Issues related to human life and dignity usually attract attention from only one end of the political spectrum. If it relates to the unborn, the attention usually comes from the right; if it relates to undesirable adults, the attention usually comes from the left.
Republican Louisiana state representative John LaBruzzo has succeeded in the rare accomplishment of uniting the pro-life right and the progressive left — against him. This united front is a response to his proposal to pay poor women $1000 to undergo a tubal ligation. (Make no mistake — though he does not advocate physically forcing sterilization, this plan definitely constitutes a form of coercion.)
Coerced sterilization is a gravely disturbed idea, though not a new one. Commenters from all over the political spectrum have described it as eugenics. New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes called it "blatantly anti-life" while decrying the "bigotry of low expectations" experienced by the poor. The liberal blog Think Progress took a measured approach, letting LaBruzzo's ideas speak for themselves. An editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that "[t]he state has no business assigning a sliding scale to the value of human lives, but that's exactly what Rep. LaBruzzo is suggesting. "
In a hostile interview with CNN, LaBruzzo whined that the media are focusing only on this aspect of his plan because of "ratings." It does not seem to occur to him that the focus actually results from the wrong-headedness and evil of these ideas; in fact, he dismisses that idea out of hand, grumping, "If dealing with generational welfare is a bone-headed idea, then I guess I'm bone-headed."
LaBruzzo is not just manifestly bone-headed, but also unoriginal. Eugenics became popular in the United States a century ago, with compulsory sterilizations for undesirables such as the poor and especially the mentally ill. American eugenics also advocated encouraging the well-to-do to "breed," another idea floated by LaBruzzo. The eugenics movement came to a halt when Nazi Germany provided a demonstration of where the slippery slope leads. LaBruzzo should devote his time and attention to studying history instead of brainstorming elitist, inhumane ideas.
Friday, September 26, 2008 |
Infant formula is critically valuable for babies who cannot nurse. It contains expensive ingredients and its quality cannot be evaluated easily by consumers. All these factors lead to baby formula being a frequent target for contamination, adulteration, and confusion. With formula, the result isn't just consumers not getting their money's worth; it can be malnutrition, illness, and even death for young children.
I have heard of powdered formula bound for third-world countries being cut with plaster and other white powders, although I can't confirm those rumors. But one form of contamination, originating in China, is prominent in the news today: melamine. And just as with pet food a year and a half ago, melamine contamination has reportedly led to infant deaths in China.
Melamine is an industrial chemical that contains nitrogen. The only significant food ingredient that contains nitrogen is protein, so the measure of protein in food is often based on the measure of nitrogen. By adding melamine, unscrupulous food manufacturers can give their product the artificial appearance of a high protein content and sell it at a higher price.
Ingested in large quantities, melamine causes kidney stones that lead to kidney failure. Nearly 13,000 Chinese children have been hospitalized with melamine poisoning from consuming tainted formula, and at least four have died, according to the British Medical Journal.
But contamination is not the only problem with infant food in the world; another is inappropriate marketing. There is an international code for infant formula marketing, which focuses mainly insisting that formula companies acknowledge that breast milk is best. Occasionally, a more outrageous situation comes up, such as a food not meant for babies being marketed as infant formula.
That's the situation with Bear Brand Coffee Creamer from Nestlé, sold in the southeast Asian country of Laos. In addition to coffee creamer, products with the Bear Brand label include infant formula and canned cows' milk. The label shows a bear cradling a baby bear as if nursing it. In a country where perhaps half of the rural population is illiterate, it is no small wonder that the coffee creamer is widely used (yes, widely) as a "breast milk substitute." There are case reports of severe malnutrition-related illnesses and deaths in young Laotian children who were fed Bear Brand Coffee Creamer instead of breast milk or infant formula. Again, the British Medical Journal has the story (hat tip to Chanpheng Lew (saosalavan) on Plurk).
If you couldn't read, would you think this product is good for children? Click image to enlarge:
Thursday, September 25, 2008 |
Elsewhere, this blog has noted efforts to generate petroleum using genetically engineered bacteria (Bell BioEnergy, Amyris and LS9). These methods use naturally-occurring abilities of certain bacteria to convert cellulose, a carbohydrate, to hydrocarbons, the chemicals that fuel our vehicles, heat our homes, and otherwise serve most of our energy needs.
Bacteria convert one type of chemical energy to another type, as explained here. Photosynthesizers such as green plants are needed to perform the first step of converting light energy into chemical energy for the bacteria to work on.
What if this middle step were eliminated? A new Bill Gates start-up, Sapphire Energy, begins and ends with the photosynthesizer — in their case, algae, single-celled plant-like organisms. The goal is to create "renewable gasoline," not ethanol, taking advantage of "non-arable land."
Another company, Solazyme, takes a more conservative approach, if anything about this field can be called conservative. It grows its oil-generating algae in the dark and feeds it sugar water, which must be derived from food sources. The fundamental principles are the same as with methods that use bacteria to produce renewable hydrocarbons.
