Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Zombie Amoebas. They Crawl Up Your Nose and Eat Your Brain.

This was a wild story I caught today. This is usually one of those that I pick up from but, no, it was from MSNBC.

6 die from brain-eating amoeba after swimming
Rare organism that lives in lakes entered victims’ bodies through the nose

PHOENIX - It sounds like science fiction but it’s true: A killer amoeba living in lakes enters the body through the nose and attacks the brain where it feeds until you die.

Even though encounters with the microscopic bug are extraordinarily rare, it’s killed six boys and young men this year. The spike in cases has health officials concerned, and they are predicting more cases in the future.

“This is definitely something we need to track,” said Michael Beach, a specialist in recreational waterborne illnesses for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is a heat-loving amoeba. As water temperatures go up, it does better,” Beach said. “In future decades, as temperatures rise, we’d expect to see more cases.”

According to the CDC, the amoeba called Naegleria fowleri (nuh-GLEER-ee-uh FOWL’-erh-eye) killed 23 people in the United States, from 1995 to 2004. This year health officials noticed a spike with six cases — three in Florida, two in Texas and one in Arizona. The CDC knows of only several hundred cases worldwide since its discovery in Australia in the 1960s.

In Arizona, David Evans said nobody knew his son, Aaron, was infected with the amoeba until after the 14-year-old died on Sept. 17. At first, the teen seemed to be suffering from nothing more than a headache.

“We didn’t know,” Evans said. “And here I am: I come home and I’m burying him.”
After doing more tests, doctors said Aaron probably picked up the amoeba a week before while swimming in the balmy shallows of Lake Havasu, a popular man-made lake on the Colorado River between Arizona and California.

Deadly infectionThough infections tend to be found in southern states, Naegleria lives almost everywhere in lakes, hot springs, even dirty swimming pools, grazing off algae and bacteria in the sediment.

Beach said people become infected when they wade through shallow water and stir up the bottom. If someone allows water to shoot up the nose — say, by doing a somersault in chest-deep water — the amoeba can latch onto the olfactory nerve.

The amoeba destroys tissue as it makes its way up into the brain, where it continues the damage, “basically feeding on the brain cells,” Beach said.

People who are infected tend to complain of a stiff neck, headaches and fevers. In the later stages, they’ll show signs of brain damage such as hallucinations and behavioral changes, he said.

Once infected, most people have little chance of survival. Some drugs have stopped the amoeba in lab experiments, but people who have been attacked rarely survive, Beach said.

“Usually, from initial exposure it’s fatal within two weeks,” he said.
Researchers still have much to learn about Naegleria. They don’t know why, for example, children are more likely to be infected, and boys are more often victims than girls.

“Boys tend to have more boisterous activities (in water), but we’re not clear,” Beach said.
Extremely rareIn central Florida, authorities started an amoeba phone hotline advising people to avoid warm, standing water and areas with algae blooms. Texas health officials also have issued warnings.

People “seem to think that everything can be made safe, including any river, any creek, but that’s just not the case,” said Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Officials in the town of Lake Havasu City are discussing whether to take action. “Some folks think we should be putting up signs. Some people think we should close the lake,” city spokesman Charlie Cassens said.

Beach cautioned that people shouldn’t panic about the dangers of the brain-eating bug. Cases are still extremely rare considering the number of people swimming in lakes. The easiest way to prevent infection, Beach said, is to use nose clips when swimming or diving in fresh water.

“You’d have to have water going way up in your nose to begin with” to be infected, he said.

David Evans has tried to learn as much as possible about the amoeba over the past month. But it still doesn’t make much sense to him.

His family had gone to Lake Havasu countless times. Have people always been in danger? Did city officials know about the amoeba? Can they do anything to kill them off?

Evans lives within eyesight of the lake. Temperatures hover in the triple digits all summer, and like almost everyone else in this desert region, the Evanses look to the lake to cool off.

It was on David Evans’ birthday Sept. 8 that he brought Aaron, his other two children, and his parents to Lake Havasu. They ate sandwiches and spent a few hours splashing around.
“For a week, everything was fine,” Evans said.

Then Aaron got the headache that wouldn’t go away. At the hospital, doctors first suspected meningitis. Aaron was rushed to another hospital in Las Vegas.

“He asked me at one time, ’Can I die from this?”’ David Evans said. “We said, ’No, no.”’
On Sept. 17, Aaron stopped breathing as his father held him in his arms.

“He was brain dead,” Evans said. Only later did doctors and the CDC determine that the boy had been infected with Naegleria.

“My kids won’t ever swim on Lake Havasu again,” he said.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Science is Lucky to Have 2 Sean Carrolls

I've mentioned that my current reading is a book by Sean B. Carroll called "Endless Forms Most Beautiful". Sean B. is on the cutting edge of the newest scientific advances in evolutionary developmental biology - Evo-Devo. A month or so ago Ordinary Girl posted a link to a talk given by Sean Carroll, so I was greatly interested in seeing it. It turned out to be Sean M. Carroll, a physicist from Cal Tech and a very interesting scientist in his own right.

I also mentioned on a recent post. I was taking my own advice and watching a couple of "diavlogs" there and came across a fairly recent one featuring Sean M. Carroll. It started kind of slowly for me (I'm not a big String Theory aficionado) but then it got really interesting. If you click on this, you will go straight to the part I'm talking about (one of the nice features on Bloggingheads is something called "dingalinks", which allows you to create a specific starting and ending point for any of their diavlogs. Another feature I like is that you can run the video at a faster speed, so you can see a 1 hour video in about 40 minutes).

In this particular part of the diavlog, Sean M. and George Johnson get into science and religion and some terrific points were made. They spoke of the proliferation of both science and religion blogs on the net, and how blogging about things like atheism has been really helpful. They talked about some great scientists who still are religious - to greatly varying degrees and discussed how it could be possible to maintain these beliefs in the modern age. Sean refers to the conundrums of belief in a theistic god and about his own success in getting someone to change their mind. All in all, a great video. Once you get to the video, if you do want to watch the entire diavlog, just click on the link they provide.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Bright young fellow takes a look at "Gods Plan".

Friday, September 21, 2007

Petraeus Betray Us? Or did he just Bush-Wack us? Or, Who Cares What I Say?

It's all too surreal, this political farce we've found ourselves living in. It would be amusing (and probably is to our enemies - and make no mistake; we do have them) except there's all these little annoying side-issues that keep prickling away at the skin. You know... illegal wars, torture, spying on American citizens, suspension of habeas corpus, firing justice department officials for political reasons, failure of Administration officials to appear before congress when so ordered, and the list goes on. I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I was already in high school when Nixon was elected and an adult when he resigned, so I remember those times very well. That was rainy day compared to this hurricane. Yet the mood of Americans (particularly those who self-identified as free thinkers employing rational skepticism toward their government) was equally a hurricane compared to this rainy day. It's all too surreal.

