Natural selection is a serious problem for theism

Natural selection is the process by which different traits and, ultimately, alleles spread or shrink throughout a population over time. It is a key mechanism in evolution and an understanding of it is necessary to knowing anything important about life itself. It demonstrates how we can have such a long history with so many seemingly lucky ancestors, culminating in such a massive variety across the planet. But perhaps most importantly, it sheds light on some of our most fundamental questions about existence.

I’ve spoken in the past about Richard Lenksi’s E. coli experiment. He has been tracking a dozen different lineages of the bacteria for the past 25 years, carefully cataloging the genetic changes that take place and when they happen. What he has found is that mutations are often contingent, meaning that for Mutation #2 to happen, Mutation #1 is first needed. However, in his most interesting finding, it turns out that neither of these mutations will necessarily be useful at first. That is, they are neither advantageous nor deleterious, instead merely being neutral, as is so often the case. Yet they persist. It is only by chance, so it is a lucky persistence, but it happens. And, with time, Mutation #3 (or 4 or 5, etc) happens, and it is that mutation which is advantageous. Here natural selection goes to work, causing the new allele to near or reach fixation. But this does not happen in every lineage. Indeed, when Lenski re-runs his experiment using generations he had frozen earlier, he has found that sometimes the mutations all happen again, but more often they fail to occur. The reason is clear: there is nothing but chance that can maintain a neutral mutation. (This is why microsatellites are great for studying short-term generational changes, but not deep evolutionary time.)

I bring this up because Lenksi’s work crystallizes in experiment the words of Stephen Jay Gould:

Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.

Gould went further, however, than us. No single trait, and certainly no entire species, is inevitable in evolution, he rightly said. Perhaps some features are more likely than others – the eye is said to have evolved independently 40 different times – but no specific feature (such as wings or bipedalism) can be firmly predicted. Indeed, Gould spent much of his time arguing that evolution drives not towards complexity or specificity, but rather diversity; life finds itself at many forks, but it never ‘knows’ which road it will take.

This presents a significant problem for theists. For the young Earth variety, the issues are glaring. That group of people is nothing but woefully ignorant, denying even the most obvious and established science. They don’t deserve any more of my time here. For the older Earth variety that opts for theistic evolution, however, the problems they face are merely buried just far enough away from mild, easy thinking to be ignorable for most. That is, they’ve admitted to the fact of evolution, but they are necessarily ignoring that if humans evolved just like everything else, there was a point where our ancestors weren’t human; we were no different from any other mammal in the distant past. (It is only time and space which allows us to define a species.) That destroys any argument that says, in the eyes of some deity, we might be more special than, say, a giraffe.

The counter to this, as per the Catholic Church and others, is to simply declare that we were infused with souls at some unknown point in our evolutionary history. This isn’t much of an answer: No member of a species gives birth to a different species; evolution is continuous. So to believe the theist’s argument, we must conclude that at some point in our ancestry, a mother with no soul gave birth to offspring that did have a soul. That is, one was not essentially human while, magically, the other was.

The one version of theism that gets around some of this is where it is declared that all of life is equally special, so it doesn’t matter that no particular species or even traits are inevitable. This, however, has its own problem. Namely, it makes the given deity (or deities) entirely superfluous. It’s no more a viable position than seeing a door blown inward from the wind and declaring that there was also a ghost pushing from the outside.

For me, I find it far easier to simply accept natural selection and its clear implications. I have no need to make seemingly comfortable lies comport with contradictory facts.

Punching bags

Aaaand the very first winner of my new series Punching Bags is Wintery Knight. Congratulations, Mr. Knight! This is the probably the greatest thing you’re ever going to accomplish in your blogging career.

There’s a lot of silliness out there, but what really grabbed my attention by standing heads and shoulders above the rest was a series of posts by Wintery Knight about atheism and morality. It’s astonishing just how poorly pieced together it all is. Let’s take a peek at WK’s methods:

First of all, I wrote up a list of questions to use to interview atheists about their views.

Second, I posted the raw results of my survey.

Third, I listed the minimal requirements that any worldview must support for in order to ground rational morality.

Fourth, I argued that atheism does not ground any of these requirements.

Fifth, I argued that Christian theism does ground all of these requirements.

Sixth, I posted my own answers to the questions.

I really recommend taking a look at that first link; the arrogance and snobbery drip from every word:

Who is safe to talk to?

In this post, I am going to explain to you clearly how to engage your atheist friends on these issues. But be careful. Some atheists have fascist tendencies – when they feel offended, some of them want to bring state to bear against those who make them feel bad. Atheists struggle with morality, it just doesn’t sit well on their worldview, even though they sense God’s law on their hearts, like we do.

1) Thank goodness WK is here to help everyone know which atheists are okay. Some of us bite, don’t you know.

2) It’s good to know he has already defined morality when he declares that atheists struggle with it. Of course, we all know this is just another case of a theist assuming “objective” in front of “morality”.