Algae are aquatic organisms that require water to be circulated, a significant energy cost that currently keeps the price of algae-derived fuels high. This factor may limit algae's usefulness on an industrial scale. Algae also need a source of carbon dioxide. These fundamental differences may mean algae will turn out to be inferior to bacteria in the field of renewable fuels.
Or not. There are few certainties yet in this exciting, promising field. There is a lot of potential and a lot of hope, and I will be interested to see whether these new energy companies can bring down the costs enough to produce their products on a meaningful scale and compete with fossil fuels.
Read more at Scientific American.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008 |
I don't think any of them are right about why trailer park devastation is so prevalent in the media after tornadoes. I think it's because trailer homes are not sturdy structures. But that's not the point.
The irony of posting about storm damage while I am a refugee from a major storm is not lost on me.
Friday, September 19, 2008 |
My house is in the direct track predicted for at least one computer model of Hurricane Ike. Yikes. We are not evacuating. I will be reporting on the storm on my other blog, Road to Black. You can subscribe to that blog here.
Thursday, September 11, 2008 |
The science world is all abuzz about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe. Located under the Switzerland-France border, it is the largest and, more importantly, the highest-energy particle accelerator in the world, with an energy of 7 tera-electron volts (TeV).
Take my word for it that that is a very high energy. Here is an easier number to understand: At full energy, the LHC will use $100,000 worth of electricity per day.
Americans could have outdone the LHC, with the planned Superconducting Super Collider, once planned to be built south of Dallas, Texas. It was to have an energy of 20 TeV. But Congress cancelled the SSC's funding in 1993.
Today the LHC lit up with its first beam. No particle collisions have been conducted, although once they start, particle physicists hope they will be able to fill in the gaps in the Standard Model of particle physics. The media hyperbolically calls this "the search for the God particle," i.e. a particle called the Higgs boson.
Some bosons, er, bozos have cried loudly that the LHC will create a microscopic black hole that will not immediately disappear, but that will consume the entire earth. To keep apprised of this developing crisis, I recommend this blog, Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed The Earth Yet?
Wednesday, September 10, 2008 |
Evangelist of evolution Michael Dowd is not content to promote a worldview devoid of the supernatural using the language of atheism. His mission is to appropriate religious language and redefine it.
He calls the words related to faith — words like reverence and holiness, and theological terms like living in Christ — "night language," apparently because they obscure what sees as the truth. (His truth is that there is no supernatural order; he even prefers the term "unnatural" to "supernatural.") The goal, which he states explicitly, is to redefine "night language" in purely secular terms.
In one of the two Point of Inquiry interviews, Dowd explains how and why he redefines one particular theological term, original sin. (The orthodox Christian definition of original sin is that first human sin committed by Adam and Eve. This sin is inherited by all humans, and its effects include separation from God, which is healed at baptism, and a "fallen nature" or tendency toward sin, also known as concupiscence.) Dowd does not believe in a spiritual world and thus not in a universal spiritual wound; he would like to redefine original sin to be merely an artifact of human evolution.
In the interview, Dowd seems at times desperate to gain the atheist host's approval. He brags about his secular "street cred," obtained when he and his wife had a polyamorous relationship with another woman. Being disfellowshipped from the United Church of Christ (one of the most liberal Protestant denominations) was not enough for him to change his ways, but he is now in a strictly monogamous relationship because (I'm not making this up) he is afraid of papparazzi.
So "living integrously" for Dowd does not require monogamy, but it does seem to require honesty; in his worldview, adultery is only wrong if your spouse disapproves.
This is the evolution evangelist's explanation of original sin:
When a person's social status changes dramatically for the better, such as upon being promoted or elected into office, Dowd says one experiences a boost in testosterone. (I'll take his word for it.) A high level of testosterone leads to a preoccupation with sex. He says that an orthodox Christian's response to this experience is to assume that "sex on the brain" means that it is God's will for him to commit adultery. It would be a sorry understatement to call this statement disingenuous.
Recognizing that a preoccupation with sex in this situation is just a natural response related to human evolution, rather than a result of a spiritual fall, gives a person the "tools" to live "integrously" by not acting on those urges, while a spiritual view of original sin does not do so, says Dowd.
It is true that a purely spiritual view of original sin does not by itself give one all the "tools" they need to avoid actual sin. Catholics and most Protestants agree that people cannot avoid sin entirely by relying on themselves. God's grace always a necessary weapon in the war against concupiscence.
Still, there is no denying that insight into one's psyche helps one make good choices. But it is not necessary at all to believe in human evolution in order to understand how hormones affect thinking. Psychobiology is not the same as evolution; this example would be better suited to a "gospel of psychiatry" rather than a "gospel of evolution."