Moving on to - they've created at least a tropical storm. They did it when they took out a full page newspaper ad asking: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?". Now you would think, being the rational thinker that you are, that this would be rather a tame issue compared to everything else that's going on these days. But, no, apparently it's the biggest topic in the land. Oh, besides Britney's arrest for hit and run and OJ's arrest for armed robbery.

I already grow weary - weary - as I type these words. I want to leave the computer right now and go back to reading my book. But isn't that the problem? I think it probably is, so I'll finish what I've started.

First, let me just say this about the ad and the reaction to it. Since when (in a country that prides itself in it's Bill of Rights) is it that you can not criticize the military? Why will people scream you down as (pick your favorite) "subversive", "traitor", "commie", "pacifist", "appeaser", "unpatriotic", for making observations about our holy men and women in uniform?

I support the people in uniform who follow orders, even bad ones, and try to do their best with a bad situation, thinking that they are doing it in my best interest. Most of the time. But then, little things come up - like Mi Lai, Heditha, Abu Ghraib, and, unfortunately, quite a few others in our history. When they do happen, it's unpatriotic not to register disgust and disapproval - "please, not in our best interest".

But in this particular case, we have no atrocity at hand. This is simply an attack on a highly decorated American general. Can this ever be justified?

Well, yes. It certainly can.

Our military for very good reasons (that the Founders understood when framing the Constitution), is kept completely clear of the "political". Only in military dictatorships are you not permitted to criticize the military. But we generally refrain from it here, because these guys and gals do their damnedest to keep us safe and are not part of the political machinery. It's the least we can do.

In this case, Petraeus allowed himself to be dragged into the politics of Iraq. Bush has positioned himself, flag draped about his shoulders, behind the general and screamed - "it's not me, it's him! Wait until he tells us what to do, then we'll do it!"

Of course it was a fixed card game and Bush knew full well what Petraeus would "recommend" and Petraeus knew he was recommending something that many of his fellow generals and admirals don't agree with. He threw himself into the spotlight of politics. Guess what happens there? If we can't treat the Holy Petraeus with the same contempt we treat Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Al Gore, then we have a real problem with our First Ammendment rights.

Please watch the following two videos. They are much more eloquent than I'll ever be, though I hope I've gotten my point across. I have a book to read...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Bloggingheads - Reasoned Discussions

I want to give a short recommendation here. If you have not yet visited, you really need to give it a shot. It was launched about a year ago by Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus and it is aimed at an intelligent audience that would like in-depth conversations about various topics of current interest. I don't listen to all of the discussions (called "diavlogs" at bloggingheads) but the nice thing is that you can see what the main topic is, as well as various points they hit on. You can even go directly to the particular point in the conversation that you find interesting.

A lot of what the talk about is politics, but they have one diavlog each week devoted to science (Science Saturday). I try to never miss that one and I greatly enjoy the weekly conversations between Robert and Mickey. Then it just kind of anything that catches my interest.

I just saw a really interesting political discussion between Joshua Cohen and Glenn Loury. Take 4 minutes and watch a short clip from it that was both moving and insightful and I think it will give you a good idea about what you can expect from

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Julian" Related Video

Entitled - "The End of Monotheism - Cutting down the world's top 3" this video is probably going to be quite interesting for those of us in the Nonbelieving Literati; having just read Gore Vidal's "Julian".

It gives some interesting historical perspective to exactly how the ONE GOD of the Jewish tribes arose directly out of another multi-god mythology.

Ah... Mythology. You gotta love it. At least enough to understand how it has always been with us, evolves, and will continue to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Skepticism - Creationist Style

I wish the commentator of this was more skilled, because otherwise it's quite well done.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

HIV / AIDS Denial Eviscerated

Let me begin this post with an admission of guilt. I actually gave the AIDS denialist "point of view" a considerably larger amount of credibility than I should have a couple of years ago. I was never convinced they were correct; I was more of the opinion that they had put forward many good questions that have not yet been fully answered by science. Fortunately, a lot of very intelligent people were patient with me, and it finally got through to me that HIV/AIDS denialists are deeply deluded and a danger to a lot of folks (primarily now in the third world) who are gravely at risk of and disease and death. I'll now give myself a small pat on the back. I think most of the folks I consulted on this were patient with me because the nature of my questions demonstrated that I clearly was "skeptical" (though very poorly informed) and not in denial. There is a big difference. Indeed, there are still some really interesting unanswered questions about AIDS. Well, of course there are! If not, it would be "problem solved" and we wouldn't have to deal with millions of people getting sick to this day. But there are no serious questions (and haven't been for at least a decade) about the fact that there is a retrovirus called HIV and that it leads to AIDS. No doubt. None. If you are reading this and you believe there is doubt then you are either in complete denial or you are like I was 2 years ago. I knew as much about HIV as the average life-long baseball fan knows about the sport of cricket. I happened across some people who were debating it, found it fascinating, and finally started looking in to the history of AIDS. Up until then, I had very little interest in the subject and hadn't really read much other than occasional newspaper articles.

Pseudocolored transmission electron micrograph of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on infected human lymphocyte. Observe the daughter hiv cells leave the infected t-cell for a new host. This image from Custom Medical Stock Photo (CMSP) which has a edition digital catalogue available on the internet. Contact this commercial venture for more information.

Unfortunately, the AIDS denial groups are as strong today as they were 15 years ago (when there really was some good reasons for doubt about the science). All of those doubts have been completely washed away by mountains of scientific evidence from just about every field that is in any way related to medical science. As much as I love the Internet, there is a downside to it and this is it. Anyone can write anything they like and reach a lot of people. Most of them will not do as much in-depth research on a controversial issue as I did on this topic. I love science. I don't always love what's done with the knowledge we arrive at, but the knowledge itself is always a thing of beauty. But there are folks who don't love it. There are some who even resent and/or mistrust it. When their hatred is directed at the science of Western medicine, there is a word for it - pharmanoia. You can read about pharmanoia and and more scathing diatribe aimed at AIDS denial in the current issue of "Skeptical Inquirer". The article is called "AIDS: Denialism vs. Science" by Nicoli Nattrass. Nattrass has written extensively about the problems facing South Africa - particularly in regards to health and AIDS. Unfortunately the article has not yet been posted online. If interested, I will link it as soon as it appears, at the bottom of this post.

This computer generated art quality graphics of HIV was
done by Russell Kightley of Canberra, Australia.

