Thursday, May 28, 2009

Evolutionary Psychology

One web site defines Evolutionary Psychology (EP) in this way[1]:

"Evolutionary psychology is the science that seeks to explain through universal mechanisms of behavior why humans act the way they do…Evolutionary psychology seeks to reconstruct problems that our ancestors faced in their primitive environments, and the problem-solving mechanisms they created to meet those particular challenges. From these reconstructed problem-solving adaptations, the science then attempts to establish the common roots of our ancestral behavior, and how those common behavioral roots are manifested today in the widely scattered cultures of the planet. The goal is to understand human behavior that is universally aimed at the passing of one's genes into the next generation."

One simple example: humans seem to have an innate fear of snakes. The fear is not universal but it is felt by many humans. Such a fear is easy to explain from human evolutionary history.

EP can help to explain why mothers love their children, why step-children are often not as well-loved as biological children, etc.

Some scientists use EP to attempt to explain why people tend to be religious. The explanations run along these lines:

When the human intellect reached the point that they could explain some things about the natural world, they started to feel uneasy about those things that they could not explain. They developed the idea of a supernatural being – a God – to help explain those things. For example, early humans could not explain what caused rain. The solution: a rain god.

Not all scientists embrace EP. While it certainly explains some things, in many cases it’s difficult to develop a testable and potentially falsifiable test for the ideas.

Example: how do you test the idea that religion is explained as I describe it above?

Another problem is that EP may try to explain too much.

For example, I found an article by some authors named Alford, Funk and Hibbing titled "Are Politically Orientations Genetically Transmitted?"[2] It claims that genes count for more than environment when forming political ideologies.

If you voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election, your genes helped convince you do so.

In my view, this is "over-reaching".

Moreover, how do you really test such a hypothesis? The authors of the paper use attitudes of monozygotic (identical twins raised separately) compared to dizygotic twins (children with different parents but nearly identical ages raised together). Monozygotic twins tended to share a higher percentage of political views than dizygotic twins did.

But it turns out that the correlation varies quite a bit when they compared various specific political views. The correlation on property taxes was higher than the correlation on gay marriage. Surprisingly the correlation on party affiliation was lowest of all (only 0.14).

It seems to me that political views – if there is really any correlation at all – are really just a secondary characteristic. Identical twins are similarly intelligent, for example, and intelligence can be correlated with political views. Also physical attractiveness is influenced by genetics and such attractiveness influences the personality of individuals which, in turn, affects their views on some political issues.

There is a real danger in such studies about EP. That danger is that "evolutionary psychology" has some similarities to Social Darwinism – the idea that the character of people is determined by their genes. The implications of Social Darwinism include eugenics – discouraging people from reproducing who have perceived bad characteristics.

While the EP examples I've seen so far generally relate to humans as a complete species - a fear of snakes is shared by nearly all humans, for example, independent of their race or culture – if political views are influenced by our genes, maybe your honesty or your willingness to work hard is as well.

It's worth talking about such things, but there is also danger.

[1], referenced on May 28, 2009
[2], referenced on May 28, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Implications of eternity

One of the claimed advantages of being a creationist is that you gain eternal life.

Of course, for people who understand theimplications of "Eternity"the idea of ANY sort of eternal life is utterly and totally frightening.

I've always been fascinated by the fact that no one seems to be able to describe in any detail their expectations of what heaven might be like. While I understand that no one who has gone there has ever come back to describe it, you would still think that people who yearn so earnestly to spend all of eternity in heaven would have formed some sort of expectations.

Allow me to examine a few possibilities.

Let's say that you can read books.

There are a finite number of books that have been written or will ever be written. Therefore you could read, at great leisure, every book that ever has been written and every book that ever will be written. You could even learn everyother language fluently and read every bookthat ever has been written or ever will be written in every one of those languages as well.

Let's say that you can just think in heaven. That would seem to be a minimal requirement.

There are 60 trillion (yes TRILLION) synapses inour brains. (See ) Since that is a finite number, you can have every synapse take every possible state if given an eternity for that to take place. That means that you can have every possible thought within an eternity.

But let's not stop there.

Let's say that in heaven our brains are elevated.So we have a million times as many synapses.

That is STILL a finite number. Therefore even with that many additional synapses, we can still have every single thought possible.

But let's not even stop THERE!

