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Category: evolution (page 1 of 4)

The LDS statement on DNA and the Book of Mormon

The LDS Church dropped their latest Big Essay this Friday. Friday’s the day that PR organisations drop press releases that they hope won’t attract a lot of attention. And that makes sense, because I don’t think anyone at Church HQ was looking forward to writing this one. It’s on DNA and the Book of Mormon.

There have already been some takedowns and discussion on the individual points it makes, and I’m not a population geneticist, so I’ll just defer to them.

But from my perspective, here are the interesting bits. In the second paragraph, we hit this:

Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people have wondered whether the migrations it describes are compatible with scientific studies of ancient America.

This was so jaw-dropping, I had to read it a couple of times. Are they actually backing away from the historicity of the Book of Mormon? It’s a very common tactic in apologetics to kick things a rung or two up the ladder of abstraction so they can’t be falsified, but this is a shift that I’ve never even seen hinted at. Weakening the historical case for the Book of Mormon is one step away from saying it didn’t happen. And that makes me wonder if church leaders even believe it anymore. Make no mistake, this is a meme to watch in the coming years.

Another tack I noticed is the Church’s retreat into obscurantism. Notice the kind of language they use:

Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples…

DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby.

Nothing is known about the extent of intermarriage and genetic mixing between Book of Mormon peoples or their descendants and other inhabitants of the Americas…

…the picture is not entirely clear.

One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.

It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, clear information of that kind is unavailable.

it is quite possible that their DNA markers did not survive the intervening centuries.

…the evidence is simply inconclusive. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples.

As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

Retreat into the unknown

What a lot of mealy-mouthed vacillation. Is this the same group that boldly proclaims that a god restored the everlasting gospel, and that we know for a surety of its truthfulness? But now, when there are questions about its foundational text, they sound like Hans Moleman. When you have the facts on your side, you state the facts. If someone’s trying to obscure things and retreat into uncertainty, you can bet they don’t have the facts on their side.

The phrase “Nothing is known about…” is repeated four times. Gee, it’s too bad they don’t have a… prophet or something to help them with that. It’s this kind of thing that made me realise that listening to a prophet is a really weird and unreliable method of getting information.


There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that “you can’t prove or disprove” the Book of Mormon story, with the implication that the probability of it being true or not is about 50-50. It’s not 50-50. The bulk of the probability that the Mormon story is true is vanishingly small, and shrinking. Yet some people will hold onto that tiny sliver of hope, as long as they think it’s still ‘possible’.

I call this possibilistic reasoning, by which I mean ‘a tendency to look only at the possible, holding onto one’s preconceptions until they’re conclusively disproven, one hundred and one percent’. This is how true believing Mormons hold onto their belief in the Church. God, Jesus, and the ghost of Joseph Smith could appear and tell them it was all a fake, and they’d write it off as the devil’s deception. They’ll ignore the bulk of probability, and hold onto the sliver. It’s the same way some of them reject evolution and climate change. The possibility that it’s wrong (and there’s always a possibility) is enough for them to reject it and keep going with whatever they like.

By contrast, probabilistic reasoning looks at the bulk of probability. How true is a thing likely to be, given the evidence we have? By this reasoning, evolution and climate change are extremely likely — not 100%, but close. And the Book of Mormon, with no evidence on its side, but a lot of strikes against it, is likely false.

When discussing this with my friend Mark Ellison, he remarked, “I think possibilistic reasoning is responsible for a great deal of intellectual evil,” and I’d have to agree.

So this DNA statement from the First Quorum of the Anonymous may be somewhat comforting to possibilistic reasoners who are trying to sustain their faith in the irrational, but it’s falling flat with people who are concerned with basing their views on the best evidence.

Is ‘morality by consensus’ the same as ‘mob rule’?

When I discuss morality with Christians, they often claim that their morality is superior because it’s ‘absolute’. I don’t know what they mean by an ‘absolute’ morality, but if their god did create an absolute morality, he sure did a lousy job of communicating it, since Christians all over the world disagree on what actually constitutes moral or immoral behaviour.

But when I think of ‘absolute’ morality, I always think of Dawkins’ response:

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon what you could almost call an intelligent design.

I like the idea of a morality based on consensus. I think most people are good moral agents, although we could always do better. And over the centuries, we do become better as we slowly expand our circle of awareness, become horrified at the injustices of the recent past, and grow a little.

But when I talk about morality by consensus, some Christians aren’t keen on that at all. “Isn’t that kind of a dangerous slope to go down?” they ask. “Why, that’s just the same as mob rule,” say others. I don’t think it is; consensus-driven morality has arrived at principles that are not a part of mob rule, like reciprocity and fairness. There’s no comparison.

This got me wondering: why are Christians so set against the idea of morality by consensus? Then I realised: it’s a way of making moral decisions without involving a god at all. Or, more to the point, a priest. For centuries, they’ve become used to dictating to the rest of us what’s moral, issuing proclamations — and being believed. With consensus-based morality, the priest is just another actor, and how this must rankle them.

Global Atheist Con: Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott is the Executive Director of the National Centre for Science Education. Her talk was “Reason and Creationism”.

I’ve disagreed with Scott and the NCSE over the years because of the stand she’s taken on the ‘accommodationist’ side of the science and atheism divide. It’s not because of her reluctance to fly the ‘atheist’ flag; I’m happy for the NCSE to appeal to a larger audience of possibly religious folks who would otherwise be put off by the ‘atheist’ label (see also Neil deGrasse Tyson). I also understand that the NCSE is in the business of teaching about evolution, not atheism. And so Scott has avoided the conflict. That would be okay, if she didn’t set herself against the New Atheists who want to take creationists down to the mat. New Atheists want to force the conflict between creationism and reality because they know it’s a debate they can win; accommodationists would be happy if they could fool creationists into thinking that there is no conflict between evolution and faith long enough for biology teachers could get on with their work.

The accommodationist view has always struck me as weak and disingenuous. When Scott says that she does not see a “dichotomy between science and religion or evolution and religion,” well, that’s just wrong, at least for Abrahamic religions that take their doctrine seriously. They make claims about the origin of the world, claims which many of their members take seriously, and those members reject evolution because of those claims. And every time she says that science is somehow powerless to evaluate supernatural claims, I scream. Science tells us exactly what to do with supernatural claims; bin them until they’re supported by evidence. Oh, they can’t be, because they’re not verifiable? Then that’s a problem for the believers to sort out. They need to do the work of defining what they mean by ‘god’ and backing up their claims, but they never seem to get around to it because they’re too busy preaching the word, brother.

Simply getting religious people to sign off on evolution is not the ultimate goal — the goal is getting people to reason without superstition. Non-acceptance of evolution is just a part of this larger problem, and if we don’t work on this, irrationality will pop up in other ways (e.g. climate change denialism, which the NCSE is now also fighting). And trying to do this by claiming that there’s no conflict is just fooling people, and I don’t think that even the religious will be fooled by it.

Gnu Atheists want to tell the truth. And they’re arguing from an advantageous position; when you have the facts on your side, why not argue from facts?

Well, this is an old argument, and once I get to this part, I usually regain some perspective, and remember that Scott and the NCSE aren’t the bad guys. They’re out there teaching the facts about evolution, and climate change. In fact, the NCSE news feed looks to be a good resource for evolution news. The NCSE deserve some love, even if their approach bugs the shit out of me, and even if Scott undermines her own work by saying wrong things.

To the talk.

Scott started not with biology, but with geology. There are two principles that help geologists figure out the age of a rock formation.

  • The principle of horizontality states that layers are layed down horizontally.
  • The principle of superposition tells us that lower layers are older.
But this makes life hard for a Young Earth Creationist because the earth as we see it takes longer than the 6,000 years they posit from their reading of some book or other. They allege that there hasn’t been enough time to lay all that rock down, and so they say silly things, like the Grand Canyon was laid down in a year. The geology of Coconino County, Arizona poses a special challenge for YECs because they have alternating wind-lain and water-lain layers, and that’s hard to do in a short period of time. But they take up the challenge, and try to get their work past geology editors.

Scott says that creationists see themselves as the good guys in a culture war. They reject the idea that you can be good without a god, (says Scott: “I don’t know about you, but I haven’t killed anyone in weeks!”) and see the world as a struggle between their god and materialism. But this is a linguist trick, explains Scott. Materialism has two senses that creationists conflate:

  • Methodological materialism refers to the practice of using natural explanations for the phenomena we observe, and
  • Philosophical materialism is the view that matter is all there is.

(I suppose we should add to these the idea of acquisitive materialism, concerned with getting and having the latest, which really can be destructive, IMO.)

Fighting materialism, says Scott, is a strong motivator for their attacks on science, as they try to pave the way for Christian theism. Scott has no doubt that creationists believe their schtick, but their typical modus operandi is to bypass the process of communicating with the scientific community and take their arguments directly to an undiscerning public, as in high schools and even very young children. That’s because their fight is a political and cultural one, not a scientific one.

Talk the Talk: Really Old Art

A good Talk today — it’s always fun with Stacy G. This time we’re talking about cave art, and what it has to do with language.

So they’ve found a limestone slab dated to 37,000 years ago, it’s got a carving on it, and it’s a vulva. Here’s a pic (from this article): (SFW)

No, not the circular thing with the tail. The thing inside the circle. Or am I just seeing things? I’m not used to looking at vulval imagery.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Mice sing. Humans sing. Coincidence?

Singing makes you more attractive. (Singing well, anyway.) And you don’t even have to be a human. Even now, tiny mice are singing their ear-splitting ditties to impress potential mates.

Their in­i­tial stud­ies, the first to study song in wild mice, con­firmed that males emit songs when they en­coun­ter a fe­ma­les’ scent and that fe­males are at­tracted to the songs. The sci­en­tists al­so found that fe­males can tell apart their broth­ers from un­re­lat­ed males by their songs – even though they had pre­vi­ously nev­er heard their broth­ers sing.

We already know that birds use song to impress mates, and now mice. What about people?

There are two main hypotheses about how language began in humans. The one that gets the most play is the gestural (or mirror) hypothesis, as articulated by Michael Arbib, which goes something like this:

  • We have neurones in our brains that fire when we perform an action.
  • We also have ‘mirror neurons’ that fire when we see someone else performing the same action.
  • This allows us to recognise when someone is doing something.
  • From here, we can imitate others, and start to communicate using gestures, including pantomime.
  • This allows us to represent things that aren’t in the immediate vicinity, which is a precursor to language.

But it’s not clear from this how we make the move from gesture to speech.

The other main hypothesis is that human language started from music. This was Darwin’s favoured hypothesis, and it’s found a new advocate in W. Tecumseh Fitch (who I interviewed for an episode of ‘Talk the Talk‘).

For this one,

  • People were able to vocalise (or sing), and if their singing was sumptuous enough, they got the mates.
  • At the same time, we can recognise people’s voices, and distinguish them from the voices of other people.
  • We can even do imitations of other people, which allows us to represent them when they’re not around.

This could have been the beginning of representing things that aren’t around, which, again, is necessary for language. And it explains the use of the vocal channel.

So, mice. They sing. They use their songs to attract mates. They can tell each other apart by voice. All very languagy. It’s not just birds.

Even though both gesture and music were probably big factors in human language at the same time, I think this tips things toward the music hypothesis.

Why I am not a good Christian

Ricky Gervais has written his follow-up to his “Why I’m an Atheist” article, and it’s called

Why I’m a good Christian.

The title of this one is a little misleading, or at least cryptic. I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.

It’s not that I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t make this a better world if they were followed. It’s just that they are rarely followed.

Gandhi summed it up really. He said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

I have always felt this way, even when I believed in God, and in a weird way I feel I am still a pretty good “Christian” who doesn’t believe in God.

I doubt my behaviour differs greatly from people who call themselves Christian, except for all that babbling to imaginary people. I think I’m a pretty solid person who tries to do good things, help others, and so forth, like most everyone else.

And since this behaviour is common to Christians and non-, why call it ‘Christian’? Why not call it ‘human’? Christians aren’t getting their morality from the Bible, with its approval of slavery, misogyny, and child abuse — they’re good because of their innate moral sense, just like everyone else. Humans, as social beings, needed to evolve a sense of ‘morality’, involving social reciprocity, empathy, and fairness. Only after that had been in place for tens of thousands of years did religions then co-opt it for their own ends.

So I think Ricky Gervais is giving Jesus — and Christianity — too much credit.

Jesus was a man. (And if you forget all that rubbish about being half God, and believe the non-supernatural acts accredited to him, he was a man whose wise words many other men would still follow.) His message was usually one of forgiveness and kindness.

Well, usually, except that bit about being tortured in hell forever. With real fire. Jesus said this kind of thing not just once, but over and over. Not even the Old Testament threatened the dead with eternal torture. That doesn’t come across as very compassionate to me, so I guess I wouldn’t be a very good Christian.

Jesus also taught that his system had to come first, even ahead of your own family. If there was a conflict, you were to hate your mother and your father. Imagine how much ostracism that’s caused. I wouldn’t demand that of my followers. That’s the kind of thing a cult leader would do.

I’m not racist enough to be a Christian, either. One time, a Canaanite woman asked Jesus to heal her son from demons, and he called her a dog. (He later relented, but never apologised.) He seemed to be okay with women generally, but not that time. Tone it down, dude.

He even cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. And figs weren’t even in season! I don’t care for figs that much, so I probably wouldn’t get that worked up over it. Fig newtons are quite nice. If I had the power like Jesus was supposed to have, I’d make the tree bear fig newtons, but I wouldn’t curse it. How are you going to get any figs that way? Geez.

So I guess I’d be a terrible Christian, unless I were cherry-picking all the nice things Jesus said. But if you’re going to select things that already agree with your moral sense, why not skip Jesus and use your moral sense from the beginning? For most people, that’s better than Jesus to start with.

I guess I should cut Jesus some slack. Maybe if he existed, he was an okay guy, and people just made up all those stories about him. But the way it’s written in the Bible, Jesus was a jerk. Good Christian? Christians are good in spite of their Jesus, not because.

Talking to creationists

They could block us from the Creation Ministries International event, but they couldn’t stop saying stupid things.

But why wait until then?

EXPELLED from Creation Ministries International!

So here’s how it went down. CMI was doing its creationist thing at UWA, and then later at Curtin. As members of a guild club (UWA Atheists and Skeptics), we had approval to attend and hand out information about evolution.

We made up quite a crowd — I’d say 15 or 20 of us from the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society and the Perth Atheists.

It started well enough. Before the event, we had a discussion with Dr Silvestru himself, who is an affable guy, although it’s scary what must be in his mind. Chatting about science with believers was also quite nice. Strangely, the believers seemed to be almost exclusively young and Asian, and they didn’t talk to us. Only the older CMI helpers did.

When it was time for the lecture to get started, the door was suddenly blocked by about five Christian door blockers, who told us we weren’t welcome to attend.

That blur in the middle is Kylie Sturgess, working to secure our entry.

We explained that we just wanted to attend the lecture, assured them that we weren’t interested in causing any disruption, but it was no go. We explained that it was a public event, advertised on campus, and we wanted to hear the lecture. (Even Dr Silvestru had no problem with us attending.) They said it was a private church service. Now don’t you think that if it were a normal church, they’d love the chance to save an atheist like me?

Negotiations were to no avail, so it was off to Curtin for the second round.

