Category Archives: Science

Truth for a Lie

The most charitable attitude one can take upon hearing a statement that is demonstrably false is that the person speaking is genuinely mistaken. However, if the person persists after having been shown that they are in error, the goodwill does and should vanish, as it is no longer a mistake, but a lie. The thing about telling lies is that whether they are to yourself or to others, the lies have nasty habit of finding you out. Especially heinous are lies about or in the name of God, as one claiming to represent absolute Truth should be especially careful about his claims and quick to correct himself should the truth become available.

Now, when speaking of truth and lies, it is important to distinguish between a fact and an opinion, as much discourse seems to revolve around the conflation of these distinct concepts. An opinion is subjective and open to interpretation. For example, I could say that the West Virginia University Mountaineer Football team is not playing to its full potential this year. The key to the opinion is its vagueness. How does one define “potential” when the games have already been played? On the other hand, it is a fact that the Mountaineers cannot win the Big East title this year. It is mathematically impossible. Fans who continue to shout “We’re Number One” after a loss mean well, but objectively they are misguided at best.

What concerns me lately is the number of demonstrable falsehoods that have been stated emphatically by certain Evangelicals and Fundamentalists of late. After all, one can only say so many things that are plainly and provably incorrect before he begins to lose credibility in all he believes and stands for. You will have to forgive me if fail to take your opinion seriously if you claim, with a straight face, that it is raining outside while standing in front of a window that reveals bright sunshine pouring through.

Getting down to business, let us examine a few key falsehoods that I encounter on a regular basis:

First up,The majority of Christendom rejects the Theory of Evolution. One would need a particular peculiar definition of Christianity and Christendom for this to be the case. Biblical literalism in the form of Young Earth Creationism is virtually unknown outside of the U.S. Evangelical community and its missionary offshoots, and it is not even a majority position in the U.S. Fully half of the Christians in the world are Roman Catholic, and the RCC officially accept Evolution as fact, as does the Anglican Communion and a substantial portion of the Mainline Protestant denominations, as well as many moderate Evangelicals. I suppose one could claim that more than two-thirds of the professed and practicing Christians at home at abroad do not actually belong to their own religion, but I think they would beg to differ.

Next is an oldy but goody, The United States is (or was founded as) a Christian Nation. I’m afraid not. There are substantial differences between a nation whose citizenry is predominately Christian and a Christian nation. If you do not understand the difference, think of it this way, if most people listened to The Beatles every week, would the United States be a “Beatles Nation?” A “Christian Nation” is one that has an official church or official government position on matters of religion. England and Denmark are Christian Nations, even if the majority of their populations do not attend church services regularly. The United States is a secular country, even if a substantial portion of the population is devout in its belief and practice. The difference is not merely academic; it has far-reaching consequences in matters of law and government policy. It would take a Constitutional Amendment to change the status, and given that the Freedom of Speech is tied in with the Establishment Clause, one would be on very dangerous ground in proposing such a thing and a long way from any philosophy that could be considered remotely conservative. If you are still in doubt as to the Founder’s intent or think this is merely an opinion, I ask you to consider the Treaty of Tripoli from 1797, passed unanimously by both Houses of Congress, and which literally states that “ the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Last but not least, Proposed healthcare reforms include provisions for “Death Panels.” It really takes a special kind of hatred for the President and Congress to believe that either is interested in indirectly offing its own constituency. It is hard to imagine that anyone who utters such a thing could be taken seriously about much anything, but there they are—guests and hosts of talk shows, authors, politicians and certain celebrities, claiming this is so, without a hint of proof. The proposed bills have provisions mandating coverage for end of life counseling. The counseling is offered so that the patient’s own wishes can be codified, which helps to avoid legal confusion (a la Schiavo) and potentially wrenching decisions by those closest to the patient. Anyone who has been admitted to a hospital in the past several years has almost certainly been asked whether or not he has an advance directive and if not, if he is interested in information. Few would disagree that it is preferable that such plans and wishes be made clear by a calm person of sound mind than by a soon-to-be grieving relative. All these proposals due is guarantee insurance coverage for the legal and ethical counseling that goes into such decisions. This sort of coverage has been part of Medicare for many years and probably most private insurance policies as well. Think about it, is the AARP really going endorse a policy that contains even the faintest hint of anything that could even potentially lead to something as nefarious as a “death panel?” To turn a cliché, if it seems too bad to be true, it probably is. How anyone who says such things could be held in high regard escapes me.

These are but a few of the seemingly countless examples that will be dealt with on the blog in the coming weeks, months and years. For some reason, the subjects of science, religion, history and politics are especially prone to distortions, misunderstandings and outright falsehoods. If you catch me saying something that is demonstrably, factually incorrect, please do correct me. I am ever interested in uncovering and spreading truth in all its forms. I hope this is a value that we can all share.

