Saturday, January 24, 2015

Another Smoking Gun – More Evidence of Our Complex Evolution

I love scientific discovery. In fact, I can write in absolutist terms that all science makes me happy. But it is the science related to human origins that truly brightens my day. Especially when new fossil or DNA evidence becomes widely distributed that either fills in gaps in our knowledge or bolsters and confirms what we already know to be accurate.

When research is widely shared it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Often, it will take years of experimentation, modeling, hypothesis review and study to accept data brought forward by researchers. This elongated process is actually very healthy. It’s healthy because it allows not only the discoverers of the evidence to examine what they’ve found but also gives those secondary or tertiary scientists, reviewers and editors the opportunity to look at the evidence to review, compare and accept or disprove findings.

Looking backwards at our evolutionary origins is a search for truth about our past, current and future humanity. It gives the past dignity. It honors rational ideas and those who thought them up. The tools of evolutionary science also free us from magical thoughts or special creation speculation. These are two ignoble and un-evidenced views of our place in the universe that are unequal and cannot stand as competing ideas as to how nature operates or how science works to uncover the scientific principles, laws and theories that inform our knowledge.

The journal Science is reporting on new data from researchers at the Max Planck Institute who partnered with anthropologists at universities in London and Vienna. Their new research suggests that early australopithecines (in this case A. afarensis) certainly had the fine motor dexterity and the ability to make hand tools.

The results of this new research are based on the detailed examination of australopithecine hand bones. The findings indicate afarensis had fine motor skills more closely related to modern humans than simians. The researchers specifically looked at trabeculae bone, the spongy internal structure within each bone that indicates how bone is shaped and manipulated over one’s lifetime. It appears our early hominid ancestor had human-like fine motor skills more advanced than our modern higher primate cousins, including the Great Apes.

Evidence from the Research
Knowing the hand shape, the cognitive brain power and overall morphological ability of afarensis related to its ability to cut and shape tools offers us deeper insight and further proof that our distant ancestors were tool making millions of years ago.

Even the most primitive tool use, like say a chimp cleaning a stick and jamming it into a termite mound to catch insects for food, or the cupping of leaves to collect rain water to drink, shows cognition and clear understanding of cause and effect. So as we shine a light on the early hominids the research increases our understanding of how the shaping of rocks, the building of rock shelters at uncovered habitation sites, and the later making and controlling of fire, just to name a few human inventions, were all necessary advents which directly lead to our current societies and world cultures.

Now I’m pretty sure that Australopithecus afarensis, with its long arms and small brain (+/- 450cc), would not cognitively understand things like the Internet (my bet Neanderthals would have no issue) but since they probably didn’t think much far ahead than perhaps the next day or two, we can and should be humbled by their trials and tribulations on the African plains. They were food for other animals, they died early, lived naked and perhaps partially in trees, and had no ability for language to communicate.

As pure luck would have it based on the fossil record and mDNA evidence, as the Australopithecines became extinct one line had speciated and their progeny would eventually lead to the genus, Homo. And after many competing dead-ends eventually to us.

Our species, and consequently each of us, have won the life lottery just by being born. But it is our ancestors who we have to thank for buying the tickets (through their genome) that allowed unconscious and undirected evolution to lead to our current, reasonably aware and oft conscious species.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Never Surrender the Pen or the Ideas Behind It

As I read about the reactionary anti-Charlie Hebdo demonstrations across the Middle and Far East, and look on dumbstruck by Pope Francis' "blame the victim" comments concerning the artist's deaths, I am more grounded than ever in the conclusion that the most radical to the most liberal faith traditions have the sad potential to be anti-humanistic. Each is perhaps antithetical to peace.

Surrendering free speech and secular democracy is not an option. And while I understand the images are insulting to those who feel their faith is being disparaged, the answer is not to kill people with automatic weapons or innocents in supermarkets. The appropriate response is an angry letter to the editor, acquire signatures for a petition to ask for editorial change or even take up non-violent picketing of newspaper offices. These actions are considered acceptable and since they each recall a right to free expression and free assembly, they actually build bridges between people and communities rather than harm people and property.

