Category Archives: Evolution

The new Cosmos

Guys, I just watched the first episode of the new Cosmos.

It is so good.

Cosmos

Sitting in the dark in my living room while Neil DeGrasse Tyson walked me from planet Earth to the edge of the observable universe, I cannot describe how Small I felt, or how Large science seemed. It is remarkable what we have done in so short a time, and what we have learned about so long a timespan. I’ve read about all this before, and yet every time it gets me.

Along with the splendor of what I was watching, I couldn’t help but feel something less positive. I thought of my little cousins, who, by sheerest accident, happen to have been born to parents who don’t accept evolution. And it made me angry.

In Cosmos, Tyson tells us that we’ll need imagination to explore the natural world, but “imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine.” It’s true – the natural world is full of phenomena that we’ve only been able to grasp by pulling back layer after layer. Gravitation, the atom, the evolution of life – none of these were easy to get right, and it took us many tries before we successfully developed models that were as weird as reality. We really weren’t able to imagine these things beforehand.

But as my cousins grow up, their minds will be stunted by parents who present them with ideas that are easy to imagine.

I want more for them than that.

It’s a beautiful thing that Tyson is doing – exposing young (and old) minds to some Big ideas. I imagine that Cosmos will play a part in creating a lot of future scientists. So spread the word.

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More on evolution denial and religiosity

Jerry Coyne has just gotten a paper published in the journal Evolution, on the relationship between evolution, religion, and societal health. As anyone who pays attention to American news, politics, or even daily life can tell you,  most people who deny evolution do so because it conflicts with their religion. As I have posted before, survey data bears this out.

Coyne uses similar data to demonstrate the relationship between evolution denial and religiosity. He also discusses how societal health influences religious belief. Finally, he offers suggestions for how we can increase acceptance of science and evolution on a national level.

Here is the paper’s abstract:

American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the United States is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.

If you’re interested in these issues, read the whole thing! (PDF)

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A tribute to Hitch

Here is the tribute to Christopher Hitchens that was shown at the Global Atheist Convention last weekend.

One of the things I loved about Hitch was his ability to pick out the precise facts from science and history that demonstrate why a particular religious belief is so absurd. He gets to the heart of the matter, every time. You’ll see lots of that in this video.

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The good things in life aren’t from God

I have often heard Christians describe certain things in this world that are pleasing to humans as “gifts from God.” Some examples include music, the beauty of nature, and the comfort and companionship of animals. These things, they say, are good for us and make us happy, and therefore we should be grateful to God for them. In fact, the existence of these things is evidence for God, for what are pets and flowers and symphonies if not indicators that God loves us and wants us to be happy?

Well, to answer that question, let’s take at look at exactly how these phenomena are beneficial to humans.

Modern research has shown that (pleasant) music is intrinsically rewarding –  like food or sex, it stimulates dopamine release in reward centers of the brain. Pets, as you’ve probably heard, are good for our psychological wellbeing and cardiovascular health. One study followed adults who had been victims of heart attacks, and found that after one year the adults who owned dogs had significantly lower mortality rates than those who didn’t. And nature, research has shown, has a positive effect on our ability to concentrate and deal with stress. One study even found that having a view of nature helped hospital patients recover more quickly after surgery!

Nature

Scenery that has a positive effect on wellbeing.

Cublicle

Scenery that doesn't.

So all of these things do indeed increase wellbeing. But the other side of the coin is that without them we are less healthy and less happy. Consider the hospital patients who didn’t have exposure to nature after their operations – those patients had longer recovery times and required stronger pain medication. Consider the adults who didn’t own dogs in the heart attack study – after one year these people were more likely to be dead than their dog-owning cohorts. None of these are favorable outcomes. Clearly, the factors that contribute to human wellbeing aren’t “optional extras” in our lives – they’re absolute necessities if we want to remain as happy and healthy as possible.

