Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Abiogenesis - Metabolism Without Cells.

Creationism - for when you want to pretend to be an expert on
something you don't understand
Spark of life: Metabolism appears in lab without cells - life - 25 April 2014 - New Scientist

"Metabolic processes that underpin life on Earth have arisen spontaneously outside of cells" - words that must strike dread in the minds of any creationist fraud who depends on suckering scientifically illiterate people for a living. But those are to opening words in the above article in New Scientist.

A team from Cambridge University, supervised by Markus Ralser, has stumbled almost by accident on the startling fact that several of the basic metabolic pathways common to all living cells, and on which living things depend, can be produced spontaneously and entirely naturally.

Most models for the origin of living systems include RNA entering the scene very early on, if not right at the start of it, because RNA is the basic information store which passes information on to the next generation. RNA is important in the evolution of living things because it can self-replicate as well as catalyse organic reactions. It is normally accepted that the basic metabolic pathways are too complex to have arisen spontaneously but they are assumed to have evolved early in the history of life on Earth. These models require the earliest living things to be RNA-based so that the enzymes catalysts needed could be produced.

People have said that these pathways look so complex they couldn't form by environmental chemistry alone... If you look at many different organisms from around the world, this network of reactions always looks very similar, suggesting that it must have come into place very early on in evolution, but no one knew precisely when or how.

Markus Ralser, Cambridge University, UK,
Quoted in News Scientist, 25 April 2014
Now it seems these basic metabolic pathways could have simply been co-opted and incorporated by primitive proto-cells and could pre-date the evolution of RNA or even have led to it by producing RNA precursor molecules.

The process was discovered when a student used a mass spectrometer to quality-check unused cell-culture medium and noticed a signal for puruvate - one of the products pf glycolysis, so they tried to replicate the production of it using a water solution believed to be like the oxygen-free oceans on Earth before the evolution of photosynthesis. They have reported their findings in Molecular Systems Biology.

The reaction sequences of central metabolism, glycolysis and the pentose phosphate pathway provide essential precursors for nucleic acids, amino acids and lipids. However, their evolutionary origins are not yet understood. Here, we provide evidence that their structure could have been fundamentally shaped by the general chemical environments in earth's earliest oceans. We reconstructed potential scenarios for oceans of the prebiotic Archean based on the composition of early sediments. We report that the resultant reaction milieu catalyses the interconversion of metabolites that in modern organisms constitute glycolysis and the pentose phosphate pathway. The 29 observed reactions include the formation and/or interconversion of glucose, pyruvate, the nucleic acid precursor ribose‐5‐phosphate and the amino acid precursor erythrose‐4‐phosphate, antedating reactions sequences similar to that used by the metabolic pathways. Moreover, the Archean ocean mimetic increased the stability of the phosphorylated intermediates and accelerated the rate of intermediate reactions and pyruvate production. The catalytic capacity of the reconstructed ocean milieu was attributable to its metal content. The reactions were particularly sensitive to ferrous iron Fe(II), which is understood to have had high concentrations in the Archean oceans. These observations reveal that reaction sequences that constitute central carbon metabolism could have been constrained by the iron‐rich oceanic environment of the early Archean. The origin of metabolism could thus date back to the prebiotic world.

Non‐enzymatic glycolysis and pentose phosphate pathway‐like reactions in a plausible Archean ocean
Markus A Keller, Alexandra V Turchyn, Markus Ralser; DOI: 10.1002/msb.20145228 |Published 25.04.2014

One significant finding is that this process can produce ribose 5-phosphate, which is a precursor of RNA so it raises the possibility that RNA evolved later.

This research isn't conclusive, of course - there is still the problem of where the precursor sugars came from, for example. In living things nowadays, since the evolution of photosynthesis probably by cyanobacteria, sugars come from ingested food unless you are fortunate enough to be either a cyanobacterium or a green plant which has incorporated cyanobacteria in their cells as chloroplasts. But, as Ralser points out, every chemical reaction is, in principle, reversible. So, in theory, they should be capable of building sugars as well as reducing them.

Most worryingly for creationists, of course, is that once again science has closed a little gap and found that there was no magic needed and no god making things work.

'via Blog this'

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Sunday, 27 April 2014

Growing Up And Losing Faith

I was asked recently if I could explain the process I went through as I became an Atheist, as this might help others going through the same process. Apart from not being sure I have anything much to offer people in this respect because I was very young at the time, this is actually quite difficult for me for another reason.

Rather like a reverse of the parody version of evolution which creationists are taught to attack, where evolution is absurdly presented as a sudden event so that even a child will think it's silly, instead of the gradual process spread over time where one thing leads inevitably to another and several things can happen concurrently, my deconversion was a sudden event, or so it seemed at the time, not a slow, accumulative process, as it seems to have been with many others. But maybe this is because, being very young at the time, I hadn't really realised some sort of process was going on in my mind. So far as I was concerned, one minute I believed in the traditional Christian god, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the Virgin Mary, wise men, shepherds, and the souls of dead babies riding up to Heaven on sunbeams, and the next, I didn't believe a word of it.

I have related this before in The Light Of Reason so I'll just briefly run through it again then look at what a few other well-known atheists have said on the subject.

In the mid 1950's there were a series of 'history' programs for Primary Schools on BBC Radio, and, bizarrely, these included Greek, Egyptian and Roman mythology as history. And of course, being a Church of England school we had been fed all the Old Testament stories of Joseph and his coat, about Potiphar and Moses and plagues of Egypt, all against a backdrop of other people believing in other gods that we were being taught about as history, where these other gods spoke to people like Jason, Agamemnon and Pheidippides, just like they spoke to Moses, Abraham and Mary.

I also loved reading about Greek, Roman, Norse and Persian mythology and heroes who bravely died for their causes. My father had also spent a large part of WWII in India and spoke fluent Hindi so I was vaguely aware of Hindu gods too.

What had been bothering me for some time was why everyone else had been wrong. Why did these people think they were hearing the voice of gods who didn't exist, and even seeing these non-existent gods? In particular, although, obviously, only the Jews had got it right and only they had been hearing the voice of the only real god when everyone else had been mistaken, yet when it came to Jesus, just like everyone else, they got is completely wrong too!

Now it was the Romans who, although they got everything else wrong, and had been as wrong as the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Vikings, the Persians and the Hindus until then, suddenly got it exactly right about Jesus - and a good thing that was too, otherwise we would be as bad as the Jews and then where would we all be? I was only 9 at the time and the Pope was still assuring people that the Holocaust has been God's punishment on the Jews for killing Jesus, just like Hitler and our self-righteous, church-going, cane-wielding teacher said.

Then, one day, during an end-of-term church service I noticed a stained-glass window with the picture of what I assumed was God (it was probably a saint, but no matter). He was wearing a purple Roman toga. Suddenly a light switched on in my mind and I knew that Christianity was just another Roman myth. The answer to the question of why all the others got it wrong and only the Christian Romans got it right, and why the Jews had got it right up to a point, and right in every single detail too, then spectacularly got it all wrong, was simple - they had all got it wrong!

It was like a religious conversion. A thrill of excitement and the world seemed different. From that point on I knew that the stories of gods are all just man-made myths. There is no reason at all to assume that just one of them isn't and that I had had the great good fortune to be born to parents who just happened to believe in the one true god.

