Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

Free Energy and the Meaning of Life

When we think about the “meaning of life,” we tend to conjure ideas such as love, or self-actualization, or justice, or human progress. It’s an anthropocentric view; try to convince blue-green algae that self-actualization is some sort of virtue. Let’s ask instead why “life,” as a biological concept, actually exists. That is to say: we know that entropy increases as the universe evolves. But why, on the road from the simple and low-entropy early universe to the simple and high-entropy late universe, do we pass through our present era of marvelous complexity and organization, culminating in the intricate chemical reactions we know as life?

Yesterday’s book club post referred to a somewhat-whimsical vision of Maxwell’s Demon as a paradigm for life. The Demon takes in free energy and uses it to maintain a separation between hot and cold sides of a box of gas — a sustained departure from thermal equilibrium. But what if we reversed the story? Instead of thinking that the Demon takes advantage free energy to help advance its nefarious anti-thermodynamic agenda, what if we imagine that the free energy is simply using the Demon — that is, the out-of-equilibrium configurations labeled “life” — for its own pro-thermodynamic purposes?

...there’s useful energy, and useless energy. When you burn gasoline in your car engine, the amount of energy doesn’t really change; some of it gets converted into the motion of your car, while some gets dissipated into useless forms such as noise, heat, and exhaust, increasing entropy along the way. That’s why it’s helpful to invent the concept of “free energy” to keep track of how much energy is actually available for doing useful work, like accelerating a car. Roughly speaking, the free energy is the total energy minus entropy times temperature, so free energy is used up as entropy increases.

Because the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that entropy increases, the history of the universe is the story of dissipation of free energy. Energy wants to be converted from useful forms to useless forms. But it might not happen automatically; sometimes a configuration with excess free energy can last a long time before something comes along to nudge it into a higher-entropy form.

2010 in photos (part 1 of 3) - The Big Picture -

2010 in photos (part 1 of 3) - The Big Picture -

How Science Changed Our World

Chapter 8: The Indelible Stamp of our Lowly Origin

Are Humans Evolving Less Brain Matter? | The Atlantic Wire

Are Humans Evolving to Be Dumber? | The Atlantic Wire

According to a new report in Discover Magazine, the human brain, which has expanded for most of our biological history, has begun to shrink. Kathleen McAuliffe writes that, according to new research, "Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball. The female brain has shrunk by about the same proportion." And that shrinking appears to still be happening on an evolutionary scale.
So why haven't you heard about this yet? Discover Magazine's McAuliffe thinks it may have something to do with the fact that scientists--at least the few who have stumbled onto this trend--don't really have an explanation yet. "As I soon discover, only a tight-knit circle of paleontologists seem to be in on the secret, and even they seem a bit muddled about the matter. Their theories as to why the human brain is shrinking are all over the map," she writes.

At the Discover Magazine blog, Razib Khan lays out the two biggest theories:

Roughly, some think we’re getting less intelligent, while others believe that the brain is reorganizing its structure and development. Remember that the brain uses about ~20% of our caloric intake. It’s a metabolically expensive organ.

So it's possible that human brains are merely becoming more efficient. But it's also possible, according to paleoneurologists, that we really are evolving to be dumber. As studious observers of the U.S. Congress, we at the Atlantic Wire certainly find that theory plausible.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unearthing Prehistoric Tumors, and Debate

Often thought of as a modern disease, cancer has always been with us. Where scientists disagree is on how much it has been amplified by the sweet and bitter fruits of civilization.

As scientists continue to investigate...cancer is not entirely civilization’s fault. In the normal course of life a creature’s cells must be constantly dividing — millions of times a second. Sometimes something will go wrong.

“Cancer is an inevitability the moment you create complex multicellular organisms and give the individual cells the license to proliferate,” said Dr. Weinberg of the Whitehead Institute. “It is simply a consequence of increasing entropy, increasing disorder.”

He was not being fatalistic. Over the ages bodies have evolved formidable barriers to keep rebellious cells in line. Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthier diets and taking other preventive measures can stave off cancer for decades. Until we die of something else.

“If we lived long enough,” Dr. Weinberg observed, “sooner or later we all would get cancer.”


Discovery News : Discovery Channel

Discovery News : Discovery Channel

"The story of Neanderthal extinction is one of the most intriguing in all of human evolution," author Simon Underdown told Discovery News. "Why did a large-brained, intelligent hominid that shared so many traits with us disappear?"

To resolve that question, Underdown, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, studied a well-documented tribal group, the Fore of Papua New Guinea, who practiced ritualistic cannibalism.

Gory evidence uncovered in a French cave in 1999 revealed Neanderthals likely practiced cannibalism. The 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river suggested a group of Neanderthals defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains.

Companies Flush With Cash - Newsweek

Companies Flush With Cash - Newsweek

The recession has been over in most countries for more than a year now, and as economists continue to decipher how and why this downturn differed from others, an interesting anomaly has emerged. While nations like the United States, Great Britain, and Japan are saddled with debt, companies in the U.S. and Europe have more than $1.5 trillion sitting on their respective balance sheets. In normal times, this abundance of cash would be good for the economy, as companies would invest, expand capacity, and create jobs. And indeed, over the next year, analysts say there may be a slight uptick in spending as cash-heavy firms turn to mergers and acquisitions, dividend payments, capital expenditures, and a variety of job-creating investments, particularly in high-growth countries such as China, India, and Brazil.

Tenacious DNA

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Closing Remarks

Dacey on Death and Skepticism

James Boswell no doubt hoped for some sort of coerced reversal when he sat down to interview an ailing David Hume on July 7, 1776. What he found was the great skeptic smiling at death. Hume amiably told him that he had entertained no religious belief since he began reading Locke and Clarke, that the ethics of every religion is bad, and that when he hears that a man is religious he concludes that he is a rascal. Searching for a scoop, Boswell pressed Hume on what lay beyond the grave. Hume responded that “it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever” and that the prospect of his personal annihilation gave him no anxiety.

