Monday, August 31, 2009

The evolutionary implications of our preference for the Maillard reaction

This is something that has been bugging me the last couple of days... As many of the foodies out there may know, the Maillard reaction (pronounced may-ARD) is that incredible magic chemistry that happens when you sear meat, roast coffee, or malt barley to make whiskey and beer. In a nutshell, heat applied to certain proteins causes them to get all jumbled up and rearrange themselves into literally hundreds of different complex flavor compounds. Okay, that was probably an imprecise lay explanation, but you get my point.

How can this delicious piece of seared meat help my genes to replicate themselves?
Make no mistake, the products of the Maillard reaction taste fucking good. In fact, it is so tasty that this is where the myth developed that searing meat helps to "hold in the juices". It doesn't, and in fact roasted meat that has not been seared will actually have very slightly higher moisture content than meat that has been properly seared. However, unseared meat will taste drier because the Maillard reaction is so (literally) mouth-wateringly good that it will actually make you salivate more while eating and make the seared meat taste tender and moister.

But here's the question: From an evolutionary perspective, why does it taste good?

I suppose its possible that a preference for cooked food was such a beneficial adaptation for us that we evolved a taste for charred meat in a relatively short amount of time, a hundred thousand years or so. I mean, our jaw structure definitely reflects the shift in selective pressures brought about by the advent of cooking, so it's not inconceivable. But I tend to doubt this explanation for a couple of reasons.

One is that there is a big difference between a modified jaw structure vs. the ability to detect and seek out a whole new class of flavor compounds. It seems the latter would take a lot longer to arise as a result of natural selection.

The other reason I doubt that this preference was selected due to cooking is because there doesn't seem to be any reproductive benefit to preferring charred meat over, say, boiled meat. I suppose our ancestors may just have used fire-roasting more than boiling -- but I have to imagine that the two techniques were invented around the same time, and if our ancestors did not already prefer the flavor of seared meat, I don't see why they wouldn't just boil it to save time, as well as to capture any rendered fat in a broth rather than letting it drip wastefully into the fire.

It seems most likely to me that we already had a taste for these flavor compounds prior to learning how to create them via cooking, and that it was a side effect of some other adaptation. But what?

The Wikipedia article talks about a similar reaction occurring naturally in our bodies... I wonder if that could have any bearing on it? I don't know, I am not an evolutionary biologist, or any kind of biologist for that matter. Anybody have any ideas?

Bad-ass chicken-killing mofo

I thought about titling this post "Severed Cocks", but I figure I already pushed the SFW-ness of my blog a bit far in my post on the sexy side of Sharia law. Oh well.

Anyway, yesterday I was lucky to have the opportunity to participate in killing and preparing five roosters. This is something I've really wanted to do, for a few reasons. One is my obsession with doing things from scratch, or as much from scratch as is practical. The other is that I feel it is ethically desirable for meat-eaters to participate fully in the process at least once, preferably more than that -- otherwise, one is open to the criticism of farming the dirty work out to others.

Our friend Christal and Mick have a bunch of chickens they use for eggs, but they haven't been doing it for long and discovered they bought too many roosters. The hens were getting basically gang-raped, and a lot of them were getting their feathers pecked out by overly aggressive cocks. So it was time to cull some roosters. Five of them to be exact.

I helped to catch them and held three of them down while they got the ax. I had originally planned on trying the choppy-choppy myself at least once, but we were having some issues with the log bouncing around when struck, and my ax skills are poor enough that I was confident neither of preserving Christal and Mick's fingers, nor of putting the chickens out of their misery in a timely manner. Still, it was less gruesome than I anticipated, and definitely less depressing than the time I had to club a baby squirrel to death after my dogs got to it but failed to finish it off.

I then helped pluck them, which was a bit tedious, but not as bad as everybody makes it out to be. I didn't participate in the cleaning other than to watch, mostly because I know my clumsy ass self would probably rip open an intestine and make a big mess out of everything. Still, it was extremely educational and a great experience.

Christal and Mick were very generous in letting us take home three of the birds for ourselves. They are in my fridge right now, with two of them bound for the freezer and the third destined to become coq au vin either tonight or tomorrow. I'm particularly excited about doing t hat, because the whole origin of coq au vin is to make the best out of an old rooster, which tends to be tougher and gamier than young birds. But braising turns this into an advantage, because extra collagen breaks down and becomes totally freakin' delicious. Even better to braise in wine!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tattoo ideas?

So I have a tattoo of this on my left upper arm. I'd always wanted a tattoo, but I could never think of anything sufficiently awesome and original (well, "original-ish") until a year or two ago.

I love this one, but it's not very colorful. I've been trying to think of something equally nerdy and cool, but with some more color. Since I work on software for printers, I'd considered maybe a color gamut, or maybe a colorized DCT basis function to commemorate the years I worked on image compression. But I dunno, those aren't cool-looking enough.

Awesome tattoo, or horrible skin disease?
I recently had the idea to see if I could think of a way to do a portion of the Hubble Deep Field image, but then I realized it would probably end up just looking like a bad rash.

That might be a line of thinking worth exploring though, and I have a couple of similar ideas pictured below. The famous Eagle Nebula image is a candidate. The M100 Galaxy is also cool, but it might just look too much just like an ordinary spiral galaxy. I'd like something distinctly recognizable.

Also, you're all going to think this is some kind of Pharyngulian obsession, but I swear my wife and I were talking about getting matching tattoos of octopi before I had any idea who PZ Myers was. The reason is because we knew each other for eight years before we started dating, and so the number eight had some significance in our relationship. I'd still like to do this at some point, but we need to find a design we both like, and also one that is compatible with being in different locations on the body (I want only concealable tattoos for employment reasons, while my wife has no such constraints).

Any suggestions? (Eagle Nebula and M100 images below the fold)

ABBA: Atheist music??? links to a decent article by the dude from ABBA talking about how Sweden should keep religion out of its schools, even the independent ones. Aside from a rather depressing question implied by this article's very existence (if freaking Sweden has to worry about religious indoctrination in schools, what hope do we have in America?) I have to say that the first paragraph kinda cracked me up:

Without thinking too much about it at the time, when I wrote the lyrics for Abba's songs the message I wished to convey tallies well with campaigns launched recently by humanist organisations in the UK, US and Australia:

"There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."


Heh, okay, after I thought about it, I see what his point is: He was focusing on the "stop worrying and enjoy your life" part of the phrase, and sees ABBA's simple dance- and party-oriented lyrics as an extension of this. I guess I see his point. Still, it sorta tickles my funny bone to think of "Dancing Queen" as some kind of humanist anthem. heh...

Why people like Greg Laden piss me off

I'm going to be picking on a month old post from Greg right now, so I apologize if that seems unfair, but this is yet another thing that's been bugging me for awhile and I was jostled into thinking harder about it by Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. (Read it!)

In the post in question, Greg starts with a quite intriguing thesis that the binary aspects of Abrahamic religions -- best personified in the divide between "kosher" and "treyf" -- have contributed to a black-and-white mode of thinking that has shaped Western civilization. I think there's something to this and would like to have seen it explored more.

But then Greg goes off the deep end:

This kosher-non kosher way of looking at the world also facilitates our well known classicism and racism. Not everyone in the world is as classist and racist as we are. Many thoughtful Westerners... consider racism as adaptive, as a fundamental human trait that has some explanation. This makes me laugh, because it assumes that all humans are assholes. No. Mainly, Americans and Northern/Western Europeans are assholes... Most of the rest of the world, they are not assholes... That does not mean that most people in the not have some other group that they distrust... However, most of that distrust and disdain is historically contextualized...or it is simply not taken that seriously. Most of the individuals practicing this disdain will readily put it aside. I know many Africans who are married to people who are of the group that their group disdains... It is not like Western racism, which is pervasive, persistent, intractable, unchangeable, violent and destructive...


