Friday, March 31, 2006

Intelligent Design and Christian Theology

Threads from Henry's Web has an interesting post on Intelligent Design and Christian Theology. Here's an excerpt:

In talking to Christian groups, I frequently find people who are shocked that I don’t support ID. “How can you not believe the universe is designed?” they ask. My answer is that I don’t accept ID precisely because I believe that the universe is designed. However it is disguised, however many chapters of mathematical formulas are provided, however many pious statements are made (whenever someone is not trying to pretend this is not theology), ID does not prove, and is not attempting to prove that the universe is designed. It is, in fact, attempting to prove that some elements are more designed than others, i.e. when we deal with specified complexity as a test of design, it means that we distinguish things that could happen randomly, and things that happen by design. Right or wrong, evangelical Christians are generally very uncomfortable with things that happen randomly. They are not looking for Paley’s watch on the seashore to prove that the watch is designed, but rather to prove that everything is designed.

That's a perspective I don't see too often. Very interesting.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

No love for atheists

Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (3/20/2006) -- American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings.

Fascinating. Disgusting.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The best thing about California

When it rains, instead of having sidewalks and streets covered by worms—as is common in the midwestern states with which I am most familiar—we get sidewalks and streets covered by snails. And, as everybody knows (well, they should know anyway), snails kick ass. Most pro-Caifornia propaganda is centered upon the ocean, the weather, Hollywood, the economy, and the smug sense of self-superiority that people seem to get by calling themselves Californians. These things are all well and good, but I think more focus should be placed upon our wonderful and enormous populations of snails. You can keep the traffic, the pollution, the Hollywood politicos and the "Two-Buck Chuck," but give me the gastropods!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

In praise of a master

I’m rather proud of myself at the moment. This week I accomplished a major undertaking: I finished reading The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by the late Stephen Jay Gould. I had been reading this 1300+ page tome for quite some time (I refuse to say precisely how long because I like to think of myself as being a fast reader, but the speed at which I read this book was anything but fast) and now I’m finally done. I’ll present a short summary for those people who, unlike me, are not interested enough—or not insane enough—to spend countless hours reading dense discussions of obscure evolutionary topics.

At its most basic, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is an epic summation of the ideas and concepts that Gould spent most of his well-celebrated career researching and discussing. In particular, he presents three central features of Darwinian theory that he feels are in need of revision:

1. The individual organism as the sole unit of natural selection—in other words, the idea that natural selection focuses only upon the differential reproductive success of individual organisms in shaping the history of evolutionary change. Gould contends that natural selection works at a hierarchy of levels—from the gene to the clade (groups of species)—and that the various levels of this hierarchy must all be recognized as “Darwinian individuals” (a concept that he differentiates from individual organisms). He especially focuses on natural selection working at the level of the species where he feels that differential levels of birth (speciation) and death (extinction) hold strong sway over long-term evolutionary trends. He bolsters this concept with evidence from the theory of punctuated equilibrium—a controversial and contentiously debated paleontological concept developed by Gould and Niles Eldridge in the 1970’s which states that, based upon the evidence of the fossil record, the fate of most lineages throughout geological time is primarily that of stasis (ie. little evolutionary change). It is their belief that most long-term evolutionary change takes place through comparatively quick (in geological terms) events of speciation. To Gould, since most species seem to primarily exhibit stasis throughout their “lifetimes” and speciation events are therefore responsible for most lasting evolutionary change, natural selection working at the species level becomes a topic of paramount importance.
2. The supremacy of natural selection over internal constraint. Gould presents a long-standing argument between two competing camps of evolutionary biology: the structuralists, those who believe that internal are responsible for most evolutionary change, and the functionalists (also known as adapationists) who believe that natural selection is the main force responsible for evolutionary change. It is Gould’s belief that the modern Darwinian consensus is too focused upon natural selection as an all-powerful force. He uses evidence collected from recent discoveries in the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology (lovingly known as “Evo-Devo”) to show that internal forces of development are important for both setting limits to evolutionary change and also for channeling change in particular directions. With this in mind, he cautions researchers against assuming a priori that all well-functioning organismal characteristics are adaptive features shaped soley by the power of natural selection.
3. The extrapolation of small changes over enormous amounts of time to explain all long-term trends. Gould states that it has been all too common for both biologists and geologists to succumb to the temptation to explain long-running trends simply using small, presently observable changes. It is Gould’s belief that not all trends of macroevolution (change above the level of the species) can be adequately explained simply by microevolutionary change (change at or below the level of the species) extrapolated over tens or hundreds of millions of years. He also states that the same principle applies to geologists who attempt to explain all geological trends using small, gradual changes. Gould particularly focuses on the extinction of the dinosaurs which was formerly thought to have happend gradually, but is now considered by most paleontologists to have happened relatively quickly due to the catastrophic impact of a giant meteor hitting the earth. Gould uses this highly relevant example—without the demise of the dinosaurs, mammals (including humans) would most likely never have come to dominate the world—as evidence that sometimes macroevolution and large-scale geological change are best explained by forces other than extrapolated short-term changes. He especially hightlights what sees as the potentially important roles that catastrophes and unpredicatable contingencies have had to play in shaping the history of life on earth.

