F Rosa Rubicondior: March 2012

Saturday 31 March 2012

Gospel Of Judas

Page 33 of Codex Tchacos, the first page of the Gospel of Judas.
Nope. This isn't an April Fool joke. There really IS a Gospel attributed to Judas Iscariot.

It was written before 180 CE, when Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons, wrote a document railing against it. The only known existing copy - a Coptic version which seems to have been translated from Greek and which was discovered in 1970 near Ben Masah, Egypt - has been carbon dated to between 220 and 340 CE.

It is an account contained within the so-called Codex Tchacos, in which Judas relates how Jesus taught him the secrets of Gnosticism because he alone was capable of understanding them, hence his separation from the other disciples. Judas also relates how he was carrying out Jesus' instructions when he identified him to the Roman soldiers, so ensuring the planned crucifixion went ahead. This would explain the curious paradox of it being Judas who ensured that the 'divine' plan for Jesus' crucifixion happened, whilst Simon Peter tried to stop it, yet Judas is despised and reviled as the archetypal traitor and Simon Peter is the 'rock' upon which the Catholic Church is built.

One thing which is interesting about this document, the so-called Euangelion Ioudas (Gospel of Judas), is that it is one of the earliest recorded extra-biblical mentions of Jesus, and yet it's never cited as evidence for the historicity of the biblical Jesus, at least not the traditional citations.

Christian Democracy.

Have you noticed how a few words just never seem to crop up in the Bible at all. Words like:

  • Democracy
  • Vote
  • Equal/Equality (as it applied to humans one with another)
  • Consensus
  • Parliament
  • Election (as it applies to the selection of representatives

Friday 30 March 2012

Why Should I Be A Vegetarian?

This will no doubt surprise my readers and followers on Twitter, but there is something I'm not sure about.

I'm not a vegetarian, but should I be?

You see, I know all living things are related and I can make a case for all living things being respected and having the right to life. I understand and can follow the logic of Richard Dawkins' illustration of why we should accord our great ape cousins at least some of the rights we grant ourselves. For those who haven't read this, it goes as follows:

Help! What Should I Do?

You know, you'll never believe this but the other day in Oxford I met someone who said he had heard about a man who could do amazing stuff. Some of the things he could do included:
  • Flying. He can just rise up into the air at will and fly about, so he can walk across water without even getting wet feet.
  • Turning things into other things. He can turn water into beer or anything else like wine.
  • Curing sick people. He can tell what's wrong with people, even when they don't know they're sick, and can cure them just by touching them. They even get better just by touching his clothes.
  • Letting people live for ever. Apparently he said if you believe in him you'll never die.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Pull The Other One Matthew!

Michaelangelo, Isaiah
One of the core beliefs of Christianity is that the birth of Jesus was foretold in the Bible. By circular reasoning, they say this:
  1. Proves Jesus is the Messiah
  2. Proves the Bible is their god's word because it makes accurate prophesies
This neatly ignores the fact that the stories of Jesus' birth were written by people who knew the prophecies and wanted us to believe Jesus's birth was prophesied by the then well-known prophets. The prophet they quote is of course Isaiah.

Let's take a look at this prophecy.

And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.

Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD. And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings. The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.

Isaiah 7:1-17

(Love the prickly pear cactus not introduced to the Middle East from the
Americas before the Sixteenth Century. Another prophecy?)
Isaiah then writes a lot of dire apocalyptic stuff about flies and bees and shaving (honestly!) and a man rearing a cow and some sheep. In the next chapter he takes a couple of paragraphs to boast about impregnating a prophetess (no ordinary woman for Isaiah!) claiming God told him to write in her with his 'man pen' (Isaiah 8:1-3). But let's not delve too far into Isaiah obvious ego mania here but just stick with this particular prophecy of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son who will be called Immanuel.

Firstly, this is quite probably a mistranslation. The original Hebrew text uses the term almah meaning 'young woman', that is, a girl who had not reached puberty. The Hebrew for virgin is bethulah. It has been argued that these two terms are synonyms but they are not. Almah would not be used to describe a sexually mature virgin and an almah may not necessarily have been a virgin. Almah clearly refers to the girl's physiological state and bethulah to her physical condition, or more precisely whether her hymen is intact or not.

So, when we see:

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Matthew 1:23

we can be sure that Matthew was using a Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, in which the Hebrew alma had been wrongly translated as παρθένα (parthenos). And this is a fairly good indication that he was trying to make sure his story had some scriptural basis and also that he was more familiar with Greek than with Hebrew.

Another problem with Matthew's use of this 'prophecy' is that nowhere else in the Bible is either the Messiah or Jesus ever referred to as Immanuel or Emmanuel.

But that is not the main problem with this prophecy.

The 'prophecy' very clearly, in the context of Chapters 7 and 8 of the Book of Isaiah is dealing with immediate events. Indeed in Chapter 8, almost casually, Isaiah refers to what seems to be his son by the prophetess whom he impregnated with his 'man pen', as O Immanuel. But the entire point of the prophecy seems to be that while this child is still young the enemies of Jerusalem will be defeated. And surely, for the supposed son of the Christian god, there would never be a time 'before [he] shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good' (Isaiah 7:16) would there?

But even that is not the major objection to this being a prophecy about Jesus, whom, so it is claimed, was sent to Earth to provide mankind with henceforth the only way to salvation and eternal life in Heaven.

The main objection is: if God had already decided that a Messiah was what mankind needed, and that this was the way he was going to do it, why did he wait so long before providing that means? Biblical scholars date the 66 books of Isaiah as written by several authors between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE with the relevant Chapter 7 written in the eighth.

