Doc Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Problem With Gregg Easterbrook

I was reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day. Quite nice. Dawkins is his usual clear and straightforward self regarding the public’s take on evolution versus so-called intelligent design. What caught my eye, however, was a link to a story by Gregg Easterbrook entitled "Bullied and Brainwashed" in which the author expounds his thoughts on “The trouble with Richard Dawkins”.

Easterbrook doesn’t waste any time before launching into Dawkins: “Don’t take this personally, but if you are an American adult there is a one in two chance that Richard Dawkins, a renowned professor of science at Oxford, thinks you are ‘ignorant, stupid or insane,’ unless you are “wicked.” These are the adjectives Dawkins chooses to describe the roughly 100 million Americans adults who, if public opinion polls are right, believe Homo sapiens was created directly by God, rather than gradually by evolution. Ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked. Not much to choose from there!”

No, there isn’t much to choose from because those words pretty well cover all of the bases. Anyone who takes the ideals of the Enlightenment seriously and who engages in the study of evolutionary theory versus creationism can only come to the conclusion that evolution fits the observed data and dovetails with other scientific theories far better than creationism does. If one cannot see that, then the individual does not have sufficient data (ignorant), does not possess sufficient reasoning skills (stupid), is mentally incapacitated (insane), or has another agenda that requires them to place truth in the backseat in order to favor the competition (wicked). My guess is that most of those 100 million Americans probably fall into the first two categories, although if my cable public access channel is an accurate representation, then a certain number of clergy fall into the fourth category.

Easterbrook continues: “..the first problem with Dawkins’s positions: he is arrogant.” My my. He’s arrogant. This little cut, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the positions Mr. Dawkins holds. Mr. Dawkins could be the nicest or the most foul individual on the planet but that does not effect the veracity of evolutionary theory. Easterbrook then extends this argument saying that Dawkins wishes to stifle all counterarguments. I believe it would be more accurate to say that Dawkins does not wish to expend further time and resources on arguments that have already been hacked to tiny bits. For example, there are those who take a literal interpretation of the Bible, believing that the Earth is a mere 6000 years old. They explain away dinosaur fossils by saying that humans and dinosaurs lived together in the antediluvian era; humans going so far as to saddle and ride them like modern horses. No modern individual with even an inkling of scientific schooling buys into this. Should we spend money and time teaching this “alternate theory” in biology and history classrooms? Hey, for that matter, there are some folks who believe that the moon landings were faked. Do we need to rewrite our textbooks and alter curricula to appease them? Some might say that the difference here is in the number of adherents, that the beliefs of large groups should be taken into consideration. After all, only a small handful of people believe in a young Earth or in faked moon landings, yet 100 million US adults think creationism is “just groovy”. Mass opinion does not equate to objective truth. It never has. If it did, the Earth would be flat and the Sun would be orbiting us instead of the other way around.

“Theology is all ridiculous superstition, Dawkins said, and unworthy of being dignified by study.” quoted Easterbrook. That’s because it is. This is not a new idea. Indeed, one need only peruse Tom Paine’s "The Age of Reason" to get the low-down on the good book from one of the formative writers of the late 1700’s. Calling it “ridiculous superstition” is a light touch compared to Paine’s disembowelment of it. Ultimately, how do you study something which, by definition, claims its own perfection and infallibility? You can perform no test or probe, develop no hypothesis, or hope to validate any theory of human origins. Its interest lay primarily as an historical document, not a factual explanation. I do not mean to imply that only items of scientific curiosity are generally useful. Far from it. One need only consider the subjective domains of art to refute this. Fortunately though, most humans are smart enough not to turn to a painting or symphony and use it as a guidepost to explain human origins.