Let's say that in heaven, all brains are combined together into a sort of global consciousness. In that case you can take total number of synapses, multiply it by a million to increase our capacity and then multiply THAT by the total number of individuals ever going to heaven.

Regardless of how many times you multiply it, the result is still a finite number. That means thatall humans together could still have all possible thoughts even in a state of combined consciousness.

It goes on and on and on.

You can even do those things over and over again.

You could read ALL books a million times.

Or have all possible thoughts in a shared consciousness with all other human beings a quadrillion times.

When all of that has happened, how must time do youhave left?

It turns out that you have just as much as when you started.

It is EXACTLY as though nothing has changed.

It is EXACTLY as though you did NONE of those things.

You still have PRECISELY eternity left.

What do you do now?

More to the point, why would anyone possibly hope for such a fate?

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Proving" God's Existence and Free Will

> No, I cannot "prove" there is a God...

While I am far from an expert in theological issues, I believe that there are serious theological problems with the existence of a "proof" for God's existence.

**IF** such a "proof" existed it would effectively eliminate our "free choice" option to believe in God.

Consider the sun. There are no sun atheists. That's because we see the sun. We feel the sun. We see the effects of the sun all around us. The existence of the sun has been "proven" as much as the existence of anything can be proven.

But, that means that we don't have really have "free will" to believe in the sun. We are forced to believe in it. That's not to say that anyone is twisting our arm, but because its existence is "proven", as rational human beings we don't have a choice. It isn’t rational not to believe in the existence of the sun.

Of course the existence of the sun doesn't have any particular philosophical or theological import. If there was nothing to warm the Earth we simply wouldn't exist. Other than that it doesn't affect our actions (except when we are reminded to put on sun block).

But the existence or non-existence of God DOES have significant philosophical and theological implications.

**IF** the existence of God could be proven beyond any doubt then there would be no "free will" in regard to believing in him. We would be forced to do so by the implications of the logical argument presented to us. But then Christian theology, which depends on free will, would be deemed largely pointless.

So, it seems to me, that claiming that God's existence can be "proven" is inconsistent with Christianity.

When people claim that they can "prove" God's existence because there is order in the universe or all things need a creator, then they are supporting ideas that are fundamentally anti-Christian. They NEED such a "proof" because their faith is very weak (effectively non-existent) but to actually promote such ideas must be some sort of a sin.

Note that it is quite reasonable to believe in God yourself because of the order in the universe or because you believe that all things need a creator. You can even use the fallacy of Pascal's Wager. But that's not the same thing as claiming that you can "prove" the existence of God because of those things. So in my view, creationists who deny such a proof have exactly the right perspective.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mutation rates and Human Evolution

Creationists claim that the number of mutations required since the common ancestor of chimps lived is too large to have taken place in just 5-6 million years.

Here’s a typical claim or question.

> Given 5 million years at the rate of mutation you give,
> it is within the realm of possibility. I cannot argue that.
> I have a lot of questions regarding the Chimp to Human
> relationship. The mutations, would they need to be
> mostly benefiacial [sic] mutations (at least on the human side).

We know these things:
1. The size of the human and chimp genomes (3 billion base-pairs)
2. The amount of difference there is between those genomes (about 2%)

We can use those two pieces of data to calculate that the total number of base pair differences between chimps and humans as about 60 million. It is reasonable to assume that about half of those base-pair changes took place in the human evolutionary path and half in chimp ancestors. Therefore a total of 30 million base-pairs in human DNA occurred since the common ancestor lived.

We can estimate these things:

1. The number of years since the common ancestor of chimps and humans lived (about 5 million years)
2. The average world-wide population size (about 100,000)
3. The average life expectancy (about 30 years)
4. The average number of mutations per individual organism (about 100)
5. The amount of evolution taking place among chimp ancestors compared to the amount of evolution taking place among human ancestors (about equal).

Based on many factors, I believe those numbers to be reasonable estimates. Since they are round numbers, some may be a bit too high and others a bit too low. But they should come close to averaging out.

If 30 million base pair changes took place over 5 million years, an average of 6 base-pair changes per year occurred.

With that worldwide population and a life expectancy of 30 years, you would have about 3,333 individuals born each year. That would mean about 333,300 base-pair changes occurred in new individuals born each year.

Putting that all together, we see that only five of 333,300 base-pair changes became part of the human genome. With those numbers we find that about 99.998% of mutations are not retained in the genome.