In August, Adam Smith wrote to a mutual friend of Hume’s, Alexander Wedderburn, “[p]oor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.” Although they were going to lose a friend, Smith observed, at least he would die “as a man of sense ought to.”

Philosopher Austin Dacey

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finger Points to New Type of Human - ScienceNOW

Finger Points to New Type of Human - ScienceNOW

Observing the Multiverse (Guest Post)

Observing the Multiverse (Guest Post)

The idea that there might be other universes is taken quite seriously in high energy physics and cosmology these days. This is mainly due to the fact that the laws of physics, and the various “fundamental” constants appearing in them, could have been otherwise. More technically worded, there is no unique vacuum in theories of high energy physics that involve spontaneous symmetry breaking, extra dimensions, or supersymmetry. Having a bunch of vacua around is interesting, but to what extent are they actually realized in nature? Surprisingly, when a spacetime region undergoing inflation is metastable, there are cases when all of the vacua in a theory can be realized in different places and at different times. This phenomenon is known as eternal inflation. In an inflating universe, if a region is in a metastable vacuum, bubbles containing different vacua will form. These bubbles then expand, and eat into the original vacuum. However, if the space between bubbles is expanding fast enough, they never merge completely. There is always more volume to convert into different vacua through bubble formation, and the original vacuum never disappears: inflation becomes eternal. In the theory of eternal inflation, our entire observable universe resides inside one of these bubbles. Other bubbles will contain other universes. In this precise sense, many theories of high energy physics seem to predict the existence of other universes.

In the past four years, a few groups have tried to understand if it is possible to confront this radical picture of a “multiverse” with observation. The idea is to look for signatures of a collision between another bubble universe and our own. Even though the outside eternally inflating spacetime prevents all bubbles from merging, there will be many collisions between bubbles. How many we are even in principle able to see depends in detail on the underlying theory, and given the proliferation of theories, there is no concrete prediction.

Currently, the best information about the primordial universe comes from the cosmic microwave background (CMB). A collision will produce inhomogeneities in the early stages of cosmology inside our bubble, which are then imprinted as temperature and polarization fluctuations of the CMB. One can look for these fingerprints of a bubble collision in data from the WMAP or Planck satellites.

Most of the previous work has been to establish a proof of concept that observable bubble collisions can exist, and that there are theories which predict that we expect to see them; many of the details remain to be worked out. There are however a number of generic signatures of bubble collisions that we used to guide our search. Since a collision affects only a portion of our bubble interior, and because the colliding bubbles are nearly spherical, the signal is confined to a disc on the CMB sky (imagine two merging soap bubbles; the intersection is a ring). The effect of the collision inside the disc is very broad because it has been stretched by inflation. In addition, there might be a jump in the temperature at the boundary of the disc (although the magnitude and sharpness of such a jump has yet to be worked out in detail).

Cosmic Perspective - "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Best Space Discoveries of 2010: Nat Geo News's Most Popular

Best Space Discoveries of 2010: Nat Geo News's Most Popular

The Human Brain - Evolutionary Patchwork (Dr. Linden)

Elizabeth Edwards' Brave Message

Elizabeth Edwards' Brave Message

When I arrived, Elizabeth told me that cancer had essentially freed her to say whatever the hell she wanted. Then she proved it, by questioning the one thing all presidential candidates and their spouses must embrace—religious faith:. “I’m not praying for God to save me from cancer. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I've done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I'll be saved. And that's all he promises me.” But did she believe? Here she went further than any public figure this side of Christopher Hitchens.

“I had to think about a God who would not save my son. Wade was—and I have lots of evidence; it's not just his mother saying it—a gentle and good boy. He reached out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. He could not stand for people to say nasty things about other people; he just didn't want it. For a 16-year-old boy, he was really extraordinary in this regard. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can't. You'd think that if God was going to protect somebody, he'd protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, "What kind of God do I have that doesn't intervene—in fact, may even participate—in the death of this good boy?"

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Jonathan Franzen Quote

Jonathan Franzen, The Art of Fiction

On The Corrections:

The fear out of which that book was written was that new materialism of the brain, which has given us drugs to change our personalities, and the materialism of consumer culture, which provides endless distractions and encourages the endless pursuit of more goods, were both antithetical to the project of literature, which is to connect with that which is unchanging and unchangeable, the tragic dimension of life.

Pictures: 14 Rarest and Weirdest Mammal Species Named

Pictures: 14 Rarest and Weirdest Mammal Species Named

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rome & Jerusalem - Hybrid Ideas Culture

Matt Ridley speaks about how ideas have sex and the mating of these ideas create hybrid ideas that have cultural consequences. In history the expansion of Roman power and influence into Jewish Culture in Palestine allowed for an exchange and mating of cultural ideas that led to very consequential hybrids. One powerful hybrid being the religion of Christianity and the rise of Monotheism globally. It was Roman authority, Jewish mysticism and pagan mystery occults that gave birth to Christianity. It was Roman Crucifixion, A Jewish Jesus and Pagan familiarity with divine humans that were ingredients to a soup that would set much of human history on a certain trajectory. The Divine Augustus a Son of God would be replaced in some 300 years with the Divine Jesus the Son of God. It was a hybrid of Rome & Jerusalem and carried with it a hybrid theology from paganism and Judaism. The idea of God as Trinity (3 Gods who are 1) is a mix of pagan Monotheism. A hybrid idea of cultural consequence.
Without the mating of Rome and Jerusalem there would be no Christianity. It is clearly nourished by human history and not set apart from it.