Easterbrook mines some gold with this one: “I suspect one reason so many Americans have a poor understanding of evolutionary theory is that overbearing figures such as Dawkins talk down to them and act contemptuous of their religious beliefs. So people respond--perhaps quite rationally--by screening out the views of scientists whose motives they distrust.” Right. It’s the scientists’ fault that people screen them out or don’t understand the issues. It wouldn’t have anything to do with ministers and over zealous evangelicals insisting that they will suffer eternal damnation and hellfire, a seed planted in many a mind in early childhood via propaganda from “religious education classes” or Sunday school. Easterbrook continues “it is telling that polls show Americans overwhelmingly accept many findings of modern research, such as the theories of relativity and of cosmic expansion. The scientists who favor these ideas generally aren’t in the habit of mocking peoples’ faiths, and so they are believed by the general public.” The real issue here is that cosmologists and physicists are never in a position of being perceived as “mocking peoples’ faiths” because these days most so-called “holy men” don’t go running around saying that the Theory of Relativity is anathema to the Bible. One need only go back a few centuries to find examples of scientists (e.g. Galileo) who were persecuted by the church for saying similar sorts of things.

Easterbrook’s article was apparently written a few years ago judging by this section: “But Dawkins is often guilty of sins of which he accuses others, including arguing against straw men and playing fast and loose with the flaws in his own ideas. In the "ignorance" article he declares, for example, that doctrinaire creationists “dominate the school boards in some states.” Oh really? Which ones, exactly? Creationists did take over the Kansas State Board of Education and issue a non-binding recommendation against teaching some aspects of Darwinian thought. The recommendation was rejected by Kansas’s Republican governor and ignored by all Kansas school districts, and the creationists were voted out last year. Today, every U.S. state requires basic instruction in the theory of evolution. By pretending otherwise, Dawkins tries to exaggerate his opponents' influence and cast them as a looming anti-intellectual menace.” They say hindsight is 20-20. The recent uproar in Dover, PA bears this out as does the reversal of the situation in Kansas, plus similar situations regarding school textbooks in other states. Dawkins sees this as an on-going threat, not an odd one-off, and recent happenings support this view. Hopefully, this will all die away but one cannot be certain of that given the blind fervor of extremist religious groups.

Here is a classic misunderstanding (dare I say a show of “ignorance”?): “Dawkins, like others who want evolution to win on all counts, tends to glide past the little problem that Darwinian thinking cannot explain (and in Darwin’s work itself, does not even try to explain) the origin of life. This is no small detail. I haven’t the slightest doubt that evolutionary mechanics explain how eohippus became the modern horse, or how Homo hablis became Homo sapiens. But why was there eohippus or primitive humanity or any kind of life in the first place? Maybe the ultimate explanation is natural, but today biologists don’t have much more than wild guesses, much less a solid theory.”

First of all, this is not the domain of evolutionary theory. This complaint is similar to the often heard “If they can put a man on the moon why can’t they XXX?” Simply because one has little to do with the other. Evolutionary theory says nothing about the origin of life, only its adaptation and variation over time. This is not to say that “biologists don’t have much more than wild guesses”. Easterbrook is just plain wrong on this point.

Easterbrook closes with the following: “It’s hard to think of a topic that’s more interesting to talk about, and there could be an engaging, ongoing discourse on this point among scientists, theologians, and others, if only the doctrinaire believers would stop denouncing the scientists and the doctrinaire scientists would stop denouncing the believers. In this, Dawkins, an extremely smart man with a great deal of interest to say, has managed to make himself part of the problem. But maybe I think that because I’m insane--or wicked.” As long as we’re slinging around personal opinions of others, I’d vote for ignorant—-or stupid.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Post-Festivus Airing of Grievances

I am late in observing a fine Festivus tradition, namely the airing of grievances. Belatedly, I offer this kvetching for 2005:

  • To my family: That's right. I do not multitask as well I formerly did. Do some of the tasking yourself and do not expect me to carry on a scintillating, vibrant conversation without pause, other than for a Tourettish expletive or three, while driving in Jersey traffic.

  • To my employer: I am grateful to have my job. Really. I enjoy what I do, and considering the doldrums of the industry (see "To Merck" below), I am not looking a gift horse in the mouth. However, I despise tormenting my staff, and myself, with lengthy performance reviews when the average yearly raise is 2%. Just let me give them all a pat on the back and an "attagirl" or "attaboy" as appropropriate rather than pouring Human Resouces Brand distilled vinegar into wounds by way of a complex matrix of objective results and highly subjective behaviors.