3) Of course atheists sense God’s law in their hearts. Just like how Christians really hate science and reason deep down, amirite?

But WK’s interviews appear to be entirely irrelevant. They aren’t necessary to any of his further posts in any way. Besides that, his questions are statistically meaningless since he, um, doesn’t obtain any statistics; his ‘survey’ holds no value and is nothing more than an exercise in condescension. Let’s move on.

His next move (third link) is to try and tell us what is required for “rational moral behavior”. Gee, I wonder if he’s going to assume “objective” anywhere, gaming the issue in his favor.

1) Objective moral values

There needs to be a way to distinguish what is good from what is bad. For example, the moral standard might specify that being kind to children is good, but torturing them for fun is bad. If the standard is purely subjective, then people could believe anything and each person would be justified in doing right in their own eyes. Even a “social contract” is just based on people’s opinions. So we need a standard that applies regardless of what people’s individual and collective opinions are.

Whoa! My whole world view has been devastated! And in only 5 sentences. How could I have been missing something so obvious?!

Oh. Wait. Woulddya look at that. We need a way to tell good from bad. Well, wouldn’t that require that there is an objective good and bad in the first place? Or maybe WK is just making an assumption, causing him to beg the question. Could it be that our ideas of “good” and “bad” have a basis in our cultures and societies and human nature and our emotions and physical bodies and relationships and intelligence? And if so, couldn’t we use ethical and moral theories, applying them to the facts of the world and our derived definitions of “good” and “bad”, thus shaping how we behave? And wouldn’t this be the very definition of rational? (Hint: The answer to all of my questions is “yes”.)

But despite being so far off, WK trudges onward:

What difference does it make to you [an evil stupid dumb butt atheist] if you just go ahead and disregard your moral obligations to whomever? Is there any reward or punishment for your choice to do right or do wrong? What’s in it for you?

Bracketed clarification added.

I’m not so sure I would trust someone who thought the point of morality was to get something for himself. (Oh, who am I kidding. I trust a ton of Christians and they all necessarily believe that the point of being good is to get a big pretty prize at the end of the road.) I guess I just prefer to act out of genuine reasons, not for the sake of enriching myself in some unevidenced afterlife.

Anyway. WK goes on and on with his blog, sometimes saying dumb things about evolution, other times promoting science that makes him feel special. He’s an old Earth creationist, perhaps the most nebulous of all creationists (tell me again, when did humanity begin?), but in the end he’s just another punching bag.

Don’t forget to submit other potential punching bags.

It doesn’t force you to be an atheist

Evolution simply allows you to be one.

There are two primary reasons people reject evolution: ignorance and assumption. The ignorance is abundantly obvious; creationists are wholly unable to go toe-to-toe with anyone who has a modicum of knowledge about evolution. Ignorance isn’t a crime, but it’s far from a virtue. Assumption, on the other hand is less clear.

People equate evolution with atheism: if you believe in evolution, you must be an atheist. It’s not that far off the mark, but it does make assumptions. Evolution does not force atheism, it simply allows for it. But let’s not confuse the specifics. Evolution absolutely does deny the existence of virtually every god that man has so far created. The more popular gods out there come with a whole bag of characteristics that are incompatible with reality – the most notable that humans are an intentional result of some sort of pre-ordained plan. This is inconsistent with an intense compilation of science that shows humans are a product of a long timeline of change and adaptation; humans are no more pre-ordained than a snail or where a falling rock will land. Contrary thought it wishful thinking unsupported by evidence.

Of course, the magic playland of human-created gods isn’t the same as the concept of a hands-off, deistic being. An intentional creator of the Universe has the possibility of existing, even if it’s tremendously unlikely. Most people don’t like this idea because it offers a cold and useless explanation for the Universe; a deistic being says how the Universe came to exist, but doesn’t make humans as special as most people like to think. Beyond that, it still leaves open the question of how the deity itself exists. It’s a useless middleman that is equal in validity to any theistic beliefs, just without all the baggage.

It doesn’t force you to be an atheist

Evolution simply allows you to be one.

There are two primary reasons people reject evolution: ignorance and assumption. The ignorance is abundantly obvious; creationists are wholly unable to go toe-to-toe with anyone who has a modicum of knowledge about evolution. Ignorance isn’t a crime, but it’s far from a virtue. Assumption, on the other hand is less clear.

People equate evolution with atheism: if you believe in evolution, you must be an atheist. It’s not that far off the mark, but it does make assumptions. Evolution does not force atheism, it simply allows for it. But let’s not confuse the specifics. Evolution absolutely does deny the existence of virtually every god that man has so far created. The more popular gods out there come with a whole bag of characteristics that are incompatible with reality – the most notable that humans are an intentional result of some sort of pre-ordained plan. This is inconsistent with an intense compilation of science that shows humans are a product of a long timeline of change and adaptation; humans are no more pre-ordained than a snail or where a falling rock will land. Contrary thought it wishful thinking unsupported by evidence.