I have edited heavily because in the original it is one loooong unbroken paragraph, so if you think I have bent the meaning, I encourage you to go read the original. The emphasis is mine, because I think the bolded sentence is the most ridiculous point in the entire diatribe: Greg asserts that, should we ever find an example of racism in a non-Western culture, we should not take it seriously because "individuals...will readily put it aside."

Okay, before I attack this or explain why it is so bothersome, I think there is an important digression first. As I have grown older as a white heterosexual male, I have come to the realization that even if somebody says something blatantly insulting and/or untrue about whites, heterosexuals, or males, it is wholly unbecoming and unnecessary to take offense at that. Statistics show I'm getting all sorts of unfair advantages in my life. Even though I didn't ever ask for these advantages, it would be rather childish to, in the face of all of that inequity, to get peevish because somebody falsely asserts, for example, that men have started all the wars in history. I might point out that this was wrong, but to get snippy or offended would be useless and pathetic.

So I don't care that Greg says that Westerners are big horrible racists. Well, we are, historically speaking. And the extent of Western political and economic power in recent history has meant that our prejudices and barbarisms are writ large, leaving huge scars on the history of mankind.

What I have a problem with is someone falling for the myth of the Noble Savage, that everything was hunky-dory until the white man came along. This pisses me off not because it's insulting to whites -- as I said, it would be rather sad if I took offense at this while never having to experience the true sting of racism that others have to deal with -- but instead, it pisses me off because it trivializes the world's problems and gets in the way of true understanding.

The idea that racism is a mostly Western thing is absurd. One of the universal features of all human cultures is the presence of an in-group/out-group dichotomy (see Donald E. Brown's list of human universals, which happens to be reprinted in the back of Pinker's book). And unfortunately, one very convenient way of identifying members of the out-group is that, until very very very recently in human history, someone with a different skin color could reliably be assumed to be in the out-group. Welcome to racism country.

I have absolutely no clue where Greg gets the idea that people in other cultures don't take the in-group/out-group divide seriously. In his original post, he refers to African "friends" of his who have not been concerned by tribal divisions -- perhaps a selection bias is at work here? I don't imagine Greg is likely to be close friends with the African equivalent of a Palinite, y'know?

Whatever the case, it's ridiculous. We look at just about any primitive society, and we see rampant tribal warfare. Oh, but you say that is just "ritualistic" warfare? That the body counts are so small, they didn't really "mean it" when they killed those people who looked different from them? Here's what Pinker has to say about that:

Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.

He then goes on to present the following graph, which is based on data from the archeaologist Lawrence Keeley:

And please, don't try and make some sort of false distinction between tribalism and racism. They are for all intents and purposes the same thing. I mean, really, you're going to point to a society where everybody they have ever seen has roughly the same skin color, so instead they despise and murder each other over even more subtle variations wrought by lineage -- and then argue that this makes them more noble and tolerant somehow?? Please.

Again, I'm not trying to excuse the sins of my fathers. While I think the myth of the Noble Savage is not only unproductive and annoying, but also clearly false in the face of statistics like those above, absolute numbers do matter. Even if World War II, for example, was not particularly bloody per capita when compared with tribal conflicts, the scale of the destruction has made an impact of nigh incomprehensible scale, on the history of mankind, on the human psyche, and on the Earth itself. This is no small thing, and in evaluating blame it matters little that the impulses that led to it were universally human rather than distinctly European.

But Greg's line of argument is still bullshit, and worse yet, coming from a white guy it is particularly offensive. Someone idealizing their own cultural past could be forgiven for cultural pride, for wanting to see their ancestral history through rose-colored glasses. But what's Greg's excuse? When he states that African tribalism "is not taken seriously", he is spitting on the grave of the millions of men, women, and children who have been massacred over the millenia in petty tribal feuds. It roils me in a similar way to Holocaust denialism (although I grant that, unlike those bigoted freaks, Greg's motives are at least laudable).

Still, he needs to wake the fuck up. Acting like every culture was perfect before whitey came in and wrecked it is asinine and unproductive -- not because it's insulting to us privileged white males, I mean, dude, we'll get over it; but because it demeans history's other victims, because it clouds our understanding, and because it gets in the way of true solutions -- sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

And what should that tell you?

Answers in Genesis has a book called Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it, which purports to be based on a "first scientific study of its kind" which they refer to as "The Beemer Report" (after one of the co-authors of the book), that was really just a big phone survey of ex-Evangelicals.

It's weird that they refer to it as "The Beemer Report" like it is some external and readily available thing, when as far as I can tell the "Report" seems to exist purely within the realm of promotional materials for the Already Gone book. Methinks that's a little disingenuous, and it makes me wonder if they are trying to hide something about the methodology... but that's not what I want to talk about. For now, I am going to accept the claims of the Beemer report at face value.

And this brings us to:

Those who regularly attend Sunday School are more likely to believe that the Bible is less true.

Heh. Assuming this is true, the conclusion to be drawn from this data is so painfully obvious I won't even bother to state it.

A few other various guffaws about Already Gone:

  • On the AiG web page pimping the book, there is only one endorsement of the book... provided by Ken Ham, the primary author. Facepalm!
  • The books are sold by the case. And not just if you ask; that appears to be how AiG prefers to sell them. The pricing for a case of 48 is listed first, followed by the pricing for a 10-pack. You only see the pricing for a single copy if you go to buy one. In addition, any time the pricing is mentioned on the Already Gone blog, they refer to buying a case.
  • Chapter One of the book is available online, and I noticed that the majority of the footnotes are URLs. Really scholarly work there, Ham.
  • The chapter frequently uses "church" as a verb, as in, "20% [of ex-evangelicals were] churched as teen, spiritually active at age 29" (emphasis mine). I can't quite put my finger on why this bothers me, but I find it creepy as all hell.

I got tired of reading the online chapter, but I'm sure there is plenty of other weird shit in there too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Calling all Maine residents

The Maine legislature recently legalized gay marriage. Surprise surprise, the bigots already have an anti-marriage ballot proposition on the way. Prop 1, it's called. Because the best way of encouraging family values is to destroy families, am I right folks?

I'll have the "No on 1" banner on the upper right of my blog until the election in November. I still get all pissed off every time I think about Prop 8. Let's not let that shit happen again, huh?

Biology and Morality, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Selfish Genes

I was reading Stephen Pinker's excellent book The Blank Slate this morning and I had some thoughts about a topic that's been rattling around in my brain. In the passage I was reading, Pinker was asserting that humans are neither inherently good or evil, but that people most likely have both good and evil tendencies, and whether or not they are acted on is a function of each individual's neurological processes. His reference to "good and evil" without qualification inspired me to think once again about what is meant by this -- but this time, I was doing so in the context of Pinker's ideas about human nature.

In a previous post, I railed against the idea of relativism, both in terms of interpretation of factual data, as well as -- to a more limited extent -- in determining morality. I probably should have been a little more guarded when I maintained that some things were "absolutely" right or wrong. "Absolute" is probably too strong, but what I meant is that much of what constitutes morality is both non-arbitrary and independent of culture. Clearly morality does not exist on its own. There are no absolute moral laws woven into the fabric of reality in the same manner as physical laws.

This of course prompts the question: Whence this morality, if not from culture?

Perhaps the obvious answer is biology. The concepts of "good" and "evil" can be viewed as products of natural selection, a natural extension of various instincts we have evolved over time. In the case of altruism, this is not just speculation; as I'm sure everyone reading this post knows, there is growing evidence that genuine altruism is a side-effect of a sort of selfish altruism evolved by our primate ancestors. The so-called Golden Rule can be seen as the logical conclusion of our altruistic natures, i.e. the product of instinctual altruism multiplied by abstract reasoning ability is the mandate that others ought to be treated in a way we would prefer to be treated.

