Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Guest Post Commentary: Evolution Deniers Don't Give Up Easily

By Dr. Tyson Gill*

Incredibly, the majority of Americans still either doubt or outright deny the reality of evolution. This is no accident. Evolution deniers have worked hard to create widespread doubt about evolution. A few decades ago, evolution deniers resurrected the old “half-a-wing” argument. In bellicose tones rich with mocking certainty, noted “experts” such as Rush Limbaugh propagated what they purported to be a devastating refutation of evolutionary science.

These deniers argued that since nothing evolves without a purpose, complex wings could not possibly have originated from something as simple as a fin. Since half of a wing serves no benefit that they could conceive of, wings could never have evolved incrementally. Wings, they argued, were conclusive proof of an intelligent designer.

Although ludicrously uninformed or disingenuous or both, the argument of these evolution deniers was eagerly embraced and parroted by legions of other deniers and often created doubt amongst many less scientifically literate Americans.

Of course that specious logic has always been refuted by a tremendous preponderance of readily observable facts. The most casual student of biology can see, even today, almost unlimited uses of partial wings. At every tiny stage of wing development we see examples of evolutionary benefits ranging from stabilization, turning and rowing in water, to jumping out of water to catch insects or to migrating between ponds in dry periods, to movement on land, assisting with falling, climbing up slopes or trees, to gliding and on to glorious flight.

The Eyes Have It 

Eventually, most relatively sane deniers accepted that in fact, partial wings did have a purpose during the evolutionary process. But that didn’t dissuade deniers from trying the same old argument again. Next time it was the eye that defied evolution. Certainly, their new argument went, anyone can see how a fin can become a wing, but the eye, that’s different! The eye is obviously far too to have evolved naturally. Eyes,they argued, are conclusive proof of an intelligent designer. Yet again, the evolution deniers were to be deeply disappointed.

Exquisite documentaries came out that painstakingly traced the development of the eye from very crude structures to the complex organs of advanced species. And they did this through powerful images of creatures that still exist today. Another “common-sense” evolution-killing argument was decisively dismantled, to the begrudging concession of most evolution deniers.

Is Sex Latest Proof of ‘Designer?

But despite those failures, the deniers have still not given up on this same essential argument. Today what we hear put forth in online articles and in near proximity to coffeepots across America is the new evolution-killer: sexual reproduction.

Yes, they readily admit, only a fool cannot see that wings evolved, and yes, only a bigger fool doesn’t now accept that eyes evolved, but human sexuality, that’s different! It is inconceivable that something as complex as sexual reproduction and all associated behaviors could merely have evolved. Sexual reproduction, they now argue, is conclusive proof of an intelligent designer. Their basic argument is that sexual reproduction could not possibly have been “built from scratch” by evolution.

This is yet again just another incarnation of the same old half-a-wing argument. What good is half a penis after all? And they have added a new twist by arguing that just because sexual reproduction has evolutionary benefits does not prove that it originated in evolution. Of course that circular argument is only possible if you assume the existence of an intelligent designer. 

Deniers Wrong: Sex Evolved! 

And again there are overwhelming facts--to anyone willing to look at them--that human sexuality did evolve. We see sexual reproduction and associated behaviors in over 99.99 percent of organisms with cell nuclei. The first single-celled organisms to engage in sex were protists that appeared roughly two billion years ago.

Amongst this incredible diversity we see sexual organs and behaviors at all stages of development between those first organisms and humans. Hopefully it won’t be long until the next amazing documentary illustrates exactly how this happened in ways that will reach the general public in a compelling way. When that happens, it will be amusing to see what argument evolution deniers put forth next.

The next False Argument - A Prediction:

I predict this will be the next one that surges in popularity:

Well, certainly wings and eyes and sexuality might have evolved, but consciousness! Clearly consciousness could never have evolved. Consciousness is absolute proof of an intelligent designer."

The good news is that science is successfully pushing these evolution deniers back step by step by step; even if that only means that they come up with yet newer versions of the same old discredited arguments. Once all of their imagined rational arguments are exhausted, it will be interesting to see whether they will finally relent in their denial or simply retreat to an unassailable position of pure faith.
Paleolibrarian good friend and colleague, Dr. Tyson Gill, is author of the highly recommended book, “Belief in Science and the Science of Belief: A Guidebook to Fact-Based Thinking,” available on This post originally appeared in the New York City Atheists (NYCA) November/December newsletter. It is republished with permission from both the author and organization.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Guest Post Commentary: What is a Militant Atheist? And Why Do They Keep Calling Us That?

Lee Moore
By Lee Moore* 
I have to admit I am not one of the better informed Atheists. I try to keep up with the latest articles on the Secular Movement, keep an eye on what the big names are up to and sometimes have a look at what the opposition is saying about us--but that only gives me a tiny bit of the news. One thing I have noticed quite a bit in my stumbles is the term "Militant Atheist." My first thoughts when reading this term went something like, "Whoa, we have some kind of paramilitary force that takes down oppressive theocratic regimes and forces people to read Darwin at gunpoint."

No Pictures of Militants

Rather than let my imagination go too far into overdrive, I figured it might be a wise move to break out "The Google" and maybe even "The Wikipedia" and read up on this gun-toting Atheist force.

First I tried an image search. My screen filled with images of Atheist posters, geeky guys with cool beards and trendy glasses, a few images of Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens, even some naked people (safe search was obviously off). Pretty interesting stuff but not one image of an Atheist holding a weapon or a group of Atheists in military style clothing.
The thought occurred to me that maybe these militant guys are so bad ass that no pictures exist of them.

