Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Creationists Fooled By Hoaxes

You have to pity the poor creationists.

Living in a world in which there is no known physical evidence to support their beliefs, they are prey to almost any conceivable hoax and will eagerly pay out to read about it, listen to a charlatan talking about it or to go and see it in a 'museum'.

The irony is that at least one of the hoaxes they use to try to discredit science is itself a hoax on them. 'Nebraska Man' was never claimed by scientists to be a man. The hoax is that a highly imaginative article written in a popular magazine - The Illustrated London News - was a scientific publication and represents a serious claim by science to have discovered an archaic hominid.

The God Of Low Standards

The God of Low Standards is a utility god. It can be whatever its followers want it to be and it can excuse anything its followers want it to excuse. It's a tailor-made god, perfectly fitted for its followers needs and infinitely adaptable for any purpose.

You find it in the Kalam Cosmological Argument where everything must have had a beginning and nothing can happen without a cause but The God of Low Standards doesn't have a beginning, so doesn't need a cause.

You find it in the Teleological Argument where the God of Low Standards can be defined into existence by humans and becomes real by fiat.

You find it in the Ontological Argument where any gap, real or imaginary, can be filled by the God of Low Standards with no evidence at all.

You find the God of Low Standards in holy books where writing about it is enough to make it real, unlike science where hundreds of books full of evidence are never enough.

You see it in the demand that science explain how everything can come from nothing. Followers of the God of Low Standards say their god should be exempt.

You see it in the demand for proof that a god doesn't exist by people who don't believe in fairies but can't prove they don't exist either. The God of Low Standards needs a lower standard than fairies.

You see it in the demand that science provide fossil evidence for every single generation of every single species to prove evolution happened, while the God of Low Standards needs no evidence at all.

You see it in the demand for answers and the refusal to look at them. The God of Low Standards needs its followers to ignore facts and pretend they aren't there.

You see it in the resort to lies and abuse. The God of Low Standards requires its followers to abandon personal integrity and defend it with hypocrisy.

You see it in the use of tactics and sophistry in place of facts and reason. The God of Low Standards needs to find a way round evidence.

You see it in the claim that 'faith' is superior to evidence for the God of Low Standards but science must provide an impossible standard of evidence.

You see it in the insistence that a god must exist because it meets people's requirements yet science is wrong when it provided inconvenient facts. The God of Low Standards can be whatever its followers say it is.

Followers of the God of Low Standards need to try to make us fell ashamed for asking them questions they can't answer and asking them for evidence they don't have.

Followers of the God of Low Standards need to try to ban criticism and disagreement.

The God of Low Standards can be used as an excuse for hate; as an excuse for repression; as an excuse for claiming authority instead of having to earn the right to it; as an excuse for theft; as an excuse for abuse; as an excuse for jingoistic nationalism; as an excuse for misogyny; as an excuse for racism; as an excuse for claiming moral superiority; as an excuse to kill; as an excuse to persecute; as an excuse to cheat vulnerable people.

The only thing the God of Low Standards can't do it provide a single piece of evidence for its own existence - which is why its followers need such low standards in the first place.





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Sunday, 29 July 2012

Humans On The Ark Must Have Had STDs

Noah, or at least one member of his family, must have had one or more venereal diseases and must have had extramarital sexual relationships.

We can be sure of this because humans, like many other species, are hosts to a number of obligate, species-specific, parasitic pathogens, i.e. parasites which are obliged to live in or on their host in order to survive.

For example:

Chlamydia trachomatis

Chlamydia trachomatis is an obligate intracellular pathogen (i.e. the bacterium lives within human cells) and can cause numerous disease states in both men and women. Both sexes can display urethritis, proctitis (rectal disease and bleeding), trachoma, and infertility. The bacterium can cause prostatitis and epididymitis in men. In women, cervicitis, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic pregnancy, and acute or chronic pelvic pain are frequent complications. C. trachomatis is also an important neonatal pathogen, where it can lead to infections of the eye (trachoma) and pulmonary complications. C. trachomatis is the single most important infectious agent associated with blindness; approximately 600 million worldwide suffer C. trachomatis eye infections and 20 million are blinded as a result of the infection.


Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum pallidum.T. pallidum pallidum is a spiral-shaped, Gram-negative, highly mobile bacterium (see electron micrograph - left). Three other human diseases are caused by related T. pallidum subspecies, including yaws (T. p. pertenue), pinta (T. p. carateum) and bejel (T p. endemicum). Unlike T. p. pallidum, they do not cause neurological disease. Humans are the only known natural reservoir for T. p. pallidum. It is unable to survive without a host for more than a few days. This is due to its small genome (1.14 MDa) and thus its inability to make most of its macronutrients. It has a slow doubling time of greater than 30 hours.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is a common human sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It is unique to humans.

The infection is transmitted from one person to another through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Men have a 20% risk of getting the infection from a single act of vaginal intercourse with an infected woman. The risk for men who have sex with men is higher. Women have a 60–80% risk of getting the infection from a single act of vaginal intercourse with an infected man. A mother may transmit gonorrhea to her newborn during childbirth; when affecting the infant's eyes, it is referred to as ophthalmia neonatorum. It cannot be spread by toilets or bathrooms.

So, each of these sexually transmitted diseases is entirely dependent on humans both for their existence and for their transmission and, if you believe the account given in Genesis of Noah's flood, you believe every living substance outside of the Ark was destroyed by God and everything alive today is descended from those few who were on the Ark.

And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.


If this were true, if would mean that members of Noah's family were carries of these venereal and sexually transmitted diseases.

Would any creationist like to speculate on who they might have been?

And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.

These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.


So that's four men and four women. Did just one of them carry all three sexually transmitted diseases or were they spread around? We can be fairly sure that their partners would have been infected too so at least two and maybe as many as six of the humans on the Ark had sexually transmitted diseases normally, though not always, the result of having several sexual partners. One thing we know is that you can't catch them from virgins unless they had a congenitally acquired form acquired from their mother, so we can be fairly certain that one or more of the people on the Ark had had extramarital sexual relations of some sort.

So, is this yet another example of an unintelligent god who hasn't thought things through? In a fit of pique it decides to destroy everyone and everything because they are sinners, then realises it needs to save sinners too in order to save the diseases it's also created, so negating the entire purpose of the whole multi-ethnic, multi-species genocide, but it does it anyway.

Or is it just a nonsense tale made up by people who were in complete ignorance of bacteriology and microbial causation of disease?





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Friday, 27 July 2012

What A Waste Of A Life - Grovelling To God!

What's with this idea that somehow belief in gods gives your life a purpose?

What is it that induces otherwise normal people - at least I'll assume they are in the absence of evidence to the contrary (though I concede that these tweets may indeed be that evidence) - to tell the world this sort of thing?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Prophesying A Powerless God

Ancient of Days, William Blake
A god which can accurately prophesy the future is an utterly powerless god and a powerless god is no more worthy of worship than a pebble.