And here’s the thing- God made us this way. God made us so that we couldn’t be calm and focused and healthful while surrounded by concrete walls and desolate landscapes. He made us so that we would be at a greater risk of death simply for not having a dog in our lives. He made us so that certain patterns of sound are pleasant, whereas others make us miserable or set our nerves on edge. To call these things a gift is to imply that God gave them to us with the message, “Here, I want you to be happy.” But at the same time God made us dependent on these things for our happiness. Why should my wellbeing be dependent on something as changeable as the particular patterns of light that fall on my retina?

Just think of what life could have been! God had the ultimate say in how he created the universe. He could have made every flash of light a sunset, every sound an Ode to Joy, every touch a caress… How wonderful that would have been! Imagine if the monotonous, dreary walls of an office were as pleasant and invigorating to us as our favorite natural setting. That would have been a gift!

Yet this gift is something humans were decidedly not given.

I imagine at this point some theists will rebut that life cannot be one long uninterrupted joy. That we need both joy and sadness in order for either to have any meaning. If that’s the case, I hope these people do not also believe in heaven – because they’ve just refuted it.

Ultimately, the explanation for why we have innate preferences and aversions is because evolution made us this way. Preferences are a way of motivating us to seek out things that are beneficial to our survival (such as a savannah-like natural environment). Life isn’t one long stream of uninterrupted joy, because evolution had no need to make us that way. And God, if you think he exists, saw no need to give us anything better. That’s not to say that we must be despondent about our lot in life – on the contrary, there’s plenty to be happy about. But if our lives are wonderful it’s because we work hard to make them so. God doesn’t get the credit for that.

First image credit: ahp_ibanez
Second image credit: Michael Lokner

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Jerry Coyne’s op-ed on secular morality

Jerry Coyne recently wrote an op-ed for The USA Today on the subject of being good without God. He concisely lays out the arguments for why morality is not only possible without God, but makes more sense without God as well. Check it out.

Coyne also has a post on his blog highlighting some negative responses to the article from religious commenters. In addition to comments on The USA Today’s website, Coyne writes, “I’ve also received about two dozen private emails, most of them incredibly hostile and pitying me for my lack of faith in Jesus.” This highlights a phenomenon that I’d like to write more about in the future: how rational arguments on the subject of religion are so often followed by emotional responses. One wants to ask the Christians who have written to Coyne – if his arguments are so obviously flawed, why can’t you just point out the flaws in a logical way and be done with it?

There is one point on which I disagree with Coyne. In his post, he writes the notion that morality comes from God “defies even a few moments of rational thought.” But this phrasing makes it sound so simple. “If you just thought about it rationally for a few moments, you’d understand!” That may be true if you define “rational thought,” as Coyne must, as some kind of pure logic unfettered by bias or preconception. But if that’s your requirement, I think it’s no surprise that many people haven’t met it. I do agree that the argument in Coyne’s article is both simple and accurate, but that doesn’t mean that understanding of it is arrived at simply. Especially when strong biases are acting to counter rationality.

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New book on bird evolution

Well, it’s new to me anyway.

Brazilian Tanager

Brazilian Tanager

I was at Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, browsing their section on birds. I used to be into birdwatching when I was younger, and I still get excited about seeing new birds whenever I travel someplace new.

I was thinking recently that I would love to know more about bird evolution. Normally a trip to the bookstore wouldn’t yield much on that subject, but that’s why I love Labyrinth – they carry lots of academic and esoteric books that you would normally have to send away for. Much to my delight, they had several books on bird evolution, and I chose The Origin and Evolution of Birds, by Alan Feduccia.

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

I am really excited to read this, so much so that I’ve included in this post some pictures of birds that I took on my recent trip to Rio. I’m also a little bit disappointed to have learned from an Amazon review of the book that Feduccia doesn’t subscribe to the now commonly-accepted view of birds as having descended from theropod dinosaurs… but oh well. I guess I’ll learn more about a competing theory to start.

