Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mirecki Update

Mirecki is threatening to sue the Kansas University for failing to support him against religious attacks and says that he was forced to resign, not of his own choosing, from the chairmanship of the Religious Studies department there. Moreover, he states the the Lawrence Sheriff's Department treated him like a criminal, confiscating his car, and computer, and questioning him for five hours straight at one time. Given that there are only so many times one can say "I was mugged by two men in a pickup", it is beginning to look like the police are themselves part of the problem.

I have had my doubts about this event, but it is beginning to smell like the real thing, and the actions of the university and the police seem to reinforce the impression of community intolerance. I wouldn't be an overt religious skeptic in Kansas (or Kentucky, based on the comments made to the last thread by one denizen of that state) for anything. I lack the courage.

The picture above, taken by Richard Gwin of the Lawrence Journal World, doesn't look to me like self-inflicted bruises.

Meanwhile, the conservative spin-doctors - I'm sorry, members of the "faith-based community" - are gearing up to cast doubt on the whole thing and play the "blame game", which it seems is only OK if they are the perpetrators and they are blaming the victim. Go read the forums at Free Republic to see what I mean (you need to register). Of course, the Straussian neocons know that the true value of religion is as a tool of social order, and a good way to maintain compliance. Beating up dissenters is a very effective way to do this. It was especially effective in regimes ranging from the Inquisition through to the Taliban, and a few other states of recent memory. How special they must feel.

Late note: LJW also has a personal profile of Mirecki, even as the vultures circle in the comments to the above article in between the occasional sensible comment. Thanks to Jack Krebs for the heads-up, and to Jason Spaceman for the original item note.

Thos. Burnet and Epicurus

Before there was Darwin to kick around, the conservative orthodox had Epicurus. Not just Christians, but Jews and even the "righteous pagans" like Cicero objected to Epicurus' conception of the world as ruled by "blind law" and "chance". A lot of the objections had to Darwin were had to Epicurus beforehand, and Darwin was often referred to as an Epicurean by his orthodox contemporaries.

So, this passage from 1684, by Thomas Burnet Esq., comes as a surprise - it seems that theists didn't always see the need to oppose science, even when (as in this work) they were busy defending as literally true the Genesis Flood and the other parts of the Pentateuchal history.
'Tis true, this opinion of the spontaneous Origin of Animals in the first Earth hath lain under some Odium, because it was commonly reckon'd to be Epicurus's opinion peculiarly; and he extended it not only to all brute Creatures, but to Mankind also, whom he suppos'd to grow out of the Earth in great numbers in several parts and Countries, like other Animals; which is a notion very contrary to the Sacred writings; for they assure us that all Mankind, though diffus'd now through the several parts and Regions of the Earth, rise at first from one Head or single Man and Woman; which is a Conclusion of great importance, and that could not, I think, by the Light of Nature have ever been discover'd. And this makes the Epicurean opinion the more improbable, for why should two rise only, if they sprung from the Earth? or how could they rise in their full growth and perfection, as Adam and Eve did? But as for the opinion of Animals rising out of the Earth at first, that was not at all peculiar to Epicurus; The Stoicks were of the same mind, and the Pythagoreans and the Ægyptians, and, I think, all that suppos'd the Earth to rise from a Chaos. Neither do I know any harm in that opinion, if duly limited and stated; for what inconvenience is it, or what diminution of Providence, that there should be the principles of Life as well as the principles of Vegetation in the new Earth?
[Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth, Book 2, chapter 1, The Primeval Earth and Paradise, pages 182-3, online here.]
It seems that the entire debate hasn't really proceeded all that far in 321 years, has it?

[Late correction - Initially I said 411, but hey, I'm a philosopher and therefore totally innumerate.]

Friday, December 09, 2005

Mindmapping ID

God and Science in Kansas

Here is a refreshingly sensible article about the relationship, often troubled, between God and Science in Kansas, and the fact that a divorce is not coming any time soon, despite the mutterings of a minority there. From Lawrence.com.

The Penguin speaks

No, not Batman's opponent. I could never understand Burgess Meredith anyway. Always sounded like the punchline riff of a vaudeville joke.

You will recall that a documentary on penguin breeding behaviour was trumpeted as a moral lesson from Intelligent Design a short while back (blithely ignoring the fact that the penguins concerned chose a different mate each breeding season). Here's an interview with one of the stars of that documentary, courtesy of Channel 4 in the UK. For example, the interviewer thinks it's harsh to leave the egg on its own while hunting. Our star replies:
That's because you are part of the liberal establishment media. You are weak. You are soft. Can you survive on your own blubber for three months? I think not. If there is one lesson I think we've taught America, it's the importance of blubber. You can never have enough blubber. They say, "Intelligent Design", I say "blubber blubber blubber".
Blubber blubber blubber indeed, sir!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A whispering campaign, a beating, and a rumour

Here's a strange series of events. An academic by the name of Paul Mirecki, chair of religious studies at Kansas University (yes, that Kansas, Dorothy), decided to teach Intelligent Design... as mythology. In religious studies.