Leaving aside debate about whether gods exist or not, and whether the absence of evidence for them is evidence of their absence, like it is for just about everything else, neither Christians nor Muslims seem to know what sort of god they believe in. They will often cite as 'proof' that their favourite holy book was divinely inspired by quoting some passage or other which can, usually at a stretch, be presented as some sort of prophesy of the future.

These 'prophecies' normally fall into three sort:
  1. Imaginary prophecies: Those they claim have been fulfilled, for which they normally have to ignore the context of the 'prophecy', make claims about history which are not born out by the facts, and/or stretch reason beyond breaking point to map the 'prophecy' onto real events. Prophets of these events never manage to foretell the exact year.
  2. Retrospective prophecies: 'Prophecies' written after the events they supposedly prophesied. A bit like prophesying what you ate for dinner yesterday or who won World War II
  3. 'Gunner be' prophecies: 'Prophecies' which have not actually been fulfilled, but we are assured are 'gunner be', at some point, and often "real soon... you'll see!"

Like the 'prophecies' of Nostradamus, Biblical and Koranic prophecies seem particularly good at predicting the past but are singularly inept at predicting the future. For example, Muslims will tell you that the Koran predicted all the scientific discoveries, yet they can never look in it to find out what the next discovery will be. As always, it's usefulness as a predictive tool seems to have ended last week.

But there is something which proponents of these prophesying gods don't seem to have worked out, despite having 2500-3000 or more to think about the problem. You see, to prophesy the future you need to know not only the future, but everything leading up to that future, and nothing at all could change, or the future would be different and the prophecy would fail. This is no less true for a god than for a person or a computer. You can only prophesy the future if the future is absolutely fixed and unchangeable and that means the present is also fixed and unchangeable. A god which lived in a universe in which everything is fixed and unchangeable is a powerless god, indistinguishable from an absent one.

A universe with a fixed, unchangeable future is indistinguishable from a universe with no god in it.

I'll let former evangelical Christian Dan Barker, author of 'Losing Faith In Faith' and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, say it far more eloquently than I ever could hope to in the transcription of a radio interview phone-in he did on a Christian radio show hosted by creationist loon, Jason Gastrich. It's a bit long but worth the read, as is the even longer transcript of the complete interview:


Dan: You're saying that there is a god that knows the future, and that this god is a personal being with free will who can make decisions, right?

Jason: Hmm . . . I'm sorry, I'm sorry, we're getting away from the question, but let's go ahead. Go ahead and tell me . .

Dan: Well, you're talking about prophecy, right?

Jason: I was talking about a specific prophecy, but let's talk about what you're saying. Go ahead.

Dan: Well, if this god exists . . .

Jason: Uh-huh.

Dan: . . . and if he knows the future, like you pretend he knows here, . . .

Jason: Right.

Dan: . . . that means that the set of future facts is fixed. It cannot be changed. If God knows it in advance, then the future is fixed and unchangeable. Otherwise, God wouldn't be omniscient. He wouldn't be able to predict the future.

Jason: Um-huh.

Dan: If the future is fixed, then that sets some limits on God's power. And also, how can a personal being with free will have any ability to make any decisions if the future is already fixed. God Himself cannot even make any decisions, because he can't do what he knows that he's not going to do. Therefore, if this kind of god exists, philosophically, this god is not a personal free being. He's more like a robot or something.

Jason: I think you jump from God knowing the future to the point where you asserted that God controls the actions, all the actions of human beings.

Dan: No, I'm talking about God's own actions, not human beings.

Jason: Ok.

Dan: I'm talking about God . . . If God knows what he's going to do . . .

Jason: Ok.

Dan: . . . tomorrow at twelve noon, right?

Jason: Uh-huh.

Dan: Then God can't change in the meantime what he's going to do between now and then. He knows it.

Jason: Well, I think there's an instance in Jonah, where God had told Jonah to tell Nineveh that Nineveh is going to be wiped out because of their sin. And then Nineveh decided to repent with weeping and fasting, and God decided to exercise his perfect mercy on them.

Dan: Yeah, but that was clearly conditional. That was a supposed conditional prophecy. I'm talking about these prophecies that are supposedly clear prophecies of something that will happen.

Jason: I don't know if that was conditional. In Jonah there's only four chapters, but um, as far as I could tell, it was God telling them judgement will come on you. And some people have said that looks like God has changed his mind, or changed. How could this happen with a changeless god? But in reality, he decided to use his perfect mercy instead of his judgement.

Dan: So, before he exercised his mercy, did he have one idea of what the future would be like, but after he exercised his mercy, he changed his mind and had a different idea of what the future would be like? In other words, was he not omniscient to begin with? Was the set of future facts changeable or fixed? [Do] you know what I'm saying? If it's changeable, then God doesn't know the future.

Jason: Why is that?

Dan: Because he doesn't know how the ball is going to bounce. He doesn't know. He's like you and me, right?

Jason: Um-huh.

Dan: So if God doesn't know the future, then he can't prophesy anything, because anything can happen between now and then. Do you see the philosophical problem here? He's either a free being that can make decisions openly, or else he knows a fixed future that cannot be changed. He can't have it both ways. He might be omniscient, in which case he's not omnipotent. Or he might be prescient, in which case he's not a free being, and he's not worthy of my worship if he's like a robot or a computer program or something.

Jason: Ok, I see what you're saying, I think. And um, I think that the rub is just because God doesn't step in and do the things that you do think he should do if he were to exist. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's not there, or not powerful or couldn't do something.

Dan: I'm not saying that at all. That wasn't my point. My point was that if your definition is right, then something's got to give. You have a mutually incompatible definition of a god: one who knows the future, and yet is also a free personal being. I'm not telling him what to do. If there's a God, he can do what he wants to. But I'm just saying that you have a problem with an incompatibility in your definition of what God is like. According to you, Ezekiel 38 tells, predicts a future which will happen, right?

Jason: Uh-huh. Right.

Dan: And there's no way that you or I, or even God can change that.

Jason: Um-huh.

Dan: Right? It's predicting something. And if God can't change that, then God has limits on his power and on his freedom.

Jason: Ok.

Dan: Therefore, he is something less than the being that you claim to worship.

Jason: Ok, well yeah, the argument that you're using is much more tied into what I said than you realize, because it's the same kind of argument that atheists have used before to say, "if God can't lie, if God can't steal, if God can't do evil. If he can't do these things, then we're not worshipping an omnipotent god." But um, it's just I think how much this argument stems from a lack of understanding.

Dan: I'm not saying that either, but -- I've heard atheists say that, and I disagree with it -- because if there is a god, he has a nature, right? And he would want to act in accordance with his nature, so I'm not saying that.

Jason: Right.

Dan: I know enough about theology and the Bible to know that this god that Christians worship has a particular nature that he usually acts in accordance with. Not always, but . . .