Tip of the hat to Tulane University and their "The Big Picture Book of Viruses: Retroviridae". Visit the site for many unique and interesting virus photos.
Update 11/15 - From Skeptical Inquiry, the Nicoli Nattrass article.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Julian - The Last Pagan Emperor

Which got me thinking – who will be the last Christian President? Every mythology has its time in the sun, eventually dries up and ends in the dustbin of history. Some have lasted many thousands of years. Judaism, the source religion for both Christianity and Islam, has been around for at least 5,000 years. Others, undocumented through the millennia, have probably lasted much longer than that. And just as Christianity came to upend the Hellenistic traditions approximately 1700 years ago, something will replace Christianity. What will be the mythology that will replace Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

This post is inspired by my reading of “Julian” by Gore Vidal. It was our group reading assignment as a members of the Nonbelieving Literati. It may be the only group I have membership in. It is certainly the only one in which I actively participate. Our task was to read “Julian” and then do an essay on thoughts provoked by the book. One thought was that the group itself is a really good thing for me on a personal level. I have immersed myself in poplular science non-fiction for several years although I was raised on novels – often great novels. Gore Vidal has always been one of my favorite authors but I never got around to this book, written in 1962.

By reading “Julian”, I have reinvigorated my interest in great fiction – and this is a good thing. I don’t intend to discontinue my science, because it’s just so damn fascinating. In my current reading, “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, Sean Carroll sums it up for me – “In short, the best science offers the same kind of experience as the best books or films do”. I would just say that additionally you are learning a great deal about who and what we are and what this universe is really all about. But you get quite an education from great novels too, and I’ll continue to mix in some fiction here and there – mostly whenever the maestro gives us a reading assignment.

“Mythology” is more than simply a belief system. It’s the way we tell our collective story, about ourselves, to ourselves and our children. It's a way that we socialize. It’s a uniting force and an explanatory one. When the explanation isn’t working, we re-write (or re-tell), the mythological premise. This has happened time and again, since long before we had a written history. This re-writing is particularly prevalent at the end of empires – at their conquest or absorption by other empires. Long before this happened with empires, it happened with tribes.

Sam Harris had the following observations about past mythologies in a recent article:

“Anyone feeling nostalgic for the "wisdom" of the Aztecs? Rest assured, there's nothing like the superstitious murder of innocent men, women, and children to ‘suppress selfishness’ and convey a shared sense of purpose. Of course, the Aztecs weren't the only culture to have discovered ‘human flourishing’ at its most sanguinary and psychotic. The Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesias, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and numerous other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.”

The Hellenist mythologist of the Greeks and Romans was largely giving way to the new mythology, Christianity, when Julian became emperor of Rome in 361 AD. Julian was the last of the Hellenist emperors and it was his desire, to turn back the relentless tide of, as Julian called them, “the Galileans.” He is known to this day as “Julian, the Apostate.” What a great title!

As an atheist reading this, it was difficult to have full sympathy for Julian, as his mythology seems as ridiculous to me as that of Christians. Still, it appears that the ancient Greek gods were less harmful than the newly accepted Jewish one, and you could hardly help wishing him success. Especially in light of Julians methods. There were no crucifixions or Christians being fed to lions as under earlier Emperors. What he tried to accomplish was done primarily through edict and example.

We are led through this book from three points of view – that of Julian, and of two of his close philosopher friends – Libanius and Priscus. Vidal writes in the genre of historical novel. While it is fiction, he strives for general accuracy of people, places and events – then fills in a story of words and deeds where the history is incompletely recorded. It should be noted that Priscus seems to have been placed there to represent Vidal’s own viewpoint. While Libanius was indeed friend and advisor to the emperor Julian, Priscus (who I feel certain was the hero in the minds of every Nonbelieving Literati!) actually lived about 100 years later. So he was merely a story-telling and point of view vehicle.

Early in the book, Priscus gives us this insight into Julian (as well as into our modern society):

“Yet despite the barbarism which is slowly extinguishing ‘the light of the world,’ we Athenians still pride ourselves on being able to see things as they are. Show us a stone and we see a stone, not the universe. But like so many others nowadays, poor Julian wanted to believe that man’s life is profoundly more significant than it is. His sickness was the sickness of our age. We want so much not to be extinguished at the end that we will go to any length to make conjuror-tricks for one another simply to obscure the bitter, secret knowledge that it is our fate not to be.”

And then Priscus shows us his own atheism, while analyzing the comparative values of Julian’s Mithraist sect and the burgeoning Christianity:

“Between the Mithraic story and its Christian sequel I see no essential difference. Admittedly, the Mithraic code of conduct is more admirable than the Christian. Mithraists believe that right action is better than contemplation. They favor old-fashioned virtues like courage and self-restraint. They were the first to teach that strength is gentleness. All of this is rather better than the Christian hysteria which vacillates between murder of heretics on the one hand and a cringing rejection of this world on the other. Nor can a Mithraist be absolved of sin by a sprinkle of water. Ethically, I find Mithras the best of all the mystery cults. But it is absurd to say it is any more “true” than its competitors. When one becomes absolute about myth and magic, the result can only be madness.”

Will humankind always embrace one supernatural explanation or another? Do we so desperately need to feel that we are uniquely special, that it makes it nearly impossible to accept evolution? Is our species so significant that we can’t see our common-decent relationship with every other living creature? And thus we rely on religion, myth or magic to place us above these things and above death itself? One would hope that this is not the case and the fact that there are apparently hundreds of millions of people in the world who are able to accept our place in the universe, adds to the hope. But the persistence of the myth is also apparently not going away. And so, like all the others before, the myth will change – this time due to a different kind of conquest. The human mind has become more and more sophisticated, scientific and contemplative. What might the “myth” change to?

Clearly with the onward march of knowledge comes a weakening of the current religions – most of which insist upon the literality of their holy books. But even when examining the precepts of the various religions outside the context of “absolute truth” they can still be seen as antiquated. Julian’s other philosopher friend, Libanius had these observations about the Christian way. He speaks from his Hellenist perspective, but it still accurately reflects the Christians:

“From the beginning, the Christians tried to allay man’s fear of death. Yet they have still not found a way to release that element in each of us which demands communion with The One. Our mysteries accomplish this, which is why they are the envy of the Christians and the enduring object of their spite. Now I am perfectly willing to grant that the Christian way is one way to knowing. But it is not the only way, as they declare. If it were, why would they be so eager to borrow from us? What most disturbs me is their curious hopelessness about this life, and the undue emphasis they put on the next. Of course eternity is larger than the brief span of a man’s life, but to live entirely within the idea of eternity is limiting to the spirit and makes a man wretched in his day-to-day existence, since his eye must always be fixed not on this lovely world but on that dark door through which he must one day pass. The Christians are almost as death-minded as the original Egyptians, and I have yet to meet one, even my old pupil and beloved friend Basil, who has ever got from his faith that sense of joy and release, of oneness with creation and delight in what has been created, that a man receives when he has gone through those days and night at Eleusis. It is the meagerness of Christian feeling that disconcerts me, their rejection of this world in favor of a next which is – to be tactful – not entirely certain. Finally, one must oppose them because of their intellectual arrogance, which seems to me often like madness. We are told that there is only one way, one revelation: theirs. Nowhere in their tirades and warnings can one find the modesty or wisdom of a Plato, or that pristine world of flesh and spirit Homer sang of. From the beginning, curses and complaints have been the Christian style, inherited from the Jews, whose human and intellectual discipline is as admirable as their continuing bitterness is limiting and blighting.”

