RSSCategory: Meaning of Life

Charles Darwin’s exceedingly dangerous idea

March 28, 2009 | By | Reply More
Charles Darwin’s exceedingly dangerous idea

In Darwin’s dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett describes Darwin’s idea as the “best idea anyone has ever had.”

In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and a physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.

What exactly was Darwin’s dangerous idea? According to Dennett, it was “not the idea of evolution, but the idea of evolution by natural selection, an idea he himself could never formulate with sufficient rigor and detail to prove, though he presented a brilliant case for it.” (42) Dennett considers Darwin’s idea to be “dangerous” because it has so many fruitful applications in so many fields above and beyond biology. When Dennett was a schoolboy, he and some of his friends imagined that there was such a thing as “universal acid,”

a liquid “so corrosive that it will eat through anything! The problem is: what do you keep it in? It dissolves glass bottles and stainless steel canisters as readily as paper bags. What would happen if you somehow came upon or created a dollop of universal acid? With the whole planet eventually be destroyed? What would it leave in its wake? After everything had been transformed by its encounter with universal acid, what would the world look like? Little did I realize that in a few years I would encounter an idea-Darwin’s idea-bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks are still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.

(63) Darwin’s idea is powerful, indeed. Many people see it as having the power to ruin the meaning of life.

People fear that once this universal acid has passed through the monuments we cherish, they will cease to exist, dissolved in an unrecognizable and unlovable puddle of scientific destruction.

Dennett characterizes this fear is unwarranted:

We might learn some surprising or even shocking things about these treasures, but unless our valuing these things was based all long on confusion or mistaken identity, how could increase understanding of them diminish their value in our eyes? (82)

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Diminishing races, growing family

March 22, 2009 | By | Reply More
Diminishing races, growing family

In the January 22, and 2009 edition of Nature (available only to subscribers online), Aravinda Chakravarti explains that our simplistic notions of “population” and “race” will need to be revised as we enter the age of “personal genomics.” Chakravarti teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Traditionally, we’ve used geological records to trace our family histories. We are now approaching a time where we will be able to use DNA databases. Whereas our traditional human records take us back several hundred years, our genomes will allow us to explore our ancestry for hundreds of thousands of years. Chakravarti argues that we will be entering unknown territory riddled with surprises and stretching the meaning of the word “family.”

How close knit is our human “family”?

All living humans are related via a set of common ancestors who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Other studies have since shown that the world beyond Africa was settled even more recently. From 100,000 years ago, descendants of our African forebears spread out to populate other continents . . . the striking implication of this is that all living humans are mosaics with ancestry from the many parts of the globe through which our ancestors trekked. In other words, each of us has around 6.7 billion relatives.

Chakravarti points out that our genealogy-based record-keeping is often riddled with error. It fails to indicate our interrelatedness to each and every other human being, for example. Further, evidence shows that at least one out of 20 people do not know the identity of their genetic father. Thanks to the falling cost of examining entire human genomes (Chakravarti indicates that it has fallen 1000- fold or more), we now have abilities we could only have dreamed of a few decades ago.

Personal genomics might well destroy our simplistic notion of “race.” Human populations are not intact groups. There is no such thing as genetically characterized racial categories. We are all “multiracial, related to each other only to a greater or lesser extent.” Detailed surveys are making it clear that there is no such thing as a discrete racial group. Rather, it is clear that there is a “continuity in variation across the globe, not abrupt transitions between population-specific sequence patterns.” Personal genomics would allow us to focus on individual human beings, instead of artificially constructed “racial” populations.

Genome-wide studies … could result in the individual identity and kinship coming to define populations rather than the other way around. We could test once and for all whether genetic race is a credible concept. This would be tremendously exciting. It is bound to stir up our deeply held notions of who we are, where we came from, our history and thus our politics. .. . it may be time for science to reshape the views of society. By dismantling our notions of race and population, we may better appreciate our common shared and recent history and perhaps more importantly our shared future.

I recently posted on the topic of whether science should study race and intelligence. I think this would be a worthy topic of science (just as is every other potential field of study), but I warned that our current definition of “race” is horribly muddled. We need to get clear on this term, if that is even possible. I found Chakravarti’s article to be a refreshing reminder that there might not even be a worthy scientific definition of “race.” In fact, it might well be that, once we look carefully at the evidence, we will find that there are actually 6.7 billion “races” out there. Or is it more accurate to conclude that there is only one human race?