Jason: That doesn't mean that he's not omnipotent, it just means that he's not doing the things that you, or someone else, would see as a complete, powerful, all-powerful god.

Dan: Well, [Laughs] then it's not just omnipotence, but it's freedom. If, if . . . in order for you to make a decision . . Let's say you're going to make a choice about who-knows-what. Let's say you're going to have coffee or tea, or you're going to chose a mate, or whatever. In order to have freedom, or the illusion of freedom, you have to have at least more than one option available to you, each of which could be freely chosen or rejected, and there has to be a period of time during which there's an uncertainty during which you could change your mind, right?

Jason: Yeah, all humanly speaking you're correct, I think.

Dan: Yeah, and so that's the definition of "free will" and freedom.

Jason: Um-huh.

Dan: If there is a god who is a person, and [being a] person requires this freedom to make decisions, then this also applies to God. He also has to have the freedom during a period of uncertainty to be able to change his mind and to exercise mercy or justice or to change . . . Do you know what I mean? Otherwise, he's not a free being, right?

Jason: Hmm.

Dan: He has to have that period of potential, but . .

Jason: I think God has just bound Himself to the promises he has made to us. If you want to say that that makes him less omnipotent than some other god, then maybe you could say that.

Dan: I'm not saying [less] omnipotent. I'm saying less of a person, less of a free person. As a personality, he's more like a robot than . . He might be totally omnipotent, but he's not the kind of person that I would find admirable to worship as a person. He's more like this force of a huge computer program or something. Do you know what I'm saying? He's not a being. He's not a personal being if he knows the future. He can't be because he has no freedom, no choice, no period of potential to change his mind and be and to be merciful or warm or friendly. Do you know what I mean? He's not like you and me. He's some sort of a weird creature up there who's running things in a colder kind of impersonal way, and that's the kind of creature that I could not worship or respect.

Jason: But on a human level, it's possible to know the future and then, I mean, to an extent, and still be loving, or . . . Isn't it?

Dan: Well, none of us knows the future. We get lucky a lot.

Jason: Yeah, I just mean like I'm going to go to [laughs] to work today, or I'm going to do this, or I'm going to do that, or my kid's going to do this tonight . . .

Dan: Yeah, but on the way to work you still have the option, you probably wouldn't exercise it, but you could still change your mind and go somewhere else, right?

Jason: Yeah.

Dan: That's what makes you free.

Jason: Um-huh. Dan: But if you did not have that option, you wouldn't be free. Your hands would drive to work no matter what. You wouldn't be, you wouldn't have free will. You wouldn't . . .

Jason: I suppose it would give me, it's given me even more of a respect for God, realizing now, that he has laid down his omnipotence in order to give humans comfort by promising them things.

Dan: So he's not omnipotent, you just said?

Jason: Well he's surely omnipotent, but his type of omnipotence is different from the type of omnipotence that you want him to be, apparently.

Dan: I don't want him to be anything. I'm just trying to make sense of this Bible. I don't want God to be anything at all. If he exists, he can be whatever he wants to be. I mean, that's not up to me to decide. I'm trying to decide whether or not I think he, first of all, exists at all, and secondly, even if he did, if he is worthy of my admiration. Because I have the free will to choose, don't I?

Jason: Right.

Dan: I don't have to like him do I? But I don't have to respect him. You know, I could denounce him if I choose. That's part of my freedom, right? And so it's my choice whether or not I find this kind of a being worthy of my respect. And I find him unworthy of my respect. I mean, what's wrong with me exercising my judgement, based on moral intellectual principles, to say such a thing?

Jason: Ok.

See 'Barker Tears A New One' for a full transcription.

Love that different type of omnipotence, Jason!

So, as Dan Barker so patiently explained to the hapless Jason, "You have a mutually incompatible definition of a god: one who knows the future, and yet is also a free personal being." Not for the first time do we find religion requires it's believers to hold two or more mutually incompatible views simultaneously.

So, Christians and Muslims, and anyone else who has an omnipotent, omniscient god who makes accurate prophecies, how do you square that circle and have both an omnipotent, omniscient god who is bound irredeemably by his own inerrantly omniscient foresight and so is utterly powerless?





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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How Creationists Lie To One-another

There are few spectacles in the world of fraud quite so satisfying as watching two snake-oil salesmen arguing over who has the best scam, especially when one is complaining that the other has pinched all his lies and so shouldn't be trusted.

Anyone who has ever tried to engage a creationist in meaningful debate knows just how difficult that can be. It's as though the normal meaning of words like 'evidence', 'reason', 'logic', 'fact', 'science' and 'integrity' have been temporarily suspended and replaced with something resembling exactly the opposite.

If you've never done it, imagine playing a game of tennis with someone who demands the net be lowered to the ground whenever the ball is in their court, but wants it raised to an impossible height when in yours, and of course, the boundary lines can change at will, and points will be declared won without regard to the normal rules of the game, and normally just after you've served an ace or they've double-faulted yet again.

So, it was with some anticipation that I came across this little spat between two well-known creationist frauds over which 'arguments' should still be used and which were too embarrassing even for them. It dates from 2002.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

No Faith In The Bible

Why was faith not good enough for the Bible's prophets?

Every single prophet or apostle of Jesus, when they bothered to explain why they believed in a god, quoted evidence. It seems they were never expected, and never expected themselves, to rely on faith alone.

Here's a random sample:

Thursday, 19 July 2012

How Creationists Lie To Us - Karl Popper

"When you show the world you know you need to lie for your faith you show the world you know your faith is a lie".


What they say:



Thus the notion that evolution is a scientific theory while creation is nothing more than religious mysticism is blatantly false. This is being recognized more and more today, even by evolutionists themselves. Karl Popper, one of the world's leading philosophers of science, has stated that evolution is not a scientific theory but is a metaphysical research program. [My emphasis]

Duane Gish, Ph.D, Former Vice-president, Institute for Creation Research
The Nature of Science and of Theories on Origins


The truth:

And yet, the theory is invaluable. I do not see how, without it, our knowledge could have grown as it has done since Darwin. In trying to explain experiments with bacteria which become adapted to, say, penicillin, it is quite clear that we are greatly helped by the theory of natural selection. Although it is metaphysical, it sheds much light upon very concrete and very practical researches. It allows us to study adaptation to a new environment (such as a penicillin-infested environment) in a rational way: it suggests the existence of a mechanism of adaptation, and it allows us even to study in detail the mechanism at work. And it is the only theory so far which does all that.2



When speaking here of Darwinism, I shall speak always of today's theory – that is Darwin's own theory of natural selection supported by the Mendelian theory of heredity, by the theory of the mutation and recombination of genes in a gene pool, and by the decoded genetic code. This is an immensely impressive and powerful theory. The claim that it completely explains evolution is of course a bold claim, and very far from being established. All scientific theories are conjectures, even those that have successfully passed many severe and varied tests. The Mendelian underpinning of modern Darwinism has been well tested, and so has the theory of evolution which says that all terrestrial life has evolved from a few primitive unicellular organisms, possibly even from one single organism.



