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I created a Wordle "word cloud" for Leave the lights on (click to enlarge):

This tells me I write a lot more about science than about the Catholic faith or the intersection of the two. Is that what you like, dear readers? Or would you rather more religiously oriented content? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


Why I am open in my support of evolution

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Scientific American, whose articles often are noticeably skewed toward an antireligious (rather than merely secular) perspective, begins to make up for past transgressions with this fascinating profile on an accomplished geneticist and evolutionary biologist who speaks up for the compatibility of evolution and religion. Among the excellent points Francisco Ayala (who was once ordained a Dominican priest, though it's not clear whether he still practices any faith) makes:

  • Evolution not only does not undermine a divine explanation for nature, it actually helps. It shows that the suffering in nature, caused by predators and parasites and plain bad luck, is amoral rather than immoral — that it is not evil in the sense of an act of the will. Since God by definition can do no evil, describing nature as neither good nor evil explains how a good God can create a world with natural suffering. It helps, in other words, with theodicy.
  • Outside the United States, the strong feeling that "Darwinism" is the enemy of Christianity and vice versa is not prominent.
  • The biggest reason I feel strongly about explaining how evolution is compatible with faith is reiterated by Ayala: Many intelligent Christian students of biology lose their faith when they discover the strength of the theory of evolution because they believe evolution and Christianity are incompatible. It is tragic to think of people turning from God as a result of learning more about his sublime creation.
Ayala's interest in the philosophy of science, unfortunately, does not seem to show as much evidence of his theological training as SciAm implies. For example, according to Wikipedia (admittedly not a terrifically reliable source), he has spoken out against the United States ban on federal funds for vivisecting human embryos.

Nevertheless, though I have far less education in both science and theology than Ayala, I would like to think that in at least some ways we are kindred spirits. We both oppose the sneering attitude of the "Brights" who think they have the corner on truth, when they are actually just closing their eyes to the brightest part of it.


Does biology affect political beliefs?

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I've gotten less political here as the U.S. presidential election draws near. But I just have to comment on this bone-headed study, described in a Houston Chronicle story with the asinine title "Liberal versus conservative: DNA may tell."

What are the problems with the study? First, the research methods are flawed, because the concepts of "liberal" and "conservative" are very subjective and specific to modern United States culture. And second, the conclusion reached by the researcher being interviewed is far more than what is supported by the data.

The researchers started by having their sample fill out questionnaires on social policies such as "support for the war in Iraq, support for or opposition to immigration, opposition to gun control, [and] support for the death penalty." Each of these is a complex issue with nuanced arguments, about which many people have complex opinions, but since they were part of a questionnaire, it is likely that ratings were obtained simply on a polarized scale. My own opinion on the death penalty, for instance, cannot be classified into simple support or oppose; it would take me at least a couple of paragraphs to explain it.

The issues were categorized into "socially protective" and non-"socially protective" policies, about which the interviewee says "certainly there's a left-right orientation." Being themselves mired in American political culture (the study took place at Houston's Rice University), the researchers apparently cannot even see their own bias in labeling the various policies as "left" or "right." To them, "socially protective" policies are right-wing, not left-wing — even though in some cases, policies considered liberal could be seen as more "socially protective" than the corresponding conservative policies.

For example, the researchers considered opposition to gun control, classically a conservative position, as a "socially protective" policy, which fits their data (which I will get to below). Yet arguments in favor of gun control, classically liberal, always have a socially protective pitch; if not to protect innocent people from being killed by guns, why restrict them?

The biases of the researchers make the data worthless for the purpose the researchers are seeking — determining whether one's place on the political spectrum has at least a partial biological basis. Yet even if the data were good, the conclusion announced by the interviewee is on another planet from what those data actually show.

What the data show is that people who favor "socially protective" policies (the ones pre-defined as "conservative") have stronger physiological responses to anxiety-provoking situations (disturbing images and startling sounds) than those who do not favor those policies. Physiological response to stress is strongly tied to psychological factors whose biological basis is unclear at best. But the interviewee cites some concrete numbers, apparently pulled out of thin air: "Probably two-thirds of the explanation is outside of biology," with the rest based on specifically on DNA. Keep in mind that this study did not look at genetic factors at all. There is absolutely no support for saying that correlation between biology and politics, if it exists at all, is based on DNA rather than on environmental effects on one's biology. In other words, there is no investigation into whether the results come from nature or from nurture. (In fairness, this conclusion is not presented in the abstract of the study itself.)

This study was published in the prestigious journal Science, yet almost all of the researchers hail from the field of political science. Only two of the eight authors have any background in psychology, and only one of those is clearly identified with biological psychology. As with some other journal articles, how this nonscientific rubbish passed peer review is a mystery.