But these observations about Christianity have been made over and over since the Enlightenment, with only modest success so far. This is due, in part, to the fact that telling others that they are wrong tends to drive them deeper into the safety of their belief system. What has brought some people out is a constant interface with the knowledge of science. Humiliation of our brothers and sisters is probably one of the least effective tools at our disposal. Back to Vidal and the words of the great Priscus:

“…victories in argument are useless. They are showy. What is spoken always causes more anger than any silence. Debate of this sort convinces no one. Aside from the jealousies such a victory arouses, there is the problem of the vanquished. I speak now of philosophers. The one who is defeated, even if he realizes at last that he is fighting truth, suffers from having been publicly proved wrong. He then becomes savage and is apt to end by hating philosophy. I would prefer not to lose anyone for civilization.”

We scoff when religious apologists accuse us of making a new religion of science, often by using the presumably derogatory term “scientism”. We give all of the fundamentally correct responses for why science is not faith, and how claiming that it is can only render the very word “religion” meaningless. But perhaps we should consider this as a possible way of transition to a new mythology. Certainly those who work in scientific endeavors can never be equated with the high priests of religion. They make no formal claims of “truth”, and only do the simple(!) work of expanding and clarifying the furthermost edges of our knowledge. However, most of the world is not engaged in science. Most of us are only its beneficiaries. And while we should never treat our reverence for the knowledge accrued by science as a religious dogma, it can be a mythology – in the sense of it being the story of us.

After millions of years of human evolution, we have in just the past 500 years made nearly every advance in every area of learning that has ever been made in all those millions of years! And it really is "we" who have reached these dizzying heights. Think of the following great minds and of their achievements in our exponential pursuit of higher learning – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein (or any of hundreds of others you could add to the list). As incredibly advanced over other members of their own societies as these great thinkers were, they were nonetheless a part and product of those societies and their breakthroughs were made possible by every little aspect of civilization that those societies provided for them. Without the framework of “us”, they could no more have done what they did than Neil Armstrong could have stepped out on to the surface of the moon without America’s space program.

Science is our story – our mythology. It seems that one of the greatest callings of religion has been as an explanation for everything, including what happens to us after death. While science does not explain everything, everything it does explain is elucidated more clearly and accurately than the teaching of any religion that ever existed. It seems certain there is no existence after death and we are going to have to be adults (for our world has moved out of its youth), and accept what is. One thing about death is certain - the only way we will ever know if there is anything else (while here in this life) is through science.

After we explain to the religious that science is not, in their sense, a religion, we should go on to embrace the sobriquet of “Scientism” – seeing the realities of our nature and of the universe, without dogma, without absolutes, always subject to change with new knowledge, and standing in awe-inspiring wonder at what one species, and only one, has been able to accomplish through science.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Check It Out

If you've been around here, you'll notice I moved the "Music Anyone" up on the right sidebar. There's two reasons for that switch. When you click on the song, it actually plays at the top of the page above the first post. I felt some people might have found it disconcerting when they were clicking on it half way down the page, hearing the music, but not seeing the video unless they scrolled back up. Also, I just changed the music and found this absolutely great in-studio version of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash doing "One Too Many Mornings" - so please watch that when you get a chance.

I started sharing music because I know that most people who visit here are younger than I am, and I wanted to give exposure to the music from my day that I consider to be worth exploring. If you didn't watch any of the Creedence Clearwater Revival music that I had up previously, go to You Tube and "check it out".

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I, Nonbelieving Literati

Well... it's not just me. The last I checked there was 15 of us in the group "Nonbelieving Literati". It was started by The Exterminator over at No More Hornets. Here's the basic premise of our group, as explained by our chieftain:

"I think it’s time we atheists draw some inspiration from literature as well as science... And so I’d like to propose such a group. My idea is that nine or ten of us — if we can get that many to commit — will read a book every month and a half or so. That’s a long enough time that even the slowest readers, or those with the least amount of time, can participate. We’ll take turns making book suggestions. The only stipulation will be that the book not be an atheist diatribe, best-selling or otherwise.

"We’ll target a specific day on which to finish. On that date, or shortly thereafter, each of us will publish a post about the chosen book. (In fairness, those of us who finish reading early may write our posts, but not publish them online until everyone has had a chance to complete the reading.) The post will not be a review or a summary. It will be an essayistic ramble on what the book got us thinking about. Whether we liked the book or not, we’ll use it as an entry point to our own thoughts. If enough people are interested, perhaps we can even publish a Carnival of Nonbelieving Literati a week or so after each target date."

Exterminator had just started reading "Julian" by the great Gore Vidal when he came up with this wonderful idea. So, that's the first book that we've read. Our deadline, to read and complete our essay, was September 15, so I'm busily putting the finishing touches on what I hope will be a thought provoking essay. It was definitely a thought provoking book. Secularists with a passion for fiction are highly encouraged to pick it up and give it a read. It's just a great book! My main reason for this post is just to warn that I may not do much other posting for the next 48 hours or so.

So, you ask, how did you get involved in this, and how do I join? For me, it was just one of those classic moments of fate. I happened across the Exterminator's blog a couple of months ago and liked what I saw. I made a few comments there and I guess he returned the favor and stopped by here. The day he came by was the day I had posted the Gore Vidal interview. He left me a comment to the effect of, "if you like Gore so much then you should join our group and read 'Julian' with us". And so I did. As to you - well, it's pretty difficult to get in to this highly secretive society of free thinkers.

I've probably said too much here, although I didn't reveal any of the "blood rites" or sexual practices that we engage in. You'll just have to click on the links I gave earlier in this post and join if you want to find out and participate.

Can You Sympathize?

I certainly can.

So apparently the deal is that in a year we'll start drawing down the troops - to PRE-SURGE levels. And the Democrats are going to allow it. It's mind-numbing.

Much of what I write about concerns the use of reason and its importance in every aspect of how we conduct our lives. These will not be remembered in history as days of rationality.

I don't suggest that Cenk, of the Young Turks, SOUNDS rational in this clip. But he is, and due to the incredible frustration of seeing this go on month after month, year after year, has him losing his cool. But he's right.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

An Evolutionary Home - On the Range

There is absolutely nothing new here that anyone with a decent insight into evolutionary theory will glean from it.

