seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Politics & Religion

Thoughts on the two - frequently both.

Evolution Misunderestimated

Seeing is Believing after Hundreds of Years

Jerry A. Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True (a book on my wish list), wrote a stunning review of two books relating to evolution and the struggle Christians have in coming to terms with it. The February 4, 2009, The New Republic ran "Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail."

I think this article is a must read for just about anyone. Those who think there is any doubt regarding the truth of evolution should take the 10-15 minutes this article will take to read. Those who have accepted it as fact should also check it out because it is a really good examination of why many religious people have not been able to accept it.

That said, I think the premise of the review is 100% wrong. More on that toward the end of my review of the review...

First, I don't want to spend a lot of time on this point, but it is why I have recommended the Evolution on Trial documentary and why I look forward to reading Why Evolution is True. The point is that there is no doubt, life on Earth evolves and humans come from a common ancestor with much of that life.

Delving quickly into so-called Intelligent Design thought, the biggest "duh" moment of the review is the obviousness of how Intelligent Design both fails and requires the more controversial creationism to hold together.

One of Miller's keenest insights is that ID involves not just design but also supernatural creation. After all, the designer has to do more than just envision new creatures; he must also place them on Earth. And if that is not creationism (a label that IDers loudly reject), I do not know what is.

Nonetheless, these (un)Intelligent Design people try to dispute evolution by claiming there are gaps and that some parts of cells are too complex to have evolved. Hogwash. Scientists have explained how the complex functions evolved.

In a devastating dismantling of ID, he [Miller in Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul] takes the "scientific" claims of ID seriously and follows them to their illogical conclusion. In clear and lively prose, Miller shows that complex biochemical pathways are cobbled together from primitive precursor proteins that once had other functions but were co-opted for new uses.

Further, the fact that we humans eat and breathe through the same hole in our head is evidence for either incredibly stupid design (choke on anything lately?) or a single digestive pipe in sea creatures that evolved into a dual purpose to allow us to live on land.

But there are gaps that defy our understanding this year. Does that mean that we are incapable of discovering a materialistic (meaning non-magical) explanation? This is the logical extension of what so many religions seem to argue.

the view that if we do not yet comprehend a phenomenon completely, we must throw up our hands, stop our research, and praise the Lord. For scientists, that is a prescription for the end of science, for perpetual ignorance.

But the larger point of the review is that science and religion are incompatible. Which I dispute.

I will agree that science and religion serve different purposes.

We do not have "faith" in Darwinism in the same way that others have faith in God, nor do we see Darwin as an unimpeachable authority like Pope Benedict XVI or the Ayatollah Khamenei. Indeed, since 1859 a fair number of Darwin's ideas have been disproven. Like all sciences, evolution differs from religion because it constantly tests its assumptions, and discards the ones that prove false.

Further, though there is mutual antagonism from some quarters against the other, scientists are considerably less likely to blindly follow their beliefs. Though Michelle did not enjoy this part as much, I loved the section where Coyne examines the ways in which scientists could be provided with evidence of divine intervention in our lives:

There are so many phenomena that would raise the specter of God or other supernatural forces: faith healers could restore lost vision, the cancers of only good people could go into remission, the dead could return to life...

But these phenomena do not manifest themselves. On the flip side, scientists and atheists sometimes argue that if religions would just stop believing in things like resurrection or a God that answers prayers (I was going to also suggest virgin birth, but we do know of several species that can do this now) then they would not be incompatible with science.

One can believe that God created immutable laws of physics and does not intervene and there is nothing science can say about that. Coyne rightly points out that this is not compatible with most religions because they make empirical claims about the world - many of which have been disproved (history of the Earth, for instance). To say that religion is compatible with science if it just stops making such claims is disengenuous. Therefore, religion is not compatible with science (though science is compatible with some religions).

But.......this is where I disagree and go all "liberal arts" on Coyne.

No one takes a truly literal reading of the Bible. Some are more literal than others, believing in Noah's Ark or that we should literally stone adulterers to death (though we are all fortunate they are fewer in number than those who merely use the Bible to justify their annoyance at the "gay lifestyle"). Throughout history, the commmon understanding of what is allegorical and what is literal has changed (resulting in frequent disagreement among the myriad groups who use "The" Holy Bible as their defining text).

Some things have been conveniently glossed over - such as passages justifying slavery or infanticide. At one point, the church absolutely refused to believe that the Earth was not the center of the universe or that the Earth revolved around the sun. If this heresy could be seamlessly integrated into the Bible, which continued to put us at the center of "His" domain, then evolution and future scientific discoveries may yet be integrated into religion without a fundamental change in faith.

There are other aspects of religious belief that may incorporate evolution. God's image - maybe we are all made in God's image: Single backbone for most species, symmetry in nearly all life, there are many unifying characteristics of life that should allow those who want to believe we are made in God's image to keep believing it. That humans are solely made in God's image will likely have to be left with the center of the universe beliefs as a historical relic.