I must admit that I, with my complete lack of formal evolutionary training, often got bogged down by and had a difficult time completely comprehending the minute details that Gould uses to support his arguments, but I do believe that I was able to grasp the major points he attempted to make. While I certainly think that the book was at times overly self-indulgent and could definitely have benefited by a less lenient editor, I certainly don’t begrudge Gould the opportunity to present us with his magnum opus just as he wants it. By all accounts, Gould had a exemplary career and if he, as the most public voice for evolutionary biology for the past thirty years, wants to be a little self-indulgent with his final work, who am I to gainsay him?

Time and again, I was amazed at Gould's ability to thoroughly examine the logic of an idea. He has the enviable ability to truly understand the implications of the concepts with which he works. He seems to be able to take an idea, examine it with a fine-toothed deductive comb, and then bring forth a treasure of interesting and important ramifications. Interestingly, this is something that he often praised Darwin for, and I can’t help but feel that he deserves no less praise. Apart from Gould’s ability to think, he is simply a brilliant writer. While much of the book is written in a fairly technical (and verbose!) style, every now and then one of his characteristic flourishes of beautifully striking prose shines through. The final pages, in which—after spending hundreds of pages explaining why he feels that some of Darwin’s ideas are fundamentally deficient—he rejoices that the field of evolutionary biology has as its primary (or at least most important) founder a man as fascinating in character and powerful in mind as Charles Darwin, are especially evocative.

Its astounding how much you can learn about the inner workings of a person’s mind after reading 1300 pages of their thoughts and ideas. After I finished the book, I was struck by a sense of sadness and finality. Because The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was Stephen Jay Gould’s last major work before his death, when I reached the end, I felt almost as if I was saying goodbye to a friend. But what a way to go! Goodbye, Dr. Gould. Your writing has has been (and continues to be) an inspiration to millions and I fear that we will not see your equal for many years to come. You are missed.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

English writing assignment #3: Essay response

This one's long and kind of boring and really only relevant to those who have read the essays I'm responding to, but I'm posting it anyway:

Choices of the Living and the Dead

In “The Handicapped” by Randolph Bourne and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” we are presented with two very different attitudes towards life. While both authors have faced difficulties of varying kinds and degree, the experiences they have had are quite disparate, and the philosophies formed by their life-histories could hardly be farther apart. Bourne, faced with the challenge of being physically impaired, but mentally fit, has embraced a compassionate, life-affirming outlook, while Fitzgerald, beset by a middle-aged disillusionment towards his life, has cast off the shackles of hope and kindness in favor of a philosophy of misanthropic selfishness and despondency. This essay will explore the wide gap between these two perspectives on life and the circumstances that helped create them.

Both Bourne and Fitzgerald have fashioned their modi operandi for living out of their differing life experiences. For Bourne, the foundation of his attitudes is the constant presence of his physical handicap and the hardships that have resulted from it. From forming relationships to merely surviving, nothing has come easily or simply for Bourne. He illustrates the difficulties he faces with an apt metaphor: “The doors of the deformed man are always locked, and the key is on the outside. He may have treasures of charm inside, but they will never be revealed unless the person outside cooperates with him in unlocking the door” (59). Bourne constantly has to contend with the fact that his physical handicap is severe enough to make life difficult, but not severe enough to completely incapacitate him and keep him from having aspirations and ambitions that are nearly impossible for him to fulfill. To continue Bourne’s metaphor, his mind is trapped and struggling to free itself from behind the locked door of his physical reality. These struggles form the basis for the humanistic attitude that he presents later in his essay.

Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is not faced with the same challenges that afflict Bourne. A successful writer and prominent literary figure, he is blessed with a level of prosperity that would be foreign to Bourne. In contrast to Bourne, Fitzgerald does not seem to have much difficulty in making ends meet or achieving his goals. He observes, “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered by both” (139). For him, life was not filled with the constant rejection and disappointment that Bourne knew. Fitzgerald states that he “saw the improbable, the implausible, often the ‘impossible’ come true” (139). Yet, despite his achievements, Fitzgerald seems fundamentally dissatisfied with his life and one cannot help but wonder if his mental state is approaching that of serious depression. It is this mental affliction, rather than his achievements, that seems to be the driving force behind Fitzgerald’s views on life.