We are expect to believe that, having decided what mankind needed was a saviour Messiah to be sacrificed for our sins, and having told Isaiah to tell us about it, this 'omnibenevolent' god then waited another 800 years before providing it!

But i the supposed need for a saviour goes right back to the notion of Original Sin by Adam and Eve, so why, if God knew it was going to need the sacrifice of his son, Jesus, to empower him to forgive us for that 'sin', why didn't he just impregnate Eve, have Adam kill her baby and have done with it? Why wait all that time, during which, presumably, tens of thousands, even millions of people had died without accepting Jesus, so were condemned to hellfire by God's indolence. Pull the other one...

Tuesday 27 March 2012

God's Body

What's this strange passage from the Christian Bible all about?

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:26-27

Think about this for a moment. Oh, I know die-hard Christians will say this refers to some sort of 'spiritual' image or likeness, whatever that is, but that can be easily dismissed. The word 'image' refers to something you can see. At a stretch it can mean a mental picture of something. So it very clearly means in the physical likeness of this god; looking like it, and whoever else it was referring to by 'our image'.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Memes And Genes: A Small Difference

Reading the introduction to Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" by Richard Dawkins, I came across a superb illustration of how memes can act just like genes and can give rise the a different phenotype.

Supposing a Martian geneticist visited Earth and carried out a study of humans, one thing would almost immediately recognised as a phenotypic difference between males. He would notice that some males have foreskins and some do not.

This set me thinking about how said Martian might interpret this and how this could lead to scientific discoveries maybe new to Martian science, some of which might be counterintuitive and hard for a Martian to believe.

To avoid some people's delicate sensitivities in these things, let's call these Type A and Type B males.

If this Martian geneticist knew nothing of human cultures and religions or about the memes by which we inherit these things, it would appear exactly as though this condition was genetically inherited. By and large, Type A males would have Type A fathers and, in those instances where they were not, looking at their grandparents might show interesting patterns of inheritance:
  1. Maternal grandfather has the same Type as the grandson but the paternal grandfather has the other Type.
  2. Paternal grandfather has the same Type as the grandson but the maternal grandfather has the other Type.
  3. Neither of the grandfathers has the same Type as the grandson.

Moon's Origin. Have I Missed Something Here?

Findings Cast Doubt on Moon Origins - ScienceNOW:

I confess to being puzzled by the above article from Science NOW. The argument goes:

Most scientists believe Earth collided with a hypothetical, Mars-sized planet called Theia early in its existence, and the resulting smash-up produced a disc of magma orbiting our planet that later coalesced to form the moon.

One way to test the hypothesis is to look at the isotopes of particular elements in rocks returned from the moon. Atoms of most elements can occur in slightly different forms, called isotopes, with slightly different masses. Oxygen, for example, has three isotopes: 16O, 17O and 18O, indicating differences in the number of neutrons each nucleus contains. Compare any two samples of oxygen found on Earth and you'll find the proportions of 16O, 17O and 18O isotopes are almost identical in the two samples. The proportions found in samples from meteorites and other planets like Mars, however, are usually different. So if you find that a sample has the same oxygen isotope composition as one from Earth, then it's very likely the sample came from our world.

Previous research has established that the oxygen isotope composition of lunar samples is indistinguishable from that of Earth. Since 40% of the moon is supposed to have come from Theia (which presumably would have had a different isotope composition), this might spell trouble for the giant impact hypothesis. But it's possible that Earth may have exchanged oxygen gas with the magma disk that later formed the Moon shortly after the collision, explaining why the results are the same.

In the new research, published online today in Nature Geoscience, geochemists led by Junjun Zhang at the University of Chicago in Illinois, together with a colleague at the University of Bern in Switzerland, looked at titanium isotopes in 24 separate samples of lunar rock and soil. The proportion of 50Ti to 47Ti is another good indicator of whether a sample came from Earth, and, just as with oxygen, the researchers found the moon's proportion was effectively the same as Earth's and different from elsewhere in the solar system. Zhang explains that it's unlikely Earth could have exchanged titanium gas with the magma disk because titanium has a very high boiling point. "The oxygen isotopic composition would be very easily homogenized because oxygen is much more volatile, but we would expect homogenizing titanium to be very difficult."

I'm no cosmologist, but to me it makes perfect sense for the resulting planet and the accretion disc of resulting magma to be fairly well homogenised on impact rather than the accretion disc being derived mostly from one or the other planet, so I would have thought a result showing the the proportions of 50Ti and 47TI being indistinguishable between the lunar and earth samples was a good indicator of a common origin rather than evidence against it.

But maybe I've misunderstood something...

'via Blog this'

Friday 23 March 2012

C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 3

The Argument From Objective Morality.

The third in a series looking at C.S.Lewis' arguments for the Christian God.

This argument can be dismissed fairly easily. In essence it goes as follows:

  1. Objective morals can only come from God.
  2. Objective morals exist.
  3. Therefore God exists.

Objective morals can only come from God.

Of course, Lewis was writing and broadcasting before the discovery of memes as units of cultural inheritance. Like Paley with his watch analogy, which he devised before Darwin had discovered a far more vicarious and logical explanation for the appearance of design in living things, Lewis was not aware of a perfectly rational explanation of a cultural origin of morals and of their evolution and the evolution of cultures containing them.

Thursday 22 March 2012

C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 2

The Trilemma. The second in a series looking at C.S.Lewis' Christian apologetics.