  • To my city of residence: Your town and gown interactions are the worst I have ever seen. Princeton students rarely step off campus and mingle with the hoi polloi in the community, or at least this seems the case compared to other college towns where I have lived. It must be due to the gritty urban street scenes of Princeton Boro and the Township. Oh, and while you're at it, relax the prudish liquor licensing and attract some decent restaurants and bars into town, OK? More streetlights, too. A spill while perambulating in the pre-dawn dark a few weeks ago really spooked me.

  • To Merck: What can I say? The industry was at the edge of the crapper, and you had to go and give it a big flush.

  • To the Boston Globe: This is a special grievance and one which just barely makes the end of the year finish line. It may even inspire a separate blog entry:

    Women in Science Weigh Lab vs Life Goals.

    Thanks so very, very much, Ms. Bombardieri, for contributing to the myth that the only worthwhile career path in scientific research for women, or men for that matter, is to be found as an academic at a tier-one university. And to the hapless biochem grad student who does not wish to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry because she will "feel like a drone.," well, I'll have you know I am no drone. I am a queen bee, goddammit!

  • Finally, to Kilgore: Stop moaning so much. The neighbors are complaining.
  • Friday, December 16, 2005

    Gud Jul! Io, Saturnalia! And...Merry Christmas! Happy now, Jerry Falwell?

    The fruit o' my womb, now some 14 and 18 years removed from that obsolescent organ, recently decorated the Christmas tree as I extracted several Swedish candelabra from storage boxes and placed them in the windows. I rummaged about in the piano bench and found selections of Christmas music. Later, I stretched out my fingers, tickled the ivories, and did not overly mangle various songs of the season. I plan to engage in a minor frenzy of baking this weekend, and will bring some greenery such as a poinsettia, cyclamen or pine branches into my abode. I have searched Amazon wish lists, clicking away with gift giving, and sent off delectables from the local gourmet food shop to friends and family on the West Coast. I anticipate standing to sing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" at the Princeton High School choir's winter concert. In spite of other stresses in my life, I am getting into the swing of the holidays.

    All this holiday cheer from an agnostic with atheistic leanings. And why not? The "X" word in "Christmas" notwithstanding, this holiday is a truly ancient observance and dovetails with numerous other winter solstice celebrations. It is a cultural holiday, but predictably, "Merry Christmas" has become a nexus of controversy for fundagelical Christians.

    The refrain, "Keep 'Christ' in Christmas" seems now to be drowned out by the more bellicose "The War on Christmas" as squalled by various reactionaries (see kemibe's November 30th entry, "We wish you a buried Christmas.") Their ire is absolutely perplexing to me because I, along with a complement of educated secularfolk and fundamentalist (and I mean fundamentalist) Christians, recognize that the holiday is as pagan as all get out. The real fundies forbid their congregants from observing the holiday, harking back to the mid- to late 1600s when the Puritan elders of Massachusetts outlawed the celebration of Christmas with its decidedly non-Christian trappings.

    But we have the likes of Jerry Falwell who has issued a fatwa against those who would "secularize" a holiday which is as remote from Christianity as Yom Kippur is from St. Patrick's Day. Falwell's false jihad entails litigation and boycotts against groups which he perceives as muzzling Christmas. Falwell's binary "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" is aimed at public institutions which take pains to remove all Christian references to the holiday, even to the extent of not using the word "Christmas." It's a manufactured Christmacrisis, and yet another ruse for the right wing of Christianity to bleat over faux persecution.

    The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) are lightning rods for Falwell's campaign. A letter to Falwell from the Rev. Barry Lynn illustrates the reasoned stance of the AUSCS. Here's an excerpt from the Reverend Lynn's letter to Falwell:

    Contrary to your wild allegations, Jerry, neither Americans United, nor any other civil liberties organization that I know of, is waging any kind of war on Christmas. The First Amendment of our Constitution ensures every American’s right to observe religious holidays or to refrain from doing so. We can wish each other a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and it’s really none of your business which term we choose. We can call our decorated tree a “Christmas tree” or a “holiday tree,” and that’s our right. (We can observe the holidays of other traditions as well.)