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Freedom of Speech as Religion

March 20, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Freedom of Speech as Religion

I think it should go without saying (but of course, nothing does) that anytime someone wants to protect something from “denigration” or other forms of criticism, we should all grab hold of our rights and hang onto them with a death grip. To put this case most eloquently, I offer the following.

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Cloning is a Silly Issue

March 19, 2009 | By | 7 Replies More
Cloning is a Silly Issue

As with Prohibition and Abortion, the Stem Cells and Cloning issues are handy distractions from real issues of national import, like infrastructure, economy, and war. The War on Drugs is every bit as successful now as was Prohibition in the 1920’s. Abortion is a medical procedure that blatantly favors the rights of the host over the cluster of human cells growing within. Although abortion is periodically effectively outlawed, its incidence is never significantly reduced.

Oddly, to mention stem cells brings a knee-jerk retort of “Cloning!” from some quarters. Cloning is only a dangerous issue to those who don’t actually know what it is. Let’s suppose that the technology were developed to create a healthy baby genetically identical to an existing adult. It would be an expensive procedure, and necessarily take as long as a normal gestation. But mutations occur with every cell division, so the original cloned blastocyst would be subtly different than the donor’s original blastocyst, however perfect the methodology.

The clone would also be raised in a different family, so we are now slightly farther apart then identical twins raised apart. Much more significantly, the gestation would be in a different environment (womb, timing, nutrition) creating many significant physical developmental differences between donor and clone.

I laugh when movie clones have all the same freckles, scars and other developmental marks as the donor. A perfect clone would resemble the donor much like a normal sibling raised separately.

Why would anyone bother?

Even with livestock. The genetic and health dangers of monoculture tree and vegetable farming are bad enough as a cautionary tale. Most people well enough educated to develop cloning know enough about the principles of evolution to know that duplication of a genome (however ideal it may be) in bulk is a Very Bad Idea.

But cloning research is a different issue. The research has very high potential for serendipitous results. As with the accidental discoveries of antibiotics and Teflon, one can only find things by looking for something in the same area, but rarely for the thing itself. Some of the possibilities include:

* Growing cloned organs in vitro or in a host. Crichton wrote Congo based on the idea of cloned organs raised in host animals.
* Learning enough about gestation to create artificial wombs would be of enormous benefit to premies and other medical problems.
* Knowing how to start and stop cell and organ development could well lead to regrowing limbs and teeth and other organs directly in the host.

Some legislators are moving to block such research, in case it may lead to the possibility of someday making a clone. But why?

Soul? Find me two theologians who completely agree on when and where a soul is created and when it enters a body. Now find me as many who agree as scientists who agree that the soul is a product of biological structure and heuristic experience, a quickly growing number.

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Herr Ratzinger continues the massacre

March 17, 2009 | By | 9 Replies More
Herr Ratzinger continues the massacre

HIV/AIDS is possibly the worst health crisis to hit this planet. It’s also arguably the worst thing to happen to the African continent since white people were regularly kidnapping its inhabitants and trading them like farm machinery.

But the one hopeful thing about the whole situation is this: while there’s no cure yet, AIDS is easily preventable. Ridiculously easily preventable. Avoiding the sharing of needles & using contraception are the two most effective ways to avoid the long, tortuous, wasting death we’ve all come to associate with this horrendous epidemic. And if you’re not an intravenous drug user (or you studiously avoid sticking sharp, blood-stained things in your body), there’s 50% of your prevention pretty much sorted already.

So … how the hell are you supposed to react when the gold-robed, paedophile-protecting dictator-for-life of the Catholic Church continues to threaten people with eternal torment for using contraception during sex (based on a very, very, um, interpretive interpretation the Bible) and instead tells people “just say no” to sex? In this story (BBC) Pope Oberstumbannfuhrer Herr Kaiser Ratzinger (I refuse to use his picked-out stagename, he’s not Axl Rose for crying out loud) once again proves to the world that not only is his outlook anachronistic, unrealistic & laughable, it’s also flat-out fatal. To millions upon millions of people.

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Population: Quiver or Quake

March 17, 2009 | By | 12 Replies More
Population: Quiver or Quake

The writers on this blog are generally aware of the problems caused by population growth, for example here and here. But there is a movement in modern American Fundamentalist culture that puts the Catholic baby mill mentality to shame.

They call it the Quiverfull Movement. The idea is basically that a woman is a quiver full of potential babies, and therefore must produce as many babies as possible. Only when she runs out of eggs may she consider another career.

I first read about it at FreindlyAtheist a few days ago, with typically scathing commentary. Then another friend sent me a link to this report on Salon.com.