The trilemma argument says you must choose between believing Jesus was one of:
  1. Lunatic.
  2. Liar.
  3. Lord.

It would be doing Lewis an injustice to blame him for thinking up this appallingly dishonest argument all by himself because it was used at least as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century by preachers like Mark Hopkins, John Duncan, Reuben Archer Torrey and others, but his or not, C.S.Lewis found it to be a nice little earner, and got a BBC Radio series and a book, Mere Christianity, out of it.

It has been described as "The most important argument in Christian Apologetics" by other Christian apologists like Peter Kreeft. No! Seriously! I have certainly heard it delivered almost verbatim by some Anglican bishop or other on BBC Radio 4's Thought For Today; a religious interlude which is inserted for some unknown reason in an otherwise serious morning news programme. Nice work if you can get it.

Of course, all Lewis is doing here is producing an extended version of the false dichotomy fallacy. This fallacy is where the proponent of an otherwise unsupportable idea tries to present it as a choice between that and something completely absurd, or as the only reasonable choice. You see this used a lot when creationists attack science expecting you to believe that if science is wrong about something, the only alternative is to believe their favourite locally popular god must have been responsible. It only works if you fall for the idea that: a) science is wrong and; b) there is no other possible explanation, like a different scientific explanation, a different god, etc.

All the 'Trilemma' does is present a third option, a false trichotomy, in the hope that you won't think of a fourth, fifth or sixth, or more.

For example, there are at least two more which could (should?) be added:
  1. Made Up.
  2. Legendary.

Reading the Bible, which is, after all, the primary (indeed, only) source of any information about Jesus, and which Lewis himself used as his source of information, and seeing the several confused and often contradictory accounts of his life and teaching in it, the most vicarious explanation is one of these two, not one of the three Lewis presents as the only choices. I have previously written about these muddles and contradictions here and here.

This is also borne out by biblical historians, few, if any, would argue that: a) the Gospels were written by four different eye-witnesses to the accounts they describe; or b) that they were written contemporaneously with those events. There is very clearly development of a legend either based on a real figure or on one derived from several Jewish activists and teachers onto which the idea that he was a manifestation of the Jewish god Yahweh seems to have been grafted using old prophecies, mistranslated where necessary, to give it credence.

C.S.Lewis must have been aware of these possibilities yet chose to ignore them and present us with a narrow choice, the first two of which were almost unthinkable in those days - and indeed I know of no Atheist arguments that proposes that Jesus was mad and/or a liar, although suffering from some sort of psychosis can't be ruled out as a visit to practically any psychiatric ward can testify.

In effect, Lewis was arguing that Jesus must be God or you must be stupid. Only stupid people don't agree with Clive Staples Lewis!

And this is a person who earned his living as a thinker!

C.S.Lewis, You Cannot Be Serious! 1

Clive Staples Lewis
(29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963)
C.S.Lewis' renowned 'Argument From Desire' is one of Christian apologetic's more popular arguments for the existence of the Christian god.

It is also one of his more laughable arguments, of which there were several, and it is of course, like all apologetics, dishonestly presuppositional in that is assumes the answer then inserts that into the argument to make it come out the way the apologist wanted.

And the sheer arrogance of it is breathtaking!

Briefly, his argument was, "Every desire is necessarily a desire for something, and every natural desire must have some object that will satisfy it. Since humans desire the joy and experience of God, therefore there must be a God that will satisfy our desires." And of course that god must be the locally popular one!

He stated it reasonably concisely:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called "falling in love" occurred in a sexless world.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Why We Need To Understand Evolution.

One of the things a proper understanding of evolution teaches us is humility. When I say a proper understanding, I don't mean to the sort of depths to which a research biologist would go, just the sort of level of understanding that you can get by reading a book or two written by people like Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould for people who don't have degrees in biology.

One of the things you learn is just how wrong your pre-conceptions were. For example, I bet most people who thought they knew what evolution was about, and who hadn't rejected it out of hand on religious grounds, thought evolution was all about some sort of 'ladder of evolution' with life arranged in a hierarchy with less evolved creatures at the bottom, leading up through more evolved creatures like reptiles, then mammals with apes towards the top and humans sitting on the top rung as the most highly evolved, and therefore most superior, of all life. Animals which obviously weren't ancestral to humans, like elephants, giraffes or bears, were just left clinging to the sides of the ladder, looking like mistakes and having no useful purpose other than as food, clothing or ornaments for humans.

The 'social Darwinists' took this one step further and arranged human life in the same sort or hierarchy, with, of course, their own 'race', and even their own social class, being the most evolved, so, sitting right on the top-most rung of this ladder of evolution sat the ruling class of the superior race with the others arranged in descending order below them so the lower orders of the lesser races were little different to the animals below them.

A basic understanding of evolution changes all that. With a basic understanding comes the realization that evolution is all about life diversifying like a branching tree and not one species giving birth to a more highly evolved one which in turn produces another 'new improved' model.

A basic understanding of evolution shows us that all species evolve and that every one is at the top of it's own 'ladder' of evolution with the rungs below occupied only by its direct ancestors. Humans are nothing special at all in this respect and the idea that one human race has more highly evolved skin, hair, noses or brains is incomprehensible. Whatever shape or colour we are is merely the result of our particular evolutionary line. We have all been evolving for the same amount of time. And the same goes for every other species, no matter that it has features which were found in our common ancestors. A lizard is not just an under-evolved mammal; it is a fully evolved lizard. A fern is not a plant that hasn't yet learned to grow flowers and bear fruit; it is a fully evolved fern, no less perfectly adapted to its environment than a rose bush or a daisy.