    I think we all know what’s really going on with your campaign. You want an America where there is no separation of church and state and where your rather narrow interpretation of Christianity is forced on everyone. If you can convince Americans that their cherished Christmas traditions are under fire, you think maybe they will join your nefarious crusade to tear down the protective church-state wall that guarantees our freedoms.

    A far more effective campaign for alarming Americans might be to cap credit cards at a $200 spending limit and close all malls from Nov. 24th through January 15h. This would put cherished Christmas traditions to the fire. Anyway...

    Speaking for myself, I observe Christmas as cultural tradition, and not a religious one, and have done so for many years. My kids attend public school with a multiculty student population. Songs in their holiday concerts indeed mention "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," but also "Dreidl, Dreidl." With a nod to the spinning top of the song and gelt given and gotten, Hanukkah is a quiet, warm holiday, and but seems to have risen to an artificial prominence as a Judaic answer to the loud wassailing of the goyim's Noel. [Post-publishing note, 12/18/2005: see this article from The Boston Globe, Hanukkah: It's big and it's beginning to look less like Christmas, for an informed update.] Diwali is another increasingly popular and visible fall/winter celebration carried to our community by Indian immigrants and their ABCD children (American Born Confused Desis). My daughter's French class dined on Morrocan delicacies when Ramadan (an observance more rooted in its originating religion than others) ended. Thus, when "Merry Christmas" is spoken, it is a given that the phrase is not a mechanism of proselytizing in our diverse community because more likely than not, it is accompanied by other greetings. A cheery "Happy holidays" in these parts is not a matter of political correctness, but borne of convenience since the easy phrase encompasses several celebrations which orbit the winter solstice. It's not a big deal.

    It's hardly surprising that mankind in the Northern Hemisphere would weave holidays around this arc of the year's cycle as the sun's light wanes with every shortened day. Humankind lit bonfires and performed sacrifices to drive back the darkness. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a time of excess and when masters served their slaves, an old practice which is the predecessor of Boxing Day in more Brit flavored regions. Sir James George Frazer's definitive treatise,The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion delves into the rites and superstitions which parlayed themselves into Christmas as well as many other Christian beliefs and holidays.

    Observing Christmas represents an ancient continuity to me. My deprived ancestors in colonial Massachusetts may have been forbidden to celebrate the holiday, but much further back in time during the long dark winters of Scotland and England, my forebearers lit the night with the Yule log, brought holly and ivy into their homes, and knocked back homebrew as they waited from the sun to return. This comic, from the odd "Electric Sheep" web site, saucily illustrates the enlightenment of one who believes that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and a family's wholesome observance of the season. Give it a read:

    The Thompson Family Celebrates the Season & Mrs. Murray Learns about the True Meaning of Christmas!

    With that, I wish my beloved bonobos a Gud Jul. I give my cherished chimpanzees a "Io! Saturnalia!" shoutout. I'll add a gentle "Happy Hanukkah" to the chosen. I offer a hearty "Merry Christmas!" because you know what I mean by that. Finally, to Jerry Falwell and his Friend or Foe minions, I have this to say:

    Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa! ...YES!

    Friday, December 02, 2005



    The foundering of America

    Complaints from the wingnut brigade about the "war on Christmas" (how these followers of an archetypal peacenik love to talk in terms of battle!) are part of a greater ethos that posits that the United States is a country "founded on Christian principles." They claim that its laws, traditions and moral codes are rooted solidly in devotion to Christ, with the founding fathers leading the charge on behalf of Jesus. They point to this claim whenever a redneck judge insists on displaying the Ten Commandments at a courthouse or when controversies regarding the Pledge of Allegiance arise. They say that church-state separation is an outcropping of "revisionist history."

    As usual, their ignorance is as astounding as it is unyielding. Also as usual, the irony is thick enough to eat with a trowel: Those bitching loudest about the supposed rewriting of U.S. history haven't a clue about the very annals they themselves are desperately ignoring in their attempts to modify the record books to their liking.

