Sunday, June 17, 2007

Religion vs. Sex: I Take It Back

Apparently, I was wrong about religion being so hung-up over sex.

Last week, it came out that the actor who plays Adam in a video that's part of AiG's Creation Fun House has a...OK, "regular job" isn't quite the right word, but: he's a gay porn star.

Hot on the heels of that: Billy Dumbstruck crows over the "growing number of non-religious ID proponents", linking (presumably as a shining example of such) to the blog of one William Brookfield, a self-described "citizen scientist" with no actual degrees (scroll down), and a fairly obviously crank theory called "pleasurian" (and contra Dumbski's claim that Brookfield is "non-religious": the first word on that page is "God"), which doubles as an advertisement for selling sex toys, and who is living with someone else's wife.

I take it all back: it seems that when it comes to pushing an agenda, some religious people aren't all that fussy who they, um, get into bed with. I mean, what's next? The return of flirty fishing? Jerry Falwell doing gay porn?

(Hat tip: Duae Quartunciae)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Nerve of Some Sponges!

Actually, no: sponges (or Porifera, if you want to sound erudite to people who know less biology than you do, and pretentious to those who know more) have no nervous system. But according to an article published in today's PLoS (and reported by the CBC), they have the genetics to build crucial components of a synapse. Moreover, those components and the way they interact have been strongly conserved through evolutionary history -- they are found in common across a range of animals: sponges, cnidarians, fruit flies and humans. This means that the genes were probably already present in the common ancestor of all those groups (which is to say: most of the animal kingdom -- before the proto/deutero split, even before bilateral symmetry). From my layman's skimming of the article, it's not too clear what the sponge does with these structures, though from the fact that the relevant genes are expressed in the outer layers of the larval sponge (see Figure 3 and "Discussion"), I gather they have some sort of sensory function.

This is way cool for the glimpse it gives us of deep evolutionary history. But aside from that, it shows (again!) that, contra IDists, the pieces of a complex and integrated biological system can have useful functions on their own, and later be incorporated into something bigger. Hopefully, one of the science bloggers or ScienceBloggers will be along presently to give us a commentary that's a little dumbed-down from the PLoS paper, but more informative than the general media.

(BTW: while most of the authors are at UC Santa Barbara, I notice that one of them, Bernard M. Degnan, is from Wilkins' neighbourhood.)

Update: Ask and ye shall receive -- PZ Myers delivers the goods.

Monday, June 4, 2007

How I found Jesus at the RASC

PZ Myers notes with approbation the RASC Ottawa's no-nonsense endorsement of science. Ottawa-area commenter bPer relates an incident at a RASC observing session (as well as a recent update), revolving around a certain mutual acquaintance. The conjunction of fundamentalist religion with the RASC prompts me to recollect a bit of personal history, which in an effort to bore everyone to tears and drive my site stats into the basement (but what the hell, yesterday was my 50th birthday, which seems like an appropriate occasion to get autobiographical), I will now relate.

First, a little background: my parents were agnostic, having abandoned their ancestral Methodism about the time of the Second World War. So that was my default from an early age. Religion was a hobby some other families did, or that I heard about during Religious Education at school (which they still had at the time). I had the usual kid's fascination with dinosaurs -- one of the first books I read myself was Danny The Dinosaur, about a young brontosaurus trying to find his way in the Mesozoic world (note: this is not the same book as comes up on a Google or Amazon search). Somewhat later, I graduated to Sam and Beryl Epstein's Prehistoric Animals, which covers the history of life from the Cambrian to the present, with a couple of decent explanatory chapters on the geologic column and the theory of evolution (according to the mid-1950s state of knowledge, ie. isotope dating was in its infancy, and plate tectonics was still mired in Wegener's unworkable drift hypothesis). It was one of my favorite books; I read it many times, and I still have it.

By the time I was about 8, I could not only spell "palaeontologist", I knew I wanted to be one, and would tell any adult unwary enough to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a precocious little nerd ;-).

In junior high school my interests shifted to physics -- the school library had a number of books which explained particle physics, relativity, quantum mechanics and cosmology without requiring the reader to understand the math behind them, and I read them all. The sheer wierdness of the world thus opened up fascinated me. More precocious nerdity - how many 13 year-olds even care what a neutrino is? So getting into the astronomy hobby was a natural next step - there was an active club at the school, and I spent quite a few nights out with friends chasing lunar eclipses, occultations or meteor showers. For a while, I was grinding my own 6-inch telescope mirror (a project that never got finished). I also joined the RASC Toronto Centre (obviously they didn't have a website c. 1970), which met every second Thursday evening in the basement of the McLaughlin Planetarium.