However, I sort of liked the fact that here's guy who looks like he could fit right in on any Western state main street, saying the things that most of his neighbors are apparently at a loss to understand.

We need more "country folk" of his nature. Because most people in middle America stopped listening to us Lee-buruls on the two coasts a long, long time ago. Let alone that god-hatin' fer-iner Rick Dawkins.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Atheists Interviews - Mike Burns of Fox Valley Thinker

This is the first of what I hope will be a number of interviews with atheists who have declared themselves as such fairly recently. You can click here to find out my rationale for the series.

The interviewee is blogger Mike Burns of the blog Fox Valley Thinker (this interview has also been posted there). Mike is a 48 year old former Roman Catholic who self-identified as an atheist a little over a year ago. He works in technology consulting in Illinois and is the father of a teen-aged son. Mike gives us this personal background:

I was born in 1959 and I was raised Roman Catholic (baptized but not confirmed). It never really stuck. At no time did I ever think the wafers or wine were anything more than wafers and wine. I always thought that the whole resurrection (and any of the miraculous stuff) seemed kind of outlandish . . . but I never gave it much thought. I assumed that my level of doubt was the norm and that I was a believing Catholic. It didn’t occur to me that many around me really, really bought into the literal biblical stories. By my teens I considered myself Catholic, but never gave it much thought and stopped attending services of any sort by age 20. Between around age 20 and 9/11/2001, I was of the mindset that I should live as though God didn’t matter . . . live a good life and, should I find myself at the pearly gates, I would be judged favorably. Also during that time, I pursued my degree in Engineering and Computer Science (I mention that to frame myself as someone who is probably more analytical and empirical than most).

Once the events of 9/11 were identified as the work of religious extremists I began to get increasingly uncomfortable with religion’s role in society. I knew instinctively that a supernatural worldview could be easily perverted for the most horrific of things. Still, I accorded respect to religion because we were raised to think that criticism of religion is impolite. Even at this point, I would have considered myself an agnostic.

Early in 2006, I read an article in Wired Magazine entitled “The New Atheists” which referenced Richard Dawkins and ‘The God Delusion’ and unapologetically pointed to the horrors that are/can be perpetrated by religion and highlighted how religious mythology can warp public policy. Shortly thereafter I picked up ‘The God Delusion’ and it was an epiphany. Dawkins supported all of the things that I was thinking casually and brought much more historical information to the table. It was then that I formally self-identified myself as an atheist. Understand that the term ‘atheist’ means different things to different people. I was glad to see that serpents didn’t crawl out of my mouth nor did blisters erupt from my flesh (which was the mental image that the Catholic church had nurtured in my head). Atheism simply means ‘without theism’. It really says nothing about a person’s worldview. Just as bald is not a hair color, atheism simply means that gods don’t factor into the person’s worldview. It is
not, as many would believe, a specific denial of any gods nor does it mean absolute certainty. Even Dawkins acknowledges that he is agnostic on the existence of God. Should compelling evidence be presented for his existence, he and I would giddily accept that evidence to reshape our worldview.


John: The first thing I'd like you talk about a little is this thing of you having a degree in engineering. One of the interesting statistical facts is that those with engineering degrees are somewhat less likely than those in other sciences such as biology, genetics and physics to be atheists. Indeed, you personally didn't come to a strictly atheistic outlook until your mid-forties. What is it about "engineering"?

Mike: The fields of biology, genetics, and physics place the practitioner directly into the areas that are in conflict with the truth-claims of many religions. This, I would imagine, forces those scientists to either reconcile those conflicts or abandon one of the two explanations. An engineer is not a ‘pure’ scientist like those studying molecular biology or sub-atomic physics. We are rather removed from that level as we contemplate things like the load bearing capacity of a beam or how to store information in a magnetic media. The bible/Koran/torah doesn’t generally come into conflict in matters such as these. Still, I love all the sciences . . . and physics is one of the most valuable things that I have studied. There are probably many similarities between the ‘pure’ scientist’s mode of thinking and the engineer’s mode of thinking; the former just confront the big questions more directly.

An interesting statistic shows that 74% of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is specifically atheistic. Fully 93% do not believe in a personal god (one who answers prayers or interacts with our world). When one really looks for answers to the big questions (as those in the sciences do), you come to realize that the supernatural explanations for things are unsupported and that there are, almost always, natural explanations.

I cannot say for sure, but I have to imagine that the vast majority of human-kind has no interest in doing the arduous, rigorous research that the scientists do for a living. That does not mean that the human animal does not want answers to the big questions. I contend that we, as a species, will always put an explanation to virtually everything whether we have genuine knowledge about it or not. Prior to an enhanced understanding of our solar system, some used to think that the sun was a flaming chariot being pulled across the sky (we almost always invented an anthropomorphic being for these things). Now that we have real understanding and it was disseminated to the population, most people understand that earth is orbiting a large ball of boiling gas. It is that dissemination of knowledge that needs to occur on other natural explanations of our world.

John: I think I read on your blog about the birth of your son and your mother's horror, when you were still more of an agnostic, at the thought of her unbaptized grandchild. Apparently she actually got you to examine your faith at that time and it had the opposite effect she had hoped for. How is she doing with all of it now that she (in part) has actually led to the problem being worse, from her perspective?

Mike: My mother is not yet fully aware of my position. She does know that I have serious problems with Christian dogma and Catholic dogma. With regards to her grandchild, she is doing better, since the Pope decided that the concept of limbo (where the unbaptized go) was a boo-boo and that the unbaptized are eligible to get to heaven. If you are not familiar with the concept of ‘infallibility’ within the Catholic church; it means that *whatever* pope says is absolutely true because he got his information directly from God. One of the recent popes was a little uncomfortable with this and modified it to say he should be treated as if he were infallible. Of course this is no consolation to all the parents of deceased, unbaptized children who thought their babies were languishing in this isolated no-where-land. I just makes me more angry with the church that the pope can say “Ooops! My bad. We just made that shit up.” and that the cult-members will respond with “Thank you your holiness”. Another story made up by the popemeister is the ascension of Mary. There were stories floating around about what happened to Mary when she died. One of them was that she ascended bodily into heaven, but it was just one version of the folklore. The pope sits down and ponders and thinks his thoughts and decides that, yes, Mary did ascend bodily into heaven . . . and hence is born a new Catholic ‘fact’.

John: What do you say to your child about god, the beliefs of others and how you view our life in the universe?

Mike: I tell him everything that I know when I get a chance to get into the incredibly perplexing teenage brain. I took him to the World Trade Center site and talked about the role that religion played. I talk of the role that religion has played throughout history; both good and bad. Many of our good friends and neighbors are devout Christians. I tell him that everyone is our friend unless they prove otherwise. I certainly have my biases, but I certainly don’t tell him that he is an atheist or must be an atheist.