Due at least in part to their dissimilar backgrounds, Bourne and Fitzgerald form very different philosophies towards life that can be seen in the rules for living that they present in their essays. For Bourne, one of these rules is the importance of compassion and empathy towards his fellow humans. He knows what it is like to be discounted, rejected and cast out by his peers, and this awareness has provoked a sense of empathy towards those that, like him, are struggling. He explains, “We are perhaps too prone to get our ideas and standards of worth from the successful, without reflecting that the interpretations of life which patriotic legend, copybook philosophy, and the sayings of the wealthy give us are pitifully inadequate for those who fall behind in the race” (63). Here, Bourne is expressing his discomfort with the common social wisdom that we should unquestioningly judge a person by the level of success he has reached. Furthermore, he states that he would much prefer to try to understand rather than judge a person that society has branded a failure: “Instantly I want to know why he has not succeeded, and what have been the forces that have been working against him. He is the truly interesting person, and yet how little our eager-pressing, on-rushing world cares about such aspects of life and how hideously though unconsciously cruel and heartless it usually is” (63). These comments are excellent examples of the compassion that Bourne holds for the underprivileged, but his compassion extends further. He seeks to have a gracious understanding of humanity as a whole—not simply its weakest members—and to see our species engaged together in cooperation. He declares, “Really, to believe in human nature while striving to know the thousand forces that warp it from its ideal development—to call for and expect much from men and women, and not to be disappointed and embittered if they fall short—to try to do good with people rather than to them—this is my religion on its human side” (65). Put simply, his desire is to comprehend our common nature as human beings and, with this knowledge as a starting point, to pursue unified collaboration instead of arrogant condemnation. Bourne has a generous attitude toward humanity, indeed!

Fitzgerald, by contrast, cares nothing for compassion or empathy. He has excised all kindness and generosity from his being and replaced them with an all-encompassing selfishness. He states baldly, “I would cease any attempts to be a person—to be kind, just or generous[. . .]There was to be no more giving of myself—all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste” (149-150). Fitzgerald’s attitude toward humanity is pitiless indifference and he gives a hypothetical example that reveals the disturbing extent of this apathy: “And if you were dying of starvation outside my window, I would go out quickly and give you the smile and the voice (if no longer the hand) and stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would be any copy in it for me” (151). In Fitzgerald’s admission that he would not lift a hand to help a fellow human in need—the voice and smile he refers to are gestures more of self-satisfied mockery than of caring—and would only bother coming to observe the dying person if he thought that the scene would provide useful fodder for his writing, he demonstrates that his attitudes on charity and kindness towards his fellow human being are antithetical to Bourne’s.

In addition to his desire to have a more empathic attitude toward humanity, Bourne believes in the need for social progress and justice. He holds with religious fervor that the prime directive for our species should be a constant striving to improve the lot of every individual. He boldly proclaims, “For this is the faith that I believe we need today, all of us—a truly religious belief in human progress, a thorough social consciousness, an eager delight in every sign of promise of social improvement, and best of all, a new spirit of courage that will dare” (64). Bourne idealistically states that social progress is the “first right and permanent interest for every thinking and truehearted man or woman” (64). In saying this, he makes clear that progress is not just a good idea, but that it is a (possibly the) goal that we should all be working to achieve. In effect, Bourne is issuing a “call to arms” in which he invites every member of the human species to participate in his grand pursuit of social amelioration.

Based upon his earlier show of apathy, it comes as no surprise that Fitzgerald lends no support to the idea that all people should work for the improvement of society. In a poignant and revealing passage he repudiates the need for social progress:
Let the good people function as such—let the overworked doctors die in harness, with one week’s ‘vacation’ a year that they can devote to straightening out their family affairs, and let the underworked doctors scramble for cases at one dollar a throw; let the soldiers be killed and enter immediately into the Valhalla of their profession. That is their contract with the gods. A writer need have no such ideals unless he makes them for himself, and this one has quit (151).

Fitzgerald sees himself simply as a writer, not a social activist, and he finds absolutely no reason to trouble himself over the suffering of others. As he readily admits, he has no use for the ideals that lead people like Bourne to pursue changes for the betterment of society. Instead, as Fitzgerald demonstrates in the above passage, he is content to allow those around him to live or die—and for him, life seems to resemble a Hobbesian existence that is “nasty, brutish and short”—as is their fate.