But there's even more to this. It seems obvious, but it is easy to ignore that the way we prefer to be treated is itself determined by our biology. Consider a harmless but painful electric shock. There is clearly no eternal abstract reason why a harmless jolt of electricity is undesirable, but we find it painful because it stimulates systems within our bodies which have evolved to warn against possible harm. In other words, the reason I don't want to be shocked is itself a byproduct of biology. And therefore, the reason it is not cool to go around shocking people with a hand buzzer is due not just to our altruistic nature, but to other features of biology.

To what extent can we take this without it becoming absurd? What if instead of a hand buzzer, I am talking about lopping off your arm? Is this only "wrong" because of instincts that make me want to keep my arm? Well, no, there are plenty of practical reasons why we might want to keep both arms anyway. But aren't those reasons also the product of our biology? Having one arm may make it harder to do everyday tasks like tying my shoes, but why do I want to tie my shoes in the first place? Isn't it because not wearing shoes damages my feet, and I have a biological imperative not to damage my feet?

Logically extending this idea, I could argue that it's only wrong to kill people because they have evolved the desire not to die. Well, maybe. But I am not entirely sure whether this takes us all the way to explaining all manifest morality.

What I mean by this is best explained by a thought experiment: Consider an alien race -- call them the Eschatolians -- which for whatever reason have not evolved an altruistic instinct. Perhaps their civilization is structured more like an ant colony, where loyalty to some "Queen"-like being is the driving moral code rather than a do-unto-others ethic. This of course might make them seem quite evil by human eyes, but I don't think that is entirely fair. Eschatolian individuals are not treated with respect, but they don't even have the evolved desire to be treated in this way. Who are we to judge that?

Now suppose the Eschatolians invent a technology that can please and protect their Queen -- the highest form of morality in their civilization -- but it will set in motion a process that will significantly hasten the heat death of the universe. The Eschatolians' sun will be long dead by this time, so it's no skin off their (or their Queens') backs, but it will lop untold trillions of years off the meaningful life of the universe.

Now is there some arbitrary standard that makes the Eschatolians "evil" -- beyond even our specifically human concepts of morality? Every fiber of my being wants to say yes: destroying the universe for short-term gain is wrong, independent of biology. But how can I say this without invoking some sort of morality from the clear blue sky?

I think today I have a partial answer, but before that, I want to digress into a different thought experiment, so that when I propose my answer to the Eschatolian problem, it will be clear what I am not saying. I was once challenged with the question, if only one human woman remained on earth, and she refused to have sex, would it be moral to rape her?1 To me, this is a fascinating question, and I still haven't made up my mind entirely. (Update 2010/08/17: FWIW, I am now leaning towards no.) Debating this question is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to address one particular fallacious argument against it.

When I first heard it, some who answered "absolutely not!" asserted that our desire to reproduce and to propagate the human race was nothing more than the parasitic effect of our "selfish genes", and that a rejection of those imperatives was necessary to "liberate" ourselves from the "tyranny" of our genes. (Some of this, I realize, is straight from Dawkins, but I don't know how much. I unfortunately have not read The Selfish Gene yet, so I am not aware if my objections to this line of reasoning would apply to his ideas, or merely to the interpretation of them presented by some folks on PZ's blog. I apologize if some of what follows comes across as strawman-ish.)

While I think it is incredibly valuable to have an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by evolution, and while I think Dawkins is quite right in pointing out that genes act in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of the collective of genes we refer to as an organism, at the same time I think this idea of becoming "liberated" from the "tyranny" of our genes is utter nonsense. Who, exactly, is being liberated? This smells like Cartesian dualism, like we are saying there is some ghost imprisoned in our DNA that is just waiting to be freed.

Hogwash! What are we if not the product of our genes and our environment? To dismiss our innate impulses and desires because they are also a product of our genes is a futile attempt to divorce our selves from our selves. Certainly, our instinctual preferences will conflict with each other, and an awareness of how these preferences have developed from the "selfish" nature of genes can inform the conflict and help us reach a decision. But even if we do decide to suppress an instinctual impulse, it will not be because of some external moral code that hangs in the air sui generis, or because of the willed choice of some mythical "soul" -- it will be because we have decided to favor a different instinctual impulse that is itself a result of selfish genes.

In the case of the Last Woman on Earth thought experiment, if we decide that rape is not acceptable even in a last ditch attempt to save the human species from extinction, it will not be because we have "liberated" ourselves from the parasitic impulse to propagate our selfish genes. It will be because the logical extension of our altruistic instincts -- also a parasitic impulse wrought by our selfish genes -- has convinced us that the rights of the individual are more important.

So if morality cannot exist independent of selfish genes, then what of the Eschatolians? Can we possibly say they are "evil" in some non-arbitrary sense for wanting to destroy the universe, without engaging in human chauvinism? Isn't there some meta-morality we can invoke, that transcends individual gene pools?

I am going to tentatively answer yes, though my reasoning relies quite heavily on speculative assumptions about the extent to which evolution is convergent on different planets (if life even exists elsewhere, that is, which itself is uncertain). This species-independent morality I am positing cannot exist independent of the phenomenon of selfish replicators2, but it is not tied to the specifics of an individual pool of replicators.

I think it is quite reasonable to assert that any successful form of life will have evolved biological imperatives which resist extinction. Individuals may not necessarily have self-preservation or self-reproduction impulses (e.g. ant worker castes), but must have some impulses which would be violated by pretty much any mechanism forcing the species into extinction, or else natural selection is going to get rid of such a species in a big hurry.

If we accept that morality must be a product of instinctual impulses, then I think it logically follows that from the perspective of species X, the extinction of species X is immoral. That doesn't mean the extinction of species Y is immoral from the perspective of species X, of course, but we have established here a species-transcendent moral pattern.

How much more would it take to transform this into a species-transcendent moral code? I suppose I might invoke a sort of vague "galactic utilitarianism" and argue that if a particular act -- e.g. destroying the universe -- violates the morality of enough species, then it is perhaps also immoral in some universal and non-arbitrary sense. Of course, utilitarianism almost certainly has its roots in our altruistic instincts, and it is clearly not the case that all species have a similar instinct. But I think we are almost there.

It is conceivable that altruistic impulses are a likely/necessary feature of sapient life. How realistic is it to envision a civilization with an ant-like social structure that has developed enough self-awareness to start talking about morality? Of course this question is impossible to answer, as it is asking about convergent evolution on an interplanetary basis, and for all we know the question itself is invalid.

But I think it's an interesting question nonetheless. Depending on the answer, this could establish some basic moral codes, not quite as immutable laws, but as an inevitable byproduct of sapience. There are not many things that fall into this category -- basically, just don't destroy stuff for no reason or for reasons which are insignificant compared to the destruction -- but it still seems like an appealing idea, not just because it provides a possible answer to the Eschatolian thought experiment, but because it provides a much firmer underpinning for environmentalism than might otherwise be achieved.

This still does not justify the absurd notion that we can be "liberated" from our selfish genes. If this transcendent morality is justifiable, it will still be because of selfish replicators, not in spite of them. To denigrate our instinctual impulses because they exist solely for the purpose of propagating DNA is to practice self-contradiction in the name of some mythical ghost in the machine. It is both Puritanical and delusional.

1Unfortunately, the rather shrill and unimpressive person asking me this question merely wanted to use it to accuse me of being a "rape apologist," which it seems to me relied on a rather preposterous definition of "apologist": that if you say X is acceptable under any circumstances you are by definition an "X apologist". If I think it is acceptable under some circumstances for police to forcibly detain and imprison an individual, does this make me a kidnapping apologist? If I think chemotherapy is a good thing, does this make me a poison apologist? If I think that yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre is not protected speech, does this make a censorship apologist? If I think a hysterectomy is acceptable for medical reasons, does that make me an apologist for forced sterilization?

This kind of context-free morality is not just absurd; it is dangerous. It is a close cousin of the kind of lazy and asinine reasoning that compels idiots to assert that gay marriage will lead inexorably to a legalization of incest and pedophilia.

