Apocalypse not now

After the disappointing turn out for the Rapture in May, rumours that the Apocalypse would be postponed have proven well-founded.

The Battle of Armageddon was due to occur yesterday in the plains outside Megiddo in Israel, but the confrontation was cancelled because Christ was unable to field a full team and faced disqualification.

Team Antichrist were said to be disappointed by this most recent cancellation, a spokesdemon made the following statement:

Sirrush with Whore of Babylon

Rumour has it that the seven-headed Sirrush is in the reserve squad due to concerns about fitness after a string of wild nights with the Whore of Babylon

“This is the twelfth cancellation in the last century and quite frankly we’re getting a bit fed up. There’s always some excuse, but it always comes down to the fact that their selection criteria are ridiculous and confusing so they can never get a full team together.

We’ve got a great line-up, I mean, we had to put the seven-headed Sirrush in the reserves because the first team is so strong – what has Christ got to match that? Barry Higgins is on Christ’s front line and even Barry’s brother says he’s a wuss.”

Concerns have also been raised about the lack of impartiality in the administration of the competition. A loophole in the rules says that Christ has the authority to judge both the living and the dead, but he is also meant to be captaining one of the teams. This situation has been described as a ‘stitch-up’ and an investigation has been launched.

Jesus disappointed by Rapture flop

The Big Event

Today was the long-awaited Rapture, at which:

…the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17

Unfortunately, the centuries of squabbling between various Christian sects has muddied the waters about what being ‘in Christ‘ actually entails, resulting in a poor attendance at today’s big event.

The Big Flop

Barry Higgins of 24 Lamarck Road, Kent. Sole ascendant during the Rapture

Despite finally being predicted correctly by Harold Camping (after a previous miscalculation that placed it back in 1992) and regardless of a flurry of pre-Rapture preparations by Christian fundamentalists around the world, it seems that the only person who actually ascended to meet with the Lord was Barry Higgins of 24 Lamarck Road, Kent.

The Ascent

Barry’s wife Margaret was surprised when her husband suddenly started floating as they walked to their car following an afternoon shopping at their local Lidl.

‘At six o’clock we were carrying the shopping back to the car, when he [Barry] suddenly said he felt a bit light-headed. I thought he might be having one of his turns, but instead he floated out of his brand new Clark’s slip-ons and started rising. It was quite slow at first, but then he started gaining speed until he vanished into the clouds.

He was a lovely man and treated me well until he left me there with all that shopping to get home – and I’ll never get through this lot on my own. I bet his Life Insurance won’t pay out a penny either, since he’ll live forever and it’ll count as an Act of God. His shoes should sell on Ebay though, especially since I got some photos of him floating off with my camera phone as proof.’

The Secret to Rapture

Apparently Barry was a quiet, gentle man who enjoyed a few glasses of beer and liked gardening. He didn’t attend any church and kept his religious views to himself, although when pressed he would apparently say that he was ‘probably a humanist‘ and that he ‘liked some of what Jesus taught’, but thought ‘most of the stuff in the Bible is a bit far-fetched‘ he also reportedly once said that the God of the Old Testament was a ‘bit of a nutcase‘.

Apocalypse Postponed?

It is now in question whether the Battle of Armageddon will go ahead on October 21st as planned, after such a poor turn-out for the Rapture. It seems likely that Jesus may want to wait a bit longer to build up more support, since Barry Higgins is reported as being ‘rubbish in a fight‘ by his younger brother Thomas. We await confirmation of this decision by Jesus’ self-appointed booking agent on Earth, Harold Camping.

Evolving Ideas and Intelligent Design

Well, it seems that my earlier post on Darwin has ruffled some feathers in the Intelligent Design (ID) camp, so they’ve been trolling the comments section on my personal blog. This post started out as a response, but I decided to expand it to include some of the context surrounding Darwin’s work.

A comment by VMartin

…One wonders why no one noticed “natural selection” before. And there were ingenous minds in the history! One answer might be this – it was never observed because it doesn’t exist. Darwin implanted this speculation there. And “On the origin of species” reads sometimes like comedy. One should try to count how many times Darwin used words like “which seems to me extremely perplexing” etc….

One reason why some scientific theories have been slow to come to light

One reason why some scientific theories may have been slow to come to light

It’s interesting how ‘simple’ natural mechanisms and systems can take longer to be acknowledged than one might have thought. Heliocentrism is another example of something that now seems very obvious, but was historically slow to be recognised (and is still not recognised or not known about by some). It’s easy to blame organised religion for the suppression of such observational truths about the universe, since challenges to traditional belief were seen as heresy and dealt with accordingly, but there’s far more to it than that.