There was now no reason to feel smugly superior to all those other people who had been mislead by their parents because they were either too stupid or too evil to to know any better. And there was now no reason to be satisfied with my status as the child of agricultural workers destined only to work in the fields and factories of the wealthy because the church told me that was what God had created me for.

And the birds, animals, wild flowers and trees I loved to learn about were now not the mere creations of a magic man but had to have a better reason to be the way they were - something to be awe-inspired by, not dismissed as a conjuring trick. This planet suddenly became a place of mysteries to be solved not a place to be arbitrarily assigned a cause and dismissed. I saw almost immediately that "God did it!" as the answer to everything was the answer to nothing. I started to read books about nature and science and the more I learned the more marvelous everything became and the more questions it raised in my mind. And the more questions I had the more I wanted answers.

I didn't even know there was a thing called Atheism at the time. All I knew was that I had no reason to believe in magic sky fairies and so no reason to assume they had ever done anything. Science might not yet have all the answers, but it is the only way to be anything like sure that we have the right answer. The thought of uncertainty and doubt become liberating things driving the quest for knowledge and understanding. Certainty is a prison.

And that's really the story of my sudden enlightenment, which probably isn't much help to those struggling to escape the clutches of childhood indoctrination and theophobia unless they too have been having real doubts and just need that trigger to see things as they really are, not how they've been told.

So, let's looks at how a few other people who have deconverted from religion to Atheism.

Jonathan Edwards was a UK Olympic Gold Medalist in 2000 for the triple jump, for which he still holds the world record. He had been a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian and only reluctantly agreed to participate in his sport on a Sunday due to his religious convictions. On retiring from athletics he took up a career in broadcasting and presented religious programs for the BBC. Then in 2007, he renounced his faith having deconverted to Atheism. Here's how he describes it:

Once you start asking yourself questions like, ‘How do I really know there is a God?’ you are already on the path to unbelief. During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God... I feel internally happier than at any time of my life.

I am happy and actually it’s fine. I don’t miss my faith. In many ways I feel more settled and happier in myself without it. I don't know if that is related to losing my faith or would have been the case anyway, but it’s a non-issue as far as I am concerned.

Seven years on I don’t feel a gap in my life and I suppose that's the proof of the pudding isn't it? Had I suddenly thought that life doesn't quite feel right, maybe I’d re-examine that – re-examine my faith. In fact, more than ever, I feel comfortable with where I am in life.

So, how many religious people ever realise they are taking things for granted that have been taught to them as a child? How many religious people ever ask themselves how they really know there is a god and so start on that road to unbelief? It probably takes real courage, honesty and self-confidence to accept that 'faith' alone is not a way to really know something otherwise all other faiths would be true. The problem I think here is finding the courage to admit that what you had always assumed was true just might not be; that your parents could have been wrong, just as their parents could have been wrong, and just as the parents of all the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Greeks, Romans and Persians got it wrong.

And then there of course is fear. The fear that whatever god you are beginning to question just might be real and the grotesque punishment he has reserved specially for you just might be real. But then, if you're wrong about that god aren't you wrong about the punishment too? And if you're not, aren't you telling that omniscient god that you're going to just pretend to believe in it hoping you can fool it? Is that really the god you believe in? And why would you be trying to fool a god you don't believe exists?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist, human rights and anti-Islam campaigner mentions this fear in her account of her deconversion from Islam.

When I finally admitted to myself that I was an unbeliever, it was because I simply couldn't pretend any longer that I believed. Leaving Allah was a long and painful process for me, and I tried to resist it for as long as I could. All my life I had wanted to be a good daughter of my clan, and that meant above all that I should be a good Muslim woman, who had learned to submit to God...

Ultimately, I think, it was books, and boys, that saved me. No matter how hard I tried to submit to Allah’s will, I still felt desire — sexual desire, urgent and real, which even the vision of Hellfire could not suppress...

It was at university that I gradually lost my faith. The ideas and the facts that I encountered there were thrilling and powerful, but they also clashed horribly with the vision of the world with which I had grown up. At first, when the cognitive dissonance became too strong, I would try to shove these issues to the back of my mind. The ideas of Spinoza and Freud, Darwin and Locke and Mill, were indisputably true, but so was the Koran; and I vowed to one day resolve these differences. In the meantime, I could not make myself stop reading. I knew the argument was a weak one, but I told myself that Allah is in favor of knowledge...

I picked up a book — The Atheist Manifesto by Herman Philipse, who later became a great friend. I began reading it, marvelling at the clarity and naughtiness of its author. But I really didn’t have to. Just looking at it, just wanting to read it—that already meant I doubted. Before I’d read four pages, I realized that I had left Allah behind years ago. I was an atheist. An apostate. An infidel. I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, “I don’t believe in God.” I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book...

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

So, for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, deconversion was like leaving prison and one of the keys that had kept her prisoner was the imaginary threat of Hellfire. Why would a benevolent god keep someone prisoner with threats? That's the act of insecure priests who know they have nothing to offer in terms of evidence or logical reasons to remain subject to their control and authority.

Another of Ayaan's keys was knowledge. It's easy to see why so many fundamentalist religions fulminate against science and the acquisition of knowledge when it is so much easier to keep ignorant people compliant by feeding them magical answers to 'mysteries' where there is either no mystery at all or science is working towards a perfectly rational answer. But perhaps the important thing was the realisation that she was being kept prisoner not by anyone but herself. The keys to her escape were in her own hands.

Here is Dan Barker describing his feelings on realising, after a five-year migration from fundamentalism through liberal Christianity and finally to disbelief, that he was an Atheist:

On the one hand I was happy with the direction and fulfillment of my Christian life; on the other hand, my intellectual doubts were sprouting all over. Faith and reason began a war within me. And it kept escalating. I would cry out to God for answers, and none would come. Like the lonely heart who keeps waiting for the phone to ring, I kept trusting that God would someday come through. He never did.

The only proposed answer was faith, and I gradually grew to dislike the smell of that word. I finally realized that faith is a cop-out, a defeat—an admission that the truths of religion are unknowable through evidence and reason. It is only indemonstrable assertions that require the suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith. Biblical contradictions became more and more discrepant, and apologist arguments became more and more absurd. When I finally discarded faith, things became more and more clear.

But don't imagine that this was an easy process. It was like tearing my whole frame of reality to pieces, ripping to shreds the fabric of meaning and hope, betraying the values of existence. It hurt badly. It was like spitting on my mother, or like throwing one of my children out a window. It was sacrilege. All of my bases for thinking and values had to be restructured. Adding to that inner conflict was the outer conflict of reputation. Did I really want to discard the respect I had so carefully built over so many years with so many important people? But even so, I couldn't be distracted from the questions that had come to the forefront. Finally, at the far end of my theological migration, I was forced to admit that there is no basis for believing that a god exists, except faith, and faith was not satisfactory to me.

I did not lose my faith—I gave it up purposely. The motivation that drove me into the ministry—to know and speak the truth—is the same that drove me out.

I lost faith in faith.

Barker, Dan (2009-05-01). Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (p. 39-40). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Dan Barker then goes on the relate how he struggled not so much to come to terms with his deconversion but with the problem of how to adjust his life to take account of it and to be honest not just with himself but to those around him, and in particular to the church congregation he was still preaching stuff to that he knew was wrong. The biggest problem was not in accepting what he now knew to be true but in the fact that so much of his life, his relationships, his reputation and his livelihood had been invested in his faith. For many people I imagine these problems would be almost insurmountable and strong motivators for telling themselves that somehow they must be wrong. Anyone struggling to go through the same process should read Dan's book.