Even logistically without the infrastructure of the Roman Empire it would have been impossible for Christianity and the Apostle Paul’s message to spread to the extent it did. The genius of the formation of early Christianity was to take Roman punishment and humiliation as the spiritual and theological significance of their movement and thereby turning death into life and tragedy into a triumph. It was a brilliant form of populism. It was a story that touched the masses where many lived lives of hardship compared to the ruling Roman elite. Jesus was a god of the people not of the state. Not until Christianity became popular in the Roman world and it became politically expedient for the Emperor Constantine to use this religion to solidify his power and unify the empire. In doing so Constantine gave another blow to Hellenism (which had a fatal turn of events many years before in the Maccadean Revolt 166 BC) and now through Roman power gave rise to the Monotheistic State. An idea from Jerusalem to Rome that birthed a new era of political Monotheism that would not be challenged until the historical currents of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Extreme Places in the Solar System

The Language of the Gods

"I fear that we will never rid ourselves of God so long as we still believe in grammar."

Human language is the justification of the gods. What can be stated orally or written down can obfuscate reason and reality. The Religions that dominate most of the world have a book. It is written down and thus it must be true! IF it can be spoken it is so. This is the power of human can override reality by just a sound and a symbol. No matter the tyranny of the actual the sound and the symbol drive deep in human psyche. No matter how much suffering, death, natural explanations, diversity of opinion, scientific progress and critical thought the religious apologist can say "God is..." who can resist the sound and the symbol? The problem of evil is solved with a simple sound and symbol. "God has his is the best of all possible worlds." Ah what justification! Without human language the gods would not exist. The gods are mortal. When the human species goes extinct what symbol or sound will justify the gods? Who shall defend the faith with no human voice? Humans that justify Gods do so because the Gods justify them. I hear and see the sound and symbol "God created man" and in that Man created God. The creation of the Gods is the hubris of humanity.

Michel de Montaigne Quotes

"Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty provincial way of thinking and judging."

"The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar."

"Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass."

"Democritus and Heraclitus were two philosophers, of whom the first, finding the condition of man vain and ridiculous, never went out in public but with a mocking and laughing face; whereas Heraclitus, having pity and compassion on this same condition of ours, wore a face perpetually sad, and eyes filled with tears. I prefer the first humor; not because it is pleasanter to laugh than to weep, but because it is more disdainful, and condemns us more than the other; and it seems to me that we can never be despised as much as we deserve. Pity and commiseration are mingled with some esteem for the thing we pity; the things we laugh at we consider worthless. I do not think there is as much unhappiness in us as vanity, nor as much malice as stupidity. We are not so full of evil as of inanity; we are not as wretched as we are worthless."

"To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere."

"To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave."

Michel de Montaigne

Hitchens Quote

"I want you to consider emancipating yourself from the idea that you selfishly are the sole object of all the wonders of the cosmos and of nature"

Christopher Hitchens speaking before Christian youth in Texas. (Dembski Debate)

In our own image: Why we treat things like people - life - 29 November 2010 - New Scientist

In our own image: Why we treat things like people - life - 29 November 2010 - New Scientist

Aronra: My afterthoughts on the Hitchens-Dembski debate

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tyson, Krauss, & Harris-Science Education & Critical Thinking

Palin's Mind-Numbing Populism

Palin's Mind-Numbing Populism

Palin's continued criticism and Joe Miller attitude toward the media should concern anyone who understands the Constitutional importance of a free press.
George Mason, the father of Virginia's bill of rights wrote,

"the Freedom of the Press is one of the greatest Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments."

Palin talks about the Constitution and American greatness but she has no understanding that the things she shows contempt for are enshrined within the Constitution. A United States with no religious test and a free press is something she continues to fight against.

She likes the shallow waters where she thinks the majority splashes around in.
Once again her mind-numbing populism attacking the intellectual. Her lack of curiosity and cognitive work is a source of pride for her because she is betting that the majority are as shallow as herself. Palin does not believe in American exceptionalism she believes Americans are unexceptional and will fall for her anti-intellectual tribalism.

The TFC on the BoE pt1

Public & Private Myth

"The myth is the public domain and the dream is the private myth. If your private myth, your dream, happens to coincide with that of the society, you are in good accord with your group. If it isn't, you've got a long adventure in the dark forest ahead of you."

Joseph Campbell

The Public Myth is that man is made in the image of God and that animals are made in the image of man. But the reality is that man created God and man is made in the image of the animals who are evolutionary relatives.

Visions of the Universe: Stars to Microbes

Early universe recreated in LHC was superhot liquid - physics-math - 25 November 2010 - New Scientist

Early universe recreated in LHC was superhot liquid - physics-math - 25 November 2010 - New Scientist

Weird Creatures From the Deep

Weird Creatures From the Deep

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical

Space Pictures This Week: Towering Cloud, Moon Geysers

Space Pictures This Week: Towering Cloud, Moon Geysers

Animal IQs

Animal IQs

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hypatia of Alexandria

"Only once before in our history was there the promise of a brilliant scientific civilization. Beneficiary of the Ionian Awakening, it had its citadel at the Library of Alexandria, where 2,000 years ago the best minds of antiquity established the foundations for the systematic study of mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, literature, geography and medicine. We build on those foundations still. The Library was constructed and supported by the Ptolemys, the Greek kings who inherited the Egyptian portion of the empire of Alexander the Great. From the time of its creation in the third century B.C. until its destruction seven centuries later, it was the brain and heart of the ancient world.

The last scientist who worked in the Library was a mathematician, astronomer, physicist and the head of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy -- an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in Alexandria in 370. At a time when women had few options and were treated as property, Hypatia moved freely and unselfconsciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. She had many suitors but rejected all offers of marriage. The Alexandria of Hypatia's time -- by then long under Roman rule -- was a city under grave strain. Slavery had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian Church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the epicenter of these mighty social forces. Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism In great personal danger, she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory of the Alexandrian Library is a dim memory. Its last remnants were destroyed soon after Hypatia's death. It was as if the entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas and passions were extinguished irrevocably. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of the works that were destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors. We do know that of the 123 plays of Sophocles in the Library, only seven survived. One of those seven is Oedipus Rex. Similar numbers apply to the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It is a little as if the only surviving works of a man named William Shakespeare were Coriolanus and A Winter's Tale, but we had heard that he had written certain other plays, unknown to us but apparently prized in his time, works entitled Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet." (From Cosmos by Carl Sagan)

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

By Rob Dunn, November 19, 2010

From hiccups to wisdom teeth, the evolution of homo sapiens has left behind some glaring, yet innately human, imperfections

Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day. Here are ten.