    Although Christianity -- in its various guises and with its battling subgroups -- is and always has been the predominant stateside religious affiliation, this is not tantamount to either a constitutional endorsement of same or a reflection of the founding fathers' personal beliefs. Ardent Christians often invoke the names Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Henry and Paine when advancing the idea that the kick-starters of America really -- no, really, it's true, look into it -- intended for the U.S. to be a Christian nation, despite no mention of Jesus or Christianity in the U.S. Constitution. In doing so, they're only beshitting the very case they are trying to make. These men were men of faith, but were largely Deist and, more to the point, vehemently anti-sectarian and anti-Christian. (Had they not lived before the advent of molecular genetics, microbiology, geoscience and other helpful disciplines, they likely would have would have questioned even their vague ideas about a Creator, but that's a side issue.)

    References are legion, and although a thorough understanding of history is always preferable to following a few Internet links, here's an excerpt from a concise summary of the founders' documented attitudes about Bible-based Christianity.

    Thomas Jefferson:

    I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth.

    Christianity...(has become) the most perverted system that ever shone on man. ...Rogueries, absurdities and untruths were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus by a large band of dupes and importers led by Paul, the first great corrupter of the teaching of Jesus.

    The clergy converted the simple teachings of Jesus into an engine for enslaving mankind and adulterated by artificial constructions into a contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves...these clergy, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ.

    Jefferson's word for the Bible? Dunghill.

    John Adams:
    Where do we find a precept in the Bible for Creeds, Confessions, Doctrines and Oaths, and whole carloads of other trumpery that we find religion encumbered with in these days?

    The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.
    Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli. Article 11 states:
    The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.

    Thomas Paine:
    I would not dare to so dishonor my Creator God by attaching His name to that book (the Bible).

    Among the most detestable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses. Here is an order, attributed to 'God' to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers and to debauch and rape the daughters. I would not dare so dishonor my Creator's name by (attaching) it to this filthy book (the Bible).

    It is the duty of every true Deist to vindicate the moral justice of God against the evils of the Bible.

    Accustom a people to believe that priests and clergy can forgive sins...and you will have sins in abundance.

    The Christian church has set up a religion of pomp and revenue in pretended imitation of a person (Jesus) who lived a life of poverty.

    (Paine's notable work The Age of Reason is as hilarious as it is instructive.)

    James Madison:
    What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy.

    Madison objected to state-supported chaplains in Congress and to the exemption of churches from taxation. He wrote:
    Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.

    So, as loudly as the Christians demanding special dispensation screech, historical evidence firmly relegates their entreaties about the founders to la-la land along with too many other insane ideas to count.

    The strangest and saddest part? Christians, even when history texts are flung open beneath their noses, have no qualms about simply squeezing their eyes shut, jamming their fingers in their ears and bellowing "KWISTIUN NASHUN! KWISTIUN NASHUN!" over and over until their challengers give up and move on, thereby preserving the Christians' perverse espirit de corps until they produce their next complaint about the commies at the ACLU and the librul America-haters who abet them. It's one thing for backwater Bible-beaters to deny the scientific reality of evolution; after all, it takes a modicum of study for even an open-minded and scholarly person to appreciate the various precise ways in which anti-evolutionists reveal themselves to be as off the beam with respect to biology as they are in other areas. But even an idiot can appreciate the gravity and meaning of Thomas Jefferson referring to the Bible as a pile of shit. Yet such references don't sway them or slow them down in the least.

    As with all godidiotic undertakings, this would be funny (albeit in the discomfiting way that stumbling upon fornicating senior citizens is amusing) were it not so ominous. that wingnuts can continue screeching that America is a nation founded on Christianity when all historical evidence demonstrates otherwise.

    Thomas Jefferson et al. would certainly find the modern-day manifestation of "Christianity," with its grisly infestation of top-level goverment affairs and decisions, especially abhorrent. They would find it abominable that highly visible assclown Christian individuals and groups shrug off hurricane destruction and death on the basis of natural disasters' origins in divine punishment, and they would cringe at seeing a large fraction of the populace justifying America's involvement in a futile war by pointing directly or indirectly at the Christian Bible. They would rail against the hamstringing of scientific progress by people who, motivated by vague and misguided notions of God's will, believe that the "life" of a corpse that has spent years on a ventilator or a newly formed morula is more valuable than that of a fully sentient ALS sufferer.

    Which is exactly why people like me, who are anything but anti-American, are pointing fingers today.