2I steer away from the word "gene" from this point on, because I am now speculating about how life might evolve on other planets. Presumably, though, some kind of gene-like "replicator" would be necessary for natural selection to evolve life, so I will content myself to refer to it as such.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Stupidity of Attempted Secrecy

My laptop is being fixed and my wife is on the computer upstairs, so that means I am posting from my phone and won't have links. Anyway, I'm reading the Sunday NYT, and there is this article called "Iranian Reformists Accuse Authorities of Secret Burials" which is about the difference in claimed death toll of the Iran riots between the gov't and the reformers. The last paragraph struck me:

Iran has closed the country to foreign reporters...making it difficult to corroborate the reports from...official government news services.

Idiots! This basically means we have to trust whatever crazy rumors we hear on Twitter. By barring foreign journalists, they have inadvertantly given the opposition free reign to say whatever they want.

If I Were A Theocratic Dictator(TM), I would welcome foreign journalists, and then put on a show for them. Sure, some unfavorable info could leak out. But at least then I could put some spin on it.

The Iranian gov't is equl parts evil and dumb.

Friday, August 21, 2009

You just have to listen for yourself...

The speaker is Joseph Farah, founder of WorldNetDaily, one of the most influential conservative editorial sites on the Internet. Madelyn Dunham, if you recall, is Barack Obama's late grandmother. I have no comments, you just have to hear it for yourself.

Via Ed Brayton.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I fall hard for satire site

If anybody happened to visit my blog in the last hour or so, they might have noticed me looking really stupid blogging about the inanity of the Christians over at Objective: Ministries -- before realizing the whole thing is a spoof and sheepishly deleting the posts.

Well, it's funny-ass shit and worth checking out anyway.

An uninteresting post that fulfills the original purpose of this blog

The original reason I created this blog was as a convenient means of recording improvised recipes that my wife enjoyed so that I can reconstruct them at a later date. For the most part, when I've blogged about cooking, I've tried to post stuff that I think would be interesting or unusual, or at least provide tasty pictures.

This time, however, I just need to record something I whipped up last night from a combination of leftovers and pantry staples. It's nothing earth-shattering or interesting, but we enjoyed it, and I can pretty much always make this with stuff I have on hand.

So this post exists mostly so that I can Google my blog and find it later if I am looking for a tasty dinner. If my readers get anything out of it I will consider that purely coincidental.

Tomato and cannellini bean sauce
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 - 1 tsp chopped fresh herbs (oregano, savory, thyme, basil, etc.)
  • 1 14.5-oz can cannellini beans
  • 1 14.5-oz can chopped tomatoes1
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  • salt and pepper
Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and peppers along with a dash of kosher salt, and cook until starting to become tender, about 5-7 minutes. Add garlic and herbs and cook for additional 2-3 minutes. (If you are using a delicate herb like basil, wait until the end to add it)

Add beans with juices and simmer until it starts to thicken slightly, about 3 minutes. Add tomatoes with juices, scraping up any brown bits. Stir in crushed red pepper, and simmer for about 10 minutes for flavors to combine and sauce to thicken slightly. Salt and pepper to taste, and serve over rice or cous-cous.

1I always stock my pantry with a copious amount of cans of whole tomatoes, because it is most versatile. If I want chopped tomatoes, I take them out of the juice and chop them. If I want diced tomatoes, I put the whole can in a food processor and pulse a few times until I get the desired fineness of dice. If I want crushed tomatoes... well, if I am planning ahead I will buy them, because blended whole tomatoes are not quite the same thing, but just pulsing it for longer in the food processor or putting it in a blender does a passable imitation for most recipes.

We should pity Angela Shiel

That is the name of the Des Moines bus driver who refused to drive a bus with the ever-so-controversial "There are at least two atheists in the entire world" ad.

I'm trying to get my angst up, but really all I feel is pity.

I remember when a bus driver in London refused to drive one of the "There's probably no God" buses. In that case, I could at least see that the driver was standing up for his principles, even though I think those principles are ignorant and delusional.

But in Ms. Shiel's case, exactly which of her beliefs are being violated? It's really sad, because this lady thinks she has strong convictions, but it's clear she hasn't even clearly defined her convictions to herself. (Unless her convictions include the absolute belief in the non-existence of atheists, but I somewhat doubt that...)

This woman is not standing up for principles, she is having an emotional response to the appearance of a phrase ("don't believe in God") which in this context doesn't really violate anybody's principles. But because of the political lay of the land, she is now surrounded by people patting her on the back and saying "Way to go!"

Even the hardest of the hardcore anti-atheist should say to Ms. Shiel, "Yeah, I hate those guys too. But this particular ad doesn't actually say anything negative about God or religion, so you can still drive the bus and not violate your principles." But they won't say that. She'll be a martyr in some circles.

And that makes me a sad panda.

Legislative Prayer: It's all Greek to me

The Rochester Atheism Examiner (that's where I live!) has an article about a law suit in the nearby town of Greece to try and get the town board to stop opening their meetings with a sectarian prayer. Exciting to see this happening right around here!

I've been dragging my feet on joining the group for the Rochester Atheists, but I suppose I ought to. One of the first posts my wife forwarded me from the group kindof turned me off, but everything she's sent me has been interesting since then.

Also, has linked to a couple of the Rochester Atheism Examiner articles by Viktor Nagornyy, and in case they link to this one I want to be able to say that NJNP beat them to it. hehehe...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robots evolve to deceive -- how could they evolve to cooperate?

Note: I am pretty sure I use the term "Bayesian network" completely incorrectly throughout this entire post. Just pretend I used the more general term "neural network". Or, if that's wrong too, just pretend I said whatever thing that wouldn't make me sound stupid and pretentious.

I have this vision in my head from school days of a bunch of inputs and outputs connected by some number of intermediate nodes that do a weighted sum of the inputs -- with the weights being the coefficiencts that change over time, whether by "training" the network or via genetic algorithm. Whatever that thing is called, that's what I meant. (That'll teach me to try and talk authoritatively about stuff I learned eight years ago and never applied...)

The scienceblog-o-sphere is mildly abuzz with a fun new study about Bayesian-network controlled robots evolving the ability to deceive each other. Click the link for details, but to very briefly summarize: The robots can only detect a "food" source at very close range, but they also have the ability to flash a light which the other robots can detect at a distance. They start off flashing randomly and searching randomly. Within a few generations, some robots evolved an attraction to the flashing lights, since it might indicate the discovery of a food source. Within a few more generations, though, many of the robots started to control when they flashed the light so as to "remain silent" when in proximity to a food source, thereby preventing others from discovering it and crowding them out for resources.

Neat stuff. I can't help but think the same thing probably could have been done with a computer simulation, but doing it with robots is just so cool. (It probably also has the advantage of removing a number of possible experimenter biases in the computational model of how to represent movement, sight, overcrowding, etc., since you can just let the laws of the physical world handle it.)

This got me to thinking, how would the conditions have to be different in order for the robots to evolve cooperative behavior? Could the conditions of the experiment be modified so that, after enough generations, some robots intentionally signaled the presence of a food source to their peers?

It is very difficult to see this happening in the present setup, where all the robots can see the "signal" emitted by all the other robots. A "gene"1 would have no selfish reason to alert its peers to the presence of food, because there is no mechanism within that experimental framework to signal robots who shared the gene at a higher frequency than those who did not share the gene.2

But what if we change the experiment to involve several different "species" of robots. Some of them emit blue light, some green light, some red light, etc. Furthermore, a robot can only see the color of light it itself emits, i.e. it can only "see" the signals of members of the same species. The species all compete for food in the same common area, and the selection criteria applies cross-species, i.e. survival is awarded to the 200 fittest robots regardless of species. "Mating", on the other hand, is constrained to within species.