I still believe that natural selection works in this way as a research programme. Nevertheless, I have changed my mind about the testability and the logical status of the theory of natural selection; and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation. My recantation may, I hope, contribute a little to the understanding of the status of natural selection.1,3

Karl Popper

References:
  1. Miller, David. 1985. Popper Selections.
  2. Popper, Karl. 1976. Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography Glasgow: Fontana/Collins.
  3. Popper, Karl. 1978. Natural selection and the emergence of mind. Dialectica 32: 339-355.

Oop!

One is tempted to ask why creation pseudo-scientists need to use these methods if they are so sure the facts support them, but the answer is probably too obvious.

Further reading:
Claim CA211.1 (The TalkOrigins Archive)





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How Creationists Lie To Us - The Paluxy Hoax

"When you show the world you know you need to lie for your faith you show the world you know your faith is a lie".


Paluxy River dinosaur tracks, Glen Rose, Texas
What they say:

In the last ten or fifteen years, however, many scientists and laymen alike are waking up to the fact that much solid scientific evidence exists that contradicts evolutionary notions. One of the most shattering pieces of evidence comes from the Paluxy River basin in central Texas, near the town of Glen Rose, where fossilized tracks of man and dinosaur appear together.

John D. Morris, Ph.D., President, Institute for Creation Research.

The truth:

My grandfather was a very good sculptor... During the 1930s and the Depression, Glen Rose residents made money by distilling moonshine and selling dinosaur fossils. Each fossil brought $15 to $30. When the supply ran low, George Adams just carved more, some with human footprints thrown in.... My dad [Weldon Eakin] and my grandfather decided one day — I don’t know if it was to make money, or what — to start carving man tracks alongside the dinosaur tracks. They poured acid to make the fossils look like aged limestone. They showed one "all over town" until they heard that a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution wanted to see the track. That worried my grandfather because he didn’t want anybody ever passing it off as real, so he and Daddy took it out and buried it.

Zana Douglas, Granddaughter of George Adams, discoverer of the Paluxy River dinosaur tracks, Glen Rose, Texas.
Interviewed by Bud Kennedy, Fortworth Star-Telegram

It's not nice to laugh at the people who are fooled by creation pseudo-scientists, but you may want to refer them to this when they accuse science of being fooled by hoaxes like Piltdown.

References:
The Texas Dinosaur/"Man Track" Controversy, Glen J. Kuban
Man Tracks? A Topical Summary of the Paluxy "Man Track" Controversy, Glen J. Kuban





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Ungodly Complexity

Which of these are designed and which are natural?


You see, the thing about good design is its simplicity.

Something well designed is as simple as it's possible to be whilst still performing the function it was designed to perform. It would be possible to make spear points out of something other than flint - metals, bone, even wood - but you would be hard-pressed to come up with a better shape than those made by neolithic people. The humble garden dibber is hard to better for design. You can take a decent knife or hand-axe to any hedge and probably find a piece of wood which you can make a decent dibber from in a few minutes.

Both the spear point and the dibber are perfectly designed for a purpose and the purpose is obvious. There are no moving parts and minimal maintenance needed.

And this, of course, is how we can, at a glance, tell they were intelligently designed. Their lack of unnecessary complexity gives that away.

Compare that to the design of the human body (or any other living organism, for that matter). The human body is immensely complex compared to a spear point or a dibber.

Starting at the cell level, where probably the most complexity is to be found:
  1. Top left: An electron micrograph of a cell. Low magnification.
  2. Top right: A cell organelle, a mitochondrion, the power-house of the cell, at a higher magnification.
  3. Left: Another cell organelle, a ribosomes, where the genetic code in DNA is translated to make proteins from amino acids.
But that is still only a low level of organisation for a multi-cellular animal. These cells are then organised into tissues, tissues into organs, organs into systems and the systems into a complete individual composed of something in the order of 10-100 trillion cells.

So, if humans are designed, as creationists insist, what purpose justifies this huge level of complexity, very much of it apparently redundant at that, especially when we look at the genome.

Let's see what the Bible says about the purpose of humans:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:26

But we can dismiss that because God contradicts himself in Genesis 2.

And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

Genesis 2:18-19

Besides, simply being here to look after the animals that were put here to help us... er... look after them, seems a bit pointless somehow. One might have expected an omniscient, omnipotent designer to have thought up something a little more challenging. Why couldn't it have have made them able to look after or 'have dominion over' themselves, for example? But then, they wouldn't have had any purpose either...

And what of the species we're still discovering, and those living at the bottom of deep oceans? They seem to have been okay without our 'dominion', don't they?

So where else can we find our 'purpose' according to Christians?

How about:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

And that appears to be about it. Everything else seems to be about being 'saved', which is not much of a purpose really.

God created us so we could be saved from him? Is that it?

But, whatever this purpose is, why did it need this huge complexity? Surely it should not have been beyond the wit or abilities of an omniscience, omnipotent god to make something simple which could fear him and obey his commands. Why did it even need to be multi-cellular? Why, even as a single-celled organism, did it need the fantastic complexity of the eukaryote cell with its vast genome needed to produce all those enzymes for enormously complicated biochemical pathways, respiration, cell reproduction, and so on.

Surely, this purpose could have been achieved with the simplest of simple entities if the creator had the powers and abilities Christians attribute to him? But even if size was important to God, why couldn't he have made bodies which are much less complex? Maybe ones which don't consume energy so have no need to eat and metabolise. How about ones which just bud off new individuals, so all this sexual reproduction and the means to find and mate with a partner, then spend years rearing the children was unnecessary? How about telepathy so we can communicate simply and don't need speech, reading, hearing, etc?

In short, why does it look like we have a purpose which is unconnected with what Christians claim their god had in mind?

You see, the problem is, the vastly unnecessary complexity for such a nebulous purpose is not evidence of design, especially of intelligent design; it is evidence of unintelligent, undirected and purposeless design, just as one would expect of a mindless, purposeless design process like evolution by natural selection where the only function is to produce individual gene vehicles in order to produce the next generation of gene vehicles.

I'm afraid, whoever told you that complexity is a problem for evolutionary biology has mislead you. It is a problem for creationism and most of all for its under-cover wing, the 'intelligent design' industry. Biological complexity is exactly what we would expect if the 'creator' was an unintelligent, mindless, purposeless process. An intelligent perfect designer would have created a perfectly simple design.

It really is time religious people reassessed their superstitions and realised just how silly they are. As a basis for giving life a genuine meaning and purpose, they are about as useful as a back pocket in a vest, or a chocolate teapot.





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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Foxing Creationists.

Here's a fascinating story which gives an insight into how man may have domesticated wolves and which illustrates a basic principle of evolution - how apparently unrelated characteristics can be linked so that, with the right pressure, a feature evolves for no obvious reason, dragged along with by the evolution of something else, and sometimes unavoidably.