Someone must have phoned ahead to warn the organisers at Curtin, because we were greeted by more security blocking us from entry. I guess when they realised that infiltrators were trying to walk right in to a public event, they decided to tighten things up.

We took this as a challenge to see if one of us could get inside. Kylie tried brazenly walking in, but got stopped and was subjected to a long grilling. David from Perth Atheists was able to breach the first level of security, but was nabbed by the more vigilant second tier. Curses!

The hilarious thing was that Asians were admitted without question, while any Caucasians — even Christians who had no idea what was going on — were given the third degree by security. (Where are all the Asian atheists, by the way? Must remember to get some.) They were actually asking people what church they belonged to! One guy refused my handout, but was then interrogated at the door. I heard one guard say, “Are you sure you go to Victory Life?”

I think it’s revealing that they don’t seem to think that their view can sustain the mere presence of non-believers. So much for peer review.

I’d say it was successful. We handed out all 200 flyers. The CMI people were even complaining that in the UWA lecture, people were reading the flyer all the way through the service, instead of watching the presentation!

I don’t know if we changed anyone’s mind, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to raise the cost of spreading misinformation, which we did.

And we didn’t have to attend a silly and fact-challenged lecture.

UPDATE: Ash from UWAASS questions the legality of the church’s actions. Kylie Sturgess gives her take, and I’d like to say that she stole part of my title, right there as we were having coffee. Atheists have no morals.

CMI event at UWA, Curtin

Okay, Perth crew — I have an action item for you.

The Creation Ministries International talk will be at UWA campus, Social Science lecture theatre tomorrow — that’s Sunday, 10 April 2011 — at 9 am. (Friggin’ early birds!)

I’ll be there (along with many members of the UWA Atheist and Skeptic Society and probably Kylie Sturgess) to greet any interested parties with information about what evolution really is. Come and help me have an enjoyable, well-tempered, and good-natured chat with the fundies and the undecided.

Here’s the Facebook event. See you there!

Creationists coming to UWA?

Creation Ministries International (the Australian arm of ‘Answers in Genesis’) is coming to Perth this very weekend. They’ve got their sights set on UWA and Curtin, two universities in Perth. Why would they target universities? Two possible reasons: they’re trying to convert uni students, and they’re trying to borrow the credibility of institutions that do scientific research.

I’m writing a letter to ask UWA to consider whether they really want to be hosting this thing. Not because I want CMI’s views suppressed — I’m happy for them to spread their religious misinformation in church where it belongs. But universities are busy teaching according to the best evidence we have available, and they do not have an obligation to promote anti-science views that undermine their work.

Here’s my letter:

I am writing to raise some concerns about an event by Creation Ministries International, slated for the UWA Crawley campus on Sunday, 9 April. The event is called “Solid Answers for the Real World.”

Creation Ministries International are Young Earth Creationists who teach that the Earth is a few thousand years old, contrary to geological evidence. They attempt to undermine the theory of evolution, which is the basis of the biological sciences. These are fringe views, not supported by evidence, and not generally held by the hard-working and knowledgable members of the UWA faculty who teach in these disciplines.

I would like to ask that the University of Western Australia consider whether hosting this event is appropriate. CMI are, of course, free to espouse their views, but the university is not an appropriate venue for them to do so. By having this event on its campus, UWA could be seen as giving implicit endorsement of the views of CMI. It would allow CMI to trade on UWA’s credibility.

The University exists for the purpose of education and research. It has no compelling interest in hosting an event designed to promote disinformation. And on a personal note, as a lecturer, I find it particularly galling that lecturers at UWA work throughout the week to teach the facts about biology, geology, and science, only to have this work be undone on Sunday.

Thank you for your consideration.

Daniel Midgley
Assistant Professor, Linguistics

What happens if no one listens, and the event goes ahead? Or — gasp — what if I draw more attention to it?

That’s okay, too. In that case, I’ll be there on the day, helping to hand out information, explaining to people what evolution really is, and why the creationist clown show they’ve just seen is nonsense.

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