What we can see in all of these accounts, mine included, is not a conscious attempt to become Atheist. There was no looking for reasons to stop believing in whatever god was believed in; no search for proof that gods don't exist, even if that were remotely possible, and not even a conscious desire to leave a faith. There was none of the hatred for God that sanctimonious theists condescendingly accuse us of or any feeling that this or that god has let us down in some way.

There was just the realisation that there was no reason to believe in any gods any more, and that there never really had been. All our reasons for belief had been based on assumptions, the main one being that our parents and our peers must have the right beliefs. The rest was down to a willingness to settle for easy answers, to ascribe every mystery and every unknown to this god thing, reinforced by the authority figures in our culture that we just assumed knew best and wouldn't be telling us something that they had no evidence for.

In many ways our faith was like Dan Barker's account of theology students given the traditional list of 'eye-witnesses' to Jesus' existence and the accuracy of the Bible. They just memorise the list and quote it as evidence but never actually check its validity, assuming, because they are being told it by authority, that someone else must have checked it and the evidence is in a book somewhere where they can find it if ever they need it - only no-one ever does because no-one doubts the word of the authority figures.

And these theology students become the next generation of authority figures who tell the next generation of theology students that there is a long list of eye-witness accounts to prove the historicity of Jesus and the accuracy of the Bible. And yet when you check, not only is the list not a list of eye-witnesses because no-one on it was alive at the time, but none of their accounts are better than an account of folkloric beliefs or an account of someone else's belief, or highly oblique references if that. Or they don't mention Jesus as all or any of the events attributed to him and appear to have been added to the list for mere padding. And at least one of them is almost certainly a forgery done by someone only too acutely aware that there were no authentic eye-witness accounts.

Just like the religion itself, and all religions for that matter, the 'evidence' is quite simply not there and yet authority figures tell the next generation that there is plenty of reason to believe and believers tell themselves that someone must have checked otherwise they wouldn't be being told this stuff in the first place. And so the entire edifice hangs from skyhooks and never makes contact with reality at any point.

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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Manny's Hysteria Explained

I've just found out the reason the expelled seminarian and failed wannabee Catholic priest and habitual Internet abuser from Bronx, NY, Manuel de Dios Agosto, has been spamming my blog with almost daily abuse, threats and delusions of grandeur again, after a lull of several months. It's all because someone has set up a tribute account to me on Twitter specifically to tweet links to my blogs. I understand the account is @R0saRub1c0nd10r. Makes me feel quite proud and more than a little humbled that my blogs were so appreciated by so many people.

Of course I was aware that a supporter and Twitter friend was thinking of setting up this account because, out of common courtesy, he/she (I only know them by their Twitter name) had asked my permission to use my name. What I hadn't realised was how much interest there was in this account although I had noticed a 25% or so increase in page hits. I'm extremely touched and flattered that so many people would like to see me back on Twitter and miss my blog links. I don't have any reason to go on Twitter much theses days so I hadn't realised quite how many supporters were still, after more than six month's absence, calling for my account to be reinstated and including me in #FF lists. I was obviously doing something right ☺.

All I can say on the subject of my return to Twitter is that I don't seem to be able to get past the wall of 'customer support' at Twitter and no one there is willing to give me any reason for my account's suspension other than in the most vague, general terms like 'in breach of the rules'. Despite several requests for specific examples of offending tweets and an explanation of which rule they breached, none has been forthcoming. They either go ignored or, on one occasion, the bizarre excuse was that it would be a breach of privacy to tell me the real reason. Read into that what you will, but I've no intention of creating other accounts only to have them suspended, presumably for the same reason Twitter won't admit to. It seems no one at Twitter Support is allowed to give out the name and contact details of anyone who has the authority to reverse a decision, or maybe they just don't want them knowing what's going on below decks.

Anyway, it seems that the success of this tribute account has sent Manuel off on another one so I am daily having to delete comments on various blogs such as the following selection:

I get a good laugh reading these posts. You really have no clue who I am do you? In any case, I am capitalizing off your paranoia because you are promoting my brand "sacerdotus." Thanks! However, I hate to see when you are taken to court for libel by this kid you're defaming and who you think is me. I can definitely prove I am not him, but your hysteria is indeed profitable for my cause. Thanks again Rosie for promoting me with your paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder. #won! #noliesrequire #oxfam lol! :-)

#WON I bet you got many goosebumps when you got suspended by me again. :) #LOL #WON :)

Since 2010, 7000 followers all gone.. #LOL #WON You wanted to be prideful and fell hard from your high horse. Rubicondior is not the end. We will continue shutting your nonsense down, so don't get used to twitter or blogger. :) #WON #TeamSacerdotus

As we can see from the last of these Manuel appears to have developed multiple personality disorder and imagines he's running Twitter too, as though he hadn't got enough problems to cope with. He hasn't yet reached the volume of dozens a day that it reached last September, although they are no less insane.

Apparently he is now spamming Twitter with his @Atheism707 account asking people to file false complaints and spam reports againt @R0saRub1c0nd10r and a list of other accounts. No doubt these will be accounts who have either had the temerity to doubt Manuel's claims or who have already learned that Manny is behind this, as well as the @SCDTVS account. I wonder what view Twitter will take of this encouragement to others to abuse their clients with false reports. They generally take a dim view of those who create yet more accounts to get round their multiple suspensions for obscene, abusive and threatening accounts - a list of which can be seen here.

Should anyone wish to report Manuel's current accounts, Twitter's complaint form can be found here. You will need a specific example to begin with, then you need to reply to the email you'll received from Twitter Support. You can then send them further examples by replying to this email. This allows them to build up a dossier of complaints.

It might take several weeks before you get a final reply but don't be fobbed off if they tell you the account has been deleted or suspended. Check this out, as they often seem to use this as a quick way to avoid actually dealing with the abusive account. They have told me on three different occasions that another of Manuel's abusive accounts no longer exists or has been suspended before it had actually been suspended. And don't be fobbed off with the assurance that they have asked him to stop his abusive behaviour. Even if he stops it for a few days, he will start up again quite soon. Simply reply to the email telling them you are not satisfied with that response. This will keep the ticket open so you can update them with new abuse.

Anyway, many thanks to whoever is behind my tribute account and I hope that sheds some light on Manuels increasing bizarre behaviour. Now, back to the real purpose of this blog - explaining why religion is a malignant superstition which needs to be exposed and opposed (look at what it's done to Manny, for example), how science is continually closing the gaps in which religions try to sit their ever-shrinking little gods, how religion is used and excuse for otherwise unacceptable behaviour and the most grotesque of human atrocities against other human being, and how it exposes Bronze-Age creationism, the frauds who sell it to scientifically illiterate simpletons, and the fraudulent apologists who give credence to the extremists for money and political influence.

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Monday, 21 April 2014

Darwin's Wonderful Worms

Darwin's Meadow, Down House, Downe, Kent, UK
I was stimulated recently by an interesting question from a creationist which a friend passed to me for comments. Even creationists can sometimes pose interesting questions which need several minutes to think about. The question was, why are dinosaur tracks often found on the surface when human artifacts are often several feet below the surface. If dinosaurs are millions of years old why aren't they found at much deeper levels that human artifacts?