If a particular number was off by a factor of 10 it would affect our calculation by a factor of 10. If, for example, we believe that the average world-wide population was only 10,000 (rather than 100,000) the rate at which mutations are NOT adopted would be 99.98% instead.

It is fairly difficult to imagine a set of numbers which would make the percentage fall below 99%.

Multiverses and Life Elsewhere

The May 2009 issue of "Discover" has an article title "Cosmic Abodes of Life". It can be found on pp. 46-51.

There were some parts of the discussion that I wanted to share on this blog.

It turns out that life may not be so unusual after all. The discussion in the magazine covers many things that support that claim.

A portion of that article discusses "multiverses". That is the idea that there may be many universes with different physical laws. Apparently string theory allows for such things and it calculates the possibility that there are 10**500 (a '1' with 500 zeroes after it) possible universes.

A scientist did a calculation and found out that fully 25% of those universes, even with different physical laws, would allow for heavy stars (i.e. heavy elements). Though life needs more than heavy elements, it is surely a requirement. Of course life as we know it may not be the only possible life. It is possible, for example, that under different physical laws other elements might be able to form the complex molecules that only carbon seems able to produce in our own universe.

Possibly the most interesting suggestion is the one that each and every black hole results in the creation of a new and different universe. In that case, the physical laws would necessarily be effectively the same in each new universe. That fact suggests a certain type of Darwinian selection. Any set of physical laws that allowed black holes would be strongly selected among all of the other possible sets of physical laws.

These same scientists are suggesting that this hypothesis is testable. That test is that our universe should be optimal for producing black holes. So if it is true that changing any of the physical constants (such as the speed of light, the force of gravity, etc.) diminishes the conditions needed for black holes then we have that optimal set of conditions and - voila - we have an explanation for why the universe is as it is.

No God needed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Contradictory Arguments

I found this comment on the web page at

"On the one hand people point to various complex structures and assert that there is no way to explain something so magnificent by reference to gradual accretion. But when a scientist then comes up with a plausible, step-by-step account for how the structure could have formed, suddenly the criticism is that you can come up with a story to explain anything."

After debating a creationist for the last few days who made both of these points, I realized that those arguments do, indeed, contradict each other.

His primary claim was that things like the complexity of DNA was impossible to explain without having an Intelligent Designer. But he also argued that the fact that scientists could provide interpretations for everything in the fossil record didn't mean anything.

You can't have it both ways. If science can provide an explanation, then you don't need an intelligent designer to explain it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A new poll is out at It includes this tidbit:

"...young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely thanthose age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs.8%)."

That's quite a difference. A bit more than 3-to-1.

I'm not saying that those are all atheists. Thatgroup that calls themselves "unaffiliated" - the group which is growing rapidly among young people - includes those who call themselves: atheists,agnostics, "nothing in particular", "secular unaffiliated" and "religious unaffiliated".

One question: I think that I know what atheists, agnostics and "religious unaffiliated" means. I can maybe even figure out what "nothing in particular" means. But I'm completely stumped by "secular unaffiliated".

What is that?

There's also our old friend: "refused to answer"which is not included in that 25% number so I won't go near it.

While those people are not all atheists, it cannot be good news for organized religious groups to see that so many young people no longer feel that theyhave any need to be affiliated with any of them.

Of course, I personally feel that is WONDERFUL news. As I've said many times, in my view organized religion has done much more harm than good throughout human history. The fact that this poll indicatesthat the influence of organized religion is declining makes me smile broadly.

See: : -))))))))))))))))

10 Reasons why Creationism is Bad theology

This is a post I have presented previously in various debates. I find it fascinating how creationists generally ignore the list. When they DO respond, it's always in the form of a general dismissal, something along the lines of: That's absurd! The fact that they are unable to argue against my specific claims is very telling, at least to me.

1. It requires a belief in a cruel God.

The God of the creationists killed many people, including small children in various ways including floods, fire and brimstone falling from the sky and so on. That same God also willfully created a natural world "red in tooth and claw" according to Tennyson.

2. It requires a belief in a deceptive God.

The God of the creationists left evidence of evolution (such as cytochrome-c) and an old Earth and universe when neither of those things are true (at least if YEC claims are true).

3. It requires a belief in a God who is not very competent.

The God of the creationist created things like flightless birds, blind cave fish with non-functional eyes and His original "design" included at least 100 failed species that became extinct for every one that has survived over a mere 6000 years.