Let’s set the scene – Darwin’s formative years were tumultuous with regard to sociopolitical events. The Napoleonic wars drew to an end with the Battle of Waterloo when Darwin was six years old, the Peterloo Massacre occurred and the Six Acts were drawn up by the Tories to suppress radical reformers when he was ten – reflecting the ongoing social division between the establishment and the public. When Darwin was in his twenties the power of the strongly traditional British establishment finally began to wane, when the Whigs came to government allowing the 1832 Reform Act and the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act to be passed. There was also the devastating Great Famine in Ireland when Darwin was in his thirties and all of this was set against a background of the Industrial Revolution, which was providing the impetus for science to play an increasingly important role in society.

Peterloo Massacre

This meant that Darwin’s work was by no means formulated in intellectual isolation. Theories of evolution had been proposed 2,400 years previously, but they were poorly developed. Natural philosophers like Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck raised the issue of evolution at around the time of Darwin’s birth, but the mechanisms for evolution were either ignored or flawed. Evolution was an established topic of discussion and publication by the time Charles Darwin came onto the scene, with people like Robert Grant being more radical on the subject than Darwin found palatable in his early manhood. Despite this interest, the mechanism of evolution remained elusive – perhaps unsurprisingly, since the academic community addressing natural sciences was largely composed of members of the clergy and the natural theology of the time was seen as being mechanism enough.

But a literature base that was to inspire non-traditional hypotheses was also developing at the time – Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in particular offered an alternative view that was seen as too radical by many – clearing a path for subsequent works that challenged orthodox views.  Given this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace converged on the same premise at the same time. In short, the ideas evolved to fit the intellectual and social environment. The same has been true of other discoveries and inventions where there was a requirement for the right intellectual groundwork to be laid in advance. This groundwork is required before a robust theory can take root – and Natural Selection is a component of the robust theory of Descent with modification.

Intelligent Design

The Intelligent Design agenda

The critiques I have seen of evolutionary theory  have come from people who quite clearly don’t understand it – and such critiques tend to rely on statements of incredulity rather than a strong factual base. No well-supported alternative hypotheses have been constructed or presented and a lack of understanding hardly counts as a robust refutation of a well supported theory.

An accusation by IDers is that ‘Darwinists’ (N.B. I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Darwinists following the New Synthesis) stick with Natural Selection because they are atheist. I think I see the real agenda emerging here, particularly when you see evolution as a theory being conflated with just one of the mechanisms involved. After all, Natural Selection is not the only mechanism involved in evolutionary adaptation and speciation – there are also other factors like hybridisation, horizontal gene transfergenetic drift, perhaps some epigenetic influences and artefacts of EvoDevo processes. But these factors are still constrained by the simple fact that if they are selected against, they will not be perpetuated.

John A. Davison left this comment on a previous post:

Natural selection is a powerful force in nature. It has but one function which is to prevent change. That is why every chickadee looks like every other chickadee and sounds like every other chickadee – chickadee-dee- dee, chickadee-dee-dee. Sooner or later natural selection has always failed leading to the extinction of nearly all early forms of life. They were replaced by other more prefected forms over the millions of years that creative evolution ws in progress…

Salamander ring species (picture from Thelander, 1994)

Salamander ring species

First and foremost, the suggestion that Natural Selection prevents change is erroneous – change will occur if there is a change in the environment and/or if beneficial mutations arise in a population (tell me that mutations don’t happen – I dare you…). The obvious response to the next statement is that I can think of six different ‘chickadee’ species, with an additional three subspecies (and this is ignoring numerous other very similar members of the Paridae), all are similar, but all are different – so the statement makes no sense as it stands. Getting to the meat of what is being implied about the Creationist interpretation of species, another bird provides a good example to the contrary. The Greenish Warbler shows a distinct pattern of hybridising subspecies across their vast range, until they form reproductively isolated species at the extreme ends of their range, where they happen to overlap yet not hybridise (a classic ring species [pdf of Greenish Warbler paper]). This is a well-known example of how genetic variation can accrue and give rise to new species without any supernatural intercession.

Another comment by VMartin

…But no wonder that Darwin considered “natural selection” for such a complicated force. Even nowadays Dawkins speculates that NS operates on genes, whereas E.O.Wilson has brushed up “group selection” recently (citing of course Darwin as debeatur est .