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New Pew survey, and Denial of evolution is a result of religiosity

A new Pew survey has just been released, examining opinions of a worldwide sample of evangelical Christian leaders on a number of issues. The survey questions relate to social issues, religious beliefs, gender roles, what to do about non-Christians, and more. It’s interesting reading, and there is an excellent summary of some of the findings regarding evolution, atheism, and conflicting Christian values over at Why Evolution Is True.

Some of the results from this survey tie into a subject that I’ve been wanting to write about: why public acceptance of evolution in the majority of developed nations around the world is high, but with a few notable exceptions. Take a look at this chart from a 2006 article in Science that compared public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries (click to enlarge).
Public acceptance of evolution

The majority of respondents were accepting of evolution in most of the nations surveyed. A notable exception, with the second to lowest acceptance of evolution, was the United States.

Why is this?

Keep in mind that acceptance of evolution among scientists is overwhelmingly strong the world over. In contrast with the American public, 97% of American scientists agree that humans and other living things have evolved over time. So why the division among the laypeople, and why only in certain parts of the world?

As readers have probably noticed, denial of evolution or criticism of the evidence for evolution is often voiced specifically by creationists – people who think that a supernatural being created humans and other living things in their current form. This is because, in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, they believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and should be taken literally.

Is religious fundamentalism the cause for evolution denial, or is it something else? We already know that acceptance of evolution is divided along national lines, but is it also divided along religious lines?

The evidence says yes.

Keep in mind that it isn’t a person’s religion per se that determines whether or not they accept evolution. Many of the countries in the above chart are predominantly Christian, and yet they still show high acceptance of evolution. Rather, it is how religious a person is that influences their attitude toward evolution.

Religion distribution

Religiosity is commonly measured by looking at frequency of prayer, frequency of religious service attendance, belief in god and an afterlife, Bible literalism, and so on. It is on measures of religiosity that America really stands out among developed nations (see tables below).

Religiosity by country part 1Religiosity by country part 2

Religiosity by country (Source: The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions)

But that’s not all. There must of course be differences in religiosity from person to person within the same country. Not all Americans are religious, and not all religious Americans are weekly churchgoers who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. If acceptance of evolution is influenced by religiosity, we would expect the most religious Americans to be the most unaccepting of evolution.

The 2006 study I cited earlier showed this to be the case. They found that “…individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views.”

Subsequent research has replicated this result. A 2009 Pew survey found that 49% of respondents who attended weekly religious services believed that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. However, only 26% of those who attended services monthly or yearly believed this, and only 17% of those who seldom or never attend. Meanwhile, those respondents who attended religious services less frequently were much more likely to believe that life evolved.

A 2010 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University similarly found that Bible literalism was negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution. Of respondents who answered that the Bible is the actual word of God, 69% believed that God directly created life. Of those who said that the Bible is the word of God, but not everything can be taken literally, 35% believed in creationism, 42% believed that God had guided the evolutionary process (theistic evolution), and 11% believed in unguided, natural evolution. Lastly, of those who said that the Bible was written by men, only 12% believed in creationism, 18% believed in theistic evolution, and 56% believed in unguided evolution.

Finally, the survey I began the post with extends these findings, showing that they apply to evangelical Christian leaders from around the world. Of those surveyed, almost half reject evolution, and 41% believe in God-guided, theistic evolution. Only 3% accept the scientific understanding of evolution as being the result of natural processes.

The evidence is undeniable: religiosity is negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution, and this can only be because people deny the facts of science that conflict with their religious beliefs.

In an effort to fight this conclusion, creationists often try to argue that the evidence for evolution is lacking. Not only is this claim false, but in making it, creationists expect us to believe that they are more fit to evaluate the evidence for evolution than the rest of the world, including the vast majority of scientists and relevant experts! This is simply a ludicrous argument. The fact is that evolution is true, and most of the world knows it. The United States is an anomaly among nations – even among Christian nations – because of a unique history of religious fundamentalism that promotes belief in no-longer tenable myths about human origins.

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