Happy Darwin Day!

birthdaydarwinBy pure accident, I published my first blog post on Darwin day back in 2009; 6 years ago today. So, for readers who may not know much about Charles Darwin or Darwin Day, Let me point you to some resources.

First, let’s start with the website dedicated to Darwin Day itself, DarwinDay.org. Here, you can find all sorts of things, such as local events, including this, happening in Philadelphia tonight at National Mechanics–which I may decide to pop into (if I have time after the laundry that really needs to get done). There are also educationalactivism, and news resources there, so take a look.

There’s also a Facebook page for Darwin Day.

darwinQBut there’s also a plethora of excellent resources all over the internet about Charles Darwin.  I will not even try to summarize them all, because they are too extensive. There are, of course, organizations and site dedicated to misinformation, misunderstanding, or outright opposition to Darwin and to the theory of evolution itself (it does pain me to post those links…).

Among my favorite evolution/Darwin specific websites is the Understanding Evolution website hosted at Berkeley. There’s a series of articles about the history of evolution, which includes some details about Darwin which start here. among my least favorites would be places such at Answers in Genesis, whgich is a group dedicated to the Biblical “truth” of creation. Hacks, and idiots, really.

Darwin_Small_mediumLet’s not forget that you can get all sorts of bumper stickers, decals, and other DarwinFish to put on your car, forehead, or computer screens. They are a good way to show the person driving behind you in traffic that you are educated in the scientific method, understand at least some of the complexities of the concepts within evolutionary theory (such as natural selection), and that you will not submit to bronze-age pseudoscience or creations myths.

That, or you really love your fish named “Darwin.”

I will not even begin to try to summarize the influence of Charles Darwin myself, mostly because I’m not an expert but also because there are already so many good resources on this subject. I’ll simply say that reading the Origin of Species was a positive experience, and what I do understand about biology is both fascinating and often beautiful.

darwin-change-201x300If you don’t know much about Charles Darwin or if you just want to know more, take a look at some of the links here. Or, if you just want to celebrate his birthday with some like-minded people over beers, food, or just conversation, check out the events page and find some local people.

Happy birthday Darwin!

I hope you don’t rise from the grave as a zombie to eat all of our brains, because that wouldn’t be very nice. So, let’s not do that.

Intelligent design and special pleading


All too often I hear from people that there is proof of god everywhere.  The trees and the birds, our hands and our feet, the flesh-eating bacteria and the natural disasters that destroy cities.  OK, those lasts two are not generally used to argue in favor of a loving god, but they are pretty complex, aren’t they?

And that’s the key here: complexity.  How could all of these things with their complex parts, elaborate interactions with the rest of nature, and our intricate brains that can think about it all just get here by chance? They could not have done it on their own, right? So there must have been some intelligence, some designer, to give the world it’s complexity.

It is unfortunate that there is such a deficiency of understanding of science and of critical thinking in our culture.  Science education may be partially to blame, but we must be willing to take the responsibility for ourselves as well.  And as a result of this there is a severe lack of understanding of the theory of natural selection (as well as the other evolutionary pressures) and thus a misunderstanding of the fact of evolution as they intersect with these questions of complexity.

There are great resources for learning about these things online, and so any person can go and find out what scientists say about evolution.  The key here is to understand that the process does not claim chaos or complete randomness.  The question about evolution is not a false dichotomy between an intelligent designer or random chance.  There are many believers in various gods that accept the fact of evolution (Ken Miller and Francis Collins being two prominent examples).  Natural selection is a definite process, is not random, and is well supported by physical evidence.

The major component of randomness in evolution is the mutation of genes.  But most of these mutations have no effect at all, and only sometimes do they have a harmful or helpful effect.  It takes environmental factors, lots of time, and other factors to make a mutation effect the population at large.  And it is the process of natural selection that does the actual work, not the random mutation.

But my point here is not to explain natural selection or to spell out the evidence for evolution.  That is the responsibility of each person to do on their own in conjunction with schools and museums.  Start with the link above, a trip to the museum, or even a recent biology textbook (and not one produced by the Discovery Institute such as Of Pandas and People, as they have been shown to be untrustworthy during the Kitzmiller case).

And so what about this claim that complexity requires intelligent design?  Well, even if we didn’t have a good scientific answer to the claim (which we do), there is another problem with it that can be shown without knowing anything about evolution.

Here is the argument as I have seen it:

  • The world (universe) is full of complex things
  • complex things need designers
  • therefore, a designer of the world (universe) exists.

Ray Comfort is known for arguing that if you see a painting we know there is a painter,  if their is a building there is a builder, etc.  It is certainly true that things we create have designers, and they certainly are intelligent.  But the analogy does not carry through to all things because not all things are constructed in a factory.  Other things reproduce biologically and are put together by very complex natural processes that we, admittedly, don’t fully understand.  And as far as universes go, I’ve never seen one made, so while I can go to the car factory, I can’t go to the universe factory.

But more importantly is the assumption that all things need intelligent designers to exist simply because they are complex.  We know that simple things can become complex through natural selection, but even if we don’t know this we can ask if all things that are complex need a designer, then wouldn’t the designer itself, being a complex thing, need its own designer?

In short, what created god?

Now, the common reply is to state that god is eternal and has always existed.  This is special pleading.  What that means is that the point is making a special exception of the rules for illegitimate reasons.  The question here is whether a god exists, and so in deciding this issue one cannot take as given a special exception for the thing that is in question.  One cannot simply define god into existence by saying that it is not subject to the rule that all complex things need a creator.  If one did, the results would be somewhat silly.

intelligent-design-posterThe bottom line for intelligent design, and whatever people are trying to disguise creationism as these days, is that there is no evidence to support it.  Despite Michael Behe’s best attempts, there is no irreducibly complex thing that cannot be explained without the need of an intelligent designer. Natural selection is sufficient to explain complexity in our biological world.

And further, even if it could be shown that an intelligent designer would be necessary, this would still be a far cry from associating this intelligence with any particular god.  An intelligent designer would not imply that it had anything to do with any theology or mythology (as if there were a difference) of any religion.  A Christian does not win any points for his beliefs even if intelligent design were true.  Because if it were true, the Moslem, Jew, Hindu, etc would step up and claim that it is their god that is the intelligent designer.

Luckily for us, that is not an issue because the proposal of an intelligent designer does not stand up to scrutiny.  The irony, perhaps, is that intelligent design needs people of lesser intelligence, or at least understanding, to propose it.

If complexity needs a creator, so does the complex creator.  God is nothing but a pseudo-answer to a non-problem when it comes to the complexities of the world and how to explain them.

Related: Counter to the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  A favorite of William Lane Craig, Christian apologist.

Natural Selection and the Newspaper Industry

Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen, so it is certain insofar as we can be certain of anything. Evolution is the basis for modern biology, and is as solidly supported by scientific evidence as gravity. The evidence is so overwhelming in support of the fact that over millions of years processes have caused species to come into being through natural means.

The central process that is responsible for this evolution, natural selection, is rather simple. And yet it is commonly misunderstood, even by intelligent people, in a number of different ways. Thus, I have decided to write about an example, analogous to natural selection in another place than biology; journalism.

In this case, the environment of this process is the media. And in this case I will talk about the newspaper industry, and use its demise as an example of how the change in an environment can cause a species to die out, leaving behind a mutation of itself behind. Thus, in the future, there could be some journalist that might say that there career was not the descendant of a newspaper, because if that were true why are there still newspapers? (as a few newspapers might still exist even then)…and we might recognize this as familiar to us.

The recording of information is a rather old convention of human culture. The very definition of history is intimately tied to this convention, in fact. At some point we became technologically advanced enough to produce pieces of paper in large enough quantities, and quickly enough, in order to have hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of copies sold a day. Thus the newspaper industry was born.

As technology advanced, information was able to be disseminated by other means. Television was one effective change on this industry, but the internet, especially paired with mobile devices, is the most effective of these technologies. This is a change in the environment. It’s the analogy of a climatic change for information. As more people started to read news on the internet, newspapers started to sell less copies. Now we have come to the point where major segments of the newspaper industry are closing down.

Now the analogy is not precise. It is, in fact, largely very different. Nonetheless I think its an interesting analogy to compare the information that is transmitted through news media and the genetic information passed down through sexual reproduction in looking at the ways that the environment will select certain carriers of the news. In a similar way that the genetic information carried in a smarter, stronger, or better hidden biological life form will tend to pass down more offspring, the technology we have will select the vehicles of information that will reach human readers in better ways.

Newspapers are a species that are having less and less offspring. At some time in the last few decades a mutation of this form of media came about and, at first, was odd looking and not well adapted to the culture. But over time,, as the environment changed as the internet spread in usage by more people, this mutation began to transform and be shaped into a wonderful tool that we use today.

Now, there is one major difference between my analogy and the processes involved in evolution. While the transmission of information through various media (like blogs) is the result of intelligent choice (although some choices may not be particularly intelligent), the process of natural selection is not based on any intelligence at all. For the vast majority of evolutionary history, there was no such thing as intelligence, as intelligence is one by-product of this process. That is, while we choose where we read our news with self-awareness, the universe (or the Earth, in this case) does not choose which species survive with any self-awareness. The process is blind, in biology, but it is not blind in terms of where we read our news.

It is this that creates the fundamental misunderstanding about natural selection. It is not a selection in the sense of a choice. It is not a process that has life choose its path and certain choices work better in nature. It is a random mutation that has either no effect or a change in the offspring, having a detrimental effect, positive effect, or no noticeable effect on that offspring’s ability to reproduce itself.

And as these mutated offspring either have no offspring (mutation is not passed on), more offspring (Spreading the mutation at a increased rate) or has little to no effect (mutation becomes moderately spread in the species), then we will see a change in the species as a whole.

This is a natural process, not one driven by intelligence or intentional design. It does not need a god to explain it, and it has nothing to do with the ultimate origin of life. This only deals with what happens when life already exists, and so retreating behind the question of “ok, well how does life get there in the first place” is not a challenge to evolution at all.

The reason, by the way, that there are still monkeys is because we didn’t evolve from them. Other primates and ourselves evolved from a common ancestor. Thus, the monkeys, apes, etc are as evolved as we are. Evolution is not a ladder, nor does it have a goal. We are not more evolved than an ape, a cat, or bacteria. We just have the perhaps unique quality of self-awareness that allows us to actually try to make sense of a senseless process, and thus to add gods to it unnecessarily.