1. Our cells are weird chimeras
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).

2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

3. Backaches
The backs of vertebrates evolved as a kind of horizontal pole under which guts were slung. It was arched in the way a bridge might be arched, to support weight. Then, for reasons anthropologists debate long into the night, our hominid ancestors stood upright, which was the bodily equivalent of tipping a bridge on end. Standing on hind legs offered advantages—seeing long distances, for one, or freeing the hands to do other things—but it also turned our backs from an arched bridge to an S shape. The letter S, for all its beauty, is not meant to support weight and so our backs fail, consistently and painfully.

4. Unsupported intestines
Once we stood upright, our intestines hung down instead of being cradled by our stomach muscles. In this new position, our innards were not as well supported as they had been in our quadrupedal ancestors. The guts sat atop a hodgepodge of internal parts, including, in men, the cavities in the body wall through which the scrotum and its nerves descend during the first year of life. Every so often, our intestines find their way through these holes—in the way that noodles sneak out of a sieve—forming an inguinal hernia.

5. Choking
In most animals, the trachea (the passage for air) and the esophagus (the passage for food) are oriented such that the esophagus is below the trachea. In a cat's throat, for example, the two tubes run roughly horizontal and parallel to each other before heading on to the stomach and lung, respectively. In this configuration, gravity tends to push food down toward the lower esophagus. Not so in humans. Modifications of the trachea to allow speech pushed the trachea and esophagus further down the throat to make way. Simultaneously, our upright posture put the trachea and esophagus in a near-vertical orientation. Together these changes leave falling food or water about a 50-50 chance of falling in the “wrong tube.” As a consequence, in those moments in which the epiglottis does not have time to cover the trachea, we choke. We might be said to choke on our success. Monkeys suffer the same fate only rarely, but then again they can’t sing or dance. Then again, neither can I.

6. We're awfully cold in winter
Fur is a warm hug on a cold day, useful and nearly ubiquitous among mammals. But we and a few other species, such as naked mole rats, lost it when we lived in tropical environments. Debate remains as to why this happened, but the most plausible explanation is that when modern humans began to live in larger groups, our hair filled with more and more ticks and lice. Individuals with less hair were perhaps less likely to get parasite-borne diseases. Being hairless in Africa was not so bad, but once we moved into Arctic lands, it had real drawbacks. Evolution has no foresight, no sense of where its work will go.

7. Goosebumps don't really help
When our ancestors were covered in fur, muscles in their skin called “arrector pili” contracted when they were upset or cold, making their fur stand on end. When an angry or frightened dog barks at you, these are the muscles that raise its bristling hair. The same muscles puff up the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals on cold days to help keep them warm. Although we no longer have fur, we still have fur muscles just beneath our skin. They flex each time we are scared by a bristling dog or chilled by a wind, and in doing so give us goose bumps that make our thin hair stand uselessly on end.

8. Our brains squeeze our teeth
A genetic mutation in our recent ancestors caused their descendants to have roomy skulls that accommodated larger brains. This may seem like pure success—brilliance, or its antecedent anyway. But the gene that made way for a larger brain did so by diverting bone away from our jaws, which caused them to become thinner and smaller. With smaller jaws, we could not eat tough food as easily as our thicker-jawed ancestors, but we could think our way out of that problem with the use of fire and stone tools. Yet because our teeth are roughly the same size as they have long been, our shrinking jaws don’t leave enough room for them in our mouths. Our wisdom teeth need to be pulled because our brains are too big.

9. Obesity
Many of the ways in which our bodies fail have to do with very recent changes, changes in how we use our bodies and structure our societies. Hunger evolved as a trigger to drive us to search out food. Our taste buds evolved to encourage us to choose foods that benefited our bodies (such as sugar, salt and fat) and avoid those that might be poisonous. In much of the modern world, we have more food than we require, but our hunger and cravings continue. They are a bodily GPS unit that insists on taking us where we no longer need to go. Our taste buds ask for more sugar, salt and fat, and we obey.

10 to 100. The list goes on.
I have not even mentioned male nipples. I have said nothing of the blind spot in our eyes. Nor of the muscles some of use to wiggle our ears. We are full of the accumulated baggage of our idiosyncratic histories. The body is built on an old form, out of parts that once did very different things. So take a moment to pause and sit on your coccyx, the bone that was once a tail. Roll your ankles, each of which once connected a front leg to a paw. Revel not in who you are but who you were. It is, after all, amazing what evolution has made out of bits and pieces. Nor are we in any way alone or unique. Each plant, animal and fungus carries its own consequences of life's improvisational genius. So, long live the chimeras. In the meantime, if you will excuse me, I am going to rest my back.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Life Evolves

Let me lay my cards on the table. If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of even Newton or Einstein and everyone else. 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 physical law.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection has always fascinated me, but over the years I have found a surprising variety of thinkers who cannot conceal their discomfort with his great idea, ranging from nagging skepticism to outright hostility. I have found not just lay people and religious thinkers, but secular philosophers, psychologists, physisists, and even biologists who would prefer, it seems, that Darwin were wrong. This book is about why Darwin's idea is so powerful, and why it promises -- not threatens -- to put our most cherished visions of life on a new foundation.

Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Our Place In The Universe

Religion Psychology

Religion was never about what is true. It was about what is useful to the human being in its quest for explanatory security and existential meaning. The God concept is man's servant, a concept useful to self justification.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How Snakes Can "Fly"

How Snakes Can "Fly"

It's been known for a while that certain snake species can "fly," gliding as far as 330 feet (100 meters) from branch to branch—but how?