4. It demands self-worship.

Creationists believe that they inerrantly understand the Mind of God through the Bible. Even if the Bible is the inspired word of God and was faithfully written down by infallible human authors, an inerrant message clearly requires that the reader (i.e. the creationist) be inerrant as well!! Since only Gods are inerrant such a belief requires that the creationists elevate themselves to Godly levels.

5. It diminishes the important parts of the Bible

The parts of the Bible that are primarily in dispute between creationists and science are all in the Old Testament. That means that the discussion focuses on those parts, some of which are relatively obscure and have little real theological importance (such as Joshua's battle where the sun supposedly stopped in the sky). Surely any Christian, in particular, would find the New Testament more important in theological discussions.

6. It holds the Bible and Christianity up to ridicule

St. Augustine said it best:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, . . . and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn."

7. A belief in an inerrant Bible diminishes the amount of study given that book.

The extent to which a book is considered inerrant is directly proportional to the amount that it is NOT subject to analysis. People don't analyze the phone book or the dictionary because they are effectively considered inerrant sources of information. If people thought that there were possible flaws in the Bible they would ask questions like, "Wow! Did that really happen? If so, what does it mean about the character of God?" A deeper analysis would surely follow. Note that creationists often READ the Bible. But that's not what I'm talking about. People READ the phone book often too. I'm talking about STUDYING the Bible. As evidence: the only questions that are raised about the Bible seem to come from skeptics.

8. A belief in an inerrant Bible increases the amount of fear that people have regarding what they read in the Bible.

This is similar to, but a bit different from the previous argument.

Creationists are told that if any part of the Bible is wrong then the entire Bible cannot be believed. A common question asked by creationists, "If some part of the Bible is flawed how do we know what parts to believe?" (Answer: "Possibly you should use the brain that God gave you!") Therefore they actually believe that any flaws in that book can make God disappear. Inevitably it makes them afraid to ask questions. It is difficult to believe that God would inspire a book and not want people to think about it and ask questions as they think.

9. Creationism indicates a fundamentally weak and even fragile belief in God and Christianity

Creationists are basically looking for "proof" of God's existence. They insist, for example, that God must be the source of the order in the universe in order to convince them that they have found "proof" of God's existence. That "proof" comes in the form of an inerrant book. After all, mere humans could not created an inerrant book. The problem is that without such actual "proof" they would lose their belief that God exists. But searching for "proof" is not faith. John 20:29 is relevant here: "Jesus said to him, `Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'"

10. It promotes the worship of a book rather than worship of God.

Biblical literalists actually put the Bible ahead of God and Jesus in things that they worship. Biblical literalism also diminishes the role of prayer and study and the role of the Holy Spirit.
Evidence of the failure of the Bible by itself to provide a real understanding of God is provided by the irrefutable fact that many people with equal amounts of sincerity and equal years of study come away with different messages from the Bible.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Pascal's Wager

I’ve been convinced for a very long time that Pascal’s Wager is a very persuasive argument for many creationists.

Most people are probably familiar with Pascal’s Wager, but for those who haven’t heard about it the Wager was the brainchild of Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a famous 17th century French mathematician and philosopher. He was also a devout Christian and even wrote a treatise on Christian apologetics (i.e. providing a rational basis for believing in God primarily by “proving” that the Bible is inerrant). Pascal presented a logical argument in favor of believing in God which he called a "Wager". He gave a long, multi-paragraph explanation of his argument. Basically the argument is that believing in God gives you nothing to lose.

Creationists have summarized the Wager more succinctly. Here’s how the Answers in Genesis web site paraphrases it[1]:

“How can anyone lose who chooses to become a Christian? If, when he dies, there turns out to be no God and his faith was in vain, he has lost nothing—in fact, he has been happier in life than his non-believing friends. If, however, there is a God and a heaven and hell, then he has gained heaven and his skeptical friends will have lost everything in hell.

The appeal of the wager is obvious. In my view it is so appealing that it convinces many people who wouldn’t otherwise accept creationism to do so, Noah’s Ark and all.

Why wouldn’t it convince anyone?

There is, in fact, a very significant problem with the Wager.

Formally it suffers from a logical fallacy called the “False Dichotomy” also known as the “False Dilemma”. The wager assumes only two possible alternatives: atheism and Christianity. But, in fact, there are innumerable possible other alternatives.