This realisation is humbling. It is humbling to know that, in the grand scheme of things, you are the result of billions of iterations of the perfecting mechanism of natural selection; that you are the descendant of survivors who never failed the fitness test. But mostly, it's humbling to know that so is everything else.

But there is another way in which an understanding of evolution is humbling; and this form of humility is something we are sadly lacking but desperately need right now.

Evolution is not, at its fundamental level, just about evolving genes. All replicators in a selective environment will evolve. As writers like Susan Blackmore have shown, humans, and to a lesser extent other species, have another set of replicators in addition to their genes. We have memes. Memes are units of cultural inheritance which we pass on to the next generation and, like genes, they form mutually beneficial alliances and 'memeplexes' which can behave in many ways like genes for skin colour, hair type, shape of nose or epicathic eye flaps. And of course a component part of most human cultures is a memeplex we call religion.

Our cultures are inherited in our memes but, unlike our genes which are fixed at conception, our memetic cultures are changeable. We can actually change our memes at will. Maybe not easily but we can do it. We can, if we wish and if we make the effort, move to another country, learn their language and songs, adopt their traditions and superstitions.

And this is where a basic understanding of evolution helps us understand cultures. One of the inherited memes common to just about all cultures is that our particular culture sits at the top of a ladder of cultural development, just like the mistaken view of evolution I've just described. But of course we know that, since all cultures are the result of an evolutionary process, and that all cultures have been evolving for the same amount of time, that all cultures are equally evolved.

This means there is no such thing as a superior culture or an inferior culture. And this explains why people get upset when you tell them your culture is the best and that they should become more like you if they want to be fully developed and 'normal'. It also explains why other people get upset when you assume they would be like you if only they had the where-with-all or that they are just longing to be like you if only their corrupt government would let them. And it explains why people get upset when you tell them they have the wrong religion.

If we could really understand this quite simple fact, it would then be less of a shock to find, when you invade their countries to overthrow their government, they don't dance in the streets and greet you with wild enthusiasm, grateful that you've come to teach them better ways, but that they are more likely to try to throw you out at the earliest opportunity.

In fact it should be no surprise that they react in exactly the same way that you would if they invaded your country or told you you have an inferior religion and need their help to learn the right one.

But then, if we understood that we're are all as good and worthwhile as one another, there would not be these wars and invasions in the first place and people would not kill one another in order to find out who has the best imaginary invisible friend and who is the one who knows the real truth.

None of this should really be surprising since human culture is merely an aspect of human biology and human biology is merely biology, of which evolution is a fundamental principle.

If we could only grasp that simple idea which a basic understanding of evolution and of the memetic nature of human culture can give us, we could end cultural chauvinism. Just as we are beginning to understand that we are better than no one and no one is better than us; that our race and our species are better than no other and none are better than ours, we should be beginning to understand that our culture is better than no other and none are better than ours.

Like us and our species and all living things, our cultures are all winners in the fitness test of evolution.

An understanding of physics and chemistry gave us weapons of mass destruction. An understanding of biology might just prevent us killing ourselves with them.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Creationists' Macroevolution Lie

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
Linnet Carduelis cannabina
Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis
Crossbill Loxia curvirostra
Siskin Carduelis spinus
Okay, let's look at the difference between so-called macroevolution and microevolution with a little mind experiment. There will be a questions at the end, so make sure you keep up as we go along.

Suppose we have a species of finch living in Europe before the last Ice Age and living on, say, various small seeds, pretty much as the goldfinch does now.

The shape and strength of this finch's beak will be determined by a few genes. Maybe one controlling the size and another controlling the muscles which work it. It really doesn't matter for our mind experiment exactly how many or what each does, we can think of them collectively as a 'beak gene' so long as we remember we are using the term 'gene' here as a shorthand for maybe a collection of genes.

As with any other gene there will be slight variations which will be inherited by offspring and which may make the beak better or worse at eating this or that food.

Now, imagine the ice sheets gradually extending from the north as the Ice Age sets in, and pushing the finch's range south, together with some of its food plants, some of which may well become extinct in the process, forcing the finch to adapt to other foods. Also, as its range moves south it may come into contact with new food plants which weren't available in the north.

Our finch will eventually find itself split into two or three isolated populations: one in the Iberian Peninsula; one in Italy and maybe a third in the Balkans, each with its own distinct mixture and availability of different foods.

These food plants will also be adapting, driven by the presence of our finches. Those seeds which have a harder case won't get eaten and so will produce more offspring with those harder seed cases than the soft-cased seeds and the finches with stronger beaks will be able to eat them, so the beaks will tend to get stouter and stronger. So we may have an arms-race developing in, for example Italy which leads to finches with short, strong beaks good at cracking seeds.

Meanwhile in Iberia, another food plant may be be more successful if it can protect its seed at the end of a tube which only the finches with the thinnest beaks can reach, so another arms-race may develop in which the winning finches are those with long, curved beaks.

And maybe in the Balkan Peninsula another arms race has produced finches which didn't need to change much from the original finch.

Now, thinking back to our 'beak gene': all that has happened in our three populations is that variations in this gene have been selected by the different environments in what creationists would call microevolution. Small steps at a time with each generation being filtered by the environment by natural selection so that gradually, and in line with changes in the finches' environments, differences have arisen in the three populations as each had adapted and become specialised for that populations environment. In one population one set of variant will have come to dominate in the gene pool; in another population, a different set will dominate.