A new study—using unprecedented filming, 3-D modeling, and snakes both real and plastic—has shown how flying snakes angle and arrange themselves to achieve optimal lift.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Death Among the Living-Thoughts on Mortality

ScienceShot: Meet the Squidworm - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: Meet the Squidworm - ScienceNOW

The Problem of Evil and ID Creationism

A. A. Gill on Kentucky's Creation Museum Culture:

A. A. Gill on Kentucky's Creation Museum Culture:

I spent a lot of time in the Eden picnic area, trying to wrest some sort of spiritual buzz, a sense of the majesty and the mystery, but it’s conspicuously absent. Literally beaten to death. This is Ripley’s Believe-It. It is irredeemably kitsch. In fact, it may be the biggest collection of kitsch in God’s entire world. This is the profound represented by the banal, a divine irony.
This tacky, risible, and rational tableau defies belief, beggars faith. Compare it to the creation story in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Masaccio’s expulsion from Eden, or any of the thousands of flickering images, icons, and installations based on faith rather than literalist realism. It truly makes you wonder, Is all this righteous ire, all this money, all this Pentecostal flame-throwing the best they can come up with? This cheap county-fair sideshow—this is their best shot? It may be more replete with proof than a Soviet show trial, but this creation is bereft of any soul.

Symphony of Science - 'Our Place in the Cosmos' (ft. Sagan, Dawkins, Kak...

Richard Dawkins: The Strangeness of Science Cosmos Evolution

Debate: Does the Universe have a purpose?

Philosophizing symbology

ScienceShot: A Well-Preserved Meteor Impact - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: A Well-Preserved Meteor Impact - ScienceNOW

Did Darwin Help Predict Chilean Quake? - ScienceNOW

Did Darwin Help Predict Chilean Quake? - ScienceNOW

Monday, November 22, 2010

Evolutionary Relationships Hold, Even in Our Guts - ScienceNOW

Evolutionary Relationships Hold, Even in Our Guts - ScienceNOW

The human body is coated with bacterial cells. They live on our skin and between our teeth. They particularly like our warm, nutrient-filled gut, where they help digest food, make vitamins, and produce some seriously smelly gas. But when it comes to these gut bacteria, we are not what we eat. A new analysis of feces from humans and several other primates finds that evolutionary history, not diet, determines the makeup of our intestinal bugs.

Babies are born sterile, then they start picking up bacteria from their mothers. These microbes multiply and fill the intestines; one adult's gut can hold a thousand species. But it's not clear what exactly influences the makeup of that community—that is, what particular species of bacteria, in what quantities, hang out in our guts. It could depend mainly on what we get from our mothers, on what we eat, or on some other factor. Scientists have started using new genetic techniques to work out whether different species of animals have different communities; some studies in recent years have concluded that animals with similar diets have similar microbial communities.

ScienceShot: Astronomers Spot Baby Black Hole in Our Galactic Neighborhood - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: Astronomers Spot Baby Black Hole in Our Galactic Neighborhood - ScienceNOW

Hiding from the Mortal Animal: The Denial of the Body, Sex, & Death

Christopher Hitchens Closing Remarks (Dembski Debate)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Beauty & The Beast: Cosmic Complexity Beyond the Dogma

Neanderthals Lived Fast And Died Young, Unlike Man

Neanderthals Lived Fast And Died Young, Unlike Man

Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens to debate at Christian school in Plano | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Latest News

Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens to debate at Christian school in Plano | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Latest News

The Palin Situation

The Palin Situation

With the Palins, just when you think you've reached the total nadir of narcissism, hypocrisy, shamelessness and tackiness, a trap door opens beneath you and you fall down another storey.
Andrew Sullivan

Freedom of Religion

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Religious Test?

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Death Denial & The Will To Significance

Brain Neurons & Brain Evolution - The Storytelling Ape

Christianity, Paganism, & Nature

"The pagan religions had tended to sacralize nature,and so in its rivalry with them Christianity tended to view nature, including animals, as the domain of the devil. Christianity was also distinctly hostile to man's "animal" nature, to the sexual and other bodily functions that man shares with animals. Then too, any considerate regard for animals would raise acute issues of theodicy-of how a just and merciful God could have condemned the vast animal kingdom to a brutal, violent, predator-prey existence. The pagan gods had not been considered just and merciful; they reflected rather than surpassed nature, so the issue of theodicy did not arise in the worship of them."
Richard A. Posner

Monday, November 1, 2010

Expanding the Circle

"Man is always inclined to regard the small circle in which he lives as the center of the world and to make his particular, private life the standard of the universe. But he must give up this vain pretense, this petty provincial way of thinking and judging."
- Michel de Montaigne

"Diogenes the Cynic declared himself to be the citizen not of one country but of the whole world. Stoic philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius also argued that our loyalty should be to the world community, not to the state in which we happen to be born. Voltaire, Goethe, and Schiller espoused similar ideals of world, rather than national, citizenship. Yet patriotism has proved difficult to dislodge from its high place among the conventionally accepted virtues. The explanation for this could be that patriotism rests, at least in part, on a biological basis; but the explanation could also be cultural. Culture can itself be a factor in the evolutionary process, those cultures prevailing which enhance the group's prospect of survival."
Philosopher Peter Singer

"A human being is a part of a whole, called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
- Albert Einstein

"To a person who thinks, all the civil distinctions disappear."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Saturday, October 30, 2010

James Madison Against State Religion

Before the Virgina Legislator Jame Madison challenged the Assembly with a thought-provoking question, "What is Christianity?" Did they want the courts of the State to be interpreting this question?

Which edition of the Bible would the civil courts use, Madison asked, "What copy, what translation? Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate?"
Would the law be based on the Old Testament or the New Testament?

Madison continued to question the assembly, would the Bible be interpreted literally, "as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only?" Or, would the Bible be interpreted "in general not the words?"

"The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men."

The Constitution would help defend the rights of every citizen. As Madison explained, "A federal government is formed for the protection of its individual members."