Now "mythology" means something like "socially shared organising story" in the social sciences - it is not automatically a falsehood (the myth that unites Australians is the long battle at Gallipoli in Turkey in the First World War. A defeat, it acts to identify Australia - then a young nation - as a nation of warriors and good sports. OK, that may be false). But this charitable interpretation was defeated by an email that Mirecki sent out to a student group, SOMA (The Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics), in which he said that this course would be "a nice slap in their big fat face" for the "fundies". SOMA is a group of skeptics and atheists, which in Kansas is equivalent to saying, really, really, brave people.

The outcry that followed was due to the fact that one of the local conservatives, a John Altevogt, was monitoring this private discussion group, and when the email was sent, passed it onto the media, who whipped up a great frenzy. Mirecki was forced to issue an apology, cancel the class, and most recently, step down from the chair of the department. Rumor has it he may be going through a very bad time personally.

The responses were interesting. One of the conservative politicians of that state threatened to remove funding from the department (no doubt the reason why he stepped down). She also said that Mirecki, who has a doctorate in theology from Harvard, hates Christians. Of course he does. That's why he is a Christian himself... Sen. Kay O'Connor, Republican of course, says that there needs to be a standard in the US that prohibits criticism of Christianity... here comes The Handmaid's Tale.

Anyway, the latest development apart from the resignation, is that Mirecki was assaulted, he alleges, by two thugs who mentioned this furore before they beat him up outside town. I find some aspects of this event worrisome, and I do not think it is reason to attack fundamentalism per se on this basis. While religious fanatics are perfectly capable of using violence against those they perceive as a threat, there may be other factors at work here: road rage, an argument while drinking, and so forth. The assault is not justified (and many fundamentalists seem to recognise this) in any circumstances, but the real issues here are these.

1. ID is mythology. It is not only not science, but it fulfils one of the major functions of a mythos - to organise and unify a community against outsiders. Mirecki was right to teach it that way, and right to put it in religious studies, for there is no other motivation or feature of ID than the religious.

2. Mirecki's email was obnoxious, but in no way unjustified or immoral or contrary to decent ethical standards. Religious people make much worse comments about "godless atheists" every day, and in America, they (and he) have that right constitutionally. The apology ought to have been enough to settle this, in a civilised nation. And it was in a private forum. He didn't broadcast it to the nation, Altevogt did. Is it a surprise that Mirecki thinks fundamentalists are often stupid bastards? I do, and many others, a lot of whom are Christians of a more reasonable kind, also do. So what is at issue? That he said to those he had a reasonable expectation shared those values what he thought? Bad man! Bad bad man!

3. Mirecki has academic freedom, or ought to, to teach what he wants without interference from lobby groups or the majority. His peers - those who are professionals in his discipline - are the ones who are fit to judge his actions; not some politician or religious opponent. Threatening the freedom of academics by withholding funding is the reason why universities got out from under church control in the first place.

4. We who support science need not therefore support every action made by fellow supporters. There is room for differences, so long as nobody gets hurt. Mirecki's ill-advised email was trivial. I might not have done it (although I've been known to lose my cool at the incessant stupidities of fundamentalists once or twice), but his doing it is perhaps bad manners. It doesn't affect the facts.

5. There is no "persecution" of Christians going on in America. Christians form something like 90% of the population - they control or affect public life in every way. What is going on there, in this case as in others, is that they oppose any dissent from what they think the world ought to be like. They are the persecutors, not Mirecki, not SOMA. Altevogt, O'Connor and their ilk are the ones who are being anti-American.

And they will win so long as the religious right controls the social instruments of government, media, and law.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Human traffic

Carl Zimmer has just blogged some interesting work by Alan Templeton on the flow of human genes out of Africa. A result that doesn't surprise me is that there was a flow back and forth of genes between all existing human populations, even though there were several major movements, shown largely by mtDNA, out of Africa (four shown on the figure Zimmer reproduces), and several out of South East Asia more recently. Interestingly, Templeton's view is neither "pure" Out of Africa nor the competing "Multiregional Hypothesis" - erectus migrations did not end in simple extinction, according to Templeton, but neither were they the founding populations for Asian hominids. Instead they contribute genes, but the major flow out of Africa around 650-350kya seems to have swamped them.

We'll just have to await the published paper, but I find this supports a view I got from James Shreeves' The Neandertal Enigma that humans, us anyway, are adapted to long distance walking and are natural traders. And with trade goes genes. Even the Australian aborigines had a gene flow across the Timor Sea, and there were at least two, possibly more, waves of migration (the dingo, descended from the Asian wild dog, only arrived here 3000-5000 years ago).

This is a dangerous field to be working in - it goes to racial identities, claims of being the first nations in an area and so on, but it seems to me that as a species humans are born mongrels. There may very well be geographic variation - we expect that genes will tend to cluster about regions they are most adaptive - but there's no reason to think any population was isolated enough to form identifiable races the way, for example, a bird species might.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Polanyi on ID

Michael Polanyi was an interesting fellow, a scientist who thought deeply about science and coined the notion of "tacit knowledge" in scientific educations.

Dembski's Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor University, which is now defunct after Dembski was relieved of his duties after making some ill-advised comments in public, was supposed to share in the standing of Polanyi amongst philosophy of science, for Polanyi was, they implied, an ID advocate.

Barbara Forrest is hosting a talk by Polanyi specialist Richard Galwick which debunks this and shows that he would not have supported ID. As always in the way antiscientists treat source material, the problem lies in failing to read in context, leading to quotemining...

[late correction: Let's spell the guy's name right, OK?]