For example, possibly the true “Master of the Universe” is Allah, the God of Islam. In that case, Allah might decide to punish the infidels who worship as Christians. Therefore being a Christian may guarantee that you end up with eternal punishment.

Most relevantly, it doesn’t address whether or not people should believe in evolution. There is no support for the idea that you’re going to hell if you believe in evolution. Surely it is possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution. So it makes absolutely no sense to use Pascal’s Wager as a reason to reject evolution and require a belief in an inerrant Bible.

Personally, I have always insisted that creationism demands a belief in a God who is cruel, deceptive and not very competent. Therefore creationism – as opposed to Christianity – is quite anti-God. It seems quite likely that if hell exists (I honestly don’t believe that it does) creationists - as opposed to evolution-believing Christians – are probably destined for there.

In that case, creationists lose both sides of Pascal’s Wager.

In other words, creationists are guaranteed losers.

[1], referenced on May 5, 2009

Friday, May 1, 2009

Silliness regarding the Swine Flu and Evolution

This is from the blog at The author is someone named Ray Comfort.

“The spread of the so-called 'swine flu' demonstrates yet again how useless and sometimes deadly a mutation can be. Furthermore, as the infection spreads around the world, the search for an antidote is desperately sought, but the very fact that the virus is seen as something to be opposed actually supports the Biblical view of this world. It is always good and right to oppose sickness, but in evolutionary terms, why don’t humans simply resign themselves to it and allow the strong to survive? The evolutionary point of view would say the virus has a ‘right’ to live, so 'good luck' to it!”

What an insane thing to say! It is remarkable how utterly ignorant creationists are about how evolution works.

Of course the current evidence indicates that this flu has “evolved” from one that previously infected pigs. Because of that, this flu is a completely new virus and because of its novelty humans have not “evolved” any immunity to it. That is why it is so dangerous. The virus seems to be relatively mild now – the vast majority of people who come in contact with it develop only relatively mild symptoms – but we also know that the virus could evolve in different ways. It could become quite virulent if we are not cautious. Obviously an understanding of evolution is key to telling us how to react to it.

But, more to the point of this blogger’s comments, evolution is all about adapting to a changing environment. That environment includes the evolution of other organisms. No species on Earth, intelligent or otherwise, simply sits back and says to another evolving species, “I give up. You’re the stronger. You win.” Surely species do lose battles for survival – after all species do become extinct. But it never happens without a fight. Organisms have evolved precisely because they have that ability to fight for survival.

Humans are intelligent so they can take precautions that other species cannot take – possibly even developing a vaccine. But certainly knowing what steps to take in order to minimize the spread of the virus are important. Clearly the very evolution of our intelligence is the way in which we have become “stronger” allowing us to survive.

The next set of comments from that blogger seem to me to argue against what he says in the first paragraph:

“Even worse, some people are actually trying to blame God for the pandemic, yet it was Man’s original sin which brought disease and sickness into a perfect world. We have no one but ourselves to blame. God offers a cure, but Man refuses it because it does not come on Man’s terms.

“The fact that living things, and viruses can mutate is part of their design. Change within a species gives organisms the ability to adapt if the environment changes, but mutations almost never adds new information to the DNA, and most mutations are harmful, and they usually subtract information. The trend is down, not up, which absolutely contradicts Darwin.”

Of course the mutation that allowed the virus to jump from pigs to humans was not harmful – at least it was not harmful to the organism that experienced that particular mutation. Which is the whole point. The mutation(s) “added information” (whatever that means) allowing the virus to evolve “up” (whatever that means) so that it could infect a larger number of organisms. Evolution is not human-centric. It centers on the population of organism that is experiencing mutations. Therefore everything that the blogger is saying here is wrong from an evolutionary perspective and contradicts his suggestion that the virus has become so strong that we should just “give up”.

Here is something else that the blogger says:

“The great hope for this fallen, diseased, weatherworn world, is the return of Christ, who has promised to bring restoration, everlasting health and peace to all people. Unfortunately, for evolutionists, this cannot be a part of their thinking, because it leads them into the first chapters of Genesis. They would rather believe a silly lie than acknowledge Biblical truth.”

This, to me, seems to be advice to simply “give up”. Apparently we should all wring our hands, exclaim “alas, alas”, sit back and do nothing until Jesus returns.

That is utter lunacy. Particularly since that’s not about to happen. Moreover that ”silly lie” he mentions is found in the first chapters of Genesis. It’s not found in a study of evolution.