Look at this picture on the right. Is it a dog? A wolf, maybe?

Well, no. It's a fox, Vulpes vulpes.

That's right. That uneatable sentient 'little gentleman in a red jacket' that unspeakable people enjoy pursuing to exhaustion then watching being killed by being torn apart in a tug-o'-war between dogs. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that. I think people who enjoy the suffering of a sentient animal are amongst the lowest forms of human life).

Foxes come in a rare 'siver' (actually, melanistic) form which was prized for its fur, especially in Russia and China. It was in Russia, during the Soviet era, that a program was started to domesticate the silver fox and breed it for its fur.

This video tells the story:

The scientists had decided the way to tame a fox was to selectively breed from those animals which showed less fear of humans already. Animals which are afraid of humans, or any potential predator, must somehow weigh up when to run away. Animals which have less fear will leave it longer before fleeing so, those with a shorter 'flight distance' will have less fear. The scientists assumed this would have some genetic basis and so would be an inherited characteristic. Part of domestication also involved making them less aggressive and safe to handle, so they were also bred for 'passivity'. By selectively breeding from tame animals they expected the foxes to become progressively more tame, i.e. domesticated, with each generation.

Indeed, this is exactly what happened, but so did something completely unexpected: the foxes changed in their physical appearance and behaviours too, not just tameness. A range of coat patterns emerged, never seen in the wild, in addition to the 'silver' coats, which had, after all been the point of the breeding program in the first place. They retained juvenile traits like a broader skull and submissive behaviour, held their tails up and barked and whined.

These differences are believed to be due to physiological changes, associated with adrenaline production, but forty differences have been found between the genome of the domesticated foxes and farm-raised 'wild' foxes.

These have all arisen in a mere fifty years, simply by selecting for 'tameness'. Clearly, there is a set of genes controlling the development of physical and behavioural characteristics, even influencing colour patterns in the fur which are either so closely linked on chromosomes with those controlling 'tameness' that they get dragged along with those for tameness when they are selected for, or, more likely, the same genes affect different aspects of the common fox phenotype. It is rare for a single gene to only control one discrete thing, hence we commonly get a whole syndrome associated with a single mutation on a single gene.

The fact that these features emerged during domestication of the common fox, and are so similar to the same characteristics which have emerged during domestication of the closely-related wolf, strongly suggests that this linkage has a long history and would have been present at least in the common wolf-fox ancestor.

Of course, creationists are going to dismiss this example of rapid evolution and the evolution moreover of characteristics which may not have given any particular advantage; indeed may have been disadvantageous but less so than the advantage gained with the evolution of the characteristic being actively selected for. They will no doubt call it 'artificial' or man-made, but what are humans if not part of the fox's environment? How does it differ significantly in any material way if humans are providing the selection pressure and not some other animal or environmental factor?

Our selection for tameness of wolves, pigs, sheep, cattle, etc., was what caused them to evolve to their present forms no less so than did bees selection for colours cause plants to evolve their flowers to their present form or a bird's startle reflex in response to a mammalian eye caused the peacock butterfly to evolve eye marking on its wings.






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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Evolution At Your Finger-tips

If you want to understand evolution and the appearance of design, you have the answer at your finger-tips. Understood the right way it will tell you why turtles still breathe air and mammals don't lay eggs.

The history of the qwerty keyboard - almost certainly the one you are using to access this article, and the one I'm using to write it with - is great example of a design which becomes fixed for reasons which have nothing to do with why it is the way it is in the first place. But you will never be able to work out why that keyboard has its basic layout by examining your computer or smart phone, no matter how detailed your examination is or how completely you understand it.

Understanding why this is so helps understand how groups of species, whether families, phyla, orders, or kingdoms - whatever level - get saddled with certain unchangeable basic body plans. The history of the typewriter can he read in this Wikipedia article and of the qwerty keyboard in this one.

Briefly, typewriters were designed for producing a small number of written copies quickly, unlike printing which used type to produce a large number of copies and which needed the type to be set in blocks ready to go into a printing press. You might think that there would be some obvious logic in the way the keys are arranged on the keyboard and yet this appears to be almost random. However, there is, or rather was a logic, though not an obvious one.

Typewriters work by moving the paper past a fixed position where the metal type, mounted on a hammer, and operated by levers fixed to keys, can strike an inked ribbon, which also moves past the print position. The problem is that each piece of typeface has to move into position, hit the ribbon with enough force to transfer the ink to the paper, and clear the way for the next piece of typeface. Typing at 60 words a minute, with an average of five characters per word, a typewriter must cope with five hits per second. This creates a potential for jamming which increases as the typing speed of the user increases and especially if the user happens to hit two keys together.

One solution would have been to lock the other keys as soon as one was pressed but, apart from the hugely complicated engineering this would have needed, it would have slowed typing down to such an extent that any advantage in using a type-writer in the first place would have been mostly lost.

Early Remington
The typewriter was developed by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden who, contrary to popular myth, did not design the keyboard layout to slow typists down but to speed them up by preventing the frequent jams which tended to occur. The earliest layout had included two rows in numerical and alphabetical order.

In the early days of course, there was complete freedom to experiment with different layouts because few, if any people actually used it regularly. Other designs included ones with the vowels and the 'y' arranged on a top row. By a process of trial and error, and possibly based on a study of the frequency of letter pairs in English, Sholes changed the keyboard layout many times to arrive eventually at something close to the qwerty layout, at which point it was sold to E.Remington & Son. Their engineers made a few more adjustments to arrive at more or less the present layout.

One interesting vestige of the original alphabetic layout is the sequence in the centre row of the letter keys - DFGHJKL - which, with just the vowels missing, is a section of the standard Latin alphabet, giving a fossil-like clue about the original layout.

Typing Pool, 1956
So, from then on, E.Remington & Son marketed their typewriter, complete with the qwerty keyboard, and buyers trained their secretaries to use this new piece of technology. Typing quickly revolutionised the production of letters, memos, notices, etc. Soon no office could be without it's typists; typing pools became a standard part of any normal office. No serious professional writers could manage without a typewriter. Journalists and foreign correspondents even carried portable typewriters with which to write their copy. Just as with the evolution of a new ability, like sight or flight, it opened up a whole new direction for human society to go in.

Courses were organised and certificates of proficiency issued, and asked for by employers. Fast, accurate typing speeds were at a premium, though, because they were normally acquired by women, they never commanded high wages. And suddenly there were job opportunities for women in secretarial work which, until then, had been a male occupation. But that's a different story...

Other manufacturers soon came into the typewriter market, selling typewriters, not with new, more efficient keyboard layouts, (or if they tried they failed) but ones which people with pre-existing skills could use. No boss in his right mind was going to buy his secretaries typewriters they couldn't use and which they were going to have to learn afresh. Competition was all concerned with price, portability, durability, type-face, etc, but one thing which no manufacturer could seriously risk tampering with was the basic keyboard layout. Additional keys like fractions, currency symbols, etc, could be added, but not the basic qwerty arrangement.