Superficially, this looks like a problem for evolution, and if it were true for every location it would indeed be. It would actually be equivalent to providing the evidence which the great J.B.S.Haldane said would falsify evolution - a fossil rabbit in the Cambrian. Of course, it isn't true for dinosaur tracks. All those found

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Spare A Thought For Poor Old Judas

Judas Iscariot. Gabriel von Max. Prague National Gallery
As it's Easter and the time for good-will to all men... now don't start... just because it's not Christmas there's no reason to bear ill will, is there? Anyway, in this season of goodwill to all men, is it not time someone spoke up for poor Judas Iscariot - possibly the most maligned man in all literature.

You may recall that the character of Judas makes his appearance in the stories about Jesus in the Bible but only seems to play any significant part towards the end of the tale, when his role suddenly become absolutely critical to the plot, only to be maligned and vilified for playing his allotted role later on. Although, as we shall see, this maligning of Judas seems to be a much later addition to the story, added moreover by someone who hadn't been following the plot too closely. Not only that but the later addition seems to have become muddled too.

To recap: the story goes that a god has gotten itself into such a state about a couple of people scrumping its apples that the only way it could think of to forgive their very remote descendants (work with me on this one!) was to manifest itself as a man so it could be sacrificed to itself in a ritual involving a blood sacrifice. Somehow (we are never told how) the god would so impress itself by this self-sacrifice that it would forgive everyone. Look! I didn't make this up! I'm just outlining the plot. Okay!

Now, this all hinged on the authorities who could actually allow the sacrifice being given a reason to carry it out and - and this is where Judas comes in - being sure they had the right person. Apparently it would have been all too easy to get the wrong person what with this god being indistinguishable from a human being and all, so Judas is unwittingly picked to be the one to point him out to the authorities.

So, the entire success or failure of the plan hinged on Judas and Judas saved mankind by playing his allotted role to perfection, pointing out Jesus so the authorities had the right person. Apparently, although omniscient, this god was incapable of identifying itself to the authorities or of putting the necessary knowledge into the arresting soldiers' minds so they could pick it out themselves.

So, are we grateful to Judas for being, by all accounts, the only one on message and ensuring mankind got saved? Not a bit of it. The person who ensured the success of the plan gets vilified and, if the accounts are correct, even the god who must have been aware of his pivotal role in the whole scheme, never steps forward to defend him. Instead it simply lets him become one of the most vilified people in all folklore and the archetypal traitor prepared to sell his principles for a small sum of money.

But now things start to get a little strange, because whoever began this campaign of vilification didn't make a good job of it and we've ended up with a typical Bible muddle of two irreconcilable stories, at least one of which must be wrong.

First Matthew's version:

When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.

Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.

And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.

So, Judas regrets what he's done, confesses and asks for forgiveness - not that that means much apparently - gives the money back and tops himself. The priests then use the money to buy a plot of land to bury strangers in and it gets called the Field of Blood because it was bought with blood money.

(Incidentally, note that 'unto this day' phrase. Would that be used by an eyewitness writing soon after the events described? Of course not. This is a tale being written down many years later - and we'll see why in a moment.)

When we get to Luke's account however, something really strange has entered the tale:

Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.

And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.

Curious indeed! Satan is now helping to ensure God's plan to save mankind works! Why would Satan do that? Someone has lost the plot completely here. The point of the story has been abandoned; the objective now is to blacken Judas's name at all costs.

Neither John nor Luke, like Mark before them, have anything more to say about Judas. Judas is a traitor and that's enough. John bends over backwards, almost obsessively, to refer to Judas's treachery every time he mentions his name but we learn nothing more of his fate.

It's not till we get to Acts that we learn more. Apparently, the author of Acts had a source outside the 'testimonies' of the four Apostles. Bear in mind what Matthew told us above.

And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry.

Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.

So, did you stop the difference? In this version, Judas buys the field, not the chief priests. There is no repentance; no returning the money and no meeting of the chief priests to decide what to do with it. And Judas doesn't hang himself but falls headlong and 'bursts asunder' and his bowels gush out. The field is now called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilt on it, not because the priests bought it with blood money. In fact, the only things in common between these two tales is the the name of Judas, where the money came from and the name of the field.

Both these stories can't possibly be right. Either Judas or the priests bought the field, not both. Either Judas returned the money or he bought a field with it, not both. Either Judas hanged himself or he fell headlong and burst asunder, not both. And either the field is called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilled on it or because it was bought with blood money by the priests, not both.

By now readers of this blog will be familiar with the irreconcilable differences to be found in the Bible, so that's not really the point of this blog. There can be no doubt that at least one of the stories was made up, even if we allow that the other is correct. There is, of course, like so much of the Bible, no external corroboration of any of this so no basis by which we can determine which is the correct version, if any.

The interesting thing here is why these stories about Judas were made up. Instead of being the hero of the tale, as logic should dictate, having ensured the Passover Plan worked, Judas is the worst of all men who sold the saviour of mankind for a handful of money. Only Matthew seems to show a modicum of pity on Judas and at least has him confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness.

Another clue about what's going on here as the stories in the Bible developed is a line from Paul which normally passes completely unnoticed:

And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:

The twelve, of course, being the twelve disciples. When Paul, or whoever was writing to the Corinthians purporting to be Paul, wrote that, there were still twelve disciples for Jesus to appear to. No one had yet written Judas out of the story. He hadn't been accorded the credit to which he might have felt entitled, but he hadn't been dropped from the gang even though his alleged betrayal had been in full view of the others. The standard excuse that the other disciples had chosen a replacement can be dismissed by the quote from Acts above, which specifically relates how they replaced Judas after Jesus had allegedly departed for Heaven. Again, if they had replaced Judas, Acts is lying.

You might think that from the beginning, Christianity was always basically one thing: a religion descended from Jesus, as interpreted by Paul, leading to the church of the Middle Ages on down to the present. But things were not at all that simple. About a hundred fifty years after Jesus’ death we find a wide range of different Christian groups claiming to represent the views of Jesus and his disciples but having completely divergent perspectives, far more divergent than anything even that made it into the New Testament.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible
(And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 191).
Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
What we are seeing here is an echo of the tensions and struggles between the various early messianic sects that seem to have sprung up some time after the supposed death of Jesus as they battled for control and membership. It would appear that Judas was an early leader of one of the losing sects and one which seems even to have had its own 'gospel' or statement of faith together with tales of the legendary Jesus. Judas is cast in the role of traitor for no other reason than to discredit a rival sect and slander its leader. What happened to him after the betrayal is of no real importance; the important thing to get established in people's minds is the betrayal. The differences show that Matthew's sect was a little more kindly disposed to Judas while John is dripping with loathing and positively relishes a gruesome, almost supernatural death.

This was a time of undoubted culture shock for the Jews of Palestine. From having been "God's chosen people", they had become hellenized subjects of the Eastern Roman Empire with their kings chosen for them and answerable to Roman governors. As Bart D Ehrman points out, a large number of Jews had become effectively A-Yahwehist and a new god had been created in it's place, considerably more Greco-Roman than the old irascible, capriciously violent and angry god of the Old Testament. The struggle was on for control of this new religion.

And so we end up with the logical absurdity of Judas being both the logical hero of the plot and the one who ensured God's plan came to fruition, and the villain of the piece, for exactly the same reason. Clearly, sectarian rivalries, and the power of rival priesthoods assumed an importance over and above even the central event of their emerging mythology. Such is the nature of human pride and megalomania which sees these things merely in terms of their utility value to their ambitions.

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Saturday, 12 April 2014

How American Muslims Silenced Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: ‘They Simply Wanted Me to be Silenced’ |

Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., USA has caved in to pressure from Muslim students and rescinded its plan to honour Ayaan Hirsi Ali with a an honorary degree on 8 May.

If there is anyone who can be described a role model for Muslim girls who want to take control of their own lives, then it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A former muslim and member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2008, she is an outspoken advocate for women's rights and a critic of Islam. Born in Somalia and raised as a strict Muslim, she survived a civil war, beatings, genital mutilation and a forced marriage before escaping to Holland and finally renouncing her faith in her 30s. She described the moment thus:

I looked in a mirror and said out loud, in Somali, "I don’t believe in God." I felt relief. There was no pain but a real clarity. The long process of seeing the flaws in my belief structure, and carefully tip-toeing around the frayed edges as parts of it were torn out piece by piece—all that was over. The ever-present prospect of Hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader. God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination, mechanisms to impose the will of the powerful on the weak. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect. My moral compass was within myself, not in the pages of a sacred book.

A fuller account can be read here, in one of the most inspiring and powerful arguments for Atheism I have ever read.

Brandeis University was founded as a secular, co-educational establishment in 1948, soon after World War II and the Holocaust, when many US universities were racially, religiously and gender segregated. It had been assumed that Ali epitomised all that the University stood for, hence the honour. However, Muslim students raised a petition, pointing to a 2007 interview with Reason magazine in which she said of Islam:

Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.

Brandeis University claimed to be unaware of this and decided it was not something they wished to be associated with and withdrew the offer of the honorary degree.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has responded in typically measured and dignified style with:

Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called "honor killings," and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not "overlook certain of my past statements," which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The "spirit of free expression" referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me "to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues." Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to "engage" in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck — and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.

I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed women and girls everywhere.

And so American Muslim girls in general, and Brandeis students in particular, have been deprived of the opportunity to hear one of the most inspiring advocates of the principles of secular, liberal freedoms and human rights that Brandeis University was founded on. They have been denied this by those to whom everything Ayaan Hirsi Ali stands for and represents is anathema - the right of women to control over their own bodies and their own destinies and the extension of full human rights and the right to respect and dignity to all members of society.

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Friday, 11 April 2014

The Internet Is Making Theists Think

Top: Internet use. Bottom: Religious affiliation
How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion | MIT Technology Review

Americans are following many European countries in losing their faith. The change hasn't been so spectacular as in many European countries where Atheists/Agnostics are now in a clear majority, but the growth has been a steady 0.5 percent per year over the last 20 years, rising from just 8 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2010.

The obvious question is, why is this happening? There are many social and psychological factors involved in relative religiosity, not the least of which is income inequality with those in the lowest income groups and forming the lowest social strata tending to be more religious and more fundamentalist, while those in the higher social strata tend to be less religious and more moderate.

Similarly, some studies have shown a correlation between educational attainment and religious belief with those receiving only basic education again being more religious and more fundamentalist, and those with higher degrees of education being less religious and more moderate. But then there is an obvious correlation between education and income, and so between social position and education.

Relationship between countries' belief in a god and average
Intelligence Quotient, measured by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
A third factor, as found by Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2008), is a correlation between IQ and religious belief with a higher IQ tending to correlated with lower religiosity. Again, though, there is an obvious link between IQ, educational achievement, income and social position.

Now Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has analysed data from a widely-respected American General Social Survey carried out by the University of Chicago and has found a correlation between religious belief and time spent on the Internet which suggests that, as the time on the Internet increases so religious belief falls. Downey says this can only account for about 50 percent of the fall in religious belief but nevertheless, there are several possible causes.

It is always possible that the correlation does not indicate a causal relationship but that both are causally related to a third factor - like income, IQ, education, etc, but it doesn't come as a surprise. I and many others have often remarked on how the exposure of the 'moderate' or thinking theists to the mindless gibberings and downright dishonesty of the fundamentalists must surely cause them to ask some fundamental questions about the origins of their own beliefs. Exposure too to the blatant money-making scams being perpetrated on line by pseudo-pious frauds clearly seeking to exploit the credulous gullibility and thirst for cognitive dissonance-relieving confirmation bias in the ranks of fundamentalism and creationism, must cause honest and intelligent people to wonder just how much credulous gullibility played in their own religious beliefs.

It is noticeable to people like me who cut our teeth in the early days of the Internet in serious debate fora, or user groups as they were then known, where some serious theologians, scientists and philosophers participated and debate was mostly polite and good natured, that, as access to the Internet increased and the fundamentalists began to come on line, how the standard of debate deteriorated.

Within a few years debate had become almost ritualised name-calling, cursing, hysterical shrieking about burning in Hell, Satanism, "Darwin was a Communist!", "WE SAVED YOUR BUTT IN 2 WORLD WARS, U F**KING COMMIE!!!!!", etc, etc, followed quickly by creationist scam sites, people selling prayers, trashy books full of copy and paste Bible quotes, begging for donations to "help spread the word of the Lord" or using religion as an excuse for far-right political extremism. The serious theologians equally quickly melted away, being subjected to the same abuse as the scientists and atheists from the same religious fundamentalists and people using religion as a cover for their behaviour.

It's hard to believe that this didn't have, and still isn't having, a negative effect on the intellectually honest theists of whatever religion. If it didn't then they have much to be ashamed of. When your 'faith' can give rise to, and permit, such behaviour isn't there something fundamentally wrong with it? When your faith can't be defended with polite respect, honest argument and an open-minded willingness to understand the other point of view, is it worth defending? And when your faith is being used as an excuse for socially unacceptable attitudes and behaviour and has become the tool of the fraud and the sociopath, shouldn't it be actively opposed? Or was it ever thus?

And then there is the exposure to the high-profile professional religious apologists who earn their living peddling long-refuted fallacies to eager audiences, often with a clear right-wing political, even subversive, agenda seeking to overthrow, for example, the US secular constitution, and replace it with a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. People for whom having an argument refuted or shown to be lies is not regarded as a reason not to try it on someone else. It must be hard for the liberal or left-leaning theist in the USA to see his faith becoming more and more the domain of the swivel-eyed, often racist, usually misogynist and invariably anti-science, anti-choice, anti-welfare, anti-liberal, pro-wealthy, pro-corporate, pro-war, selfish and greedy - in short, nasty - right, and probably the antithesis of everything they thought their religion stood for.

So, no, it's not hard to see why increased Internet access and the time spent on line is correlated with reduced belief in the supernatural and an increased dissociation from the fundamentalists.

Then of course there is the ready and free access to information. Even those lacking much in the way of a formal education can quickly educate themselves in any subject they wish. The association between ignorance and superstition is well-established and a parasitic memeplex like religion which thrives in an ignorant culture has an obvious antidote in the form of knowledge, hence the association between (lack of) education and religiosity.

The Internet is providing that antidote.

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Vatican Backs Code of Silence Over Child Abuse

Pope Francis "We will not take one step back..."
Italy's bishops pass Vatican-backed rule that child molestation does not have to be reported - Europe - World - The Independent

In stark contrast to what Pope Frankie claims to be doing to clean up the Catholic Church, the Vatican has been complicit in a policy adopted by Italian Bishops that states they are no longer required to report child-abusing priests and nuns to the police.

The 'speed' with which Vatican reforms are progressing can be gaged from the fact that only in the last few months has the Vatican seen fit to strengthen its laws on abuse of minors to include sexual abuse of children. Astonishingly, this was not even considered an abuse of minors when the law was first drawn up.

[I] personally ask for forgiveness for the damage [some priests] have done for having sexually abused children. We will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed.

Pope Francis
(Statement made on day of Italian Bishops' Conference statement)
This legalistic excuse comes from a treaty between the Vatican and the Italian state in 1985 which stipulates that priests are not obliged to inform the police of crimes learned of through their ministry. The Italian Bishops' Conference, which published the guidelines last Friday, say they came from a suggestion by the Vatican's office that handles sex abuse allegations.

Last month Pope Francis had complained that, "No-one else has done more [to tackle child sexual abuse]. Yet the Church is the only one to have been attacked."

[the Vatican is systematically placing the] preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims.

In 2010, to great publicity and in response to the growing world-wide outrage at these sexual and psychological abuses as more and more victims found the courage to be open about what they had suffered at the hands of predatory paedophile priests and nuns, the Vatican had instructed bishops to report these offences to the authorities - but only where required to do so by the local law. The Vatican has never seen it as the moral duty of Bishops to protect the vulnerable from predatory clerics by adopting a zero tolerance policy and reporting all such cases even when not required to do so by local law.

Now we see the Vatican office supposedly responsible for dealing with the problem, recommending a policy of strict legalism regardless of the fact that this gives a degree of protection to offenders and removes a little protection from the vulnerable. Obviously this offices sees it as dealing with the problem to prevent it being exposed.

The 'problem' is seen as one of embarrassment and damage to the Catholic Church, not damage to the victims of these abuses. The solution is a Mafioso-style code of silence or a 'no snitching' rule.

As reported on the BBC website, the long litany of Catholic Church abuse scandals includes:

  • Germany - A priest, named only as Andreas L, admitted in 2012 to 280 counts of sexual abuse involving three boys over a decade.
  • United States - Revelations about abuses in the 1990s by two Boston priests, Paul Shanley and John Geoghan, caused public outrage.
  • Belgium - The bishop of Bruges, Roger Vangheluwe, resigned in April 2010 after admitting that he had sexually abused a boy for years.
  • Italy - The Catholic Church in Italy admitted in 2010 that about 100 cases of paedophile priests had been reported over 10 years
  • Ireland - A report in 2009 [The Cloyne Report] found that sexual and psychological abuse was "endemic" in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages for most of the 20th century.

BBC News - Pope Francis asks forgiveness for child abuse by clergy

These are the same people who claim to be guardians of our morals and who demand the right to be consulted on all legislation inasmuch as it related to a woman's rights to her own body, the rights men have over them, what consenting adults may or may not do in the privacy of their own bedrooms and who may form a legal relationship with whom.

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Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fundamentalist Threat To EU Freedoms

Mamber states of the European Union
Pro-Life Citizens' Initiative Worries E.U. Scientists | Science/AAAS | News

In an astonishingly arrogant move, a small, highly organised and well-financed group of Christian fundamentalists, posing as a European citizen's initiative, is seeking to exploit and subvert the democratic process. In the EU a petition with over 1 million authentic signatures collected across at least eight member states must be considered by the European Commission (the legislative body of the EU) for possible legislation.

If the Commission agrees with this petition, embryo stem-cell research will be illegal, and something having its origins in primitive superstition will be mandatory on all 28 current, and all future EU member states. This is because Christians believe a magic entity called a 'soul' enters a zygote at conception and thus a cell, or small group of cells, which could not possibly have independent existence in that state, is a fully human individual with full human rights. No evidence of the 'soul' has ever been found.

Discovery Shows Science Changing Its Mind

Australopithecus sediba
Human 'missing link' fossils may be jumble of species - life - 09 April 2014 - New Scientist

News this week that doubt has now been cast on what had been hailed as a new species of Australopithecus showing striking 'transitional' features between these pre-hominid apes and the hominids. A new analysis by Ella Been of Tel Aviv University, Israel suggests what were believed to be the fossils of one adult female and a juvenile male found in the same location at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008 may actually be two adults and two juveniles of different species - one each of australopithecine and hominid.

This emerging dispute interests me especially because it touches on something that many creationists and other scientifically illiterate people purport to find puzzling about science. If science is the best way to discover the truth, why is it full of disputes and disagreements, often resulting in a change of mind and even a 'rewrite of the science books'. Isn't it better to stick with dogma which hasn't been changed for a couple of millennia so you know where you are?

I'll deal with that in a moment. First, the dispute and it's background.

The exciting thing about the supposed new species, named A.sediba by its discoverer, Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, was that it appeared to have a hominid lower body, complete with feet which were close to those of Homo sapiens, and the more chimpanzee-like skull and upper body of an australopithecine. As an interesting sequel to this find, the Boston Museum of Science, MA, USA, asked visitors to walk barefoot across a mechanised carpet that analysed their footprints, and found that one in thirteen had differences in foot-bone structure similar to those of A. sediba.

This suggested that modern humans might well trace their ancestry back not to the Ethiopian Highlands as 'Lucy' (A. afarensis) suggested but to much further south. Of course, this is still consistent with the picture of H. sapiens having evolved in Africa from chimpanzee-like apes which had earlier diverged from the other three African primates; the picture merely shifted further south.

So, a few years ago we had to change our minds a little. From it being fairly safe to assume H. sapiens had evolved in Ethiopia we now needed to allow for the possibility that it might have been in South Africa instead. A little less certain and a little more uncertain and a suspension of belief pending some more evidence. Now we may have to shift it back again as the balance of evidence changes.

The doubt raised by Ella Been revolves around her analysis of vertebra and lower jawbones from the supposed two individuals. She sees close similarity between the boy's vertebrae and the vertebrae of the 1.5 million year-old 'Turkana Boy' (H. erectus) while the adult female has undoubtedly australopithecine vertebrae. This suggested two different species. Then her colleague, Yoel Rak, also of Tel Aviv University, noticed a notch on the boy's lower jawbone which looked australopithecine while a similar notch on that of the adult female looked hominid. Conclusion: there are four individuals, not two; one adult female and one juvenile male australopithecine and one adult female and one juvenile male hominid, the bones of which had become intermixed.

At this point, and admittedly not being in possession of all the facts, I think I would be tempted to ask if just one adult or one juvenile bone had been duplicated, because this would be indisputable evidence of two or more partial skeletons. I assume, since none is mentioned, that none have been found. On that basis I'm inclined not to change my mind that much, just yet.

The question remains to be resolved and one thing is sure - it will only be resolved by evidence. Until that evidence is forthcoming, it remains for science an unresolved question. The interesting this is to see how science copes with evidence which seems to refute an idea. The only honest answer to the question of where the Homo genus split off from the Australopithecus genus is one which reflects the current uncertainty and the respective strength of the evidence for and against while allowing that both could be wrong.

A central tenet of evolutionary theory is that variation within taxa becomes variation between taxa as species diverge.

Lee Berger, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa
Of course, those with an interest in one side or the other will champion their particular views. Lee Berger says that the position of the bones as found makes it likely that they were from one individual. He concedes that the juvenile vertebrae do look like H. erectus but suggests that they would lengthen as he grew to become more australopithecine. To which Been points out that other fossil Australopithecus children have long vertebrae.

Berger also argues that Been's and Rak's analysis would also make sense if A. sediba really was transitional between Australopithecus and Homo because a mixture of features is exactly what we would expect as species diverge over time.

All this is mere detail, of course. It actually matters not at all whether humans evolved in South Africa out of A. sediba or in Ethiopia out of A. afarensis, or out of an as yet undiscovered species. There is little doubt that we evolved in Africa. And even if someone were to discover that modern humans evolved in Europe or Southeast Asia after all, then that would be sensational but nothing more. We would not need to change anything other than our minds, the next editions of the textbooks and some museum displays. And our knowledge would move a little closer to the truth, which remains the truth regardless of our beliefs.

So why is this a better way to determine the truth than going with dogma, and what's the use of 'truths' that keep being disputed and changed?

Imagine you're in court, on trial for something you didn't do. One witness produces evidence which suggests you are guilty and another produces evidence which suggests you are innocent. Would you want the defence and prosecution teams to argue and debate the merits of the evidence, pointing out the flaws in it and the other possible interpretations - maybe that footprint did look like yours but thousands of people have those shoes; maybe you did once own that gun once but it had been stolen in a burglary which you had reported to the police, and the DNA at the scene was not your DNA.

Or would you want the jury to listen to someone who said it was an accepted 'fact' that people like you are criminals and there is an old book which says so, so the jury didn't need to bother with the pros and cons of the arguments over the significance of the evidence when even the experts couldn't agree. They could just go with what the old book says and save a lot of time and expense. After all, it's having an opinion that matters, not whether it's right or wrong. In any case, dogma was deemed to be right so whatever agreed with dogma would be right automatically, and the dogma said you were guilty. Why bother with a trial at all even?

Hands up those who would like to be tried by dogma and not have the jury bother with the evidence and what the experts say about it!

The point is that only by constantly reassessing and disputing the evidence can it be fully tested, assessed and appropriately weighted at the bar of informed opinion. This can only be done by people who are prepared to abandon earlier ideas and adopt new ones when the evidence changes and to whom all conclusions and 'beliefs' are conditional and transient and informed by evidence. It takes a special form of arrogance, and more than a little intellectual dishonesty, to insist that there can be knowledge without evidence. Even in the cases of a wrongful convictions, it is evidence which eventually proves the conviction to be unsafe or wrong.

Dogma is the antithesis of intellectual honesty and explains why science progresses and develops but religions remain unchanged until they cease to have any relevance and are swept aside by the tide of evidence which eventually overwhelms them or they are forced to change to avoid extinction.

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Friday, 4 April 2014

More Blunders By The Unintelligent Designer

I've written several blogs already about the 'design' mistakes in the human make-up and other blunders in design of natural things of which any self-respecting intelligent designer would be thoroughly ashamed (see list following this article). Here I look at a few of the less obvious ones - less obvious that is because they are less visible and often something we take for granted as 'normal'. This list is based on an article written by Claire Ainsworth and Michael Le Page, published in New Scientist, 10 August 2007.

Inefficient Respiratory System

It's considered a real achievement and a feat of endurance for a super-fit human, after prolonged training, to climb Mount Everest without oxygen tanks and breathing masks. It was first done as recently as 1978. Everest is a mere 8,848 Metres high. In 1975, a jet flying at a height of 11,264 Metres sucked a griffon vulture into its jet engine.

The problem with mammalian lungs like ours is that we draw in fresh air, which mixes with the stale air left in our lungs, trachea, bronchioles and alveoli, so it's already partly stale by the time it gets to the alveoli where gas exchange takes place. We then breathe out as much as we breathed in, leaving a substantial amount behind to contaminate the next intake. Physiologists refer to this as the 'dead space'.

Because of this, we need particularly large bronchioles to shift enough oxygen in and get rid of enough carbon dioxide and, with particularly high demands such as sprinting we can literally run out of breath. Our muscles don't get enough oxygen and burn sugars anaerobically leading to a build-up of lactic acid causing our muscles to fail eventually. The ensuing 'oxygen debt' means we need a prolonged period of recovery from exhaustion as we burn off the excess lactic acid. In short, just when we need it most, our respiratory system can fail and so it imposes a severe limitation on our abilities. Additionally, in order to shift enough oxygen and carbon dioxide across the alveolar membrane into and out of the blood, their lining needs to be very thin and is easily damaged leading to emphysema.

Birds, on the other hand, have a different system. Fresh air not only goes into their lungs on inspiration but into storage sacks too. When they breath out, fresh air from the storage sacks is pushed through the lungs, flushing out all the stale air, so a bird's lungs get fresh air in both phases of their respiration. So, they are able to make do with finer tubes and more robust alveoli and can sustain prolonged effort with little muscle fatigue. In fact, the action of the wing muscles actually increases the rate of respiration without additional effort. Mammals, on the other hand get no special assistance from their locomotory system and need to bring in additional 'accessory' muscles to increase respiration when necessary, imposing yet another demand on the system.

Creationists believe these two systems were intelligently designed by the same designer who appears to have used the worst design for humans. Biologists, on the other hand, point out that evolution is utilitarian and makes do with whatever works, provided each improvement gives some advantage. They also point out that with an evolutionary system based on accumulated small changes over time, and which can't go in reverse, large-scale reorganisations are impossible, so branches in the evolutionary tree of life are often stuck with whatever worked for their ancestors because evolution can't and doesn't plan ahead. Instead evolution often consists of evolving work-arounds for inefficient earlier 'designs' so far as this is possible.

An Inbuilt Mutation Maker

You might expect the system for copying DNA would be about as error-free as possible given the importance of our DNA to us. However, we have four different DNA polymerase enzymes for doing it with, three of which are not very good at it. The best one only makes about one mistake in one million bases copied but the worst can be as error-prone as one mistake in one hundred bases. The reason for this seems to be that to be accurately copied the DNA needs to be fairly perfect already for the enzyme to 'fit' in the right place. The problem with this 'perfectionist' enzyme is that it stops working when it hasn't got a perfect DNA to copy. The ones with a 'near enough is good enough' approach can happily plough on when they are copying mistakes but aren't too worried about adding a few more along the way. So, the tradeoff is between perfect replication which fails to complete the task, leading to cell death, or getting the job done but with mutations.

The advantage of this is that at least the cells replicate and repairs and growth get done and things like blood cells get replaced, and, in the case of the immune system, novel mutations are partly how new antibodies get produced. The downside is cancer, genetic defects in children and maybe ageing, about which more later.

It should not be beyond the wit of an intelligent designer to create a perfectionist enzyme which can cope with errors in the DNA it is replicating and to produce antibodies some other way, if indeed an intelligent designer designed the reasons for needing an immune system in the first place. Evolutionists however, point out the utilitarian and unplanned methods of the evolutionary process and how this process can produce exactly what we can see - a utilitarian DNA replication system, the negative side of which normally only expresses in later life after the genes causing it have been passed on to the next generation, and how it doesn't care if some of the next generation carry defects so long as some get an advantage from it.