Now let's assume that "somehow or other" -- and I'll come back to this, because it's quite a large bit of hand-waving -- one of the species develops a significant sub-population with the "cooperative" gene. Call it the Green species, for sake of convenience. Robots of the Green species would, on average, be alerted to food sources much quicker than robots of other species, and so ought to tend to outperform them in each round. While the within-species selection would be against the "cooperative" gene, it might in the short term tend to out-reproduce the various genes of other species simply by virtue of random mating with more selfish Greens. In other words, a sub-population of selfish Blues might be more individually fit than cooperative Greens, but the selfish Greens are crowding out the selfish Blues and forcing them to disappear. Meanwhile, the few cooperative Greens that do manage to survive could continue to sprinkle the "cooperative" gene amongst the burgeoning Green population.

I think this might be a bit fanciful in that form. It doesn't sound particular sustainable to me, and more damning is that I can think of no evolutionary process by which the Greens would develop a significant sub-population of cooperatives to begin with. (This is the frantic hand-waving I referred to earlier) If a Green mutated to show cooperative tendencies, the selective pressures would be strongly against that mutant. The species-wide benefit would have to be immense in order to facilitate the by-chance propagation of a gene that was so clearly bad for the individual, but a large species-wide benefit would not be able to develop until the "cooperative" gene constituted a sizeable sub-population. It seems to me this is an unsurmountable can't-get-there-from-here problem.

Unless the inheritance were somehow tweaked to behave in a Mendelian fashion, with the "cooperative" gene being a recessive trait. Now I think maybe we are getting somewhere. A "cooperative carrier" can still behave selfishly, but it also benefits from the fact that 1/4 of its brethren are pure cooperatives. There is still a bit of a jump start here, because cooperative carrier Greens are, within the species itself, no better off than pure selfish Greens. But if one species were to develop even a relatively small population of cooperatives and cooperative carriers, that species could suddenly start to significantly outperform other species. The selective benefit to the cooperative carrier is clear: it surrounds itself with cooperatives that it can exploit in order to out-compete other species.

Hmmm, this makes me want to try to duplicate the experimenters' results in software and then start playing with the model... Of course, the fact that I've never directly worked with Bayesian networks or genetic algorithms could put a damper on that...

1Depending on the experimenters' exact implementation of the neural network and the inheritance scheme, it is probably not quite accurate to use the word "gene" here. At this time, by "gene" I am simply referring to some group of coefficients in the Bayesian network which produce a particular behavior. I am also going to pretend that this "gene" is atomically heritable, for purposes of this thought experiment, even though that may not reflect the experiment at hand.

2We can maybe envision a group of robots which devised a special "code", i.e. a series of pulses of light, that signified the presence of food only to others who were genetically "in the know", but this is fraught with all sorts of difficulties. For one, even a brief code would likely attract robots who did not comprehend the code. For another, robots who did not have the "cooperative" gene could still develop the capability to understand the code and exploit the cooperative robots. Perhaps most damningly, the development of this code is too complex to evolve all at once, and looking only within the context of food-signalling, there is no evolutionary advantage to a partial or weakly-comprehended code. In order to surmount this, the robots would have had to evolve a coded communication ability for some other purpose, which was then co-opted into food signalling -- and that is going way beyond the scope of even this quite fanciful thought experiment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Anakin Skywalker is to Orly Taitz as Metachlorians are to Woo

Darth Vader definitely has a better haircut than Orly...

Salon summarizes (and provides unedited audio of) an epic "interview" with birther extraordinaire Orly Taitz in which she recites a litany of insane charges, including:

  • ...that Obama had numerous gay lovers in Trinity church whom he has bumped off
  • ...that Google is part of a massive anti-Orly conspiracy
  • ..that Obama has hundreds of social security numbers

Of course, in one so strong with the woo, it would be shocking if she didn't also share some of the trendy anti-vaccine paranoia. Of course.

Hundreds of servicemen are getting sick from mysterious vaccinations. Taitz wants some answers on why members of the military are required to receive certain vaccinations. "Did you know that there are hundreds of servicemen, that were vaccinated, and have reported serious, severe side effects of vaccination?" I ask her why there are mandatory vaccinations. "I don't know, and we can ask the Department of Defense. There is no reason provided!" Maybe soldiers going into combat may need certain kinds of immunity?

The flu vaccine is contaminated. "There is another concern in regards to vaccinations," says Taitz, "and vaccination against the swine flu." She starts to tell me about contaminated vaccines in the Czech Republic.

It's too bad the interviewer didn't ask her about homeopathy, cold fusion, 9/11, Creationism, Flat-Earth theory, or astrology.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Michael Ruse of beliefnet builds a giant strawman

This article at BeliefNet is so full of shit I'm not even going to go all the way through it, but I just want to point out that as soon as he starts going after the so-called "New Atheists", he averages at least two lies per paragraph. Lie #1:

In the past few years, we have seen the rise and growth of a group that the public sphere has labeled the "new atheists" - people who are aggressively pro-science, especially pro-Darwinism, and violently anti-religion of all kinds...

Violently anti-religion?!? Name one instance of violence by someone who could rightly be lumped in with the so-called "New Atheists". Just one, you fat lying fuck. Lie #2:

Distinctive of this group, although well known to anyone who studies religion and the way in which sects divide and proliferate, is the fact that...nothing incurs their wrath than those who are pro-science but who refuse to agree that all and every kind of religious belief is wrong, pernicious, and socially and personally dangerous.

Riiiight... because voicing any sort of disagreement is the same thing as "wrath". With the exception of PZ's writings about Mooney & Kirshenbaum (who, I have to say, kindof started it when they mercilessly attacked PZ in their book), I cannot think of a single piece of writing by a so-called "New Atheist" which expresses "wrath" towards someone who is pro-science. An example of this gross distortion of reality will be found in Lie #3:

Recently, it has been the newly appointed director of the NIH, Francis Collins, who has been incurring their hatred.

Hatred? Hatred?!? Really?!?!? What fucking planet is this guy from?!?

PZ on Francis Collins:

The situation is this: the White House has picked for high office a well-known scientist with a good track record in management who wears clown shoes. Worse, this scientist likes to stroll about with his clown shoes going squeak-squeak-squeak, pointing them out to everyone, and bragging about how red and shiny and gosh-darned big his shoes are, and tut-tutting at the apparent lack of fine fashion sense exhibited by his peers who wear rather less flamboyant footwear.

I would rather Obama had appointed someone who wore practical shoes, and didn't make much of a fuss about them, anyway.

Jerry Coyne on Francis Collins:

I guess my first reaction would be to give the guy a break, and take a wait-and-see attitude towards his stewardship of the NIH. After all, he doesn’t seem to have let his superstition get in the way of his other administrative tasks, and he doesn’t seem to be the vindictive type, either...I won’t grouse too much about this, but do want to emphasize again that the guy is deeply, deeply superstitious, to the point where, on his website BioLogos and his book The Language of God, he lets his faith contaminate his scientific views.

Sam Harris on Francis Collins:

While his stewardship of the NIH seems unlikely to impede our mincing progress on embryonic stem cell research, his appointment seems like another one of President Obama’s efforts to split difference between real science and real ethics on the one hand and religious superstition and taboo on the other.

Wow, those mean New Atheists. They said that Collins "wears funny shoes", that while he is "deeply superstitious" we won't "grouse too much about this", and, horror of horrors, that nasty Sam Harris said that Collins' appointment was a case of "split[ting the] difference". Oooooooo...

If that's "hatred", then surely what Ruse says about the "New Atheists" must be akin to genocide!

Asswipe. I couldn't read any more past that point.


My picture I cooked up for my post yesterday about the censoring of a book on the Danish cartoon controversy gave me an idea for a new twist on an old Internet meme: LOLGODZ.

What do you think? Too much?

Update: One more...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Curse of Ken Ham Part Two: The Bride of Mortenson

Normally I don't post anything that merely echoes an entry on PZ's blog (I sincerely doubt there is anybody reading my blog who isn't also reading his) but in honor of my very first pro-Creationist commenter, I'd just like to present this image captured from a talk given by Terry Mortenson at the Creation Museum:

Now, just like the apparent endorsement of Hamite theory in the Creation Museum proper, I am sure Ken Ham had nothing to do with this directly. But nonetheless, he is ultimately responsible for the content presented at his museum, and he ought to be deeply embarrassed by this. Not only does this once again implicitly endorse the racist Hamite theory, but the use of the outdated terms "Negro" and "Mongoloid" are truly cringe-inducing.

