolution.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


It was suggested to me that I should do a post about morality, so here goes.

I'll start off with a definition of the word moral.
1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.
Now that we know what we're discussing, how do we decide what is moral and what isn't? Religious groups often claim moral superiority, saying that absolute morality comes directly from their said deity. This is the first issue regarding morality that I will be addressing.

Does absolute morality come from God?
In order for some absolute moral 'code' to come from some god, we must have some instruction from the said deity. Christians claim the bible, Muslims the Quran etc.. Leaving the issue of inspiration completely aside for the sake of argument we have some serious issues with using an outside source as a moral code. The first problem I see, is that no matter how comprehensive a holy book is on moral issues, it is never going to cover every moral dilemma. For example, the Bible says nothing about climate change; stem cell research; genetic engineering; pollution and many many other modern issues. The same applies to the Quran, nothing vaguely related to any of the previously mentioned issues arises in this holy book either. So if we can not derive morality on these issues from holy books, where do we get it from?

If I was to ask most religious people where they get their morality from, they would promptly reply 'God' or 'The Bible'. If I was to pose the question 'If god told you to kill your child would you do it?' and you replied 'no, god wouldn't ask for that', then you are not deriving your morality from god, but from some other source which you are not aware of. On the other hand, if you were to respond saying 'yes', then I believe you are amoral, and would kindly ask you to stay away from me.

So what is this elusive outside source of morality? It is quite simple. Most of our moral standards come from our culture, our interactions with others, from our upbringing, from our understanding of reciprocation. A lot of our morality derives from what is known today as the 'golden rule', "do to others as you would have them do to you". And no, Jesus didn't invent this concept. The golden rule arose (most likely independently) in most cultures across the globe, most of which predate Christianity, and either predate or were contemporary to Judaism.

So as to the claim of some religious people that you can't be moral without god, you are wrong. In fact the mere idea that you claim to be morally superior because you have a deity dictating to you what is right and wrong shows your complete lack of personal morals. If you were truly a moral person you wouldn't need an imaginary friend telling you that killing is wrong for you to realise this.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why People Believe Weird Things

Since I finished reading Dawkins latest book I figured I'd start reading another book that I ordered recently. The book is by Michael Shermer and it's called 'Why People Believe Weird Things'. Shermer covers a variety of topics within the book ranging from why people believe in ESP, ghosts, psychics and astrology to creationism, conspiracy theories, satanic rituals, witchcraft and even things like holocaust denial (i guess that relates to conspiracies).

"Why People Believe Weird Things is not only an insightful portrait of our immense capacity for self-delusion but, ultimately, a celebration of the scientific spirit"

- from the back of the book

I only just started reading it and I still have plenty of assignments to get done for university but i'll write about it again when I finish it.