Now, have we got three different species, three races of the same species, or three different subspecies? In fact, at that point in the finch's evolutionary history the question is entirely academic and of no biological significance whatsoever because the populations can't interbreed anyway, being physically isolated.

The test will come when the ice retreats and the populations move north again, together with their food plants. If their food plants don't extend their range northwards than the finches might not either, even if they could. But let's assume they do so.

Let's assume also that the only change in their genomes has been in the 'beak gene'. Admittedly, this is unlikely because other environmental factors will have been moulding other genes which will also be microevolving, but, to illustrate a point, let's just stick with the 'beak gene'.

If that has been the only change than the populations would almost certainly be able to interbreed, so at that point in their evolution they would at best be varieties or maybe subspecies, but what sort of beak would their offspring have? The probability is that they would have some sort of intermediate beak. But what use is an intermediate length stoutish beak when you need to reach seeds at the end of a long, thin tube? What use would it be for cracking tough seed husks?

What we would now have is an environment in which the offspring of those finches which DID interbreed were being selected out by starvation whilst anything which acted to prevent interbreeding would be highly favourable and so variations such as different display plumages, mating rituals, territorial songs, etc., which made interbreeding less likely would be favoured. As with 'beak genes', genes allowing interbreeding are now being selected against and variations of those same genes which inhibit it are being selected for, so changing their frequency in the respective gene pools, just as happened with 'beak genes' because of a different set of environmental forces.

Monday 19 March 2012

So You Think You Don't Believe In Evolution?

It's really very simple.

The problem with creationists is they've been made to believe evolution is either something really complicated and hard to understand, or else it's something really stupid that no sane person could believe, like monkeys having human babies or crocodiles changing into ducks.

It's neither.

In fact it's something so simple that no sane person could not believe it. There are only three things needed for evolution to happen.
  1. Inheritance of physical characteristics.
  2. Imperfect reproduction of those characteristics to give variation.
  3. An environment which favours some variations over others making it more likely they will be passed on to the next generation.

Does anyone seriously doubt any of these? If so which?

Inheritance of physical characteristics? Haven't you noticed how children usually look quite a lot like their parents? Haven't you noticed how fish tend to have fish offspring and birds tend to have offspring which look a lot like themselves?

Imperfect reproduction of those characteristics? Haven't you ever noticed how you can tell the difference between individuals of many species? How some individuals have different colours to others or different markings? How some individuals are bigger or smaller or faster or fatter or thinner?

An environment which favours some variations over others? Do you think an animal which gets eaten is going to have more offspring on average than one which doesn't? Do you think an animal which finds food more easily is going to produce fewer offspring than one which can't get enough to eat? Or do you think this won't make any difference? How about an individual who finds a mate more easily than another or who rears its young more successfully? Which do you think is going to produce the most descendants on average?

So, if you believe evolution doesn't happen, you have to tell me what is impossible in any of these steps. Simply repeating a dogma in the face of the logic won't work. You have to say why.

If you can't tell me that, you have to tell me why these three simple steps don't lead to more of the physical characteristics which were favoured by the environment being present in the next generation, and so the ratio of those different characteristics changing over time in such a way as to make the individuals carrying them better at surviving and producing offspring in that particular environment?

Because, if you can't, you don't disagree with evolution even though you wish you did and even though you might have a book which says it doesn't happen. In fact, if you can't tell me why this is wrong you're agreeing that evolution not only happens but that evolution must happen if those three simple steps are present.

In other words, if you accept these three simple step occur, then you believe in evolution just as completely as does any evolutionist.

So, anyone willing to tell me why evolution can't happen - and so prove they don't believe in evolution?

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Saturday 17 March 2012

Saint Patrick

Written words, for some reason, seem to have added power as though truth can exist in a book, especially when written long ago.

St. Patrick was probably the first Bishop of Armagh. Despite countless stories and legends, very little is actually known about him with any certainty. The account of his capture by Irish pirates and enslavement, then subsequent escape, are taken from his Confession which is the second oldest document in Irish history; the oldest being a letter of excommunication from Patrick to the soldiers of King Coroticus (probably Caracticus who may have been Irish or British) for murdering some of his converts and enslaving others.

According to this Confession, which seems to have been written to the British clergy to justify his claim to jurisdiction over the island of Ireland, he was captured by slave-raiders from Ireland and spent 6 years as a slave before escaping and returning to his home in Britain. He was probably the son of a Roman-British official of some importance whom Patrick says was a deacon, himself the son of a priest. If the slave-raid is genuine this would place Patrick somewhere on the West coast of Britain, probably between Cumbria and West Wales. He seems to have been fluent in Latin and may well have spoke Welsh, then the native British language south of the Scottish central valley and possibly north of it.

Ireland had been completely untouched by the Romans and consisted of a loose federation of warring chiefs and petty kings who nominally owed allegiance to a 'High King' of Tara (a sacred hill in Central Ireland) and subscribed to the 'Brehon Law', a Celtic tradition by which contracts, land disputes, marriage, etc, were settled. Patrick describes Ireland as 'in ultimis terrae' (at the ends of the earth) and 'usque ubi nemo ultra est' (as far as where there is no one beyond). The religion was essentially Druidic where the earth was a spirit with whom the High King symbolically united at his coronation, the ghosts of legendary ancestors stalked the land and an earlier people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, still lived underground.

In his Confession, Patrick claims to have been untaught and lacking in fluency, however, the construction of his arguments and his obvious mastery of Latin in the very document in which he makes that claim have led scholars to doubt this claim.