Another aspect of Bourne’s approach to life is a hope that, despite the hardships he has endured, his existence can have some sense of meaning. He is cautiously optimistic that his fate entails more than just pain and suffering and that his limited capability will not keep him from accomplishing something of value, especially in the realm of the arts. Bourne’s hope is palpable to the reader when he compares his abilities to that of a stronger, more attractive person and finds no reason for sorrow: “I at least can occupy the far richer kingdom of mental effort and artistic appreciation[. . .]Indeed, as one gets older, the fact of one’s disabilities fades dimmer and dimmer away from consciousness” (67). Here, as he begins to fashion a niche in which he may find success, it is clear that Bourne’s picture of reality is beginning to be shaped less by his debilities and more by abilities. As he concludes his essay, the contrast in tone from his opening statements is remarkable. A recognition of his limitations is still present, but genuine confidence and belief in his abilities are what shine through as he inspiringly pronounces, “But if I am not out of the wilderness, at least I think I see the way to happiness. With health and a modicum of achievement, I shall not see my lot as unenviable” (70). These are not the words of a person who has been defeated by the challenges of existence; on the contrary, Bourne has used his hardships to make himself a better man.

In light of Bourne’s belief in his own future, Fitzgerald’s pessimism is all the more striking. He seems to have taken Dante’s advice to “abandon all hope” and embraced his own misery. Fitzgerald’s rejection of happiness as a viable state of existence is absolute: “This is what I think now: that the natural state of the sentient adult is qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, ‘a constant striving’ (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end—the end that comes to our youth and hope” (151). The implications of Fitzgerald’s thinking are clear: the end of hope and happiness is as inevitable as the end of youth, and any attempts to fight the onset of despair only increase a person’s grief, so why fight at all? If Fitzgerald truly believes this—and he gives every indication that he does—it is no wonder that he has chosen to reject so many of the things that give meaning to the lives of people like Bourne. What solace is hope when one believes that all hope is false? Fitzgerald’s renunciation of happiness is most evident in his final, disquietingly tragic statement: “I will try to be a correct animal though, and if you throw me a bone with enough meat on it I may even lick your hand” (152). If Bourne has made himself a better person, Fitzgerald has, at least in a metaphorical sense, shed his humanity.

In their respective essays, Randolph Bourne and F. Scott Fitzgerald present drastically differing views of life. So different are these two that the only thing they seem to have in common is the trivial fact that they both have rules for living. Bourne has chosen to walk a path of compassion, idealist social development and hope. Painting a stark contrast to this view, Fitzgerald has chosen to espouse a philosophy of self-centered apathy and remediless despair. Both men have undoubtedly had their views shaped by their experiences, and whether these experiences or something else altogether are the final causes for the theories on living they uphold, the distinction between the two is clear. Bourne has joined the ranks of those who celebrate the joys of living while Fitzgerald has already placed one foot out the door into the bleak night of inevitable death.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Donald Rumsfeld gets owned... radical Islamic cleric Moqtada Sadr!?

Mr Sadr also criticised US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who had said last week that Iraqi troops, not US forces, would intervene if civil war broke out in Iraq.

"May God damn you," Mr Sadr said of Mr Rumsfeld. "You said in the past that civil war would break out if you were to withdraw, and now you say that in case of civil war you won't interfere."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

In celebration of introversion

It's high time that we introverts start getting the respect that's rightly due to us. Now is the time for the quiet minority to rise up and cast off the shackles placed upon us by a society that neither understands nor appreciates our mute, pensive power! The future is ours!

In this spirit, I am linking to an insightful and hilarious article called Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch. Here's a teaser:

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books—written, no doubt, by extroverts—regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush."

It's well-worth reading, but it quietly.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I am now an advocate of Intelligent Design

From a letter to the Black Hills Pioneer:

Teach intelligent design

The atheists believe in unintelligent design. Darwin said, we came from a monkey or an ape. Some God believing people would like to have intelligent design taught in schools as well as evolution. If people came from an ape, how come they still don't come from an ape? Why did the ape stop evolving into people? The DNA from an ape is not the same as people.
I think they should teach Almighty God design as well as evolution. Maybe Darwin might be wrong and a wise and wonderful God did create all things. If a man had one eye and one half of a brain, he could see that we were wonderfully made. We are also made to be co-creators with God. Everything is made to reproduce (that didn't just happen).
The elephant didn't crawl out of the ocean or come from a bird or a fish. I am sure a horse didn't come from a monkey.
It takes more faith to believe in evolution then it does to believe that God created all things. I don't know why some people do not want intelligent design taught in our schools.
Some people want to take Christ out of Christmas and God out of government. If the atheist does not want to believe in God (I could care less). But why do they want to push their Godlessness on the American people who do believe in God?
Swan "The Swede" Loften,

How can any evolutionist can stand in the face of that logical tour de force? Mea culpa, Mr. Loften. Your superior rhetoric and vast empirical knowledge have swayed me.

(In case anybody's wondering, yes, I'm feeling very snarky at the moment. I had one of those days. Can't a guy use a little sarcasm to blow off some steam?)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A revealing juxtaposition

President Bush speaking on September 1st about Hurrican Katrina: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield briefing the President (among others) on August 28: "I don't think anyone can tell you with confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very great concern."

(from CNN)

I smell burning denim.