You can't kill ideas. You can only create situations where people are afraid to express them openly and honestly. That is the goal of religious terrorism. To essentially coerce and violently stifle all people from enjoying freedoms guaranteed to us just on the basis of being born.

The religious fundamentalist nations and their related pseudo-military thugs (ISIL, Boko Haram) are certainly trying to bend reality away from free expression. But they can't win. They can't win because freedom isn't owned by and given to others by religious bodies. Religious ideas can inform our lives but they cannot alone make us choose who we will become. Other philosophies, such as humanism, can inform our moral and ethical ideas and actions that have nothing to do with religion and which allows people to live good, happy and peaceful lives.

We are born free and it is the role of family, the wider commitment of community and government that either dampens or enlivens our fundamental rights to love who we wish, write and think as we wish, to gather and learn as we can and to live as equals regardless of where we happen to sit on this rock floating in space-time. This is modernity. This is the life we have consciously developed and it is the freely secular and democratic choice which works best. A gift we can and must give to future generations.

The Marxists tried to kill freedom and they failed. Not because Marxism as a theory is wrong but as a practice it is impossible to actualize and thus has always lead to totalitarianism.  So too is it the case for those who take the might of their faith and try to bend everyone to their ideas and beliefs which are actually stipulated and controlled by individual and mass delusion.

Even Inter-faith dialog may bring people together for a common purpose but it doesn't solve the central problems, antagonisms and power relationships that exist and will exist simply because each faith group will disagree whose god and magical beliefs are truly divine. So sure, you may get Muslims, Jews and Christians together for a march but that won't mean when the protest is over that the individuals will go back to their communities without the same personal prejudices they had before the gathering began. Religion, as Christopher Hitchens so aptly pointed out, really does poison everything.

Such antagonism even shows up in the most unlikely places. Last week at the Miss Universe pageant, Ms. Israel snapped a selfie photograph with three other contestants, including Ms. Lebanon. So here's a picture of four lovely young women, each smiling and apparently enjoying each other's company. The reaction in the Middle East was to shame Ms. Lebanon for being in the photo. This caused her to go onto her Facebook page and ask for forgiveness and also write an apology in which she explained how she tried to steer clear of Ms. Israel during the pageant.

If an innocent photo of four young smiling women is going to send people into the streets, if a cartoon can lead people to murder others, if a sexual orientation can cause people to throw others off of rooftops, and if a faith will cause violent actors to justify inhumanity against others then surely it is time to release ourselves from faith, even in its most supposedly gentle forms.

This doesn't mean we abandon spirituality or find ourselves not thinking imaginative thoughts. We need to recall and reflect how these ethereal ideas and concepts impact our creativity and our humanity. It just means we liberate ourselves from the tyranny of other people's religious delusions. It also means we lead an evidenced based and more peaceful life.

I don't know of any nonbeliever who would truly call for the abolition of religion if it was kept away from politics and the rights of people to live secular and democratically within the public square. But religion can and does cause us to make political decisions, from who we vote for, what legislation is put forward, how we fund and resource locally, nationally and internationally. It also impacts our access to knowledge, to health care, education, how we use the courts for justice and where we live.

If faith is a tree with deep psychological and social roots in our lives, communities and governments, we should as secularists, nonbelievers and humanists acknowledge these emotional systems and cultural realities. We should recognize that religious faith may play a positive or negative role in the personal lives of others but that one's personal religious beliefs should be the last variable used in creating laws, ethics, morals and folkways which govern our society and actions as citizens.

Anything less will lead us down this continual road of religious violence now so thick in our lives it feels like we are covered in mud. Let's allow people to become freethinkers and sit back and watch the world become more harmonious. Better yet let's share the same vision to create a world where secular freedom is ubiquitous and where religious violence can only be found in our history books.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Stop! In the Name of the Law!

Darwin and Wallace.
The Co-Discovers of
Natural Selection
We’ve seen time and again that fallacious argument from creationists that essentially attempt to lessen the importance of natural selection by accusing it of being just a theory.  Now, when these people use the word “theory” they are essentially trying to downgrade evolution to a challengeable and non-universal natural phenomenon, essentially using the least scientific meaning of the word to meet their creationist ends.

Evolution as a theory is more than just an idea. Evolution is a profound insight into the fundamental nature of biology and organic change on our planet. When a creationist uses the word theory, they are really implying, “look evolution is just an idea and guess what creationism is an equally valuable idea, too.” This is their slippery slope that doesn’t actually compare natural selection with other possible good ideas that might truly challenge Darwin and Wallace’s real science, but attempts to replace their work with a theistic version of reality.

To a creationist the theory of evolution is just as easily replaceable with and challenged by creationism and intelligent design. Both of these religious-based notions concerning the development of life on Earth are in fact final answers that then look for ways to prove they’re correct. Each is a form of pseudo-science that no self-respecting researcher worth their Ph.D. would endeavor.

Creationism is its Own House of Cards

Sorry! Wrong House of Cards
But good and factual science is not a house of cards. However creationism and any form of science that places a divine hand at the root cause for life or for life’s natural processes is certainly a shaky proposition. Remember when the Earth was wrongly considered the center of the solar system? What about Galileo’s tribulations and imprisonment by the Catholic Church for rightfully placing the sun at the center? 

Now perhaps you’re thinking, well, Galileo’s problems were hundreds of years ago and no person of faith would think this way now. Wrong! There are plenty of examples other than an Earth-centered solar system to undermine reason for the sake of faith. Enter the Flat Earth Society, an organization still around today that bases their ideas on ta..ta..ta…tat…the Bible. Even the Vatican observatory still places god as first cause for all creation.

But it’s not just modern Flat Earthers or other fundamentalist Christian groups who accept this delusion. The original organizer of Boko Haram also pledged his allegiance to god, a biblical flat Earth, an Earth-centered universe and against evolution.

Plus, the theory of gravity, which actually gives the Earth its shape and its place in the solar system, would certainly be wrong as well. Many biblical passages reference unnaturally floating objects and an Earth existing outside natural laws (Zachariah 5.1; 2 Kings; and various genesis passages), which would place gravity up for grabs as well and replace it with magic.

In a creation science world the acceptance of magic would play an increasing role in not only reality but also in healthcare. Forget about germ theory and modern medicine since health is ultimately placed in god’s hands. We know this because there are many people of faith who would refuse, based on their faith’s teachings and religious beliefs, any medicine or medical treatment. Choosing instead to cure themselves of cancer and their children of polio or measles with prayer.

Back to Evolution

But evolution is not just a theory. It should be considered a scientific law. When scientist use the word theory (in term of evolution at least) it means a testable and agreed upon series of facts that bolster and confirm processes operationalized in nature and researched and confirmed by humans. If a better theory using the tools of science were to be found then science would reject natural selection.

That’s the cool thing about science and the agonizing embarrassment of religious faith. Science seeks to change at all costs for the sake of truth. But religion seeks to remain the same regardless of how little truth is found in its writings and teachings. Science demands openness and skepticism while religion demands adherence, respect and blind loyalty to doctrine and authority.

While a scientific theory is synonymous with laws and principles, their common definitions are such that overlap is almost impossible to ignore. A scientific Law is also based on repeated experimentation. However, a scientific law, applied under the same conditions, would hold to be the same throughout the universe.

So we have to think and accept evolution as not just a terrestrial occurrence. Evolution is a naturally occurring process under which it exists and works when organic life exists. It can thus be confirmed and is operationalized under conditions where organic life evolves, speciates and becomes extinct over time and place on and off of the Earth. Hence the theory and laws of natural selection, based on Darwin and Wallace's observations and research, and confirmed by modern science are true.

And if you want to study the impact evolution and natural selection has on other worlds, all we have to do is read the research being conducted by scientists who study the rational and expanding scientific discipline known as exobiology.  This fascinating area of science looks to uncover and study how all natural laws and theories found on Earth when found on other worlds, impact those planets and celestial bodies.

So let’s disarm the critics of natural science and evolution with something better than guns and bombs. Let’s disarm them with language and facts, which not only refute their theology but also perhaps shines a brighter light on the ignorance garnered from taking a creationist stance. After all, ignorance is nothing to be proud of and using incorrect ideas to inform one’s worldview shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honor. Who knows, with a little linguistic fortitude and thousands of cemented facts on our side we may even win over converts from the vacuum of foolishness that is known as Intelligent Design.