Madison wrote, "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed."
June 8, 1789

Source - US Constitution & Bill of Rights Series (Gregory Schaaf, Ph.D.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

Voltaire - All is Well?

I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.

The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All ’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow-men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.
Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, “All ’s well,”
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind’s conceit.

Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world ’s the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature’s message run.
Plato and Epicurus I reject,
And turn more hopefully to learned Bayle*.
With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt.
He, wise and great enough to need no creed,
Has slain all systems—combats even himself:
Like that blind conqueror of Philistines,
He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.
Excerpts from Voltaire's Poem on the Lisbon Tragedy/an Examination of the Axiom
"All is Well"

*Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) was a Huguenot, i.e., a French Protestant, who spent almost the whole of his productive life as a refugee in Holland. His life was devoted entirely to scholarship, and his erudition was second to none in his, or perhaps any, period.
There is no philosophical issue closer to the core of Bayle's thought than the problem of evil. Evidence of his concern with it appears repeatedly throughout his work. Moreover, such was Bayle's pessimistic view of life that it was no merely theoretical issue. As he put it in the Manichean article, “man is wicked and unhappy; everywhere prisons, hospitals, gibbets and beggars; history, properly speaking, is nothing but a collection of the crimes and misfortunes of mankind.” No question for him, therefore, of taking the Augustinian line of denying the reality of evil. In fact, if there were a rational solution to the problem it would be the utterly terrifying one of denying the goodness of God. In the event, however, Bayle denied that there is any rational solution, arguing against three notable attempts thereat. Throughout these arguments Bayle emphasizes not only the intractability of the problem, but the horrendous nature of the evil generating it.
(Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Que sais-je?

Does Life make right? Is life inherently good?
Does God exist outside the minds of humans?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dare to Doubt

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."
-Thomas Jefferson

"And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence."
-Bertrand Russell

"A general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy much less of a universe."
-Carl Sagan

"I have met some highly intelligent believers, but history has no record to say that [s]he knew or understood the mind of god. Yet this is precisely the qualification which the godly must claim--so modestly and so humbly--to possess. It is time to withdraw our "respect" from such fantastic claims, all of them aimed at the exertion of power over other humans in the real and material world."
-Christopher Hitchens

If there is such a thing as a God it is more likely that it would value courage not fear, wisdom not credulity, love not hate, truth not would respect the person who desires to know not just believe. And if this God instead desires fear, ignorance, guilt, cowardice and credulity then it is honorable to contend with such a being. To treat a possible God with respect one must start with courage and skepticism not fear and faith.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Illusion of Normalcy

The Illusion of Normalcy is what we labor under.

Society is organized insanity. Myth is the milk of civilization. It keeps the poor sedated and the rich justified. It keeps the lottery system and the insurance companies fat. Security is a myth. There is only one ending to every story...Death.

"Let death find us as we are building up our matchstick protests against its waves."
Alain de Botton

"Of all the world's wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die." -- Yudhishtara answers Dharma, from "The Mahabharata"

"What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab­surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror."
Ernest Becker

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hitch on Solzhenitsyn

Hitch on Solzhenitsyn:

To have fought his way into Hitler's East Prussia as a proud Red Army soldier in the harshest war on record, to have been arrested and incarcerated for a chance indiscretion, to have served a full sentence of servitude and been released on the very day that Stalin died, and then to have developed cancer and known the whole rigor and misery of a Soviet-era isolation hospital—what could you fear after that? The bullying of Leonid Brezhnev's KGB and the hate campaigns of the hack-ridden Soviet press must have seemed like contemptible fleabites by comparison. But it seems that Solzhenitsyn did have a worry or a dread, not that he himself would be harmed but that none of his work would ever see print. Nonetheless—and this is the point to which I call your attention—he kept on writing. The Communist Party's goons could have torn it up or confiscated or burned it—as they did sometimes—but he continued putting it down on paper and keeping a bottom drawer filled for posterity. This is a kind of fortitude for which we do not have any facile name. The simplest way of phrasing it is to say that Solzhenitsyn lived "as if." Barely deigning to notice the sniggering, pick-nose bullies who followed him and harassed him, he carried on "as if" he were a free citizen, "as if" he had the right to study his own country's history, "as if" there were such a thing as human dignity.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Values? The Religious Right's Victorian Hypocrisy

Mixing politics and religion has had a precarious and problematic past in human history. And yet humans continue this folly. Today's Republican value voters and demagogues represented by Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, Glenn Beck, Mike Pence, Christine O'Donnell and Michelle Bachman to name a few represent a movement that hates the free press, celebrates being anti-intellectual and anti-scientific, and is in denial of human fragility and the human body itself. It is corrupt populist neo victorianism that cares more about their tribal language than they do about being true to their values in their personal life.
A Victorian would be offended if one spoke of adultery openly but would be comfortable with performing the act behind the scenes. Carrie Prejean is a good example of this. She speaks publicly about political and public morality but when lawyers showed her a tape of a woman masturbating on camera her response was that this was disgusting but then the lawyers let her know that the woman on the tape was her. I suppose it became less disgusting to Miss Prejean. This Neo-Victorianism is hyper compartmentalization. It cannot see beyond its bubbles of illusion and is so bent on hiding from its own humanity.

The Values? The main value is to deny the reality of the human being and body. It is the denial of human reality. They are hiding from the fragility and reality of humanity through the will to religious and political power. They hate the mirror of reality that exposes their compartmentalization and hypocrisy. They want to silence the artist, the scientist, and the intellectually honest who are facing the fragility and reality of what it means to be human.
There is a glorification of humanity with no reflection or contemplation of the real limits of humanity. There is a rush to judgment and a lack of curiosity.
There is a phobia of sex education but plenty of sex in the lives of their community and children. There is skepticism not of Religious Dogma but of Scientific Inquiry. There is morality but it is political not personal morality. There is a push for education as a means to job production not as a means to pursue the knowledge of reality and truth. There is a love of religion for making humans fallen angels who are the center of Gods attention but a hatred for Evolution which shows the reality of risen apes who are not the center of the Universe.

To be an intellectual and cosmopolitan is somehow anti-American but to celebrate ignorance and tribal identity is somehow patriotic. It is the corruption of Neo-Victorianism in American Culture.

Imagine Deep History

"To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant."
Cardinal John Henry Newman

The Cardinal stops too early. A Jewish person or a Pagan could say to be steeped in history is to cease being Catholic as well. And the more you research and study history dogma seems rather provincial, tribal and solipsistic.

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.

~Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Grand Design & Stephen Hawking

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

This sentence provoked a lot of chatter, most of it implying that Hawking might, at some stage in his career as a physicist, have believed that God could have been a contender. This is not the case. In the first place, even though Hawking invoked the name of God a number of times in 1988 in A Brief History of Time, he clearly never believed in a supernatural explanation. In the second place, science works by concentrating on natural explanations. Anything else would be cheating.

And in the third place, although you cannot prove a negative – that God does not exist – you can deliver partially testable theories of creation that might explain the existence of time, space, matter and energy without His help. And even those physicists who do believe in God and serve as lay-preachers do their best without supernatural feedback. It's what science is good at. It is why people can talk with such confidence about the history of the universe, shortly after the very beginning.

Tim Radford, The Guardian Review of the Grand Design

Power, Money & Justice

The most powerful political and financial elites are virtually immunized from the rule of law, empowered to violate those laws with full-scale impunity and to act without any constraints, while the politically powerless are imprisoned with far greater ease and in far greater numbers than any other country on the planet. Even the most egregious elite transgressions -- the pilfering and plundering that led to the 2008 financial crisis; the illegal surveillance, war and torture regime of the last decade; corporate crimes in virtually every realm -- are shielded from accountability with demands for immunity and leniency, while ordinary Americans have the full weight of the criminal justice system mercilessly crashing down upon them for even petty offenses which are rarely punished in most of the civilized world. The book examines the implications for this development (what happens when two different sets of rules apply for the powerful and the powerless?), documents why the current system is fundamentally different than even the serious, well-known violations of "equality under the law" which have plagued American history, and describes how "law" and the justice system are used to entrench and bolster inequality rather than subvert it.

Glenn Greenwald

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pope & Historical Complexity

The Pope ignoring historical complexities and ambiguity in his speech in Britain...

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”...Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well

Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Voltaire, Einstein,...are these Skeptics of Christianity Nazis? Was Socrates, Epicurus, Lucretius,Democritus and Democratic Athens blessed by the Church?
There is a problem with generalizations and ignoring the ambiguities and complexities of history as the Pope does here. It was not Nazi Atheism that was the problem it was the Nazi thirst for power and those willing to worship power. That impulse is universal in humans and is also in the history of the Church. The Church is made of humans of course...humans that carry the same weaknesses of any other group. It is not atheism that is the problem but the lack of vigilant skepticism of human power whatever the form. The Nazis were not all Atheists by any extent some of the Nazis were Catholic and when one studies the rise of Fascism in Catholic Italy in the 20's with Mussolini the Authoritarianism and anti-communism of the Church helped out Fascism. Hitler was inspired by Fascist Italy. If you want to connect atheism and Nazism you would also have to connect the Church to Fascism. Is that the kind of generalizations the Pope wants?
Who supported Franco and Fascist Spain? Franco was raised a devote Catholic. There is much literature on Anti-Semitism and some of its roots can traced to Christian reactionaries towards Jews. Shall one blame Christianity for the Holocaust?
Shall one generalize all priests as pedophiles? The horrors of World War II cannot be laid at atheists in general. Humans and their will to power and lack of skepticism is the problem and that includes the Church as well.
On Christianity and the English people again it is a more complex history. It is not always a good influence considering the religious wars and corruption that is part of the history. Democracy came from Ancient Pagan Greece. The Pagan Roman Republic was an inspiration for the American Experiment. The Renaissance was inspired by Pagan Greek and Roman ideas. Christianity cannot claim it was the only influence in the Western world. There are deeper roots that are in Ancient Greece and Rome that the Church had nothing to do with. The Catholic Church would appreciate that people do not generalize the Church and is seen with complexity and not demonized as pedophiles and crusaders. But the Church should have some reciprocity and not be simplistic and ignore history's complexity with its criticisms of atheism.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Realists do not fear the results of their study.
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sir Martin Rees: Brains & Post-Human Evolution

Sir Martin Rees:

Our brains are limited. It may take a posthuman species to work out the big questions.

“Einstein averred that “the most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it is comprehensible”. He was right to be astonished. Our minds evolved to cope with life on the African savannah, but can comprehend a great deal about the counterintuitive microworld of atoms, and about the vastness of the cosmos.

Indeed, Einstein would have been specially gratified at how our cosmic horizons have expanded. Our Sun is one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is itself one of many billion of galaxies in range of our telescopes. And there is firm evidence that these all emerged from a hot dense “beginning” nearly 14 billion years ago. (…)

Science is a global culture. Its universality is specially compelling in my own subject of astronomy. The dark night sky is an inheritance we’ve shared with all humanity, throughout history. All have gazed up in wonder at the same vault of heaven, but interpreted it in diverse ways.

It’s a cultural deprivation not to appreciate the panorama offered by modern cosmology and Darwinian evolution — the chain of emergent complexity leading from some still-mysterious beginning to atoms, stars and planets. And how, on our planet, life emerged and evolved into a biosphere containing creatures with brains able to ponder their origins. This common understanding should transcend all national differences — and all faiths too.

As science’s frontiers expand, their periphery lengthens; new questions come into focus. But a fundamental issue then arises: are there some questions that will for ever flummox us? Are there intrinsic limits to our understanding?

Ever since Darwin, we’ve been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past — the billions of years of evolution that led to our emergence. We are more than just another primate species. We are special: self-awareness and language were a qualitative leap, allowing cultural evolution and the cumulative diversified expertise that led to science and technology.