So may we “uncredulous” ask on which level “natural selection” operates?

As to this question about the level on which Natural Selection operates, I thought the answer was pretty obvious – it operates at every level. Change the focus of Natural Selection from passing on genes to the only alternative outcome – the inability to pass on genes. It doesn’t really matter which level this occurs at or why – be it a reduction in reproductive success when not in a group, or a deleterious single point mutation – if it happens then Natural Selection can be said to have occurred. Being ‘fit’ simply means that an organism has not been selected against.

There’s a lot more to modern evolutionary thought than Darwin’s key early contribution, but Darwin is still respected because he was the first to provide a viable mechanism by which evolution is driven. This mechanism has helped make sense of an awful lot of observations that were previously unaccounted for and, moreover, evolution has been observed and documented on numerous occasions [here’s a pdf summary of some good examples].

I fail to see why Intelligent Design has been taken seriously by some people – it relies on huge assumptions about supernatural interference (so it fails to be a science) and I have as yet never seen a single piece of evidence that actually supports ID claims. The only research I have seen mentioned by proponents of ID are old, cherry-picked studies that report a null result from an evolutionary study – this is not the same thing as support for ID, as anyone who can spot the logical fallacies of false dichotomy and Non sequitur (in particular the fallacy of denying a conjunct) will tell you.

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

Intelligent design as a scientific idea

I like to keep an open mind, but as soon as I see logical fallacies being wheeled out I lose interest in getting involved in the discussion. This may be a failing on my part, because I should probably challenge misinformation, but quite frankly I don’t have the time or the patience – much as I hate to stoop to an ad hominem, my feelings on this are best summed up by the paraphrase:

when you argue with the ID lot, the best outcome you can hope for is to win an argument with the ID lot

and my time is far too precious to waste arguing with people who ignore the arguments of others and construct Straw man arguments based on cherry-picked and deliberately misrepresented information. I have no problem with other people believing in a god, but please don’t try to bring any god into science (and heaven-forbid the classroom) – since it is neither necessary nor appropriate.

Thoughts on humanism

I thought I’d write a piece on humanism because it seems to have a lot of confusion surrounding it. Some view it as a religion or cult, others see it as an organised anti-religious sect of militant atheists. The confusion arises because the term “humanist” can be used to describe a variety of philosophical approaches both contemporary and historical.

I am a Secular Humanist, which effectively means that I am an atheist with beliefs about the ability of people to improve their lives and the lives of others (including other species) by behaving in a rational and socially responsible way. Humanists subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule‘ (don’t do things to others that you wouldn’t like to have done to yourself) as a simple moral guideline and rather than relying on the supernatural as the source of moral principles, humanists rely on rational consideration and those human values that have arisen as part of the evolution of human social behaviour. In short, humanism is explicitly being good without god. Continue reading

Our humanist wedding

In 2008 Melissa and I were living in London and planning to get married. We are both atheist and neither of us wanted a religious ceremony, but we did want to share the experience with our family and friends. We wanted to get married in Ireland (where Melissa is from), but the residency requirements for the marriage license made it impossible for us to do the legal bit there. In the end we decided to get a quick legal marriage in Lewisham registry office, witnessed by just our parents, followed by a celebratory wedding ceremony in Ireland some months later.

Freed from making the legal oaths part of our ceremony and not wanting to use a priest, Continue reading

Wishful thinking

Mary, my mother-in-law is seriously ill in hospital with a nasty case of pneumonia. There’s a substantial chance that she won’t make it. She just turned 51 and the last time I saw her, just a few weeks ago, she was the life and soul of the party.

My wife has flown back to Ireland and is sitting with her mum, who the medical staff are trying to stabilise enough to transport to the nearest hospital with a dialysis machine, because her kidneys have failed. Everyone is worried, scared, disorientated and utterly powerless. Continue reading

The unbroken chain of life

Having spent years studying the bones of animals long dead, I have been fortunate enough to see – on a daily basis – evidence of the relationship between humans and other animals. For me, our kinship with the rest of life on Earth is a vivid reality. Evolution is change and that change is the result of an ongoing struggle for life – where those that are best suited for the struggle are rewarded by the continuation of their lineage. This means that we are each an end link in an unbroken chain of life, stretching back over two billion years. For all that time, each one of our ancestors must have been amongst the best of their kind. In the words of Charles Darwin, “There is grandeur in this view of life”. Continue reading