Posts Tagged ‘pharyngula’

Thank Goodness

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Yes, this holiday was manufactured out of whole cloth in the 19th Century, built atop a wholly fictional story of Pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal with Indians (rather than killing and enslaving them), yet I, a damned liberal, do not feel the least compunction in wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving. Why?

I just read a delightfully curmudgeonly piece by everyone’s favorite curmudgeon, PZ Myers, in which he lambastes Thanksgiving for its mindless direction of gratitude at a cold, unfeeling universe. The point seems to be that, since there is no sentient being out there to receive this gratitude, the gratitude itself is a pointless exertion of energy. After all:

We’re all doomed. We are currently survivors by luck, sustained by selfish processes, and I don’t thank luck, because she (if she were an autonomous self-aware agent, and she isn’t) will turn for me or against me without concern for my feelings. Nature is not appeasable, get over it.

He goes on to imagine how unlucky turkeys would feel this time of year, if unlucky is something they know how to feel. It’s difficult to argue that.

I think he misses the point, though. Why should gratitude be pointless just because it’s not directed at anyone in particular? Isn’t the feeling of gratitude itself a pleasant thing? Doesn’t it help to teach us not to take our existence for granted? When I feel gratitude for someone, I generally want to return the favor, or at the very least, make sure that the generosity at which the gratitude is directed does not go to waste. Certainly a cold, unfeeling universe is incapable of generosity, but the fact is that we live in a tiny blip of oasis in a yawning, roaring chasm of quenchless unlife. It’s the only such blip we know about. Perhaps if people felt more grateful for its existence, more would be interested in protecting it.

Besides which, there is a different between gratitude and groveling. Gratitude feels good. Groveling doesn’t. It’s perfectly possible to feel warm, wholesome gratitude at the fact of being alive, without groveling before some imagined supernatural benefactor.

Daniel Dennett put it best: Thank Goodness! He, of course, was referring to the goodness of human beings, but I don’t think it needs to stop there. There’s no shame in feeling grateful at being alive in a universe which, as inhospitable as the better part of it may be, is staggeringly beautiful, and endlessly wonderful.

Thank goodness for that.

The seduction of compatibilism

August 24, 2008

Dr. PZ Myers writes about a New York Times article about a science teacher in Florida with the gumption to teach evolution in the face of religious opposition. It’s a fascinating story, highlighting the teacher’s uncertainty of how to teach evolution without alienating the students, and the obstinance on the part of some of the students when faced directly with the evidence. The article also exposes the horrifying degree to which community groups attempt to undermine science education. Mention is made of a pastor who handed out copies of the Answers in Genesis tract “Evolution Exposed” to graduating seniors; the pamphlets, of course, ended up circulating in biology class.

As I will begin teaching a biology class of my own for the first time in a few weeks (gasp!), this stuff is especially terrifying to me.

The Pharyngula post, however, does not deal exclusively with the obstacles thrown in the paths of science educators. Rather, it ravages what Prof. Richard Dawkins has called the “seduction approach:” avoiding any offense of students’ faith by assuring them that evolution is compatible with religion. It certainly seems like a sensible approach. One of the creationists’ most handy tricks is to convince believers that accepting evolution leads to atheism, and is therefore a one-way ticket to hellfire. The most obvious counter to this tactic, it would seem, is to contradict it: evolution does not lead necessarily to atheism. This counterattack has the added benefit of being demonstrably true, as there are numerous religious believers who have no beef with evolution, including the oft-cited biologist and Roman Catholic Ken Miller, and the Pope himself.

Dr. Myers, like Prof. Dawkins, has no time for the compatibilist approach, and for good reason. He writes of the ubiquitous call to respect people’s beliefs in this country, and how that exemption from criticism of religion allows creationists to poison the well against evolution. He calls this “the dark evil gnawing at the heart of the American public,” and continues:

It’s an effective evil, too, since most people cower before it and fear to declare it the bane of public education. Even many who don’t believe are reluctant to call it out — it will antagonize the believers, they say, they won’t accept the all-important proximate message of science if we alienate them from their precious myths and superstitions. So we continue this game of science proponents edging delicately around the central issue while the advocates of religion feel no constraint at all, and attack reason by hammering our children with unrepentant, unapologetic lunacy.

Because religion is exempt from criticism, creationists are allowed to preach their ascientific rubbish to our children without rebuke, while those trying to teach good science come under fire. Dr. Myers holds, and I emphatically agree, that it’s time for the critical curtain to fall. Religious claims must be subject to the same rigorous scrutiny that we bring to bear on all other ideas, be they scientific, economic, political, etc. Then, and only then, will creationism die its deserved death, as alchemy and geocentrism have already done.

Your ancestor was a wet bag

June 26, 2008

So was mine, so don’t feel too insulted.

Dr. PZ Myers of Pharyngula has written a wonderful piece on new evidence that the most recent common ancestor of all chordates (i.e. you, me, dogs, goldfish, lancelets, and sea squirts) was a sessile, seafloor-dwelling suspension feeder. This creature’s larva were probably lancelet-like fishoids, with a springy notochord (a precursor to the vertebrate spinal cord) and a simple tentacle-ringed mouth. At some point, in one of the ancestors of the vertebrates, one of the larva accrued a mutation that prevented it from reaching adulthood, and it maintained its fishlike body plan, eventually giving rise to true fishes, and later every other vertebrate.

I will attempt no further summary of the article. Read it. Read it now!

Once you’ve read Dr. Myers’ piece, please note this excellent song lyric posted by a commenter named Becca:

It’s a long way from amphioxus, it’s a long way, to us.
It’s a long, long way from amphioxus, to the meanest human cuss
cause it’s goodbye to fins and gillslits, and welcome lungs and hair
it’s a long long way from amphioxus, but we all came from there

(To be sung to the tune of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” in case you hadn’t figured it out.)

Drama!

June 21, 2008

This is great stuff. As you know, Ken Ham recently spoke at the Pentagon. PZ Myers lamented the fact on his blog, Pharyngula. In the post, he called Mr. Ham a “wackaloon.”

Harsh!

Well, seeing as Mr. Ham is working to systematically destroy good science, you’d think he’d be used to insults like that by now. In fact, it seems to me that “wackaloon” should be on the gentler side of the names slung at him. However, judging by this post on his Answers in Genesis blog, he’s made of softer stuff than you would think. He lambastes Dr. Myers for his intolerance. (I would say he’s right about that: Dr. Myers is deeply intolerant. He refuses to tolerate attacks on science and science education. So do I, for what it’s worth.)

Dr. Myers responds in top form with this post. Therein, he encourages people to add whatever colorful insults they can think of in the comment section.

Now, I have said before that I do not go in for personal attacks and insults, and I am going to hold to that here. If someone’s position is demonstrably wrong, you should be able to point that out by refuting their argument, not by attacking them personally. So, rather than insult Mr. Ham, I’ll just say this. His arguments are stupid. His scientific understanding is trumped by that of your average middle school student. By his own admission he is not really interested in science, because he holds that the Bible is literal and foundational truth, and anything that contradicts it must be false, even if that which contradicts it is the whole of reality.

Does anyone listen to him who does not already believe that the Bible is inerrant? If so, things are worse for humanity than I thought.