After his putative escape from slavery he trained for the priesthood and was eventually ordained as a bishop. He tells of a dream in which the people from 'Silva Vocluti' near the 'western sea' were calling him to come and walk with them once more, so he decided to return to Ireland and never seems to have left.

Whatever his motives and whatever the truth of his enslavement was, he quickly seems to have gained some authority amongst the scattered Christian communities which had already been established in the island. He had the backing of the Ui Néill with their considerable military and political power centred on Armagh which became the centre of the St. Patrick cult, one of several Christian cults in Ireland. The primacy of Armagh, and with it the cult of St. Patrick was papally endorsed in 1111.

One of the legendary 'contributions' St. Patrick made to Irish social and political development was the integration of the Brehon Law with Christianity, though this can be seen as a virtual replacement. The probably apocryphal story is that Patrick called all the chiefs together and went through each of the traditional laws explaining to them where they were right and proper according to the Bible and where they needed 'improving'. One of the 'improvements' was in stripping women of the right to property, inheritance, political power and divorce which they had enjoyed under the Celtic traditional law, which the entirely male chieftainship seems readily to have agreed.

The strategy Patrick adopted seems to have been the one the Pope told St. Augustine to use in his mission to the Anglo-Saxons. It was the one which, judging by the multitude of local legendary saints found throughout France, Spain, Wales and elsewhere, seems to have been routinely employed by Christian missionaries, that of converting the religion, not the people.

The Christian Celtic church which Patrick established in Ireland gave rise in turn to the Columban Church established by Colum Cille, or St. Columba, who was himself from the Ui Néill and influential among the Scoti tribe which established the kingdom of Dal Riata based in Antrim, in Northern Ulster and extending across the Hebrides into Western Scotland. The term 'Scoti', originally the Roman name for the Irish, so gave us the name 'Scotland'.

Through St.Columba, Christianity was spread to the Picts of Scotland to establish Christianity in the North of Britain from where it penetrated Northumbria, one of the (then pagan) Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had replaced Roman rule in England. The Irish Church had also penetrated Wales, especially the South West at St Davids and, so it is claimed, had supplied teachers and missionaries to the emerging Christian church in France. It was probably in France where Patrick had trained for the priesthood.

The Celtic Church, although nominally recognising the Pope in Rome as the head of the church, was for practical purposes, autonomous, and had it's own date for Easter, then the most important Christian festival, and an issue which still divides the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

This issue was eventually settled at the Synod of Whiby, ostensibly called to settle the dating of Easter but actually to establish the authority of Rome over the Celtic Church and so the supremacy of the Augustinian Church based in Canterbury over the Columban Church, the political supremacy of the Anglo-Saxons over the Celts and of Wessex over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

One of the supreme ironies of Irish history is that the confiscated land of the last Earl of Ulster and last Gaelic Chief of Ireland, Hugh O'Neil, of the Ui Néill, direct descendent of Niall of the Nine Hostages, was the land upon which the Ulster Plantation was established and through which a concerted effort was made by the English to replace and expunge the Catholic Church which Patrick, through the Ui Néill, had originally helped to established.

But maybe the most interesting thing about St. Patrick, certainly from the point of view of an Atheist and anyone interested in how legends and myths grow and develop, are the many stories and legends about St. Patrick's magical powers. Stories about banishing snakes from Ireland, crossing the River Loire using his cloak as a raft and then hanging it on a bush which promptly burst into flower, of healing the sick and curing the blind, of defeating the Devil in combat. There is no evidence for any of these things; they are fanciful stories woven around a historical figure who has been given exaggerated and elaborate powers which exist only in the imagination of the story-teller.

For example, the story that Patrick banished the snakes seems to have been invented in the 12th century by a Northumbrian monk named Jocelyn, whom the wife of the Anglo-Norman John De Courcy brought to her husband’s court in Downpatrick. The Graeco-Roman writer Solinus had already recorded the fact that Ireland was snake-free a good two hundred years before St. Patrick was born.

These stories tell us little of the actual person, but a great deal about the thinking of those who invented them and the culture from whence they came. A culture in which it was believed magic could be done with words and gestures, where animals obeyed the will of humans and a world populated by spirits and ghosts and where the Devil was fully expected to make a personal appearance. When collections of these myths and legends acquire the proclaimed sanctity of holy writ the stories become no more believable and no less magical than when they were invented and written down in the first place and yet many people believe they do.

I wonder what the resulting religion would have been had the stories of St Patrick and his magical powers ever gained the status of holy writ like the legends about Jesus did, instead of remaining attached to the religion and the culture which spawned them.

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Reassuring Christians

It must be reassuring to Christians to read their Bible and discover that Jesus was a hypocrite too.

Where Have All The Miracles Gone?

Mythology is full of stories of divine interventions; of things magically happening before people's eyes; of dragon's teeth turning into heavily-armoured soldiers; of burning bushes talking; of magic trees with magic fruit and talking snakes. We are told of giants rising up from the sea; of kings who could turn stuff into gold by touching it; of wolves rearing human children; of people being swallowed by great fish and walking out of them unharmed three days later.

If these myths are to be believed wooded staves could turn into snakes; whole armies could hide inside a wooden horse; whole seas could be made to open up to allow people to walk across them; laws could appear written on tablets of

Friday 16 March 2012

A Question Of Integrity

Very much has been written and said over the last few weeks about the Oxford debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and senior cleric of the Anglican Church.

Unfortunately, because there was a great deal more said which was of greater interest to both sides of the debate, almost all comment was focussed on Dawkins' acknowledgement that he was actually agnostic about the existence of a god because he could never be 100% certain about anything.