Muddled DNA

Similar to the above but to do with how chromosomes swap chunks of DNA when they pair up to be divided in the first stage of egg or sperm production. We have one of each pair from each of our parents so in this stage, bits of our father's DNA can end up on the same chromosome as bits of our mother's DNA and vice versa. The problem is this often goes wrong and one chromosome ends up with two copies of the same gene and the other has none. Some chunks can even end up getting inserted the wrong way round. If the chromosome with the missing gene ends up in a egg or a sperm which results in a new individual, the conception might not be viable, or it can result in a child with a missing gene. Either outcome is unlikely to be an advantage. If the duplicated gene ends up in a new individual, the outcome is far less likely to be detrimental and, in the long term, because one copy is now free to mutate with no loss of function, there will now be increased variability and something for the environment to naturally select.

For some reason, primates have unusually high rates of gene duplication and the two with the most are humans, followed closely by chimpanzees. Presumably, creationists would dismiss this as mere coincidence and not indicative of a close relationship, even though a lot of the duplicated genes are common to both.

There would appear to be no reason at all for an intelligent designer to design such an imperfect method for passing DNA on to the next generation and one which can result in children with genetic defects and often a short life expectancy or a severely reduced quality of life and restricted opportunities, although creationists often dismiss this as somehow the fault of the victim and the intended outcome of the all-loving designer because they deserved it.

Evolution, on the other hand, explains it as an uncaring, unplanned, utilitarian process which may give the species an advantage in an environment in which species evolve in response to differential natural selection from variations in the population and where the advantages of evolving evolvability the better to cope with a changing, hostile and selective environment are manifestly obvious.

Left: Mammalian eye. Right: Squid eye

The Blind Spot

As almost any half-decent creationist fraud will keep pointing out, Darwin said the complexity and apparent perfection of the eye are difficult to explain. What they won't do, however, is tell you he was showing how this is a problem without an evolutionary process to explain it and he then spent several pages explaining in considerable detail how evolution can explain it. Creationist frauds are of course used to misleading people who want to be mislead and for whom even picking up 'Origin of Species' would be regarded as a sin, let alone reading any of it, so they can be fairly confident they'll get away with it with an audience notoriously averse to fact-checking.

But the mammalian eye is far from perfect and is actually built the wrong way round. Moreover, the squid eye is far more efficient and evolved much earlier than the vertebrate eye, as are some avian eyes which are even built on the the same basic plan as the mammalian one.

The consequence of being built the wrong way round is that the nerves from the retina, on which the image is focussed, run over the front of the retina so light needs to pass through them. They then have come together to form the optic nerve which must go through the retina resulting in the blind spot. To compensate for that, our brain needs to fill in this area of our vision otherwise we would literally see a black area just off center. In actual fact, our brain makes up what we think we see by 'seeing' whatever is around the missing area.

Try this for yourself. Take a sheet of paper and make a circular blob about the width of your little finger nail in diameter. Now mark an 'X' about 8 cm (3 inches) to the left of it. Now, cover your left eye and move the paper towards you focussing on the 'X' with the blob still to the right of it. The blob will seem to disappear but you will 'see' plain paper. Try it with different coloured or even patterned paper. A significant part of our field of vision is invisible because of our blind spot and a portion of what we 'see' is made up by our brain. And all because our eyes are built the wrong way round. Squid eyes do not have a blind spot because they got eyes built the right way round and there appears to be no good reason why a squid eye design would not work in a mammal.

There is no conceivable explanation for this stupid design in terms of an intelligent designer who had earlier designed the molluscan eye. In terms of evolution however, there is no way a design can be copied from a different branch of the evolutionary tree, so eyes have evolved independently several times, each with a different solution to the same problem. Once the mammalian eye started to evolve, even with the wiring the wrong way round, it would have given it's carrier an advantage. Any attempt to reverse the trend and start again would have involved a loss of function and so would have been quickly eliminated by natural selection. Apart from that, there is no planning or intelligence in evolution, so no mechanism by which evolution can decide to start again with a better design. Evolution can only work on what is, not on what should be. So mammals are stuck with an imperfect yet adequate eye, 'designed' by an uncaring, unconscious, unintelligent yet inevitable process.

Built-in Self-Destruction

Being built of eukaryotic cells, i.e., complex cells which, over time, have incorporated other prokaryotic cells like bacteria into themselves as organelles with particular functions, we have inherited these organelles on which our cells now depend. One of these is the mitochondrion which carries out the main energy supply function by burning glucose to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by adding a third phosphate group to adenosine diphosphate (ADP). ATP is then used to power metabolic processes by releasing some of the energy stored in this phosphate bond and being reduced back ADP and phosphate. The mitochondria brought their own genome with them, most of which has now migrated across into the cell nucleus to become part of our normal DNA, but thirteen essential genes have remained behind and, with mitochondria being essential to us, we are entirely dependant on these thirteen genes.

The problem is, the process used to make ATP from sugar, phosphate and ADP in the mitochondria produces highly damaging substances called free radicals which can damage DNA causing mutations to accumulate throughout our lives. These mutations are believed to be the main reason for ageing and may be partly responsible for age-related illnesses such as diabetes and Alzheimer's.

If an intelligent designer intended us to develop age-related illnesses and to have built in senescence then putting the life-support system close to the furnace where it could be damaged and degraded over time was the right way to go about it, otherwise, it can't possibly be described as intelligent. As an evolutionary process however, it produces individuals which have time to breed and pass on these design faults before the faults manifest themselves, and that is all that evolution needs to work. In fact this may even be a long-term benefit to the same genes in the next generation as the senescence and death of the parents, once they have reproduced will free up resources for the next generation. No one ever accused a gene of not being selfish and having scant regard for the welfare of its carrier so long as their utility value has been realised in the form of another generation.

Ineffective Enzyme

This is not strictly a design flaw in humans as such but a flaw in something that, like almost all living things on Earth, we are utterly dependant upon. Probably the most abundant protein on Earth is an enzyme. The reason it is so abundant is that it makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality. It is called ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (RuBisCo for short) and is also the slowest known enzyme. RuBisCo is the enzyme in photosynthesis responsible for taking carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and building the chains of carbon in sugars which form the backbone of all organic substances.

But RuBisCo is incredibly bad at doing what it does, only carrying out about three reactions a second against tens of thousands of reactions a second for some enzymes. And it makes lots of mistakes. It finds it difficult to tell oxygen molecules (O2) from CO2 and often incorporates it by mistake, causing a chain reaction which causes a loss of carbon and wastes energy. Some plants have evolved mechanisms for reducing these mistakes but they appear to have been evolved several times independently.

Photosynthesis was one of the big steps in evolution when the cyanobacteria evolved this ability to almost literally eat the atmosphere instead of having to eat other organic substances. Some cyanobacteria then got incorporated into eukaryotic cells similarly to the way mitochondria became incorporated and so green plants were able to evolve. This gave life on Earth a huge boost in biomass but produced a toxic atmosphere containing molecular oxygen - the waste product of photosynthesis spat out from the carbon in CO2. This led to the first mass extinction until other bacteria managed to evolve ways of using all this spare oxygen.

And that's probably why RuBisCo makes its frequent mistakes. It evolved in a low oxygen environment where such mistakes were rare and insignificant but it gave its carriers such a huge advantage that the mistake has become fixed. Any tendency to change it would result in something even worse so living things have to make do with what they've got. No planning; no ability to go in reverse, and no one to stand back and think of a better way and start again. The fact that lots of plants have evolved different ways to compensate for RuBisCo's inefficiency shows that it not ideal for purpose. No omnipotent intelligent designer would come up with something which has to be compensated for. Evolution, on the other hand...

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