Embryos in the news

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From the blogosphere:

The Deeps of Time tells the chilling tale of a profoundly anti-life decision of the Oregon Court of Appeals, in which human embryos were apparently declared to be ordinary property. Read the post: "Oregon Continues March Into Inhumanity."

Mary Meets Dolly observes that children's books about where babies come from do not equivocate about the issue the way many in the pro-choice and pro-ESCR movements do. Read the post: "When Did I Begin?"

From the media:

Scientific American has the story on a new microscope that can observe an embryo from the single-cell stage to the point at which the heartbeat begins. The observations were performed on zebrafish embryos. (Hey, I used to have those in my aquarium!) As amazing as videos of a developing human embryo would be, I profoundly hope they do not perform the necessary indignity (and inevitable subsequent killing) on a human embryo.


Contest winner

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Thanks for playing, Michael! You guessed that the fossil in the Friday Fossil Guessing Game was of a mastodon tooth. It is indeed the tooth of a Columbian mammoth (story). You win this lovely interesting cobbled-together banner! You can just enjoy its niceness, or you can post it on your website. Or tile it as your desktop background. No, I'm not holding my breath for you to do that. Oh, and if you're not Michael, check out his blog "The Deeps of Time," to which I subscribe.

Should I impose more contests, trivia games, and such on the blogosphere? Because I can't be serious all the time, and I am inclined to keep occasionally doing these things.


Friday fossil guessing game

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For some weekend fun, try to guess what this is a fossil of. (Yes, fossil guessing games are considered "fun" at Leave the lights on.) This object was unearthed in a paleontologist's yard by Hurricane Ike. Makes me wonder how many unrecognized fossils were unearthed in non-paleontologists' yards!

The first person to guess correctly, or the person whose guess is closest, will get, well, some sort of prize. I'm thinking a lovely graphic. It may not be good sportsmanship to use Google to help you, but if you're comfortable with it, then nothing is stopping you.


Michael Dowd, part 3: Seven false reasons for the gospel of evolution

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Michael Dowd, the self-proclaimed "evangelist of evolution," wants religious people to discard their beliefs while keeping their religious language, which he would like to redefine to refer to concepts from the scientific theory of evolution and speculations of evolutionary psychology.

This is a pretty big horse pill to swallow. Dowd knows this, so he markets his ideas with his Seven Reasons for the Gospel of Evolution. And here they are, seven reasons Dowd thinks people of faith should come around to his way of thinking:

  1. The gospel of evolution would give us a common creation myth. Since Christians and Jews already share a common creation myth, I assume Dowd must mean to use the gospel of evolution for a sort of universal ecumenism, in which all religions — Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity among them — acknowledge one and only one story of origins: naturalistic evolution.
  2. It validates both scientific and religious ways of speaking. Of course, religious ways of speaking are already "validated" in the religious community. Dowd must mean therefore that religious ways of speaking will be validated among the atheistic community. Indeed, throughout his interviews, Dowd comes across as desperate for the approval of atheists.
  3. It is a key to understanding and alleviating suffering, which comes from not living "integrously" with the flow of evolution. History, with its lessons on the eugenics movement and on Nazi genocide, teaches a far different lesson on what happens when humans try to base their ethics on the theory of evolution.
  4. Religious language can be interpreted in a way that's universally true. By this, Dowd means it can be interpreted naturalistically. He says, "I don't have to wait to die to go to a place called heaven. When I'm in a place, integrity, love, compassion, generosity, care, consideration, I'm in heaven now, and so are you. It's true for everybody." But obviously, it's not true for those whose earthly lives are full of suffering, whether from loneliness, physical or mental illness, drug addiction, or other causes of grief. It seems cruel of Dowd to be so eager to steal the hope of a happy afterlife from people who are far from experiencing "heaven" on earth.
  5. Only by knowing how we really got here and the trajectory we're on can we respond to problems like terrorism without making things worse. "It is impossible to know how to move into a healthy sustainable future" without understanding evolution, says Dowd. I agree that understanding evolution is important, but there is no reason religious beliefs should be discarded at the same time.
  6. It unmasks the powers of manipulations. "We are so easily led around like a nose-ring (sic)." Here I assume Dowd is giving in to the frequent atheistic criticism of religion, that organized religion exists to manipulate the masses. Yet people of faith like myself believe we are more free in many ways than are people without faith.
  7. "It gives us the tools for understanding how to have a great life and thriving relationships no matter what hand life deals us." That's funny; my Catholic faith also gives me those tools, and much more explicitly. I imagine that the Gospel of Religion has no sacraments, for example.

Michael Dowd Series: