Why we believe in gods

I found this video on why we believe in gods to be very interesting and worth watching.

Meteor over Canada

A meteor was spotted in Canada by a police dash cam just a few days ago.

Early Eyes in Evolution

I’ve already blogged about eyes and evolution, so I won’t go on about further research. But I will post an interesting article from sciencedaily.com.

ScienceDaily (Nov. 23, 2008) — Researchers unravel how the very first eyes in evolution might have worked and how they guide the swimming of marine plankton towards light.

Larvae of marine invertebrates – worms, sponges, jellyfish – have the simplest eyes that exist. They consist of no more than two cells: a photoreceptor cell and a pigment cell. These minimal eyes, called eyespots, resemble the ‘proto-eyes’ suggested by Charles Darwin as the first eyes to appear in animal evolution. They cannot form images but allow the animal to sense the direction of light. This ability is crucial for phototaxis – the swimming towards light exhibited by many zooplankton larvae. Myriads of planktonic animals travel guided by light every day. Their movements drive the biggest transport of biomass on earth.

“For a long time nobody knew how the animals do phototaxis with their simple eyes and nervous system,” explains Detlev Arendt, whose team carried out the research at EMBL. “We assume that the first eyes in the animal kingdom evolved for exactly this purpose. Understanding phototaxis thus unravels the first steps of eye evolution.”

Studying the larvae of the marine ragworm Platynereis dumerilii, the scientists found that a nerve connects the photoreceptor cell of the eyespot and the cells that bring about the swimming motion of the larvae. The photoreceptor detects light and converts it into an electrical signal that travels down its neural projection, which makes a connection with a band of cells endowed with cilia. These cilia – thin, hair-like projections – beat to displace water and bring about movement.

Shining light selectively on one eyespot changes the beating of the adjacent cilia. The resulting local changes in water flow are sufficient to alter the direction of swimming, computer simulations of larval swimming show.

The second eyespot cell, the pigment cell, confers the directional sensitivity to light. It absorbs light and casts a shadow over the photoreceptor. The shape of this shadow varies according to the position of the light source and is communicated to the cilia through the signal of the photoreceptor.

“Platynereis can be considered a living fossil,” says Gáspár Jékely, former member of Arendt’s lab who now heads a group at the MPI for Developmental Biology, “it still lives in the same environment as its ancestors millions of years ago and has preserved many ancestral features. Studying the eyespots of its larva is probably the closest we can get to figuring out what eyes looked like when they first evolved.”

It is likely that the close coupling of light sensor to cilia marks an important, early landmark in the evolution of animal eyes. Many contemporary marine invertebrates still employ the strategy for phototaxis.

Can you feel the beauty?

What it means to be a theologian

I found this blog post to be very well written and concise.

To understand the effects of religion on a wider scale, it’s absurd to think that reading a holy book would indicate anything beyond a peripheral understanding of the text itself. For behavioural effects, it’s best to look at neuroscience and psychology. For societal effects, there’s sociology and history. Being an accomplished theologian won’t teach anyone about the influence of religion on society, but the social sciences will and that’s the place to look to.

Now consider the parallel with something I actually do care about: gaming. One might ask the question “what are the wider effects of gaming on the individual and their role in the community?” Now if there was a study that showed a trend of violence among gamers, would it be more pertinent to question the controlling factors of the study or whether the psychologist in charge had ever beaten Quake on Nightmare difficulty? If there was a sociological study showing anti-social behaviour increasing among online gamers, would the controlling factors of the study be under question or whether the sociologist’s World of Warcraft character had reached level 80?

The parallel with gaming is there to show that knowing the content of a subject is not an adequate resource to deal with questions not relating to that content. Knowing the back-story of Zelda universe does not make that person any bit qualified to answer questions on behaviour associated with playing the game. Theology won’t answer questions of individual behaviour, it won’t answer question of the wider social effects of group behaviour and how that has happened throughout history. The best way to study the inquisition is to look at the historical evidence, not the bible.

This really is to what this argument boils down. There is often an attempt to discredit anyone who dare suggest the idea of a concerned or even aloof creator is a faulty one. No, it isn’t good enough to say that the notion of a god doesn’t hold up very strongly under scrutiny; it is necessary that we fully understand the specifics of what man has written concerning this notion.

What does reading the bible actually tell us? It’s like any other piece of literature, it has a message that the author(s) intended. Those who are adept at literary analysis would see even further into the book and be able to understand the authors themselves. But for the layman, the bible is a chance to get immersed in the world of the mythology. They are able to emotionally connect with the characters involved and try to understand the motivations associated therein. In essence studying theology has the academic scholarship of studying Lord Of The Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a masterpiece in the fantasy genre, it’s influence today is seen transcending literary fantasy and into the pop culture. Admittedly the adaption to the silver screen helped bring it into the consciousness of an otherwise ignorant mainstream, but it’s success still speaks volumes for it’s quality. It doesn’t stop there either, the appendices, and further books all bring Middle Earth to life and give it a complete mythology.

I personally would have chosen All Quiet on the Western Front, but to each his own. Even if it’s the great literary work that is the Bible.

Uncommon Descent

There’s been this big hub-bub among creationist conspiracists that “academic freedom” is being quashed by all those EVILutionists. That was the main theme of the movie Expelled and it even resulted in an anti-science bill being signed into law by Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal (most states rejected such nonsense, fortunately). For those who are unfamiliar, “academic freedom”, in its creationist sense, is just code/whine word for “no one will listen to our bad ideas”.

So it comes as an entertaining irony that the people whining and moaning about not having a voice in acadamia, have been called out for quieting dissent against their poorly thought out positions when the academics come onto their turf. This is actually something commonly practiced by the likes of Michael Heath, local Christian zealot and bigot. He actually just doesn’t approve dissenting comments, no matter how cleanly written, but it’s roughly the same principle: creationists want us to hear their voices, but cover their ears when truth is spoken to them.

Is anyone surprised?

Bruins

The Boston Bruins are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference. Still, no one respects them anyway.

Lucic

Darwin Wasn't Right

Darwin Was Right About How Evolution Can Affect Whole Group

Evolutionary biologists at McGill University have discovered molecular signals that can maintain social harmony in ants by putting constraints on their fertility. Dr. Ehab Abouheif, of McGill’s Department of Biology, and post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Abderrahman Khila, have discovered how evolution has tinkered with the genes of colonizing insects like ants to keep them from fighting amongst themselves over who gets to reproduce.

“We’ve discovered a really elegant developmental mechanism, which we call ‘reproductive constraint,’ that challenges the classic paradigm that behaviour, such as policing, is the only way to enforce harmony and squash selfish behaviour in ant societies,” said Abouheif, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology.

It’s unfortunate that group selectionism is gaining some traction once again. It almost never makes any sense and simply acts as a way of taking the easy explanation over the difficult answer.

This study found that evolution has changed the genetic make-up of ants to the point where social harmony is achieved through “reproductive constraint”. In other words, some worker ants have less or no fertility level relative to others because of particular gene regulations. Big deal. This doesn’t point to any group selectionism.

What makes far more sense is that ants which promote social harmony are more successful on average. Instead of looking toward the goal-oriented ideas of group selectionism, it’s more reasonably to view this as individual genes promoting their own fitness. That is, most ants in a colony, if not all, are going to share a high degree of genes. It isn’t that the vehicle for these genes – the organism, in this case, the ant – is important. The survival of the gene itself is important. With more harmony comes, perhaps, more reproduction and more success. And what’s being reproduced are a high number of shared genes.

Think of it this way. My brother and I share 50% of our genes. If I help him to reproduce, I have roughly 25% of my genes surviving to the next generation. Of course, if I simply reproduce on my own, that’s 50% of my genes that will be passed on. But if I’m fighting with my brother over the same woman, we decrease our reproduction odds. It may just benefit me on the level of the gene to help him reproduce at my own expense. Having assistance will help his odds (even if this assistance is passive, as in not fighting him). This will give 25% of my genes a better chance of surviving than the 50% of genes I ‘own’ have when there is conflict.

Rather than showing the notion of group selectionism to be valid (though it remains plausible), this research offers some interesting evidence which favors natural selection occurring at the level of the gene

Darwin Wasn’t Right

Darwin Was Right About How Evolution Can Affect Whole Group

Evolutionary biologists at McGill University have discovered molecular signals that can maintain social harmony in ants by putting constraints on their fertility. Dr. Ehab Abouheif, of McGill’s Department of Biology, and post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Abderrahman Khila, have discovered how evolution has tinkered with the genes of colonizing insects like ants to keep them from fighting amongst themselves over who gets to reproduce.

“We’ve discovered a really elegant developmental mechanism, which we call ‘reproductive constraint,’ that challenges the classic paradigm that behaviour, such as policing, is the only way to enforce harmony and squash selfish behaviour in ant societies,” said Abouheif, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology.

It’s unfortunate that group selectionism is gaining some traction once again. It almost never makes any sense and simply acts as a way of taking the easy explanation over the difficult answer.

This study found that evolution has changed the genetic make-up of ants to the point where social harmony is achieved through “reproductive constraint”. In other words, some worker ants have less or no fertility level relative to others because of particular gene regulations. Big deal. This doesn’t point to any group selectionism.

What makes far more sense is that ants which promote social harmony are more successful on average. Instead of looking toward the goal-oriented ideas of group selectionism, it’s more reasonably to view this as individual genes promoting their own fitness. That is, most ants in a colony, if not all, are going to share a high degree of genes. It isn’t that the vehicle for these genes – the organism, in this case, the ant – is important. The survival of the gene itself is important. With more harmony comes, perhaps, more reproduction and more success. And what’s being reproduced are a high number of shared genes.

Think of it this way. My brother and I share 50% of our genes. If I help him to reproduce, I have roughly 25% of my genes surviving to the next generation. Of course, if I simply reproduce on my own, that’s 50% of my genes that will be passed on. But if I’m fighting with my brother over the same woman, we decrease our reproduction odds. It may just benefit me on the level of the gene to help him reproduce at my own expense. Having assistance will help his odds (even if this assistance is passive, as in not fighting him). This will give 25% of my genes a better chance of surviving than the 50% of genes I ‘own’ have when there is conflict.