John: You talked about reading Dawkins "The God Delusion" and other books and authors. A frequent criticism of him (as well as Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, etc) is that they are arrogant, overbearing, condescending, dogmatic in their own way. It seems obvious that this is not what you took from it. It's also said that all they do is "preach to the choir". You may have already been fairly certain that you didn't buy into all of the dogma of Catholicism, but you were hardly a Dawkins choir boy. Is this approach to free thinking (espoused by Dawkins, et al) the best way to bring others over to rationality?

Mike: I don’t recall criticism of Dennett putting him in league with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. I greatly admired Dennett’s book [Breaking the Spell] in that he merely framed and forwarded arguments that, to my mind, had virtually inescapable conclusions. Most certainly, there is a sizable segment of the theistic population that does take great offense to even the most casual questioning of faith. This, I feel, is why many theists consider these authors so rabid. Indeed, there are some very unflattering things said by some of these authors (with regards to religion), but the level of rhetoric in criticizing them often outstrips the authors criticisms.

One common criticism is that these authors don’t appreciate the nuance of the critics brand of religion. But this is a red herring. While these authors are much more scholarly than most (with regards to religion), the criticism of nuance has nothing to do with their arguments. The authors posit that religions are merely mythology. The critics, instead of demonstrating that their religion is NOT mythology, take the tack of (effectively) saying my mythology is better than the other guy’s mythology. The authors (and I) maintain that decisions and public policy are much better when based on real knowledge instead of mythology.

I do think that they are ‘preaching to the choir’, but the choir is much larger than most realize. I would not expect that a Jerry Falwell-type theist would pick up ‘The God Delusion’ and turn into an atheist. Even a less devout theist would not just ‘POOF’ become an atheist. I have a casual understanding of brain physiology and an appreciation for its complexity and malleability. The brain becomes what we need it to be but it can be persistent in holding onto old information. I consider it nearly impossible that someone firmly in the theistic camp could, in the span of one book, become an atheist. When you spend your life surrounded by people who believe in the [regionally prevailing] religious stories, your brain is literally ‘wired’ to accept and these stories. It took me decades to really formally move from my weak theistic position to atheism. But, as a demonstration of brain physiology, even today, my brain tells me that Jesus’ resurrection is more plausible than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse. . . even though I know both are equally improbable! It takes time and great effort to overcome inculcated beliefs.

As far as “the best way to bring others over to rationality” . . . I suppose there are different techniques for different audiences. The authors mentioned speak to the audience of closeted skeptics like me. For me, Dawkins hit a home run and I will remember his book as an epiphany in my life; allowing me to realize that my concerns with regard to religion were well founded. The fact that they sell so well, speaks to the fact that the audience is large. I honestly don’t know how to reach the deeply inculcated. I like to think that the growing visibility of skeptics will force more and more theists to question their position.

John: I think your point about how the mind works, and your personal example of finding the resurrection of Jesus to be less fantastic than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, to be very interesting. So, let me ask - what if we toss in Jesus' ascension to heaven? I am pushing this a little because, for me, I see absolutely no difference. Maybe it's just that I've been an ardent atheist for so many years that all mythology sounds very much the same to me. The only difference I can appreciate is that there are some mythologies that many people currently believe and others that you don't really need to argue about. Worshippers of Horus are fairly hard to find.

Mike: It is rather hard to describe, and maybe I didn’t do a very good job of it earlier. My point was that the brain wires itself (literally wires itself) based on information that it is exposed to. After years of hearing and accepting the story of Jesus’ resurrection and being told it was truth, my brain seems to have wired a region of the brain so that I don’t recoil from the absurdity of it. Throw a new mythological story at my brain (Mohammed’s horse) and I, like you, recoil at the silliness of it. I know full well they are equivalent impossibilities, but through inculcation, my brain has developed (and maintains) a tolerance for the Christian narrative. In no way am I saying that I give Christianity any more credence than Islam or any other religion. I merely make the point to illustrate the amazing complexity of the human brain.

Sam Harris said something that well illustrates the same thing. [I paraphrase] “Which is more ridiculous? 1) God speaks to George Bush and tells him to conduct this war. . . or 2) God speaks to George Bush through his hair dryer and tells him to conduct this war.” Familiarity with the Christian narrative makes the first statement seem more reasonable even when it is not. The introduction of a completely insignificant detail (the hair dryer) in the second statement makes it seem ridiculous . . . probably even to many devout theists. The brain is a wondrous thing but is capable of tremendous bias and warped interpretation. One thing that people should recognize is their minds are not the perfectly reliable, trustworthy things that most would like to believe. The utter certainty that some feel in their faith is merely what the brain has been trained to do.

John: Philosophically, do you now follow in the style of these authors when talking to people or writing in your blog, or do you take a less aggressive posture?

Mike: I have a couple of points on this. I have noticed that Dawkins is more aggressive in his book, but is more pragmatic in interviews and debates. [Christopher] Hitchens is unbelievably caustic in debates and interviews, while his book was more tame. I must give Hitchens credit though. I have never seen anyone so consistently destroy his opponents in debates. He is a freaking razor blade. He is also rude and doesn’t follow rules, but he is a debate machine! I have heard him described as the best justification for two martini lunches (he is apparently a heavy drinker).

I recently read a piece by Michael Shermer from Skeptic Magazine and that, at least in part, fits my position. In it, he said that anti-anything always fails. My feeling is that simply lambasting the theists for their wrong-doings or religious ills will, for the most part, only make people angry. An important part of my position is to demonstrate that there are other naturalistic explanations for our world. I have to imagine that there are a lot of people who don’t realize that there are other plausible explanations for things. This can be difficult as it often requires that some science education be included. In a nutshell, I am more pro-knowledge than anti-theistic.

All that being said; I cannot help but get pretty in-your-face when someone offers patently ridiculous arguments. If you read my essay on the “milk miracle” on my blog, that was one of those cases.

John: Speaking of Michael Shermer, I have a very ambiguous [interviewers note: I meant "ambivalent", but Mike got the gist of my question] feeling about his style. I really like the guy, and I say to myself that I like his way of discussing issues of skepticism much better than I like Dawkins, yet I find myself more drawn to Dawkins writing. It’s ironic, because I would rather emulate Shermer. Is there perhaps a little arrogance in us that enjoys sticking it to the theist?