It began a generation ago:

Since 1985, Quiverfull has been thriving in the Southern and Sunbelt states. Although the conviction of “letting God plan your family” is not an official doctrine in many churches, there are signs of its acceptance in high places; the Rev. Albert Mohler, Theological Seminary president of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, argued, for example, that deliberate childlessness was “moral rebellion” against God.

It is mainly a propaganda campaign,

Quiverfull has gained exposure through cable TV’s fascination with extraordinarily large families, including the 18-child Duggar family. The Duggars, an Arkansas couple whose husband Jim Bob was a former Arkansas state representative, have appeared on several Discovery Health Channel specials about their immense brood and currently have a TLC reality show, “18 Kids and Counting,” that focuses on the saccharine details of large family life.

So the principle of outbreeding your opponents is now a conscious tack of the American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Thoughtful citizens of this world intentionally breed less. Therefore we are bound to be ever more seriously outnumbered with a couple of generations of this nonsense.

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Muffins and the end of innocence

March 15, 2009 | By | 12 Replies More
Muffins and the end of innocence

“Did you know there’s totally science behind muffins? Totally ruined muffins for me.”

Ah, the wisdom of youth. That particularly large & shiny pearl came from a blazered private school girl of perhaps 15 who I was standing next to (almost on top of) on my Connex-brand cattle-truck – I mean, “train” – this morning. Girl Student (henceforth “GS”) was bemoaning the fact that in her cooking class her teacher explained that the release of carbon dioxide during the cooking process was responsible for the rising of muffins and for the tiny little pockets of air that end up being formed in all things baked. So, in response to this new but unwanted & unwelcome knowledge, GS now proclaims her hatred for – or at least new found apathy toward – the little round cakes she used to love.

Naturally, her comment got me thinking. Does GS approach every mundane mystery in her life in such a manner? Would she disavow Myspace if she figured out that barely any of those seventeen thousand and eighty-four “friends” of hers actually qualified for such a title? Would she stop catching the train if she knew a tad more about electricity? What if she found out what keeps planes in the air? Sweet flaming crikey, no more summer trips to the Whitsundays then (probably a good thing, it’d totally suck to find out how that big hot disc in the sky is making you slightly darker). Safer stuck at home I guess, with just the TV/Wii/Blu-Rayer/microwave/mobile phone for company … on the other hand, perhaps not. Perhaps all those modern wonders are just a fresh crop of parades waiting to be stripped of their brilliance by the acid rain of knowledge. You never know what awful, awful knowledge might leach into your brain if you sit on the remote and accidentally switch to the Discovery Channel.

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How to follow the Bible literally.

March 2, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
How to follow the Bible literally.

Writer A. J. Jacobs embarked upon a one-year attempt to follow all of the rules in the Bible. To do so, he first wrote down every rule he spotted in the Bible (he came up with 700). Following those rules was difficult, however, especially when he didn’t quite understand them. For instance, where are the “corners” of one’s beard?

Though his talk is often humorous, Jacobs reveals some serious epiphanies he had along the way. For instance, he found that his behavior sometimes changed his thoughts (he found that visiting sick people made him more compassionate rather than the other way around). He learned to give thanks for the hundreds of things that went right every day, rather than focusing on the few things that went wrong. He learned to have reverence for many aspects of his life, even though he remained an agnostic through the whole experience. He also learned that he shouldn’t completely dismiss that which is irrational, and we all have irrational aspects of our lives (is blowing out birthday candles on a cake rational?).

You’ll enjoy Jacobs’ understated delivery and his respect for those who are different. His talk is well worth a viewing, no matter where you fall on the belief continuum.

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Another Near Miss

March 2, 2009 | By | Reply More
Another Near Miss

In case you missed it, asteroid 2009 DD45 passed the Earth today at a distance of about 1/7th of the way to the moon. It was noticed about 3 days ago, and apparently has an orbit that will bring it close to home every so often. See here.

It is relatively tiny, about 30 meters across. Therefore, when it hits it’ll only make a hole a few miles across. Maybe the size of Manhattan or the Greater Chicago area. Yes, when. It’ll probably hit in the ocean, in which case only seaside towns will be destroyed, like Miami, D.C, or Los Angeles.

But this is only one of thousands that have been discovered so far. No need to worry. When the sky does fall, we’ll find out eventually. With a bit of pork barrel spending, we might be able to predict and prevent such things. But it might cost as much as the current bailing out of mismanaged banks.

But I’ve discussed the end of the world before.

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