I switched to a standard web search.

Of course the first thing I saw on the web is a wiki article on the subject, and since Wikipedia seems to hold the sum of all human knowledge, I knew I need not go any further. What I read in that article shocked me. There was no armed group of Atheists fighting for our lack of belief. Instead it seemed the term "Militant Atheist" is given to Atheists who speak out against religion. Isn't that all of us? I suppose there are some who keep their views on religion to themselves and still call themselves an Atheist. I just haven't met any.

My question was at least answered. A Militant Atheist is just an Atheist. The adjective is just there to make us sound scary. I can understand why the major religious organizations fear Atheism: We are, after all, lightening their collection plates by showing their followers that there is a more rational way. Even scarier to them, we don't have to lie or cheat to do it.
*Paleolibrarian good friend and respected mover and shaker, Lee Moore, is a lifelong Atheist from the southern United States who has dedicated his life to furthering various Atheist and Secular causes. He is the founder of the podcast The Atheist News, and one of the founders of the Godless Revival, a monthly entertainment show featuring Atheist talent. This article originally appeared in the New York City Atheist (NYCA) Nov/Dec Newsletter. It is reprinted with permission from the author and association.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy

"…and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.

The Beatles
Abbey Road

Lately I’ve been very interested in the scientific research conducted on the topic of empathy. I find it fascinating that those who study the subject uncover in their unbiased findings results that indicate empathy, the psychological state where we feel for others because we can walk in their emotional shoes, is not just owned by humans. The second profound realization is that empathy doesn’t need to be introduced to babies but rather it just needs to be nurtured.

These are just some of the conclusion made by primatologist Frans de Waal in his insightful book, TheAge of Empathy: Natures Lessons for a Kinder Society. de Waal’s arguments are twofold based on research and evidence that support the evolutionary biology perspective. The first is that chimpanzees and other mammals show a similar capacity for empathy. The second is that babies show the capacity for empathy as early as 3 months of age without the need for moralizing or cultural indoctrination.

According to the author empathy is important for several reasons. On the micro level, empathy is the glue that holds inter-personal relationships together, and on the macro level it serves as the social bond that keeps the society functioning.

The author notes that the Golden Rule, the one that essentially asks us to treat others as we wish to be treated, is in fact stamped into our DNA and expressly maintained by our cultural norms. de Waal also notes that because we come pre-loaded with the empathy software that it doesn’t need to be “reinvented” with every succeeding generation. And of course as an evolutionary primatologist he makes the case that empathy provides a selective advantage in our species and other primate and non-primate species.

According to de Waal, empathy is a powerful tool and one that is all around us. From the fact that spouses over time look like one another to the reality that pure bred dog owners tend to look like their pets (and vice versa). Such modeling is based on emotional expression and body physicality. de Waal also notes that because we’re social animals, solitary confinement is perhaps the most cruel form of punishment second only after the death penalty.

de Waal does a nice job tearing down those who either purposefully or ignorantly misuse Darwin’s ideas as justification for their own cruelty. He notes that Natural Selection doesn’t mean competition has to lead to war or physical, economic and social violence. That, according to the author, is a myth and misinterpretation of Darwin that perpetrators will use to justify their actions. It has nothing to do with biology.

De Waal writes that while he originally studied primate dominance that he weaned himself off from absolutist ideas about dominance since it’s a more fluid construct and because many species, including humans, have a strong ability for conflict resolution. He also notes that we shouldn’t use Darwin’s ideas to justify unrestrained capitalism (or unrestrained religion) as both typically feed the few at the expense of the many.

de Waal uses some very humorous and poignant examples in his book concerning how we use our bodies to show empathy without even realizing it. For instance he notes that the face is the “emotional highway” and we can see this when we (and other primates) react to yawning and laughing in others. Why else do we yawn when we see others do so?

The author discusses body language and posture modeling (child of one gender models behavior of his/her corresponding gendered parent), “Not there behavior” - grasping behavior and yearning modeling in mammals and certainly all primates. We also tend to mimic those who we identify and this suggests that that our affect and our personality are not our own independent creation.

Frans de Waal
The author also discusses other forms of altruistic and empathetic behaviors like cross-species adoption (why is this gorilla treating this kitten like her baby) and then relates it to the human animal rights movement Also, that in lab studies many animals typically will not accept a reward if another is punished (from rats to monkeys to humans) but conversely the absence of identification will lead (in part) to terrible acts.

For instance he writes how during the Holocaust Nazi’s would go home lovingly to their families but be responsible for tremendous inhuman cruelty in the death and labor camps. De Waal’s warning and his and other’s research shows that the more socially and emotionally detached we are from one another the less empathic or moral or good we (and all species) will be to one another.

As I learned while working on my Ph.D. many years ago, the final question is ultimately, “so what” or why should we care about any research and the results which may follow. Well, if I ask that question about this book, I think there are many reasons to care. First, de Waal notes that before we can care for others we have to begin with the self, secondly it is that science has moved beyond the question of “is there such a thing as innate empathy?” to how and why does it exist.

And certainly the author notes that humans DO NOT need religion to tell us to be empathetic or moral or good. However, we do need to support and surround ourselves with a culture of fairness to grow innate empathy positively.

This is a great book. After reading this review if you’re still interested in learning rather deep insights into our common humanity and how we can perhaps build a better world by studying and understanding how we operate, then this and all of de Waal’s work is a very good place to start.