To those who know of Richard Dawkins work and his commitment to the scientific method, and especially to those who have read "The God Delusion", this was no surprise at all because he says exactly that in it. Indeed it would have been astonishing and completely out of character if he had said anything else in response to that question.

No scientist who values his/her reputation for intellectual honesty and integrity would ever claim to be one hundred percent certain about anything. Indeed, uncertainty is the very thing which drives scientific enquiry and hence scientific progress.

Uncertainty is a fundamental scientific principle, and not just at the particle physics level. The door is always left open to the possibility of any scientific theory being shown to be wrong, no matter how unlikely. About the nearest thing to certainty in science is the idea that there are no certainties.

What has gone almost without comment however was Rowan Williams' response to Richard Dawkins' answer, and especially what that revealed about his personal integrity and religion's regard for truth and honesty. One would have expected someone who values intellectual honesty to have applauded his answer and to have complimented Dawkins on his integrity, at the same time having the good grace to acknowledge that he can't be 100% certain that a god does exist.

Instead, Williams significantly passed over that opportunity and laughs along with the audience (1:11:45 in this video) then sits back and smiles beatifically as though he's just scored a point simply by sitting and listening. And so he betrayed his lack of personal integrity and lack of good grace. And this for someone who would claim to be an intellectual and guardian of the Anglican Community's morals!

Why does he do this?

Simply because, for someone in his position, where the whole edifice of the 'faith' he ministers to, and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods, even the slightest admission of uncertainty would be disastrous. To have the Archbishop of Canterbury admitting to being agnostic about the Christian God would be unthinkable, no matter how demonstrably true it may be.

Williams knows full well that selling the delusion of certainty to people who crave it is what the entire Christian Church exists for. The existence of the Church and the perpetuation of that lie is far more important to the priesthood than mere intellectual honesty.

For Rowan Williams, it would be more than his job's worth to admit the simple truth that there is no certainty, even, and especially, when it comes to questions about the existence of gods.

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Thursday 15 March 2012

A Bedtime Story For Christian Children

This nice little bedtime story for children is from the Bible. It is almost guaranteed to make your children grow up respecting priests and loving God.

Once upon a time in the city of Jericho there was a spring without any water, so no one could grow any food because the ground was too dry. So the men of the town told a kind priest who had been given special magic powers by God.

The priest said there was no water because the water was sick so he sent the men to get him some salt which he sprinkled on the ground where water should have been coming from. Somehow, that did the trick and the water was healed so the townsfolk had some water again.

Then the priest went out of the town gates where some children teased him because he was bald so the priest used his special magic powers to make two bears come out of the woods and eat forty two of the children. The children's mummies and daddies didn't mind because they probably thought their children deserved to be eaten by bears for teasing a kind priest just because he was bald.

Then the kind priest went away and lived happily ever after. The people of the town still remember how kind he had been to them and the wonderful things he did.

2 Kings 2:19-25

Goodnight children. Sweet dreams!

Tomorrow we'll have a story about a special fire for burning and torturing people in if they do what the priests say.

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When The Conclusion Is Sacred Facts Must Be Ignored

'Red Deer Cave Man'
From Longlin cave in Guangxi province, China.
Photograph: Darren Curnoe
'Red Deer Cave people' may be new species of human | Guardian

We are in for a treat as creationists show us how they cope with a new piece of scientific data.

A team of Chinese and Australian palaeoanthropologists recently announced the discovery of hominid remains in a couple of sites in South China which "... are unlike recent populations of modern humans in several respects, and the mosaic of more archaic features could indicate the dispersal of a poorly known and more primitive form of modern human that left Africa before the main exodus at about 60,000 years. This dispersal could have reached as far as China, surviving there for many millennia, before disappearing in the last 12,000 years."

These remains have been dated using both carbon dating and uranium-thorium dating to be between 11,500 and 14,300 years old.

The difficulty now is determining how and where these people fit in the Homo branch of the evolutionary tree. I recently wrote about the difficulty taxonomists face when trying to fit archaic specimens into a taxonomic system designed primarily for classifying living organisms.

These undoubted humans lived at a time when fully modern Homo sapiens lived to the south and east of their known range and had already developed agriculture, and yet they may not have interbred with them. This would imply a different species incapable of interbreeding successfully.

Bull's Eye!

Stand a scientist in front of a dart board and he/she will throw the darts at it, then walk up to the board, look at where on the board the darts landed, add up the numbers and declare the score.

Even not particularly scientifically minded people will normally play darts this way too.

What they won't normally do is throw the darts at a wall then draw a bull's eye round them and declare themselves the winner. Well, not if they don't want to be the laughing stock of the pub and get themselves barred for damaging the wall.

Yet religious people, and especially creationists and professional apologists, do exactly that when you try to debate with them. There's you trying to make a point with evidence and explaining what it means and why it doesn't mean something else. Then, often when you've just hit 180 and want double top for out, they pluck a 'fact' from thin air, define it as proof of their god and declare victory.

And you're just left there, bemused that any normal adult ever imagined that was how you played the game, without ever wondering why normal people don't play it that way.

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Monday 12 March 2012

An Unholy Alliance

Poverty Religion Education Wilfred R Martin
There appears to be an unholy trinity at work in human populations. This trinity results in people being more overtly religious; more fundamentally religious and more aggressively religious.

The three components of this trinity are:
  • Poverty
  • Ignorance either from under-education or educational under-achievement
  • Fervent or militant religiosity

There are several studies into the link between poverty and religiosity.