Of course, the magic playland of human-created gods isn’t the same as the concept of a hands-off, deistic being. An intentional creator of the Universe has the possibility of existing, even if it’s tremendously unlikely. Most people don’t like this idea because it offers a cold and useless explanation for the Universe; a deistic being says how the Universe came to exist, but doesn’t make humans as special as most people like to think. Beyond that, it still leaves open the question of how the deity itself exists. It’s a useless middleman that is equal in validity to any theistic beliefs, just without all the baggage.

It doesn't force you to be an atheist

Evolution simply allows you to be one.

There are two primary reasons people reject evolution: ignorance and assumption. The ignorance is abundantly obvious; creationists are wholly unable to go toe-to-toe with anyone who has a modicum of knowledge about evolution. Ignorance isn’t a crime, but it’s far from a virtue. Assumption, on the other hand is less clear.

People equate evolution with atheism: if you believe in evolution, you must be an atheist. It’s not that far off the mark, but it does make assumptions. Evolution does not force atheism, it simply allows for it. But let’s not confuse the specifics. Evolution absolutely does deny the existence of virtually every god that man has so far created. The more popular gods out there come with a whole bag of characteristics that are incompatible with reality – the most notable that humans are an intentional result of some sort of pre-ordained plan. This is inconsistent with an intense compilation of science that shows humans are a product of a long timeline of change and adaptation; humans are no more pre-ordained than a snail or where a falling rock will land. Contrary thought it wishful thinking unsupported by evidence.

Of course, the magic playland of human-created gods isn’t the same as the concept of a hands-off, deistic being. An intentional creator of the Universe has the possibility of existing, even if it’s tremendously unlikely. Most people don’t like this idea because it offers a cold and useless explanation for the Universe; a deistic being says how the Universe came to exist, but doesn’t make humans as special as most people like to think. Beyond that, it still leaves open the question of how the deity itself exists. It’s a useless middleman that is equal in validity to any theistic beliefs, just without all the baggage.

Aversion to education (rant)

I find myself wondering why the aversion to education from so many. It has become a popular thing to say “Well, such-and-such told me this about Subject X, so I’m not really interested in learning about it.” Well, that isn’t a good reason, is it? It’s no more than an Appeal to Authority. Basically, a person who is held in some modicum of respect declares this or that to be true and so others take it to be true and worthwhile.

I specifically want to take this down the road of science (of course). There is a massive aversion to this subject, almost to the point where it’s popular to play up one’s ignorance of this powerful, powerful tool. It’s a shame. A big, fucking shame. What’s tragically ironic is that many of these same people fully embrace their Internet, cars, toilet paper, inexpensive food, iPods, mass-produced (and inexpensive) clothing, and so many other things which are the result of science and technology. Science is within nearly every moment of our lives, yet few realize this because it is applied science, not research or theoretical science. Instead, we embrace the pseudosciences of acupuncture, intelligent design, and astrology.

To bring this to my favorite subject, it is of course important to wonder aloud why so many people have been taught that it is okay to be told by a pastor, priest, minister or other authority figure that evolution is untrue and that that person’s opinion on such a topic is worth its weight in salt. It isn’t. In fact, most Appeals to Authority are useless. It seems to me that if one is actually, genuinely interested in a topic that there would be a certain level of necessary inquiry that would be taken. That is, so many people reject evolution on the flimsy basis that because it contradicts their pre-held beliefs, it must be wrong. In other words, they recognize that if evolution is true, at best they can become theistic evolutionists, but even then they must recognize that such a god is superfluous. That means whether evolution is true or not is wholly central to the belief system of anyone that realizes the importance of the issue. If we can agree that this is the case, then shouldn’t we also agree that an aversion to education about evolution comes across as rather silly?

Einsteinian Religion

There are these perverse notions floating around about what Einstein believed or didn’t believe regarding religion and god(s). The page at Conservapedia – which deserves no link – will give the impression that Einstein believed in some sort of conscious, higher power. Any research will show this is highly unlikely. Einstein believed in ordering physical principles to the Universe which are ultimately far beyond the understanding of humans. This is not a god at all, which is why it’s somewhat unfortunate that he used the term “god” to describe these ordering principles. On the one hand, it’s misleading and it tends to invite people to attempt to associate a brilliant thinker with their own positions, as if appeals to authority confer truth to a statement or thought or idea. On the other hand, there’s a certain poetry to his language; we should all appreciate personification in our literature.

Ultimately, Einstein was an agnostic. Precisely where he stood on, say, Richard Dawkins’ Scale of Religiosity is unclear. I suspect he may be slightly to the left of someone like Carl Sagan (physically assuming “1” is left and “7” is right – see scale video). That may place him as a 4, as I would place Sagan as a 5. Unfortunately, neither man can clarify at this point. However, it is quite clear that neither one believed in any personal god – the seeming indifference of Nature to our plights, our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, it all indicates a lack of personality, of personalization, no matter how much poetic personification we like to use.

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