Rather than showing the notion of group selectionism to be valid (though it remains plausible), this research offers some interesting evidence which favors natural selection occurring at the level of the gene

Misleading Science Articles

French, German and Hungarian physicists have taken another step in supporting Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

A brainpower consortium led by Laurent Lellouch of France’s Centre for Theoretical Physics, using some of the world’s mightiest supercomputers, have set down the calculations for estimating the mass of protons and neutrons, the particles at the nucleus of atoms.

According to the conventional model of particle physics, protons and neutrons comprise smaller particles known as quarks, which in turn are bound by gluons.

The odd thing is this: the mass of gluons is zero and the mass of quarks is only five percent. Where, therefore, is the missing 95 percent?

The answer, according to the study published in the US journal Science on Thursday, comes from the energy from the movements and interactions of quarks and gluons.

In other words, energy and mass are equivalent, as Einstein proposed in his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905.

All that is fine. What is misleading is the title of the article:

    e=mc2: 103 years later, Einstein’s proven right

Nothing here has been proven. Science never does that. What is seeks to do is disprove. The hypothesis here is that energy and mass are equivalent. In order to discover this, scientists attempted an experiment that, if falsified, would weaken Einstein’s great discovery. That isn’t what happened. It turns out that energy and mass are equivalent – in this instance. That doesn’t mean that in every instance that that will be the case. We cannot possibly know for certain that if the experiment is run again or a new experiment is created that the results will be the same. This is precisely what occurs in all of science. Evolution is not proven in the scientific sense of the word. Gravity has never been proven. We could find a slew of rabbits and sharks in the pre-Cambrian whose fossils fall up tomorrow, disproving both theories, at the very least disproving them in part.

Of course, it should be noted that we know these events to be vanishingly unlikely because of the strength of both theories; neither (modern) one has been disproven in any way meaningful to their overall statements. Despite the constant attempts of scientists to show these (now) theories to be incorrect, they have failed. These constant failures – which manifest themselves as monumentally beautiful and elegant discoveries, quite unlike anything we should normally call “failures” – are what make hypotheses into theories; they are what enable us to refer to so many worthwhile ideas as facts, even if they are tentative by their very nature. They are the core of science – a way of knowing that never seeks to prove anything.

Karl W. Giberson

Every once in awhile, a scientist will come out and say science and religion can co-exist. There will be some press coverage because of the obvious tensions between evidence-based thought and willy-nilly faith. So it comes as no surprise that physicist Karl Giberson is receiving some attention for his recent claim and book that says evolution and God can co-exist. (I presume the man has a longer history in the creationism-evolution issue than what LiveScience seems to suggest, but he evidently has yet to make a big splash.)

Obviously, he thinks one can be a Christian and accept evolution, but these two sets of knowledge “don’t make as much contact with each other as people think,” he said. Many fundamentalists “elevate Genesis beyond what is appropriate.”

Fundamentalists’ spin on the creation story in Genesis “robs it of everything that is interesting,” he said. Instead, readers should recall that the Bible repeats the refrain that God found what he made “good” and looks at the world as good.

It is true that bastardizing such a great piece of literature to literally mean something which is utterly absurd is a crying shame, but that doesn’t suddenly make evolution and religion, especially Christianity, compatible in any meaningful way. At best, perhaps the particular Christian god fully guided the process of evolution, making it mimic precisely what would be expected without any sort of foolish guidance, but that’s a rather superfluous compatibility. What’s more, that can comply to most any concept of a god that humans have had in the past 10,000 or more years. It’s a very non-cromulent way of thinking.

“It makes the world so much more interesting,” Giberson said. “The mystery of God’s existence is a more satisfying mystery than the mystery of how can all this arise out of a particle.”

Despite being a rather subjective claim, it seems difficult to fathom how anyone can honestly believe such a thing. First of all, it’s unclear how a mystery can be “satisfying”. It can be interesting and exciting and all that. Most of the good ones are. But satisfying? It’s when we solve the mystery or at least a piece of it that satisfaction becomes present. And, of course, the only way we can do that for most of the big questions is through the best way of knowing – science.

But what is your evidence, Shermer said, for belief in God?

“I was raised believing in God, so for me, the onus would be on someone to stop me from believing,” Giberson said, adding that “there is a certain momentum that is already there.”

This reminds me quite a bit of the silliness of George Smith. Apparently, an objective look at two sides is out of the question. It is the job of the non-believer to dismantle the long-term indoctrination of the believer. I almost don’t want to explicate on why this is so damn wrong. But I will.

Blind, stupid faith offers nothing of worth to a discussion. Once that argument is presented, any debate falls to shreds because faith is specifically belief without – or even despite the lack of – evidence. Perhaps an argument as to why faith is a bad way of knowing (indeed, it seeks to avoid a knowledge of anything) can be presented, but then one is simply dealing with a stubborn child. Perhaps it is that the onus is to lower one’s self to explaining why faith informs us of nothing.