I'll reiterate exactly what I said before: Ken Ham is probably not consciously racist. However, he is clearly ignorant and intellectually lazy. He lacks the intellectual curiosity to understand the historical background of the ideas presented in his museum, and the result is major foot-in-mouth moments like these.

Breaking News: Terrorists Win

As reported by the NY Times, an upcoming book on the Danish cartoon controversy will not be allowed to actually depict the Danish cartoons. In addition, a number of other depictions of Mohammed -- ones that are widely available and previously uncontroversial -- will be removed from the book.

That's right: People are so afraid of these images that you can't even reprint them in a book about it.



Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Faith: One word, two meanings

I was reading an interesting (and very old) post at the Gene Expression blog that, among other things, dealt with the fact that the vast majority of people who believe in evolution don't actually understand it at all, and simply accept that evolution is true because it is the scientific consensus. One interesting conundrum this raises is that it makes me question whether I understand the ideas behind natural selection as well as I think I do, but that's a topic for another post.

The other thing the post reminded me of was that I've been planning to write a blog post about the unfortunate double meaning of the word "faith." In the comments on that post, the phrase "faith in science" was used, and while I agree with what the commenters and the blog author were getting at, I am not comfortable with that word being used. I think there are two meanings of the word faith, and I think this is confusing for theists and results in that whole "Well, I have faith in Christ, you have faith in science. No difference!" fallacy.

Both meanings of the word faith involve believing something with insufficient evidence, or at least, without enough evidence to justify the level of confidence. So there is a similarity there. The two major differences, in my mind, are in 1) the presence of a pragmatic justification in one case for believing with insufficient evidence, and 2) the amount of contradictory evidence required to change the belief. I think these differences are distinct enough to make the two meanings of faith entirely different concepts.

As the post at Gene Expression describes, having "faith in science" is usually a matter of recognizing that reality is often counterintuitive, that as a result the scientific method is a better way of discerning truth than common sense, and lastly that it takes specialized knowledge to really understand the truth in a particular field.

The logical conclusion of this is that one's own intuition in a field where one does not have specialized knowledge is probably not going to be particularly accurate. The alternatives are to try to become educated in every possible area (which is not practical for those of us who have jobs and/or social lives), or to put tentative implicit trust in what the "experts" say about fields in which we are not knowledgable.

Of course, figuring out who is an "expert" worth listening to is easier said than done, and hence this is why I say that this is believing on insufficient evidence. I can't check out the claims of every expert I chose to trust. I can educate myself and see if their claims even make sense, but in many cases I'm ultimately going to have to chose between people who strongly disagree and yet whom I have no way of knowing who is right. We just do the best we can in these cases, because pragmatism dictates it must be so.

The other thing that makes so-called "faith in science" different from religious faith is the standard of disproof. This is not to say that those of us who chose to put stock in the consensus of "experts" are always perfect at reacting to solid evidence that our previous beliefs were false. It's always hard to change one's beliefs; that's human nature.

In some ways, this is even a good thing: As previously mentioned, reality is often counter-intuitive, so if I am presented with evidence that seems to me to contradict the established scientific paradigm, I would be well-advised to be resistant to accepting that evidence until I gather more information, no matter how plain the evidence may seem to me. This is because there may be some grievous error in the argument that I am not aware of due to my ignorance in a particular field.

The result of this is an undue preference for the current scientific orthodoxy. This has been historically demonstrated, with a recent example being the powerful resistance to plate tectonics theory. However, I don't see any reasonable way of avoiding this momentum for the status quo. The other alternatives are to either become 100% educated about everything (impossible), or to shift undue stock in our own personal intuition about things which we know nothing about -- and most educated people understand that doesn't usually work out so well.

But while pragmatism may lead us to exhibit an undue preference for scientific orthodoxy, this is nothing compared to the immutability of religious faith. This is complete apples and oranges.

For one thing, religious faith is mostly atomic, or at least highly interconnected. If one part is proven to be abjectly false, then sometimes it becomes difficult to continue to justify belief in the rest, e.g. if the story of Moses is shown to be pure fable, then the rest of Judaism kind of falls by the wayside. In contrast, the body of scientific knowledge is constantly changing, with old ideas shown to be mistaken, misunderstood, or even abjectly false, yet this does not in any way impact the validity of the scientific method -- or even in the idea of "faith in science" in the sense I am referring to it in this post.

For another, religious faith seems uniquely capable of spreading unwavering crankery more effectively than any other ideas. Certainly, you will get the rare cantankerous old scientist who does all sorts of mental contortions to stick to an old idea from the scientific orthodoxy which has since been proven false -- perhaps even contortions on the order of what Young Earth Creationists are known to do. But this is rare. YECs make up a non-trivial percentage of the American population. Not sure one can say the same about Flat-Earthers... and yet both ideas are equally ridiculous and require similarly fantastic mental contortions.

Recognizing these differences, I think it would be preferable to use a different word for the "faith in science" idea. I'm not sure what that word would be... but it should be a word that captures the idea that, yes, although I believe this with insufficient evidence, I am ready to change my mind or adopt a more nuanced position if presented with sufficient evidence to justify the change.

This post is already too long and I need to get to work. I may revise it or expand on it later..

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"You've already lost"

This is old news, but new to me. Back in April, Iowa State Senator Mike Gronstal blocked a Republican attempt to try and pass a state constitutional amendment that would explicitly forbid gay marriage. He released the eloquent video below explaining his reasoning.

Via abb3w.

The Curse of Ken Ham

What do Ken Ham and Stephen Colbert have in common? They both have at least one black friend! Clearly they cannot be racists.

I am not taking this out of context, either. In a post in which Ham ham-handedly (har!) tries to defend himself from accusations that he was ignorant about the racial implications of one of the Biblical theories he was promoting, he implies that he can't be a racist because last Sunday he was hanging out with a black guy. Classy.

The funny part is that nobody ever accused Ham of being racist. Rather, he was accused of promoting an idea which has a close historical association with racism, apparently ignorant of this association and its implications. I don't imagine Ham is racist (although the "I have a black friend!" retort doesn't inspire confidence...), I just think he is ignorant and intellectually lazy.

Conservapedia on Moonenbaumgate


Maybe the accomodationists are the ones who need to "shut up" for strategic reasons...

I was reading a post at PZ's blog today about the ongoing Moonenbaumgate fiasco, and I was struck by one of their complaints:

Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science. The atheist biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for instance, has drawn much attention by assaulting the center's Faith Project, which seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions.

Emphasis is mine. Now tell me, who exactly was it that drew all this attention to Coyne's initial complaint about the NCSE? Oh that's right, it was the accomodationists!

A balanced history of this whole debate would be that a few "New Atheist" bloggers commented about how, as much as they love the NCSE, they think the center's Faith Project is inconsistent with the center's own stated goals, and wish they wouldn't do that. Then Chris Mooney pitched a hissy fit of the highest order, wrote a fucking book about it, and basically ensured that this little disagreement over outreach strategy got completely magnified out of all proportion.

If the accomodationists want to stop this alleged "assault" on the NCSE's "other flank", all they have to do is say, "We understand how you feel, but we think the Faith Project is useful and we're not going to stop." It's the whole, "How dare you say that faith and science are incompatible!!!11111!!!!" attitude that is "drawing so much attention."

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Possible reason why people were so offended by the Iowa bus ad?

I'm mad as hell about Des Moines Area Regional Transit (DART) deciding to pull the "You are not alone" bus ad after a single day. It's absurd that people would be offended by the least innocuous of the three common atheist ads, one that really doesn't make a statement any more profound than "atheists exist."