Michael Dowd Series:
- Part 1: Demoting the sacred
- Part 2: Original sin
- Part 3: Seven false reasons for the gospel of evolution
- Part 4: The compatibility of science and religion
Tuesday, September 09, 2008 |
The recent post about this blog's position on evolution has attracted a lot of attention. Perhaps I should have added that I believe evolution is "only a theory" in the sense that it is nothing more than an idea of secular science and is not at all a sacred thing. I say this to make a contrast with the position of Michael Dowd, a self-described "evangelist of the gospel of evolution."
Dowd, previously a Catholic and then a fundamentalist Protestant, is now the inventor of "evolutionary theology" and the author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. He was recently interviewed in two parts on the secular humanist radio program "Point of Inquiry," where he explained his naturalized religion.
There is a lot to Dowd's message, parts of which will be addressed in future posts. But his ideas all boil down to one central thesis: God is not a supernatural, personal being, but a personification of reality. In other words, God is the "proper name" we give to all of nature. His term "Religion 2.0" seems to refer to a hybridization between pantheism and the philosophy of Spinoza, both descendants of Eastern philosophy.
Though he calls it a "personification," Dowd's thesis about religious thought actually makes God into a non-person. In other words, God's personhood is merely symbolic.
Dowd explicitly rejects all private revelation (what Catholics would call "the deposit of faith") in favor of the revelation uncovered by science. He says that scientific facts are "God's native language." This idea echoes the beliefs of the Deists, who accepted "natural theology" but rejected the revealed theology that is central to the claims of Christianity. Interestingly, in the radio interviews at least, he makes no attempt to refute the idea that revelation contains truth, but merely denounces it.
The Catholic Church holds that while doctrine can develop in the same way a flower unfolds, its core content never changes. The original deposit of faith was completed with the writing of the books now included in the Bible. The Church is so careful on this point that she uses a dead language as the official tongue of faith, lest the natural evolution of living languages distort the unchanging contents of revelation.
Nature likewise never changes (except, the Christian would maintain, through the rare interventions of God known as miracles), but our understanding and description of nature — in other words, science — changes frequently and often dramatically. For example, consider how the uncertainties of quantum mechanics (a model which even has a postulate called the Uncertainty Principle) compare with the clockwork universe of Newton. Even the theory of evolution, the scientific nucleus of Dowd's philosophy, may in principle be one day replaced or drastically modified as the central unifying theory of biology.
And much of Dowd's message draws not on the overall theory of evolution, which is a very strong model with overwhelming scientific consensus, but on the much more speculative field known as evolutionary psychology. To derive our behavioral "integrity," as Dowd recommends, from such a controversial discipline is to build our morals on a foundation of sand.
I subscribe instead to the Cartesian (and fully Catholic-compatible) view that science, as the study of nature, is subordinate to supernatural truth. By removing the supernatural from reality and calling the remnants "God," Dowd has made himself into an evangelist of nonsense. A commenter on the Point of Inquiry website put it well with these insightful remarks: "If the universe is god is the metaphor, then doesn’t god lose all meaning? ... An impersonal and unknowable god seems like no god at all, at least from a teleological point of view."
Michael Dowd Series:
- Part 1: Demoting the sacred
- Part 2: Original sin
- Part 3: Seven false reasons for the gospel of evolution
- Part 4: The compatibility of science and religion
Friday, September 05, 2008 |
Posts on Leave the lights on take for granted certain things, such as the truth of the Catholic faith and the value of science for investigating nature. As I read other blogs on science, on faith, and on both, I see clearly that my positions are not universal. Indeed, if they were, there would be little use in many of the posts of this blog.
This is the first of a series of position statements for Leave the lights on. This statement is on the theory of evolution.
This blog takes the position, controversial among people of faith, that evolution is both a historical fact and the best theoretical model to explain the observations of biology.
When I earned my B.S. in Zoology, I unofficially specialized in paleontology and evolution. Ironically, this interest was born of my faith and a desire to know how to refute evolution. Instead, I learned not only of the overwhelming evidence behind the theory, including predictions that have been shown to be true, but the subtle intricacies that derive from a few simple statements. As a theory, it is truly a thing of beauty.
In particular, I was enthralled with the discovery that evolution is compatible with the Catholic faith. While this is a theme I would like to explore further some day, for now let it suffice to say that I believe that God imbued two individuals, who we call Adam and Eve, with immortal souls, and that they were the ancestors of all human beings. I believe in the Fall, in original sin, and in the special place of humans among (and above) the animals.
Also, I try to eschew the term "Darwinism." "Evolution" or "theory of evolution" suffice just fine. Calling it "Darwinism" suggests there may be an alternate theory of evolution, which I reject. Besides, the modern theory of evolution may have begun with Darwin, but it has been developed quite heavily since then.
My position is that Intelligent Design is not science because it does not explain the natural world — rather, it posits that the natural world cannot be fully explained; and because it makes no specific predictions, though compatible "theories" such as genomic front-loading may do so. I think ID gives people of faith a bad name in the science community.
In consideration of what has been observed in geology, biology, and other disciplines, young-earth creationism is a noxious theory that makes God out to be a liar, since it requires God to have placed abundant evidence for evolution and an old earth in creation.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008 |