Mike: I am not broadly familiar with everything that [Shermer] has said on the topic of religion, but I greatly enjoyed what I have read and seen. For instance his “Skepticism 101” video on is inspired. It clearly demonstrates what the mind is capable of just as I mentioned in your previous question. Things like this video fall into the ‘pro-knowledge’ area that can probably do more good than the anti-theism. He has also written on empirical studies that intercessory prayer has no effect. I often do as he does and offer the facts (knowledge) that shows proto-ethics in other species, prayer having no effect, less religious societies having fewer societal ills, atheists being grossly underrepresented in prisons, etc. I offer this to give others knowledge. Do I emulate him? I don’t know his work well enough to say so.

John: Did you find any particular aspect of atheism to be repugnant or problematic to you as you contemplated "coming out" and declaring yourself to be an atheist?

Mike: Not at all. First of all, atheism (in its strictest sense) defines nothing of a person’s worldview. It merely says that the person is not-theistic. If we were speaking of hair colors it would be like saying that someone’s hair is not brown. It doesn’t say anything as to the person’s actual hair color. Growing up, the Catholic interpretation of an atheist was that they were cloven-hoofed with serpents crawling from their mouths. Very little rigorous, empirical research has been done specifically on atheists and their role in society, but there is some. Unfortunately for the theistic camp, it is all quite flattering to the atheist in virtually every aspect (racism, intelligence, education, tolerance and more). One study I read from a Canadian university only showed ‘charitable giving’ as an area that theists lagged behind . . . but calculating how church monies get divvied up between proselytizing and social services even makes that cloudy. I am proud to be in the company of clear thinkers.

John: I'm certainly proud to have people like you on our side! As to this problem of charitable giving, a couple of things: Isn't it likely that the community function of a religious group would tend to encourage this? We have to be honest and say that this is one positive from religion. But, again, it's a bit superfluous if we can do the same through a secular community. Is it possible that as we create more secular communities (like the on-line one that is growing) that those communities will ask members to do things in the public interest and that, many times, that's all any human being needs - a little direction in an area that's tough to navigate, if you have to figure out on your own where and when to contribute?

Mike: I would tend to agree that the aspect of community is a genuine positive of religion (of course that community is too often intolerant of other communities). I don’t think the on-line community could ever be an analog for this type of interaction though. I have the very great fortune to live in a small, historic residential community . . . an actual community. The neighbors converse, watch out for each other and their children, have barbeques together, have philosophical discussions and more. Having moved here from just 10 blocks away (where very little of this interaction occurred), I am stunned by how enriching and satisfying a real community can be. Just thinking aloud . . . I wonder if the decades-long trend of sprawl (placing homes further apart, homeowners driving into their attached garages and disappearing until the morning commute) has had an inadvertent isolating effect that makes them seek out other ‘community’. It would seem to me that real ‘community’ is a bit of an endangered thing in today’s society. I actually looked into the local Unitarian Universalist church here as they don’t follow any dogma, and accept atheists and theists into their ranks. While I laud the organization, I found that to be too ‘spiritual’ for my liking.

All that being said; there really isn’t an atheist community of the type that religion offers. After all, the religious community is motivated by the worship of [a] god. The atheist is motivated by everything but the worship of a god; hardly a unifying interest. Possibly the single greatest factor uniting atheists would be political activism in support of church-state separation; but that is by no means universal. The likelihood of real atheist communities forming would be helped if so many of our ranks were not closeted.

John: You mentioned to me in an aside that the blogging with the Fox Valley Thinker has been going a little slow lately. Any future plans for the blog, or in other areas, that you'd like to announce?

Mike: It goes in fits and starts. It is quite cathartic to write about these things and it helps me really analyze my position. Even if nobody reads it, it is helpful for me. I have no grand plan for the blog, but I would like to figure out how to conduct an anonymous survey of our lawmakers in Washington asking about their religiosity. I feel that a lot more would admit their non-theism if they knew it was anonymous.

E.O. Wilson - Grand Old Man of Sociobiology, er, "Evolutionary Psychology"!

Back at about the time Richard Dawkins was writing the ground-breaking book "The Selfish Gene" in Great Britain, Wilson was busy writing "On Human Nature".

By doing so, he sent shock waves through the sociology and anthropology communities of academia. He was hugely vilified for observing simple truths about our nature.

Today, his work is viewed rightfully as being as ground-breaking in his field as Dawkins' was in his.

Listen to this gentle genius and see if he is "evil"!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Atheists Interviews

I’ve made a commitment to do interviews here with adults who have recently declared to be atheist. Several people have kindly offered their time to be questioned on various aspects of their skeptical thinking on religion and other issues. I’ve specifically asked for folks who have become rational free thinkers just within the past couple of years. Some of the people I will be talking to have had certain levels of doubt for many years, but would not have described themselves as atheists until more recently. The first interview will appear here sometime this week and then I’m going to try to do a new one every week or two in the coming months.

Hopefully, this can be enlightening for all of us – long time atheists, new ones and people who are willing to question their faith. But I particularly wanted to do this for the “old timers”. I’ve been an atheist for 35 years and can barely remember the thought process that led me away from my religious upbringing. I know why I think the way I do now – it’s second nature. But what were the factors that got me thinking about it in the first place? How difficult was it to tell friends and family that I no longer believed in any god? How did it impact my life back then? I don’t really remember. Those who were raised in secular homes have an even greater obstacle to understanding, in that they have no point of reference whatsoever when dealing with people of faith.

It is easy to get frustrated when dealing with acquaintances who are stuck in the faith modality. We tend to think that you can never change a persons mind. And, in a sense, you can not. They have to alter their own consciousness, and they virtually never do it based on a debate about religion. You can make the best arguments ever made, and see little or no effect on their thinking. And yet, we know that people do indeed change from faith to free thought. Most current atheists were not brought up as complete secularists.

My argument is that you can almost never change a persons thinking, but you can be a part of the change. You might never see the actual transition, yet these realignments are happening all the time. I would postulate that people hear and digest many arguments, sometimes over years or even decades, and one day realize that they don’t believe in god. Someone you debated with 20 years ago and you gave up on as having a shred of rationality may have just this year finally freed themselves of mysticism. You wouldn’t even realize that you had made a small impact on that person, decades ago.

I will strive to shed some light on these matters, to encourage those who might tend to give up on others, and to demonstrate which paths are the best to follow while trying to lead others to a natural view of the world we live in. Hopefully, we can learn from these new atheists.

Bush Playing at War

Playing at photo ops. Playing us. Olbermann tells it like it is, per usual.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Chimp Research - Our Evolution

There are so many extremely cool research projects going on with our closest living cousins - the chimpanzees. First check out this video and find out if chimps have better short term memory than you do; and if so, why?

Then read this short story from LiveScience, on a different research project. In this one, chimps show us that the evolution of our self-control probably started long before the Homo/Pan split 5 or 6 million years ago.

Leafing Through Magazines, Chimps Exhibit Self-Control
By Charles Q. Choi, Special to LiveScience
Chimpanzees are masters of the sudden outburst, throwing apparent fits that can involve loud screeches and hurling things. But they also know how to control themselves.

When attempting to avoid temptation, chimps resist their urges by distracting themselves, a new study suggests.

The finding could shed light on the evolution of human self-control, researchers said.

Child's play

Even children know that delaying immediate gratification can lead to greater rewards. To unearth details on how self-control originated, psychologists Theodore Evans and Michael Beran at Georgia State University in Atlanta investigated chimpanzees, humanity's closest living relatives.

"Chimpanzees often are regarded as impulsive animals, prone to outbursts of aggression and other emotional behavior," Beran said.

The researchers tested four adult chimpanzees with a candy dispenser, which steadily delivered enticing sweets every 30 seconds. As soon as the apes reached to get the accumulated candy, the dispenser stopped delivering any more. This meant that if the chimps resisted their impulses, they would earn a greater award.

Here's where the self-distraction came into play.

The chimpanzees also were sometimes given a set of toys, such as magazines, toothbrushes and rubber tubes. They were significantly better at coping with temptation when they could entertain themselves with toys.

"The magazines included some National Geographic, Entertainment Weekly, and Atlanta food and wine circulars, among others. The chimps would slowly page through the magazines, probably looking at the pictures—research suggests that they perceive pictures as real objects like humans do," Evans told LiveScience. "They used the toothbrushes as we would. They appeared to enjoy the bristle texture in their mouth and on their teeth."

Without toys, the chimps only held out for six-and-a-half minutes on average to get about 11 candies, but with toys, they waited 50 percent longer on average to get roughly 17 candies.

"Humans like to think that they can control themselves better than can animals, and yet this type of research suggests that the story is not that simple," Beran told LiveScience.

Control yourself

Beran noted that humanity portrays animals in general as unable to control their own behavior—hence our phrases "acting like an animal," and "animal impulse." But he added that humans also "show many impulsive, shortsighted behaviors, such as smoking, overeating and failing to save money for retirement."

The study could shed light on how self-control originated and developed among the great apes, a branch of primates that includes humans. "This research shows, again, the continuity between chimpanzees and humans, and suggests that some level of self-control was present in a common ancestor," Beran said.

Evans and Beran will detail their findings in the December issue of the journal Biology Letters and published their findings online Aug. 22.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Deep Time Trippin'

All human beings have a difficult time with – time. That is, trying to imagine deep time or, as it is commonly referred to in the science articles and books I’ve read, “time in geological terms”. As in, “100,000 years. That's a blink of the eye in geological terms.”

The explanation I’ve heard that makes the most sense is that, intelligent though we are, our brains are not evolved to comprehend deep time. The American writer John McPhee is generally credited with the term "deep time” and for exploring its implications. It is the same problem our minds have in grasping enormous numbers, microscopic life, the size of our universe, or the dizzying complexity of some of the cosmological hypotheses from the past 100 years.

Our minds were adapted to day-to-day survival during the past 3 million years on the African savannas. Richard Dawkins, among others, has referred to this a number of times including in his book “The Ancestor’s Tale” (2004). We had to survive by understanding months, years and (at most) decades. We needed to count from one to ten and, occasionally, up to the low hundreds. Humans dealt with objects in sizes ranging from a grain of sand to a mountain. Nothing else was part of the evolutionary landscape, and our amazing abilities today are simply by-products of that specific evolutionary setting. The fact that we can conceptualize beyond these simple things is really a great tribute to the complexity of the human mind.

In contemplating the creationist belief that this entire world was created just 6,000 years ago, we can see this problem in action. To these believers, 6,000 years is an enormous amount of time. For anyone who has studied a little geology or cosmology, it quickly becomes clear 6,000 years (although a huge number for people who might, at best, live to be 100 years old) is not long ago. It’s yesterday.

If we go back day by day to the creationist “beginning of time” it would be about 2,190,000 days. Over 2 million days! Surely that is a long, long time ago?

No, it’s not.

Compare that 2 plus million days to The Hawaiian Islands, a volcanic chain, that had barely started poking out of the Pacific Ocean over 2 billion days ago. To go back to the day the last dinosaur walked this planet we would travel nearly 23 billion days. We would travel back nearly 100 billion days to see the first of these dinosaurs. Over 200 billion days ago the first multi-cellular life was spreading. And we would have barely begun the day by day journey back to first single cell organisms and even further yet to the earth’s beginning.

Number’s like these are hard to grasp for the most intellectually advanced, who spend their lives studying the sciences of archaeology, genetics, biology, paleontology, geology, cosmology, etc. For the average person who hardly (if ever) gives it a thought – it’s nearly impossible. For us average folks, 2,190,000 days ago does indeed seem like “forever”.

The response from creationists to this usually takes the form of doubts about science itself, and its ability to accurately estimate such ages. It’s interesting when one doesn’t accept scientific evidence that life began billions of years ago in oceans or tide pools as single celled organisms, but is completely credulous to the bible when it claims that human life was simply created out of the mud or clay of the earth a few thousand years ago.

The reasons why we can trust the findings of science on these matters deserves its own post and will have to wait for another day. Meanwhile, ponder this phrase – Convergence of Data.

After I finished writing this post, the following video was brought to my attention. I think it completes my point.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Check Out The Humanist Symposium #7

KC of BLIGBI is hosting the Humanist Symposium #7 over at her blog, so please stop by there and enjoy some interesting reading.

Among others, you will find posts from yours truly and from Tobe over at "A Load of Bright". In fact, the two of us almost didn't make it into this edition due to the fact that our posts somehow didn't make it past KC's spam filter. I hope this has nothing to do with the quality of our writing! If you are a recent reader here, you probably haven't read this particular post, as I wrote it over a year ago. Enjoy the rest of the long weekend with some reading.


Update 9/4 - I was just reading a few and they are all worth your time. I'd like to join PhillyChief of You Made Say It in recommending this post by Eric Johnson of The Primate Diaries and also Evanescent's post My Atheism, as well as the highly entertaining and informative comments at the end of the article. There are nearly 200 comments!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A New Atheist

Does that describe you?

If so, and you are interested in being interviewed by me for a blog post, please contact me either in the comments or by email -

I'm looking for a male or female atheist, at least 24 years old, who has been a member of any major religion or sect of a major religion, and has become an atheist within the past 2 years. I'm specifically looking for an atheist; not an agnostic.

The interview can be done using your real name or anonymously, as you prefer. Also if you have your own blog and would like to run the interview simultaneously, I'd love to do it that way. But, of course, it is not necessary that you are a blogger.

Please contact me for further details on the interview process. If you are not sure this is something you'd like to do, please contact me so we can discuss it. If you decide not to, that's fine, and I won't mention our conversation.