Apparently people were refusing to board the bus, which I ascribed to the height of bigotry... and still mostly do, though now after reading an article in which the Iowa governor blathers on a about the "message it sent", I wonder if an unfortunate confluence between the ad's layout and the standard DART artwork could have exacerbated the problem.

"All aboard, fellow atheists!"
In the image on the right, the art on the bus makes it appear as though there is an arrow coming from the ad and pointing to the door of the bus. Maybe this is a stretch, but I could almost see people taking this to imply that the full message was, "Don't believe in God? You are not alone. Come join us on this bus!" If people took it that way, okay, I could see them being made uncomfortable.

Am I letting my imagination run wild here? The only reason it occurred to me is because when I first glanced at that picture, I thought to myself, "Huh, I haven't seen the version with the arrow before. Where is that supposed to be pointing? I don't get it..." I didn't extrapolate it all the way to "Come ride the atheism bus!", but my fallible human brain had briefly perceived the arrow as being part of the ad.

Now, any reasonable person, even a theist, ought to quickly realize the arrow had nothing to do with anything. But given that some people are so fucking crazy they won't even buy something if the cost comes to $6.66, perhaps some of the Krazy Kristians thought it would be bad luck, maybe even inviting a lightning bolt from the clear blue sky, if they were to even briefly stand so that an arrow was pointing at them unintentionally implying a disbelief in God?

It wouldn't make me any less pissed if this is true, but it would make me slightly less confused...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Ken Ham: Plagiarist?

Is it possible that Ken Ham got all of his stupid ideas from the bestselling children's book Dinotopia? You be the judge:

Ham's book What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs? includes depictions of dinosaur farming -- now we know where he got the idea:

Bad news for Christians though... Dinotopia proves that the dinosaurs were Jewish!!!

Update: A Twitter comment made me wonder if people are getting the wrong idea about Dinotopia. It is not Creationist sludge, it's actually a cute little fantasy book that tells the story of a 19th century explorer's discovery of a mysterious island where dinosaurs never went extinct and live side-by-side with humans. That premise, though, is really just an excuse for some truly gorgeous and shimmeringly imaginative artwork. It's a beautiful and fun book, and no more anti-science than, say, Harry Potter is.

How to turn "Greeks" into "Jews"?!?

One of the crazier pictures to come off the #CreoZerg Twitter feed (the hash tag for the PZ-led SSA visit to the Creation Museum) is the one to the right which pictures a Ken Ham book entitled Effective Evangelism: How to turn "Greeks" into "Jews" (credit to @hemantmehta). Needless to say, people are baffled.

Luckily, there is a PDF of the entire book available online. The somewhat awkward premise is that when Paul was preaching to the Jews, he had an easier time than when he was preaching to the Greeks, because (according to Ham) the Greeks were evolutionists while the Jews were Creationists.

I think it's quite a stretch to say that "the Greeks were evolutionists", though certainly their creation myths were quite dissimilar to the Jews and the Christians, while of course those groups shared the same Judeo-Christian Creation myth (go figure, eh?). This seems like a subtle difference, but it's actually an important point, as we will see below.

Ham wants to extend this premise to assert that undermining evolution is the first step in making people receptive to Christian evangelism. But wait! As I pointed out above, the difference he really pointed out between the Greeks and the Jews is that the Jews share a shitload of scripture with the Christians, while the Greeks didn't. In fact, last time I checked, the Creation story comprises less than 0.14% of the words in the Old Testament (sources: Genesis chapter 1, Bible word count) So why does Ham zero in on the Creation story as the only important similarity between Judaism and Christianity?

Oh wait, I remember... because he's got a fucking museum that makes money off of bashing evolution. That's right.

Also, I have to say, I find this picture kind of offensive:

Blech. I know, I know, they are just trying to be smug, but given the history of anti-Semitism, particularly Christianity-motivated anti-Semitism, this is a type of smugness that makes me kinda queasy.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Deconversion

This comment inspired me to write an account of my own deconversion from Mormonism to atheism. It's not really a coherent narrative, because it was more of a gradual erosion than any sudden realization, or even a series of sudden realizations (though there were one or two of those). Anyway, here goes a whole bunch of rambling...

It sounds shallow, but the first and perhaps the most significant factor in my move away from theism is that from the time I reached adolescence, I didn't feel any kind of a bond with my fellow Mormons. I just didn't identify with them: I was too intellectually curious, I didn't care for conversational taboos, I never enjoyed church even when I was a True Believing Mormon (TBM) and really tried to enjoy it... Church was boring, long (Mormon sunday services are three hours, folks, not to mention another hour of young men/young women's meetings on Wednesday nights), I didn't like wearing a tie, I hated the music (I still don't care for most choral music), I hated the arbitrary authority afforded to Sunday school teachers and their ilk... In addition, the few peers inside the church that I did identify with were all moving away from TBM status during adolescence -- though some of them did come back in adulthood (maybe all but me? I'm not sure).

Honestly, I think if it weren't for my social/aesthetic incompatibility with Mormonism, it's conceivable I might have stayed a believer my whole life. Probably I would have ultimately been convinced by the evidential problem of evil, but I can't ever be sure.

The first rational argument against god that I accepted, and I'm sure I would have had to buy into this one even without the social/aesthetic issues, is the logical problem of evil. I mean, this one is painfully obvious once you really think about it. However, it only disproves the existence of a god that is simultaneously omnipotent and benevolent. Plantinga's free will defense and similar such apologies are impotent (heh) in justifying a truly omnipotent god, because if this being can do anything, then he could also do things that were logically contradictory, like eliminating evil without eliminating free will. (I find the more nuanced arguments against the free will defense to be interesting but superfluous... Either god can do anything or he can't. If he can, then he's malicious. If he can't, then whether it's logically possible for free will and evil to coexist is irrelevant.)

But you can be a theist without an omnipotent God, and that's just what I did for awhile. Well, actually, I was probably at least 40% agnostic by that point, but I felt that it was still possible there was a very powerful, but not quite omnipotent, god. I even pointed to a passage in the Book of Mormon which I felt justified this belief, though I just searched for it and couldn't find it. Maybe I just imagined it was there. heh...

It was also around this time -- I think in my sophomore or junior year of high school -- that I reasoned myself something along the lines of Dawkins' Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit. I think I was expressing some kind of vague doubts about the existence of God to a friend -- one who was not part of the Mormon church, and who, despite his parents being Bahá'í, I had never before taken for being particularly theistic -- and he suddenly spat, "Where do you think all this came from? Do you think it just fell here?" At that moment, the infinite regress invoked by this line of argumentation suddenly became illuminated, and it became clear that God as a "first cause" was no kind of answer to the "Big Questions" at all.

At least, that's how I remember it now... Perhaps I had been thinking about this for awhile, and his comment only crystallized it in my mind. Or maybe I'd already figured it all out before, and I only think I figured it out on the spot because the conversation was memorable. Meh, anyway, it went something like that.

Of course, dismissing the Cosmological argument, as I now know to call it, does not disprove the existence of god, but it was an important step nonetheless, because it meant the existence of a theistic universe was no more plausible than the existence of an atheistic universe. Or perhaps to put it more succinctly, I no longer felt that there were any existential advantages to theism. It could still be true or false, but it didn't need to be true on an existential basis.

At this point, although I still didn't really think about myself that way, I was firmly agnostic, leaning towards atheistic. What really sealed the deal was my increasing realization that the God of Abraham is a total fucking asshole. I vaguely alluded to this earlier, when I said that if I had somehow enjoyed the social and aesthetic aspects of Mormonism (ick...), the next best hope for my deconversion would have been the evidential problem of evil. Even when I was trying my hardest to be faithful, the hackneyed aphorism that "God works in mysterious ways" could only be swallowed for so long before it started acting as an emetic.