One night in late 1972, I was returning home from RASC on the subway with several other high school student members. When we reached the end of the line, one of our party who had his parents' car in the park-and-ride, offered to drive everyone home. So we started driving. And the conversation quickly turned religious. It turned out that the driver and at least one of the passengers were Evangelical Christians, and always ready to witness to any unbelievers who came their way. As an eager young agnostic, I put up a couple of arguments, and got a bit of unconvincing rebuttal; I forget the details now and it doesn't matter. (I should emphasize that, though I've long forgotten the details of the conversation, I don't recall it being the kind of creepy stealth evangelism practised by the aforementioned current nuisance in RASC Ottawa. These people had some social skills AND a genuine interest in astronomy for its own sake, not just as a hunting ground for converts.)

What did matter, in the end, is that as I was dropped off, one of my companions pressed into my hand a small booklet entitled Now I'm Free. This I read before going to bed. The tract (the gist of which can be found here) recounts the story of one Tom Skinner, a black youth running with gangs in the slums of Harlem who is converted by a radio preacher, reforms his life, and goes on to become an evangelist. The arguments he gives for theism didn't strike me as very good, even at the time, but what did impress me was his account of the way his life, and those of his fellow gang-members were changed by faith in Christ. In fact, it impressed me so much that I bought the whole package -- or to put it in the conventional Evangelical terminology, that night I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. (As I think y'all are aware, I got better later).

One can propose all sorts of psychoanalytic causes for my conversion -- some of which are plausible, while others are ruled out by the details of the situation. But subjectively, it was very much a rational decision: here was evidence (this guy's experience), and here was his explanation, and it seemed to fit, and there was no other obvious explanation; QED. I realize now that my standards of evidence were naive (hey, I was 15 -- everyone is allowed a little youthful folly) . Personal testimonial is a poor kind of evidence, whether for gods or for patent medicines. Even if the narrator is sincere (and I have no reason to think Skinner wasn't), their memory may be selective or confabulatory; and strong belief can, I think, impel life change even if the subjective impetus is imaginary. And of course, evaluating religious faith in the same way as one evaluates a medical therapy, the whole double-blind control thing is missing -- so much for any pretence Skinner's "experiment" has to being "scientific". For every conversion that magically results in a dramatically reformed life there are several more where the convert falls away after six months, or continues to be an alcoholic, or a philanderer, or basically the same jerk they were before, only now they go to church. But, aside from the occasional big-name evangelist caught with his (or her) pants down, you don't hear so much about the failures, for the obvious reason that they don't go on the sawdust circuit.

But smartly or stupidly, now I was a Christian, species fundagelicus, and I started reading the Bible and praying and picking up all the other cultural norms of my new peer group. Obviously, it didn't take me too long to run into the whole Genesis vs. Natural History issue. If there had been a more active and systematic Creation Science push going on in my immediate environment I might have got (temporarily) sucked in, but as it was I only heard pro-Creationist lessons occasionally, and that mostly arguments I already knew were bogus (eg. Second Law of Thermodynamics). However, the single biggest factor that kept me from ever being a YEC, or even much of an OEC, was: I already knew that science had a coherent narrative of biological history, embedded in a larger narrative of geological history, in turn embedded in a still larger cosmological narrative. And it all hung together. Thus, I fairly soon came round to a compatibilist view of Genesis, and eventually to a mythological view. It was important to understand that God created us, and that we were fallen; it was not important to me to be able to point at a particular allegedly historical event as the foundational "fact" of that theological belief.

Last fall, that inestimable primate John Wilkins posted an excellent four-part series entitled "Why are creationists creationist?" (the thesis of which receives support from a recent paper by psychologists Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg), analyzing how one's worldview is formed by environmental cues, heavily influenced by childhood conditioning. In Wilkins' terms, by the time of my conversion I was already well-committed to the "scientific concept space" (scroll down to the big graphic), thus non- or pseudo-scientific views had little traction except perhaps as short-term speculations. As Bloom and Weisberg would put it, many of my naive intuitions had already been replaced by scientific ones -- it's safe to say that anyone who has wrapped their mind around relativity and QM has had their innate Aristotelian mechanics thoroughly shredded. In short, I was open to a universe of possibility, that might well do things that seemed quite astonishing -- such as assemble living cells from pre-biotic soup, and then evolve them into cabbages and kings.

So: my involvement in the RASC lead me (accidentally) into Christian fundamentalism, but also helped protect me from some of its worst effects. Life is full of ironies.

Hockey Jihad

I am decidedly not a fan of hockey (or of any organized sport for that matter). What the fact that I live a few km from the Home of the Ottawa Senators mostly means to me is that I have to plan my activities around gametime to avoid ridiculous traffic congestion on the roads and/or in the local restaurants (ok, maybe I'll be a teeny bit grudgingly appreciative that many of the local restaurants owe their existence to the hockey arena).

So, now the Sens are in the playoffs, for the first time in their modern existence. And the fervour of the fans has reached the religious stage, complete with in-groups and out-groups, vestments, and some rather odd rituals, like this one my son observed:

have you noticed the CBC people saying "Go Sens Go" at the end of every conversation?...It reminds me somehow of saying "God is great"

I wonder what they do to the people who either forget, or decline to use the proper rituals.