This report by Barry Ritholtz, More Poverty = More Religion, used polling data from a Gallop study and represents the results graphically. The conclusion was 'The more poverty a nation has, the higher the “religiosity” in that nation. In general, richer countries are less religious than poorer ones.' The study also noted that 'The United States, which has the highest religiosity relative to its wealth on the planet' is an outlier, as is readily seen on the chart.

A 2009 study by Dr Tomas Rees published in Journal of Religion and Society (Vol 11) found 'Income inequality, and hence personal insecurity, was ... an important determinant of religiosity...'

So the apparent anomaly of the United States shown in the Gallop survey may be because, whilst absolute poverty is less marked there, income inequality (that is the gap between the richest and poorest) is actually higher than in many middle-income countries.

The link between education and religion per se is not so clear cut as that between income inequality and religiosity.

In the United States, religious attendance rises sharply with education across individuals, but religious attendance declines sharply with education across denominations. This puzzle is explained if education both increases the returns to social connection and reduces the extent of religious belief. The positive effect of education on sociability explains the positive education-religion relationship. The negative effect of education on religious belief causes more educated individuals to sort into less fervent religions, which explains the negative relationship between education and religion across denominations. Cross-country differences in the impact of education on religious belief can explain the large cross-country variation in the education-religion connection. These cross-country differences in the education-belief relationship can be explained by political factors (such as communism) which lead some countries to use state-controlled education to discredit religion.

Glaeser, E.L. and Sacerdote, B.I.; "Education And Religion"; Journal of Human Capital (2, 2 (Summer 2008): 188-215)

So it would seem that religious belief is not reduced by education as such, but that the propensity for more fervent, fundamentalist religions is reduced in better-educated societies. However, this data is possibly complicated by the association with the more fundamentalist religions being followed predominantly by the less educated social groups, which invariably are also the lower income groups.

It appears that the link between income inequality, or relative poverty and fundamentalism is the stronger of the two with that between (lack of) education and religion possibly being a consequence of the link between them.

The reason for this is probably to be found in the hope that religion gives to people who really have little to hope for in their lives; people who through a combination of race, social status, neighbourhood and/or lack of education, can see what the better off and the super-rich have and know that it's beyond their reach. People who have, for all practical purpose, no realistic prospect of escape from poverty and hopelessness other than by bringing about a fundamental change in the political system; a system which is dominated by the haves and the have mores and from which they have become increasingly distanced and disenfranchised by its irrelevance to them and their resulting apathy towards it.

Is it really surprising that people from whom all realistic hope for a better life in this life has been taken would fall prey to those who sell them the notion of a better life some day in another one, when all it takes is a donation (to show Jesus how much you love him), an hour or so in church on Sunday, and singing a few songs at the top of your voice to shout down your doubts?

It it really surprising that people who are at the bottom of the social order like to pretend to be superior because they have a special friend in a mega-powerful god and a 'personal relationship' with the creator of everything? And is it surprising that people with little education and from a culture resistant to it, find it difficult or distasteful to learn the science and history which would enable them to understand better the superstition they are buying into?

And is it really surprising that there exists a parasitic class of religious charlatans and snake-oil salesmen practically falling over one another to tap into this lucrative market for easy answers, false hope and a false sense of smug superiority?

And is it really surprising that there exists a class of unscrupulous politicians hailing from the very class which needs a large, poor, politically powerless underclass to supply its demands for cheap and compliant labour, which promotes these primitive superstitions with such enthusiasm, to fool the poor and dispossessed into believing they are on their side.

And therein lies another unholy alliance; that between the ruling class, the priesthood and the religion of the people. It's the same as that between the drug producer, the pedlar and the junkie.

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Sunday 11 March 2012

If God Wants Us To Believe The Bible...

If God wants us to believe the biblical account of creation why did he create a universe in which:
  • The ratio of the light elements, hydrogen, deuterium, helium and lithium in the universe is exactly as predicted if the universe resulted from an intense inflation from a singularity?
  • The Microwave background radiation is exactly as it is predicted to be if the inflation from a singularity occurred 13.82 billion years ago?
  • The large-scale universe is expanding at a rate which is exactly as required to produce a wavelength for the microwave background radiation's as it is today?
  • The sun is exactly as we would expect of a second or third generation star in a universe which is as old as the microwave background tells us and has light elements in the ratio which the Big Bang theory predicts?
  • The radiometric data from rocks on Earth and of meteorites gives an age of the solar system of 4.57 billion years and and age of Earth of 4.4-4.5 billion years?

Saturday 10 March 2012

So What IS This Soul Thing?

Where on earth did this idea of a soul come from?

One thing we can be sure about is that it's a very old idea. In fact it was probably the reason for religions in the first place as there is archaeological evidence of burials from the the Palaeolithic and burial is generally taken as evidence of some sort of religion and ideas of an afterlife (which implies belief in a soul). There is even some evidence that Neanderthals may have had ritual burials. There is actual textual evidence of belief in a soul from the Bronze Age in the form of biblical writings, Sanskrit Vedas and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

So why is this notion that there is a separate entity inhabiting our bodies and which somehow continues to exist after death, such a strong and persistent belief in all human societies?

Can Anyone Explain the Purpose Of Prayer?

"Oh Lord! Won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porche's, I must make amends!"

You see, what I just don't get is how prayer can possibly change the mind of an all-knowing, infinitely wise, all-powerful, omni-benevolent god who has defined right and wrong for us and knows our deepest, most secret thoughts.

Such a god would have ensured only the best for its creation and would have set this in motion right from the start, so the purpose of prayer can't possibly to persuade such a god to change its mind.
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