Origins

Exactly one hundred fifty years ago, Charles Darwin published what he called an “abstract” entitled On the Origin of the Species, which explained what would became known as the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Darwin anticipated that his findings would spark controversy, and he had made provisions to have his work published posthumously so that he would not have to deal with the fallout. Only after Alfred Russel Wallace reached the same conclusions did Darwin dare publish a work that Darwin viewed incomplete and somewhat rushed, even at about 400 pages. Darwin could scarcely predict that his “abstract” would go through six editions in his lifetime and become so foundational that future biologists would struggle to imagine working in their field without Darwin’s contribution.
In observance of the 150th anniversary, I took the occasion to skim through my paperback reprint of his first edition. Even to a layperson, it is easy to see why the book sold so well. Darwin’s prose is accessible but detailed and he displays an infectious passion for his work. More striking, though, is the notion then and now that anything in here could be remotely controversial. It seems strange that a work so well reasoned could be easily misrepresented and misinterpreted.
Few sane people with argue with any of Darwin’s basic premises, as they are pretty self-evident. First, there is variation within a species. This is plainly obvious to anyone who has seen more than one animal of the same species. Children are not clones of their parents and any litter of puppies shows variance in markings, size, strength and disposition. Next, there is a struggle for life, especially in the wild. Not every creature born will have the fortune to reach adulthood or to reproduce. Some will fall to disease, others to predators and some to accident and others to starvation before reaching maturity. Were this not the case, the planet would be overrun by rabbits in a few decades, leaving little room for anything or anyone else. Additionally, the planet has multiple environments, many of which are subject to change over time. This is also self-evident. It is why so many people groups have been nomads. Sometimes rivers flood or change their paths, sometimes there are droughts or natural disasters that permanently alter the landscape. I don’t think anyone would argue with these points any sooner than they would deny that 1+1=2.
Darwin’s primary observation was that these factors combine into a selective pressure wherein some offspring are statistically more likely to reach maturity than others. A fast cheetah is more likely to eat and a slow gazelle more likely to be eaten. Since some cheetahs are faster than others and some gazelles slower, it stands to reason that some cheetahs will starve and some gazelles will live long and happy lives. Darwin also reasoned that the pairing two fast cheetahs would increase the likelihood of fast offspring. He may not have understood genetics like we do now, but he noticed that characteristics were shaped by domestic breeders and that these characteristics tended to pile up over time, leading to unique breeds of dogs and flowers. It seemed likely that nature would also select attributes that increase the likelihood of survival. This, while not being self-evident, does make sense and provokes little misunderstanding or disagreement. After all, people groups who are native to areas near the equator tend to have darker skin than those who live farther North.
Darwin further reasoned a changing environment might cause a trait that was once neutral and rare to lead to a distinct advantage. For example, a predator with white fur might have an advantage over one with brown fur should its habitat see in permanent increase in snowfall. The predators with white fur would continue to interbreed while those with brown fur more be more likely to starve. Eventually, the brown variety would be rare to nonexistent. This of course follows from the first several points and provokes little disagreement.
Next we come to the notion of Descent with Modification. This is basically the notion that occasionally, a mutation will develop that brings about a trait that has not been seen before. Most of these will be very slight and most will be neutral or detrimental, but occasionally one will lead to a slight but distinct advantage. Perhaps a particular bird’s will hatch with a beak will take on a slightly different shape than any of its predecessors. Perhaps this shape is more suited to digging out insects or worms in this particular environment. While slight, the variation gives just enough advantage that survival and reproduction is more likely, and thus as with the white fur, the trait will become increasingly common in the population until the previously common variety of beak is rarely, if ever seen. Meanwhile, a neighboring population that subsists on a slightly different diet may also see a slight mutation that gives a slight, but definite statistical advantage. Eventually, one slight mutation here and another there will lead to populations distinct enough that the two are recognized as different species, which is to say that they no longer reproduce with one another. It is a very gradual process, something not normally observed in a human lifetime or perhaps even in a nation’s existence, but it does happen.
This is really all there is to Darwin’s theory of evolution. There is no expectation that there will be a one-generation leap from one species to another. There is no expectation of a crockoduck, no prediction that an ape will give birth to a human or vice-versa, only that every small changes will accumulate over time. Most people have no problem seeing how this works going forward in time. They understand that next year’s influenza will be of a slightly different variety than this year’s and that there are new varieties of bacteria that subsist on diets that could not have possibly existed in the past, e.g. those that digest synthetic material like Nylon.
What people don’t like, and what got Darwin into trouble, is the implication that the processes that are plainly seen going forward also work when going backward through time. Every population and species of life can be traced in principle to a previous variety that looks and behaves in ways increasingly distant from the ones presently observed. Tracing one’s own ancestry, he eventually finds a predecessor that is no longer recognizably human. This seems to be too much to take for some people, but logically, accepting that evolution runs forward but not backward is a bit like accepting that 2*5=10 but that 10/5 does not equal 2. It does not make sense to deny that a process we observe every day does not apply to us.
In Darwin’s day, as is the case today, some suggest that there is some type of distinction between micro and macro-evolution. That perhaps God created certain archetypal “kinds” and let evolution proceed from there. That might be easier to accept, but it is not what the evidence tells us. DNA shows current species converging back on common ancestors. Fossil evidence has universally supported the gradual adaption of traits and groups over long periods of time.

Despite millions of man-hours spent gathering and collecting data by scientists both supportive and critical of Darwin’s ideas, no piece of evidence has served to discredit his suggestions and all, repeat all data and specimens have supported Evolution by means of Natural Selection. It is simply time to move on. There is no controversy. There has not been a serious controversy for decades. Evolution is a fact of life. It’s not a hypothesis, a conjecture, a hunch, a guess or a supposition. The pieces to this puzzle were there all along. Had Darwin not discovered evolution, someone else would have by now.
I for one find Darwin’s findings to be inspirational and fascinating. Evolution means that every single life form on this planet is related to every other life form on this planet. We share not only a planet, but an ancestor. I think our society can only benefit from this knowledge. It is at once empowering and humbling, this notion that despite nearly insurmountable odds, our species and we as individuals have arisen to study ourselves and the world while yet being very much a part of it. To the degree that we respect nature, we respect ourselves, and to the degree that we wander at it, will we understand ourselves and our purpose.