Regarding a personal God that is involved in our lives, this is nothing that science could ever prove or disprove so long as people are willing to believe that there is some larger plan that we are not meant to grasp. This is fundamentally an idea that science could never prove or disprove because science does not deal with something that is explicitly not understandable.

Maybe it is just "new" science is incompatible with religion. If you give religion a few hundred years (clearly 150 is not enough...) it will mostly stop disputing well settled scientific facts. This is why few currently preach that the sun revolves around us or that lightning bolts are hurled by a vengeful (and slutty) God. And why most Christians today look on in horror at those who refuse to give modern medicine to their children, preferring instead to pray for health.

There is always hope (perhaps faith?) that we can stop wasting time arguing about things that we can know (evolution, climate change) and get on to the debates over what to do about them (where science is somewhat less helpful - and yes, I'm talking about climate change as I don't think anyone is seriously arguing we should put our efforts into using evolution to spur an X-men race of witty people).

Asset Bubbles Inevitable?

As a policy geek, I'm always trying to learn from problems and disasters ... is this something that proper policies can solve or would policy be ineffective while also creating unintentional harm? The question of how to deal with bubbles in economics is exactly one of these questions.

Is it something that we can prevent? Do we even want to? Many times, bubbles leave us with value - as when fiber-optics nearly everwhere greatly lowed the cost of communications around the world following the dotcom bust. However, the real estate bubble is devastating and I don't know how long it will take for us to find something of larger value in it than was destroyed by it.

The Atlantic Monthly's December 2009 issue ran a relevant column by Virginia Postrel called "Pop Psychology" that suggests we simply cannot prevent bubbles. Even when traders knew a bubble was coming, they could (would) not avoid it. I don't know that this rules out the possibility of good policy preventing bubbles, but it suggests to me that it would be quite difficult.

Nova on National Security Agency

How much do you know about the National Security Agency? James Bamford has a couple of books about it - I've read the first one and own the others ... they are on my list. James Bamford is the reason we know what we know about the NSA. Before his first book, it was known as "No Such Agency." His latest book is the Shadow Factory.

The PBS show Nova recently ran an hour program on this agency and the role it played in the 9-11 intelligence failure.

I highly recommend it for Americans who care about what their government does and their civil liberties. It is, afterall, the agency that has been listening to our phone calls since the Bush Administration decided the Constitution doesn't apply when bad people want to hurt us.

It is stunning to hear what the NSA knew about the 9-11 terrorists and they chose not to tell anyone. This appears to be more a result of turf wars than laws preventing the sharing of this knowledge or even the nature of signals intelligence (where you may not act on actionable intelligence for fear of divulging to the enemy that you are able to eavesdrop on them). But we will never know because Congress has not demanded a full accounting.

Op-ed in Pioneer Press

After a commentary in the local paper by some so-called free market types (so-called because they are against government, not for functioning markets), I called the paper to ask for some balanced coverage. This was Wednesday. I wrote this column that afternoon.

Kudos to Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart has taken it to Bill O'Reilly... and though pointing Blowhard Bill's hypocritical-ness is about as challenging as tripping a blind person, I thought this merited sharing.

Dick Cheney Continues to Hate America

Ever get the idea that Cheney is pissed he didn't get to be King of Saudi Arabia and decided just to govern like he was?

Tax the Rich

In a recent op-ed, my boss asks why we can't even talk about taxing the rich in these tough times.

There was a time when Americans believed a steeply progressive income tax was important simply to stop the nation's wealth from becoming more concentrated. We believed that dramatic inequality in and of itself was a social menace. A few months ago the United Nations reported that the income inequality of many U.S. cities now rivals that of African cities. The story disappeared in a day.

The obvious reason to tax the rich is that they have the money - some famous bank robber was once asked why he robbed banks. "That's where the money is," he replied.

A better reason is because the rich would not be rich without public infrastructure and the government services that allow our economy to work as well as it does. Clueless people talk about free markets all the time as if it has something to do with unregulated markets. I've seen unregulated markets in the Middle East and Africa. You want a functioning market, you want to talk about smart regulations, public infrastructure, and accountability. You want to escape regulation and taxes, move to Somalia.

Rich people have benefited more from the investments of those who came before us. Imagine life in the U.S. without an Interstate highway system, or phone and electrical systems in rural areas. Many have been made rich precisely because they have taken advantage of these public investments from our parents and grandparents. Time to give back so future generations will have a high quality of life.

You got a problem with taxes? Stop paying them and stop taking government services .... hire your own private security force, build your own roads, and eat only what you produce (government keeps the food and water pretty safe, folks). Let me know what the better deal is.

20/20 Hindsight

I've been meaning to note, for those who are interested in such things, two more good pieces examining how Obama and McCain campaigned and some of the stories behind the scenes. The 17 November 2008 New Yorker had "Battle Plans: How Obama won" by Ryan Lizza and "The Fall: John McCain's Choices" by David Grann.

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