It's not even so much the existence of suffering that got me, because as I said, I can envision a not-quite-omnipotent God doing his best to be benevolent and yet the best he could do ended up being a rather cruel universe anyway. No, it is the absurdity of God's alleged commandments that really tears it. In particular, I found it impossible to accept the juvenile inanity of the sexual restrictions practiced by Mormonism and most other mainstream religions.

Heh, it's funny to say so, but I bet that whole prohibition on masturbation has deconverted more adolescents than one could ever imagine. I mean, it's abundantly clear to nearly any 15-year-old that you don't go blind or get hairy palms from excessively wacking it, in't it? But of course teens can still be made to feel guilty by authority figures. (I had forgotten until recently how terrible I felt about lying to the Bishop when in a temple recommend interview he asked if I ever "abused my body"... What a creep!) By the time one gets to be 19 or 20, though, I would think one would have the perspective to realize how silly it is to think you ought to, or even can, forbid people from masturbating.

Homosexuality and premarital sex were also no-brainers. Any mature adult ought to be able to see that there's nothing inherently wrong with either of those things. The arguments that seek to attack them on a practical level (e.g. premarital sex leading to teen pregnancy) do nothing but conflate an irresponsible behavior with an unrelated and perfectly innocuous behavior. Hell, premarital sex isn't just innocuous, it's a damn good idea! If someday my son tries to marry a woman (or man) who he hasn't been intimate with first, I'm gonna smack that boy upside the head and ask him what the hell he is thinking!

It was around this time, in mid-college, that I began half-jokingly referring to myself as a "non-practicing agnostic": In theory, I believed one could never really know -- but in practice, I could not bring myself to accept even the possibility of the existence of a god. It was too infuriating. Hence, the "non-practicing" aspect of my professed agnosticism.

As many people do in college, I flirted with some quasi-mystical beliefs, but I never really believed them more than metaphorically. Actually, ahem, my mystical experiences were pretty much inextricably tied to, uh, erm, certain other "experiences" that people often do "in college". Enough said about that...

I gradually moved away from this "non-practicing agnostic" position towards one that was, at least at a rational level, purely atheistic. It seemed rather silly to insist on the unknowability of God's existence, when I could make the same argument about the unknowability of, say, my car's existence. Sure, if you want to go and put too fine a point on it, one can never really say anything exists -- but that's an existential dead end. It's solipsism, and it's stupid. (Side note: For a brief period I referred to myself as a "psuedo-solipsist scientific methodist", but the less said about that awkward construction the better...)

But while I fully rejected the existence of God on a rational level, there was still a trace that remained on an emotional level. I used to say, "I don't believe in God, but I also believe He hates me." I was only half-joking when I said that, too. I guess on a subconscious level, the stories of my youth still had some influence over me, yet at the same time my adult knowledge of ethics and morality made those stories viscerally revolting. Or something like that, who knows.

So that takes me all the way until last year, when I saw Religulous and started being exposed to the writings of Hitchens, Dawkins, etc. You know, it's always really funny to me when people talk about how the so-called "New Atheists" are so bitter and are "obviously angry at God." I actually was an angry-at-God quasi-atheist for nearly a decade, and what made me not angry at God anymore was reading those dudes' books. I'm not quite sure exactly how to put it, but I guess that it made me view my atheism as not just the inevitable conclusion of a rational mind, but as a distinctly good thing.

Well, it was more than that even. It sort of turned my anti-theistic feelings upside down. Rather than being angry at the idea of God and religion, instead I became passionate about the idea of freedom from religion. Don't get me wrong, I still have plenty of righteous indignation (heh) reserved for theism. But I'm less focused on the badness of what is, and more on the goodness of what could be.

Maybe my blog doesn't always make it seem like that, but given the distrust and vitriol reserved for atheists in this country, I guess it shouldn't be too surprising that even when I'm trying to be positive I end up mostly complaining. The difference is, somehow, I feel good about it now.

At the risk of feeding the "atheism is just another religion" crowd, I guess I could say that being passionate about atheism makes me feel like I'm a part of something larger than myself. I know a lot of people fulfill that need through religion. I myself never got that from Mormonism (though you better damn well believe I tried) but even if I had, isn't it better to find fulfillment via something that is actually true?

The "New Atheists" are not bitter and angry. In my opinion, the ones who are the most bitter and angry are fundamentalists, disillusioned theists, and yes, the closeted atheists who know the truth but somehow view that as a negative. Coming out about one's atheism is a way of letting go of the damage done by religion. I only wish more people could see that.

We must prevent Gog and Magog from acquiring weapons of mass destruction

Biggest threat to national security: Giants!
Apparently former French president Jacques Chirac tells of a phone call he received from Dubya in early 2003, as he was trying to garner international support for the Iraq war, when he allegedly said something along the lines of:

Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East... The biblical prophecies are being fulfilled... This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.

Uh, woah.

I don't think I can put it any more eloquently than James A. Haught, writing for the Council for Secular Humanism:

For six years, Americans really haven’t known why he launched the unnecessary Iraq attack. Official pretexts turned out to be baseless. Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction after all, and wasn’t in league with terrorists, as the White House alleged. Collapse of his asserted reasons led to speculation about hidden motives: Was the invasion loosed to gain control of Iraq’s oil—or to protect Israel—or to complete Bush’s father’s vendetta against the late dictator Saddam Hussein? Nobody ever found an answer.

Now, added to the other suspicions, comes the goofy possibility that abstruse, supernatural, idiotic, laughable Bible prophecies were a factor.

Via the Reason Project.

Sshhh, don't tell anybody...

So I've been thinking about it, and there is one minor point on which I half-assedly agree with the accomodationists: I think it is probably better not to be particularly vocal about the phenomenon wherein people who come to really understand evolution on a deep level have an increased tendency to become atheists.

This is distinctly different from saying that faith and science are contradictory. That should be shouted from the rooftops. And then, if theists really want to go for this whole non-overlapping magisteria thing, where they compartmentalize their faith-based delusions from the reason-based science, then that is their business. I have written before about how I have a handful of faith-based delusions, e.g. I really viscerally believe my wife and I were fated to be together. I can't possibly reconcile that belief with my rational knowledge of how things actually work, and yet when I think about the story of how we met and fell in love, that it was anything other than fate just seems impossible to me.

So I'm okay with people having some contradictory beliefs, as long as they don't get the chocolate in the peanut butter, so to speak. Saying that faith and science are contradictory is important, not so much to discourage people from believing both, but to keep people from getting the two all mixed up.

But this thing where people go to college, gain a deep intuitive understanding of evolution, and then progress to a loss of faith... Well, maybe it's not even real; the evidence is mostly anecdotal (the high percentage of nontheist scientists is just a correlation, it does not establish causation). But in any case, maybe we ought not to be too awfully vocal about this.

I reject the accomodationist claim that the so-called "New Atheists" are driving the faithful away from science. It just seems rather absurd to me that one particular author (or even four particular authors) expressing their opinion on the compatibility of science and faith would cause a moderate theist to say, "Oh noes! Dawkins said faith and science aren't compatible, and I ain't givins up mah Jesus, so now I'm going to stop believing in evolution!" I simply don't see it. Rather, the moderates will say, "Bah! Dawkins sucks. I like Ken Miller and Francis Collins!" The only people who are going to be swayed by the "New Atheists" are people who are already inclined to listen to them -- and the thought of a Dawkins admirer deciding to reject evolution because "Dawkins said it's not compatible with my faith!" is laughable.

However, it's much easier for me to imagine an unfortunate outcome of a religious person becoming aware of examples of theists being turned into atheists by a college education. I could see this dissuading people from going to college or sending their kids to college, or it tipping the scales towards some faux-college like Liberty University. "Those godless liberals at Yale will brainwash our young'uns!" That, to me, is a plausible scenario.

Now, I'm not saying anybody should lie, and I'm not saying that people who shed their faith as a result of education should feel compelled to keep silent. But it probably behooves those with a wide-reaching voice to avoid mentioning the education-conversion phenomenon unnecessarily. Maybe.

I dunno, just a thought.