Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Revolt By Reading!

This could have actually been an “end note” to my previous entry. First is a list of extremely interesting books that I have read in the past few years. There isn’t a one of them that I wouldn’t recommend if it is in a subject you are interested in. All of them are accessible to lay readers, though some are more esoteric than others (Dawkins' "The Extended Phenotype" comes to mind. I really struggled with that one, though it was worth the effort). The second is simply my running list of books that I have targeted for future reading. Rather than linking them all I’ll just let anyone interested cut and paste the title into Amazon.com. I have indicated books that I particularly enjoyed and learned from with “++”.

Books on science and related topics that I have read in recent years:

Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Matt Ridley
The Assault on Reason, Al Gore
The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson ++
The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery ++
Our Final Hour, Martin Rees
A Devils Chaplin, Richard Dawkins++
The End of Faith, Sam Harris
Sweet Dreams: Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, Daniel Dennett
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E.O. Wilson
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker ++
The Blind Watchmaker: Richard Dawkins
On Human Nature, E.O. Wilson ++
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
The Age of Mammals, Donald Prothero
Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dan Dennett ++
Why Darwin Matters, Michael Shermer
Genome, Matt Ridley
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins ++
Darwin – The Power of Place, Janet Browne
Darwin – Voyaging, Janet Browne
The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins
Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins, Carl Zimmer
River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins
Missing Links, Robert Martin
His Brother’s Keeper, Jonathan Weiner
Origin of Species, Charles Darwin ++
The Ancestors Tale, Richard Dawkins ++
The Great Influenza, John Barry

Some that I intend to get to: Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, V.S. Ramachandran
(Reading now)

The Diversity of Life, E.O. Wilson
Climbing Mt. Improbable, Richard Dawkins
Intelligent Thought, John Brockman
Breaking the Spell, Dan Dennett
Next Of Kin, Roger Fouts
Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries, Steven Weinberg Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, Neil deGrasse Tyson
Hiding in the Mirror: The Quest for Alternate Realities, Lawrence Krauss
Primate and Human Evolution, Susan Cachel
After Eden: The Evolution of Human Domination, Kirkpatrick Sale
The Making of the Fittest, Sean Carroll

It’s summer – grab a couple and do some reading. I'm not suggesting my reading ideas are the best. If you don't care for science or even any non-fiction, then get a couple of good works of fiction. Just read. Television is ruining us. Revolt by Reading!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Parasite Rex

In my on-going quest to learn more and more about the many paths that modern science has taken us down, I've tried to read important or otherwise interesting works regardless of how long ago they were published. Much of my interest has been in areas of evolution (as the title of this blog would indicate). Within the past few years I've read books from Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) to Richard Dawkins Selfish Gene (1976) and E.O. Wilson's On Human Nature (1978) right up to Dawkins The Ancestor's Tale (2004). I've tried to approach, without prejudice, books that were written prior to the most current material on a subject. This has worked really well for me, and I've read gem after priceless gem.

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures (2000) by New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer is just such a gem. It reminded me, yet again, that I should never limit my reading to books hot off the presses. Every chapter is full of fascinating examples of the parasites of our planet, the various life-cycles that each of them go through, the evolutionary relationships between them and similar parasites and the how they changed in the evolving world of their hosts. By books end, you will be impressed not only with their diversity, but with how dependent ecosystems are on their survival as well as receiving a new awareness of our own parasitism of our planet. And it brings up the fascinating question: do parasites actually drive natural selection?

Additional great reading I have come across from Zimmer include An Intimate Guide to Human Origins (2005), Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea (2001) and he writes some excellent short science articles at his popular blog "The Loom".

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Another Look at AIDS and HIV

About 15 months ago I offered some thoughts on the controversy of AIDS. At that time I knew very little about the subject and, being interested, started digging into the science. There was then, and remains now, a minority viewpoint that the idea that HIV causes AIDS is untrue.

After hearing a lot from both sides, I concluded that I still didn’t know much and will, provisionally, accept the consensus viewpoint unless someone can come up with the scientific evidence that will turn the consensus around (I'm not a scientist, but I think this is the way science is supposed to work). It still hasn’t happened and I personally doubt that it will. There is too much evidence for the standard AIDS paradigm.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t good questions that still have not been adequately answered, but I believe they will be in good time. Some of the new facts may weaken some of the notions that are currently held but, again, I don’t think it will be so dramatic as to completely upset the applecart. It will be more corrective than a total replacement of theory.

Here’s a good example along these lines. The depth of the tragedy is, happily, not as bad as the proponents of the standard model would have led us to believe. Good science includes good statistical science.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Get With The Al Gore Rythym

It makes sense. We need Al Gore as the next President of the United States.

Let's review:

He won the election in 2000, but due to the Supreme Court decision George Bush was seated in the White House.

Gore has been right all along about the necessity of us being good stewards of the environment. What was once laughed off as a Goofy Gore sideshow has now been accepted, even by the Bush administration, as being a problem (even if they still claim the problem wasn't due to human abuse of the planet).

He was right on Sept 23, 2002, way ahead of his time, in saying that a war on the sovereign state of Iraq was a bad idea, that it wasn't justified on the reasons set forth by the administration and that it was a diversion from the real war on the terrorists.

And he is right currently, as he points out in his new book The Assault on Reason, that we are slipping quickly away from the democratic principles that our Founders had in mind when they set up the country with it's separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.

He is right in his cogently outlined reasons for impeaching Bush (even though he never actually calls for impeachment in the book). It's time to have an intelligent statesman running the country and, as former President Jimmy Carter says, we have no better than Al Gore. Furthermore, he deserves the opportunity of completing the Presidency that was taken from him 7 years ago.

I called for the impeachment of Bush here in this blog after the warrantless invasion of our privacy by secretly and illegally collecting our phone records was revealed. I wish that was the only good reason for impeachment and that our country was not in such a disastrous state. But we know a lot more now than we did then. The reasons for impeachment are summed up quite well here and a devastating indictment was recently issued by Keith Olbermann on the MSNBC show Countdown and can be seen in this video. I sincerely hope that the Demos in congress have the spine to do what needs to be done. But even if they don't, the Bush era is crawling to a close and we need to look to the future and a return to true leadership, both within our own borders and in the world at large (where Bush has managed to turn a wealth of goodwill into the poverty of distrust).

Al Gore is the best potential candidate for the job and yet he isn't even running for office - YET. You can do something to voice your concerns and desires right here. I hope you'll take a few moments and do so. Even if you think you dislike Gore, your reasons are probably much weaker than you think. Does he bother you because he "talks like an intellectual"? Good! We need a really intelligent President. Swallow your personal disdain and do what's right for the country.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Miracles Debunked

I can disprove the existence of miracles. Of course, you have to be open minded! I'm not asking much. Just be as open minded as you are towards the possibility that miracles do happen.

For the sake of definition, what is a miracle? If a child loses their pet, prays to god for it's safe return and a day later it shows up at the back door, did we witness a miracle? Some would say, yes, in a way. Others might need a bit more. How about if you were about to lose your family home to the bank, prayed for a miracle, and hit the lottery jack-pot that night? That would convince a lot more folks. How about if a doctor has declared that a child suffering from cancer is a hopeless case, will be dead within 2 months, yet after prayer there is absolutely no sign of a tumor ever having been there? I think even a mildly religious person would be likely to see signs of a miracle here.

If any of these examples fit your definition of a miracle then I probably can't disprove miracles to you. I will, however, suggest that there is a much surer definition of a miracle. It would be something that you pray for that absolutely can not happen in the natural world, yet it does happens. I have a couple of good examples, but there are many such. 1) A young soldier loses a limb in a battle and the limb is destroyed. Intercessory prayer commences and one day he awakes to find his or her arm back on their body, intact. 2) A child dies from after a doctor concluded that this would be the outcome of the disease. The child is prepared for burial and, several days after the death, rises during the funeral, fully alive. Now, in this second example, it is very important not to bring in to the equation any "death" that was followed within a day by a "rising from the dead". This can happen in the natural world. Physicians and medical examiners make mistakes. But if a body has been laying in a death state for a few days and prepared for burial, then we know that the person is indeed dead. Should they "rise" at this time, it would truly be a miracle.

There is no doubt that in the above listed scenarios, people have prayed and prayed mightily, with all of their faith in god, for him to deliver just exactly such a miracle. There is no reason for a faithful person not to in such a situation. There is nothing in the holy scriptures that would indicate that god does not perform these sorts of miracles. To the contrary, there are examples of folks being "raised from the dead" in the bible, provided as proof of miracles. There is no time limit on gods powers, one assumes, and he could surely just as easily raise someone from the dead a week after death as a day after. The bible encourages believers to pray for whatever is in their heart and that god can provide it. Should we assume there are no grieving parents who continue to pray with all their strength for the return of a lost child, even a week later? And certainly soldiers who have had an amputation prayed to be restored.

Why is there not a single case of "miracle" that can live up to this standard? Simply because there is no such thing as a miracle. All other "miracles" were simply coincidences that were possible in the natural world. This should be sufficient to prove to anyone that there is no such thing as a miracle. Unless, of course, someone can provide evidence of this type of miracle ever having happened. If this interests you, please check out this short video called "The Best Optical Illusion in the World" and visit the website for Why Won't God Heal Amputees?