Thursday, April 30, 2015

NOVA Explodes With Free Internet Evolution Game

NOVA has produced a wonderful new online game that allows users free play to build and examine the complexity of life on Earth (Thanks to NCSE for the email alert). The game lets users make ever more complex phylogenetic trees which show the connections and relatedness of all extinct and living organisms - from beetles to humans, frogs to birds, or aardvarks to bacteria- and beyond.

This interactive (and easily addicting) game has a serious purpose. It was developed to underscore the importance of evolution and the natural complexity of life on Earth through the main source of adaptation, speciation and organic change. That mechanism of course is Natural Selection.

From the site:

“What could you possibly have in common with a mushroom, or a dinosaur, or even a bacterium? More than you might think. In this Lab, you’ll puzzle out the evolutionary relationships linking together a spectacular array of species. Explore the tree of life and get a front row seat to what some have called the greatest show on Earth. That show is evolution.”

The best description is from the narrative embedded in the video. Here is perhaps the most salient parts in a nutshell which concisely explain evolution:

Natural selection just means that nature—the natural environment—is what’s selecting which organisms survive long enough to reproduce. And it depends on two key ingredients. The first is some way of getting features, or traits, to be inherited from one generation to the next, which usually means reproduction. The second is variation. If organisms were to make exact duplicates of themselves every time they reproduced, nothing would change. There’d be no elephants, no pine trees, no humans—we’d still just be single-celled proto-organisms.

Now, the environment can’t support every individual that’s born. Maybe it’s too dry or too wet for some of them, maybe all the food’s up in tall trees, maybe there’s not enough food, or maybe it’s just really cold. Whatever it is, organisms compete for resources. And this is where selection comes in.

The point is—not all variations make it….And the things that survive go on to reproduce...In other words, survival of the fittest. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the biggest or the strongest…Fittest in an evolutionary sense is whoever has the most descendants…In other words, evolution doesn’t progress in one fixed direction—but it’s not entirely random either. With so many environments selecting for all kinds of traits, evolution has resulted in the countless species that have lived on Earth...Now, Darwin wrote these ideas down.

If you teach the biological sciences, no matter the grade or course, this site can certainly assist in explaining the concepts of evolution. Depending on the level of students (K-12, College, etc.) you can assign individual or group projects to use the site.

In my opinion NOVA has created both a wonderful learning and teaching tool with its Evolution Learning Lab. If you’re a parent, rip your kid away from Facebook or their other "clickity clackity" online games and let them use the site for their own private learning and enjoyment.

But here’s a warning: if you’re a Young Earther, anti-evolutionist, fundamentalist home schooler, Intelligent Design advocate or biblical literalist you’ll have a hard time disputing or tearing down the Lab. Mainly it’s because the game is based on facts rather than one’s (ultimately theological) opinions.

In fact, if you’re in any of those categories above DON’T show this to your impressionable youngsters. It might fill their minds to the antidote to religious belief and unsound dogma, also known as the troika of reason, science understanding and fact-based thinking.

In any case everyone else with an open mind should enjoy the Lab. If you wish, write back to me on the paleolibrarian site. Tell me (and the world) what you think of the NOVA initiative and I’ll share it with the game designers.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Yet Another Brave New World

The American Academy of Pediatrics published a new study in which they found children as young as  six-months-old were adapting to and playing with smart devices.  This mainly included smart phones and tablets. In an age of technological ubiquity parents are freely giving these devices to their children to play with during the day.

Futurists have long speculated that the next adaptation in human evolution will come with the wearable and then internal use of computers to heighten our abilities. While this may read like science fiction to some, the reality is that the future competitive advantage of every nation will depend on how each society can best harness both information and other technologies as well as our human ability to create a peaceful and ecologically sustainable world.

The article mentions the dangers of leaving children alone with technology just for entertainment sake or worse yet babysitting but the reality is that that children today are familiar with and ready to use technology more easily and comfortably than any generation before. Children have a natural curiosity and really do not fear these machines. So when they're designed to be interfaced with the touch of a finger any child can now adopt and be empowered to connect, play, research and communicate. This then leaves many issues related to ethics on the table for adults to decide and define.

After all, advanced technology be it nano tubes, computers, defensive weapons, and even medicine used without humanist ethics can lead to disaster. History is full of examples where technology created by humans was used for evil purposes to harm other humans (and the planet). Humanism itself is defenseless and unable to protect its ideas and ideals without information technology and for no other reason it must use the technology to expand its message of hope and peace.

I've said many times a tyrant's two worst enemies are the smartphone and the Internet. Combined, these two latter-day information technologies have created a huge amount of social change, much for the good but certainly in the cases of ISIL recruitment, for the bad as well. During the Cold War the best way to communicate with those suffering under communist oppression was through Radio Free Europe.

Today, with our modern technologies, both ethnic and religious violence as well as other human rights abuses caused by government or people in power is captured on video, or tweets are retweeted, or photos uploaded and each is sent around the world is the fraction of a second making communication immediate and two-way.

The AAP article noted the following:

"More than one-thirst of babies are tapping on smartphones and tablets even before they learn to walk or talk, and by 1 year of age, one in seven toddles is using devices for at least an hour a day...results also showed that 73 percent of parents let their children play with mobile devices while doing household chores, 60 percent while running errands, 65 percent to calm a child and 29 percent to put a child to sleep...Time spend on devices increased with age, with 26 percent of 2-year-olds and 38 percent of 4-year-olds using devices for at least an hour a day."

According to the article those surveyed came from a variety of ethic and racial backgrounds. So it may mean that in many cases once everyone has the advanced technology available to them that information technology itself will serve as a "great equalizer." Now this of course plays a huge role in creating an informed citizenry for young and old alike. However the flip side is that when technology is used to manipulate rather than inform people the technology becomes part of the problem and not the solution.

This is also why humanism combined with well trained critical reasoning are both vital and necessary to change the world for the better. Once you know which information is truthful, accurate, timely and unbiased no marketer, government or terrorist group can change the truth which you accept and know as both real and correct.

Carl Sagan said on many occasions that we have developed into a society that is totally dependent on technology but that few of us actually understand the technology itself. This was of course his way of sounding the horn and urging us to avoid tasting a recipe for disaster. 

As we are now well past the dawn of the Information Age it is incumbent on all of us as skeptics, secularists, humanists and nonbelievers to ensure that technology is developed, from design to use, that allows it to serve humanity in the best way going forward. And to me, that best way and purpose is to promote secular freedom and peace in every corner of the world.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Off to Save the World...Well Sort of...

The American Humanist Association (AHA), the national association representing the social, legal and civil rights of nonbelievers, humanists and freethinkers in the United States, has asked me to be their representative to the United Nations. It is very much an honor and I accept it humbly.

I see my volunteer role as one which will educate and report on national and international secular issues to the UN body in an advisory capacity that supports the AHA as a recognized NGO by the United Nations. My hope is to also work with constituent UN committees, including but not limited to, the Commission on Human Rights, as their ongoing work relates to freedom of religion and secular humanist civil rights.

Since their founding in 1941, the American Humanist Association has sought to heighten the conversation and actively promote and protect secular civil rights. Since its founding in 1945, the United Nations mission has been to maintain international peace and security; promote sustainable development, protect human rights, uphold international law and deliver humanitarian aid around the globe.

I wish to thank Roy Speckhardt and Maggie Ardiente for their friendship and for offering me the opportunity to serve AHA in this capacity. I also want to thank my fellow NYCA and SHSNY colleague, John A. Wagner, for offering my name to be considered for the position.