The evolution of the keyboard had reached the point at which the cost of changing the layout would outweigh any benefits. The qwerty keyboard had become effectively fixed in our culture and each new generation was taught to use it, but no other.

Even with the migration to electric typewriters, where daisy-wheel and golf-ball heads made jamming a thing of the past, the layout could not be changed, not for any technical reasons but because it would have meant an unacceptable, even if temporary, loss of efficiency.

And so we have arrived at computers, in many ways the descendants of typewriters, with a keyboard originally designed to avoid the typeface hammers jamming - something no observer could have worked out in the absence of any knowledge of the history of the typewriter. There is no trace left of the movable carriage, the ink ribbon, the typeface, the operating levers, or even the paper and yet the layout of the qwerty keyboard can only be explained in terms of the engineering problems those things caused and how they were overcome, not optimally, but sufficiently.

Dvorak Keyboard
There have been attempts to introduce 'better', more ergonomic and more rational keyboards, such as the Dvorak keyboard, which test after test have shown to give much faster typing speeds, and yet these have never managed to penetrate the market.

The qwerty keyboard is even used in Japan where, not only does the letter layout bear no relationship to letter frequency or sequence in any Japanese alphabet, but the letters are not even a normal part of the Japanese written scripts. Instead, software is needed to transliterate combinations of keystrokes into Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana characters. How on earth could the proverbial spaceman observing a Japanese secretary at work, work out why he/she is using that keyboard with that layout? The clues are nowhere to be found either inside or outside the computer he/she is using.

But, from our knowledge of the origins - of the evolution - of the qwerty keyboard, the increased efficiency it gave us in our ability to communicate, and how this came to be fixed in our culture, the layout is perfectly understandable, as is the difficulty with changing it.

Turtle surfacing to breathe
The qwerty keyboard is an almost perfect analogy for many of the things we see in nature and which only make sense as part of an evolutionary process. It's the reason mammals could not revert to laying eggs or adopt the far more efficient squid eye; why birds could not start brachiating through the branches of trees like monkeys, why reptiles and mammals can't revert to breathing underwater with gills, not even, as with crocodiles, turtles and whales, when they have been living in water for many tens of millions of years.

Once a feature gives a significant advantage and allows a species to evolve in a new direction, it quickly becomes fixed and forces the species in that direction with no option to go into reverse. To all intents and purposes, it is impossible for a species to de-evolve because the short-term loss of efficiency (in this case survivability) far outweighs the potential long-term gain. Serious loss of efficiency almost guarantees instant removal from the gene-pool. It's the equivalent of a keyboard manufacturer coming up with a brilliant new layout and hawking it around today's offices and IT departments. He would simply be told "we use qwerty keyboards, thanks."

The major divisions into kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders, etc, all reflect major and irreversible directions taken by evolution in ways almost exactly analogous to the way our culture evolved with the qwerty keyboard, and, as with the qwerty keyboard used on Japanese computers, it becomes impossible to reverse engineer the layout from first principles. Unless the evolutionary history is known from other sources and the conditions in which it evolved are understood it may be impossible to work out how a taxon arrived at its current 'design'. Even little clues like the vestigial DFGHJKL sequence can only give a hint of the origins and to someone who only knew Japanese, that might not even register as a clue.

And this of course is where the 'intelligent design' proponents (aka creationists) come in. They will look at structures analogous to the qwerty keyboard on your laptop and tell you that there is no logical way this 'irreducibly complex' layout could have evolved because there is no movable carriage, no levers or inked ribbon, no metal typeface mounted on hammers operated by levers and no logical way the layout could have evolved from a precursor because there is no precursor to be found.

But then, we know differently, don't we. We know that evolution will often cover it's tracks because it feels no obligation to record every little step or to preserve redundant structures and only occasionally leaves us fossils like the DFGHJKL sequence, although the history of the genome as recorded in DNA, often has a fairly good record still because the genome is where the real change has occurred.

When arranged in order of degrees of difference the resulting 'tree' reconstructs the evolution of species, families, orders, classes, phyla and kingdoms, and then almost all of biology suddenly makes sense in terms of decent with modification from a common ancestor which lived a very long time ago, just as the layout of the qwerty computer keyboard makes sense when we know the history, and no sense at all when looked at as the work of an intelligent designer.

Now, I know the creationists who have read this far, and I suspect there will be few, will now be jumping up and down excitedly and claiming I've 'proved' intelligent design because the qwerty keyboard had to be intelligently designed in the first place. But the point is not how it got to be in it's present form but how, now it has become fixed in our culture, it is almost impossible to change it, and how, because it is impossible to change it, we still have it despite the fact that we have moved way beyond the technology which needed that layout in the first place and for which no evidence is to be found in the keyboard or computer it's attached to. This move moreover was facilitated by the existence of the typewriter and typing skills in the first place. It is an example of the 'scaffold' method of construction where the scaffolding itself becomes redundant, just as happened with your 'irreducibly complex designs'.

Besides, the trial and error method Sholes used, measuring each variation against a standard for fitness (i.e. less jams and faster speed) and then building on that for the next 'generation' is a basic evolutionary algorithm. Given time, variation, replication and selection, nature will inevitably simulate this process, using only the test of fitness to survive.





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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Another Ten Commandments

Continuing the Judeo-Christian story of the 'Ten Commandments'...

In What The 'Ten Commandments' Really Tell Us we saw how the story was almost certainly an attempt to create a convenient 'history' or at least to rewrite it by the winners which had then been grafted onto another invented origin myth.

Here we see yet another attempt to stitch another set of rules into the same narrative. Curiously too, these are the only 'ten commandments' the Bible refers to. Maybe they'll be more useful as the basis of law and morality for a civilised nation than the earlier lot.

We'll take a look a bit later but first a little background.

As we saw in What The 'Ten Commandments' Really Tell Us, the story went that when Moses turned his back on the Israelites, despite all the things they supposedly saw Yahweh do, and despite the fact that they heard him (they weren't allowed to look for some reason) giving out some rules from the top of Mount Sinai, they decided to follow Aaron's new religion. Apparently, Aaron, despite actually going with Moses to see Yahweh on top of Mount Sinai, has set up a new religion based on worshipping a golden calf made out of the women's ear-rings, to which the Israelites had transferred their loyalty (seriously!).

This takeover bid had happened when Moses was away talking to Yahweh on top of a mountain, during which Yahweh had allegedly written the commandments he had earlier announced, on some stone tablets.

Now, Yahweh had noticed this going on and told Moses he was really going to show those Israelites a thing or two, having lost his rag with them.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
Phew! Once again Moses saves the day and talks sense into Yahweh who is about to destroy the Israelites! He even manages to get Yahweh to repent for his evil thoughts!
And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Obviously, Yahweh had not yet become the omniscient god who knows all things and can still be taught the error of his ways by a top priest, who the people are so lucky to have telling them what to do, eh? Not like those other false prophets who so nearly brought destruction on the people with their evil ways and lesser gods! You can't go far wrong with a powerful prophet like that in charge, can you. Even got Yahweh to say sorry and feel guilty!

Can you guess who wrote this stuff yet?

But there was a problem. When Moses went back down the mountain he completely lost it, smashed the stone tablets, and ordered a bout of gratuitous blood-letting, killing about 3000 men.

That'll teach 'em and show 'em who's boss around here!

Talk about toys out of the pram!

So, that's the background. Naturally, Yahweh tells Moses to get two more stone tablets and come back up the mountain where he will write them all out again for him.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.
We now find Moses back up the mountain talking to Yahweh again - and conveniently alone:

Firstly, Yahweh very helpfully tells Moses that he's going to drive all those other people away and that they are to destroy everything:
Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.

Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.
There's nothing like a bout of killing, destruction and land-grabbing to bring the people back on side when you're losing your grip, especially when they're following all these other rival gods, or rather rival gods' priests. This priestly rivalry can get a bit messy at times, but needs must...

Okay, now for the 'Ten Commandments', final version. (Exodus 34:17-26)
1 Thou shalt make thee no molten gods.
2 The feast of unleavened bread shalt thou keep. Seven days thou shalt eat unleavened bread, as I commanded thee, in the time of the month Abib: for in the month Abib thou camest out from Egypt.
3 All that openeth the matrix is mine; and every firstling among thy cattle, whether ox or sheep, that is male.
4 But the firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb: and if thou redeem him not, then shalt thou break his neck. All the firstborn of thy sons thou shalt redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.
5 Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest: in earing time and in harvest thou shalt rest.
6 And thou shalt observe the feast of weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end.
7 Thrice in the year shall all your menchildren appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.
8 For I will cast out the nations before thee, and enlarge thy borders: neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the Lord thy God thrice in the year.
9 Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven; neither shall the sacrifice of the feast of the passover be left unto the morning.
10 The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring unto the house of the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.
And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words: for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.
But hold on. Didn't Yahweh say he was going to write these out again for Moses in Exodus 34:1? (Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables).

I suppose he has to explain why it took Yahweh forty days and nights to write this stuff out.
And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
This is the first and only use of the phrase 'the ten commandments' in the Bible, apart from in Deuteronomy, where Moses is quoted as saying they are the ones spoken by Yahweh from the 'mount' on the 'day of assembly'.
And he wrote on the tables, according to the first writing, the ten commandments, which the Lord spake unto you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly: and the Lord gave them unto me.
So, someone has got themselves in a right old muddle over the telling of this tale and no one now seems sure exactly which commandments are the ten being written about, how they were announced and to whom.

And someone is obviously still twitchy about this rival molten golden calf god thing.

But where is the resemblance between this list and the one announced to the people from the top of Mount Sinai? (What Is It With The 'Ten Commandments'?). Gone are the unnecessary rules about murder, adultery, coveting, etc, which any decent human society is going to have anyway, and which were almost certainly common to followers of the priests of other gods.

Instead, we have rituals and rules which work out very nicely for the priests: rules about giving them a share of the crops and new-born cattle, apart from asses, obviously. What use would a load of male donkeys be? Much better to have a tasty lamb instead.

And, rather handily, number eight is not so much a rule as a promise by Yahweh which gives the priesthood an excuse for perpetual wars and expansionism at the expense of other people - something which is bound to keep the people on side.

Come on people! Throw your lot in with the Yahwehists! For just a few lambs, some bullocks, and a share of the harvest, you get to go land-grabbing with impunity and can even tell yourself you're being righteous! Got it in writing from Yahweh himself!

I'll bet the other cults didn't offer that, eh?

After that first failed attempt to frighten the people into submission with the Mount Sinai Spectacular, that little incident with the golden calf worked out rather nicely for the Yahwehist, and the new rules even include stuff about giving them some freebies.

Not so sure about the last one though. Maybe someone's mum once made him eat some goat seethed in its mother's milk. Yuk! And what's the point in being a high priest and boss of the people if you can't impose a little food fad on them? At least it didn't include anything about shellfish, what with there not being that many in a desert.

Nice work if you can get it.

But, more to the point, how on earth is this list supposed to have the slightest relevance to anyone today? How on earth can you base society, a moral code and a system of law on this list? It is utterly useless unless you want a wholly agricultural society in which anything goes so long as you don't make molten gods, have a day off once a week, eat ritual food at certain times and remember to give the priests a share of your produce (no donkeys accepted and no seething kids in their mother's milk!)

Oh! You can invade neighbouring countries and take their land, obviously. Tell 'em Yahweh said so.





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Friday, 13 July 2012

What The Ten Commandments Really Tell Us

In this blog I'll look at the story of the so-called 'Ten Commandments' to see how well or badly the Bible's authors managed to connect them with their god and so give them the weight of divine authority. It supposedly took place during the mythical escape from Egypt of a tribe of slaves. What we find is perhaps not what the authors intended us to find and certainly not what today's priesthood would like us to see. What we see is just how radically history was re-written, by whom and why.

There is no extra-biblical historical or archaeological evidence for this Israeli origin myth but that's another matter. Leaving that aside, let's look at what the Bible has to say and see what sense can be made of it, if any.

Firstly, there are strong clues about the beliefs of the person or people who were writing this stuff, and they go some way to explain some of the 'Commandments'. Before we get to the tale proper, we have this interesting little snippet:

And Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Jethro said, Blessed be the Lord, who hath delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh, who hath delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods: for in the thing wherein they dealt proudly he was above them.

Exodus 18:9-11

This is said by Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, 'the priest of Midian' (Exodus 18:1) who was presumably wise in these matters, so we can be fairly sure that the Hebrews were polytheistic and just saw Yahweh as maybe the greatest god, but certainly not the only one on offer. It's rather touching that Moses has to be reassured by his father-in-law that he has chosen his god wisely.

Jethro had happened along to offer Moses some advice, which Moses took. Basically, Jethro told Moses he was doing too much and was going to wear himself out if he didn't take things a bit easier. What he needed was a set of rules, and people to enforce these rules then he wouldn't have to make all the decisions, so why not ask Yahweh for some ideas.

And Moses' father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone.

Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.

Moreover thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens: And let them judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge: so shall it be easier for thyself, and they shall bear the burden with thee.

If thou shalt do this thing, and God command thee so, then thou shalt be able to endure, and all this people shall also go to their place in peace. So Moses hearkened to the voice of his father in law, and did all that he had said.

Exodus 18:17-24

Moses had a direct line to Yahweh and talked to him on almost a daily basis, yet turned to his father-in-law for advice... Hmmm...

Moving swiftly on...

All this supposedly took place in the three months since the Israelites had escaped from Egypt during which all of them had lived through the plagues, seen the 'destruction of the first-born' at Passover and been saved by a streak of lamb's blood over their door. Then they has seen Moses open up the Red Sea to allow them all to walk across on dry land, and the destruction of the Egyptian army when they tried to follow. Then they had been fed by miraculous food and watered by springs which welled up from nowhere on demand. And the reason they had been 'different' to the Egyptians in the first place was because they were devoted followers of Yahweh.

Anyway, after three months they were camped near Mount Sinai so Moses decided to go visit Yahweh atop this mountain, as you do. First of all, Yahweh tells Moses to go back down the mountain and tell the Israelites that they've seen what he can do when he puts his mind to it, so they'd better watch out, yeah?!

And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

Exodus 19:3-6

"It's mine I tell you! All mine! You lot need to remember who's in charge around here and which side your bread is buttered!"

So Moses went back down the mountain and told the Israelites that Yahweh had promised them the earth if they obeyed him and kept his rules. (I wonder if that's where right-wing politicians got their usual campaign tactic from.)

So, all the people agreed and Moses went back up the mountain again to tell Yahweh that the deal was on. "Okay!", said Yahweh, "Give me three days and I'll pop back down and tell them the rules, but they'll have to wash their cloths, right!". Even in a desert Yahweh can't be expected to look at dirty cloths. (Exodus 19:10)

Now it begins to get very strange.

Yahweh tell Moses that he has to set bounds around the mountain to prevent people creeping up for a quick peek and says anyone who looks at him will die. Also, anyone who crosses the 'border' of the mountain or lays a hand on it must be stoned to death and 'shot through', even animals. Luckily there probably weren't many wild animals in the desert or it would have been the devil's own job enforcing that one!

And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.

Exodus 19:11-13

But why the secrecy? Yahweh is going to stage a spectacular appearance to tell the people the new rules, but they mustn't look at him even though he's going to 'come down in the sight of all the people' and they have to keep well clear of the mountain he's standing on!

Can anyone else see the problem here? Where exactly is the border of a mountain? Where does the surrounding land end and the mountain start? Had these people ever actually seen a mountain? Something is beginning to smell a bit ratty here. Must be that desert heat and all those unwashed clothes.

But, a deal is a deal, and Moses tells the people to wash their cloths (no mention of where the water is to come from). "Oh! And no sex either! That'll keep your minds clear!"

And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.

Exodus 19:14-15

Okay! Nobody look at the god!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, amidst lots of thunder, smoke and trumpets when the only things missing were the mirrors, and when Mount Sinai must have resembled a volcano, Moses brought the people to come and meet Yahweh, at which point he discovers that Yahweh may be having a bout of amnesia.

And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.

Exodus 19:18

Yahweh tells him to go back down the mountain and remind the people that they mustn't look at him, and he tells Moses to bring all the priest back with him and has to be reminded that he had said they're to be stoned and shot through if they come too close.

And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them. And Moses said unto the Lord, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.

Exodus 19:21-23

Oops! That was a close one. Good thing Moses was on the ball or that would have been the priesthood done for! But who is this Lord who might 'break forth upon them' anyway? Is it another god or is Yahweh warning Moses that he can't control himself?

Then Yahweh announces his rules by which the people are supposed now to try to build a nation, but, for some reason, the first few are all concerned with Yahweh and his insecurities and the rest just deal with having a day off work every week and list a few social rules which are more or less common to all societies and so would have been observed already.

But one stands out as rather odd:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:4-6

And this follows right on Yahweh telling the Hebrews that they are to have no other gods (plural) but him! Not that there aren't any other gods, mind you; just that the Israelites could only have Yahweh.

Someone is very twitchy about other gods, aren't they. In fact, it is that problem which gets the most attention, with the stuff about the Sabbath being strictly observed because it's Yahweh's special day also being at the top of the list.

Someone here is feeling the competition, not from other gods, but from other priests - the priests of the other gods. In the struggle for power in a polytheist society, the struggle isn't with other gods, it's with the priesthoods of other gods. This was a polytheistic culture where tribes had their own special god.

What we are seeing here is history written by the winners. The fact that they grafted it on to another origin myth is neither here nor there. In fact, the volcano similarity (Mount Sinai isn't volcanic) probably shows this myth originated at some time around the Sodom and Gomorrah period when Yahweh used to destroy places with 'fire and brimstone' and he was very much a capricious, and far from omniscient little god, about as angry and unpredictable as any other volcano and which people could only hope to mollify with spells, incantations and sacrifices.

Mount Sinai's rocks were formed in the late stage of the Arabian-Nubian Shield's (ANS) evolution. Mount Sinai displays a ring complex that consists of alkaline granites intruded into diverse rock types, including volcanics. The granites range in composition from syenogranite to alkali feldspar granite. The volcanic rocks are alkaline to peralkaline and they are represented by subaerial flows and eruptions and subvolcanic porphyry. Generally, the nature of the exposed rocks in Mount Sinai indicates that they originated from different depths.


Of course no one was allowed to see Yahweh. The last thing a high priest wants is for people to see the god he represents - can you work out why?

Of course, Moses had to explain away why he couldn't take the other priests to meet god - yep! same reason.

And of course all the real rules, other than those which normal people obey anyway because they are normal human beings, were about Yahweh! That was the power base of the priesthood which won the struggle.

And that explains also the peculiar little tale told later on when Moses is away for a while, chatting to Yahweh again. When he gets back he discovers that, despite all the things the Israelites are supposed to have witnessed, even hearing the voice of Yahweh himself, some upstart priest has made a golden calf for the people to worship and Moses is losing his grip.

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the Lord. And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

Exodus 32:1-6

So now we see the obsession with not making graven images. A rival priesthood did it. How wicked were they?

Incidentally, did anyone else notice how the 'Ten Commandments' were not cast on tablets of stone, they were announced to the people from a mountain top? We aren't told at this point what was on the tablets of stone - which were produced later, only that there were two of them written on both sides.

And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 31:18

And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.

Exodus 32:5-6

We have to wait till later for that, then we find they were different ones!

Power struggle
It was all nonsense, of course. It's just too implausible to have happened the way the winners wrote it up. Even when the Yahwehists thought they had won the day and imposed their draconian rules, backed by death threats and enforced through fear, ignorance, superstition and essentially arbitrary yet rigidly enforced rituals, dress codes and dietary laws, the people were so unconvinced that they would change their allegiances at the drop of a hat and follow another god whose priesthood had taken advantage of a temporary absence to reasserted their control.

The Old Testament is not a book about God. It's a book about a priesthood and their struggle to retain their power against their deadly rivals - the priesthoods of other gods. It's a thinly disguised re-write of history by the eventual winners. As such it formed a useful platform for the emerging Christian sects to graft their re-write of history onto as they struggled for power against the priesthoods of other gods and other sects.





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