That’s because we humans need not be the culmination of the evolutionary tree: indeed it seems implausible that we are, because astronomy makes us aware that immense time-horizons extend into the future as well as into the past. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got six billion more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding Universe will continue, perhaps for ever, becoming ever colder, ever emptier.

As Woody Allen said: “Eternity is very long, especially towards the end.” So there is time enough for dramatic posthuman evolution, whether organic or silicon-based, on the Earth or far beyond. And for those species that come after us, even the most baffling problems that we can pose may be as straightforward as simple arithmetic is to us.”

Full Post Link

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Unanswerable Prayers

Hitchens on Cancer and Prayer

On those who think he is being punished by a God:

"There are numerous passages in holy scripture and religious tradition that for centuries made this kind of gloating into a mainstream belief. Long before it concerned me particularly I had understood the obvious objections. First, which mere primate is so damn sure that he can know the mind of god? Second, would this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? Third, why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got. Fourth, why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. While my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed …And even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it’s hello darkness my old friend."

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Shamelessness of Demagogues

"Democratic governments are altered by the shamelessness of demagogues."

"Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise."

Whether it is the shamelessness of Blago or that of Sarah Palin it is important for a democracy to challenge its demagogues. The importance of a free press and an informed citizenry must balance the potential power of these politically corrupt and divisive demagogues. If you notice Sarah Palin views the free press and media as her enemy which is a sign of a corrupt demagogue who grows their power on divisive identity politics and the ignorance of the people.

"That the Freedom of the Press is one of the greatest Bulwarks of Liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic Governments."
George Mason, Father of the Bill of Rights

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Zarathustra - Death, Truth & Gratitude

Zarathustra, however, remained standing, and just beside him fell the body, badly injured and disfigured, but not yet dead. After a while consciousness returned to the shattered man, and he saw Zarathustra kneeling beside him. "What art thou doing there?" said he at last, "I knew long ago that the devil would trip me up. Now he draggeth me to hell: wilt thou prevent him?"

"On mine honour, my friend," answered Zarathustra, "there is nothing of all that whereof thou speakest: there is no devil and no hell. Thy soul will be dead even sooner than thy body: fear, therefore, nothing any more!"

The man looked up distrustfully. "If thou speakest the truth," said he, "I lose nothing when I lose my life. I am not much more than an animal which hath been taught to dance by blows and scanty fare."

"Not at all," said Zarathustra, "thou hast made danger thy calling; therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perishest by thy calling: therefore will I bury thee with mine own hands."

When Zarathustra had said this the dying one did not reply further; but he moved his hand as if he sought the hand of Zarathustra in gratitude.


Christopher Hitchens on Glenn Beck & Sarah Palin Rally

a quasi-educated Mormon broadcaster calling for a Christian religious revival from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

At the last "Tea Party" rally I attended, earlier this year at the Washington Monument, some in the crowd made at least an attempt to look fierce and minatory. I stood behind signs that read: "We left our guns at home—this time" and "We invoke the First Amendment today—the Second Amendment tomorrow." But Beck's event was tepid by comparison: a call to sink to the knees rather than rise from them. It was clever of him not to overbill it as a "Million"-type march (though Rep. Michele Bachmann was tempted to claim that magic figure). The numbers were impressive enough on their own, but the overall effect was large, vague, moist, and undirected: the Waterworld of white self-pity.

In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It's not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be. The clue, surely, is furnished by the remainder of the speeches, which deny racial feeling so monotonously and vehemently as to draw attention.

Christopher Hitchens

Full Article

American Values? Jeffersonian Democracy vs. Christian Theocracy

Glenn Beck and those on the Republican Right feel that America is based on Judeo-Christian values and identity. But this is a lack of deep historical understanding. Democracy was birthed in Ancient Athens. Athens not Jerusalem is the city that influenced the American Constitution and its values. Greek democracy and the Roman Republic were the inspiration of American Democracy not the Kings of Israel. George Washington was the Roman leader Cincinnatus not the King of a theocratic State. The Philosophy and Democracy of Greece is much more important to broad American values than the religious tribalism and blood sacrifice of the Bible.

Once Christianity went from a minor cult to the Official Religion of Rome it ushered in an era of the dark ages in Europe where there was no religious freedom and where Theocracy ruled Europe until the force of the renewal of Greek and Roman ideas in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment which influenced the American Revolution and its Constitutional thinkers.
"As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us." -Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, Oct. 31, 1819

American Rights come from Ancient Greece/Enlightenment not from Ancient Superstition.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Tiny Little Twig

"Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again."
- Stephen Jay Gould

Evolution is a process of constant branching and expansion. Life began three and a half billion years ago, necessarily about as simple as it could be, because life arose spontaneously from the organic compounds in the primeval oceans. You couldn't begin by precipitating a giraffe out of this primordial soup, so it began the history of life with the simplest possible form of cellular life, namely bacteria. And since there's no way of getting any simpler as life expanded every once in a while you get something more complex because that's the only direction open, but if you look at the full range, rather than falsely, and myopically concentrating on the history of the most complex thing through time.

What you see is that the most outstanding feature of life's history is a constant domination by bacteria. In fact, this is not the age of man as the old textbooks used to say, or the age of mammals, or even the age of insects, which is more correct, if you want to honor multicellular animals. This is the age of bacteria. Bacteria have always been dominant. The bacterial mode, the mode being the most common form of life, is never altered in 3 1/2 billion years. We don't see it that way because bacteria are tiny and they live beneath us, but bacteria live in a wider range of environments. There are more, just E-coli cells, that's only one species in the gut of every human being than there have ever been people on earth, and if this report on Martian life is true, then the bacterial mode is universal. It's not only planetary, and there's no universality for little green men. So this is a bacterial planet. You can't nuke them into oblivion. They've always dominated life on this planet.

As far as they're concerned, we're just little islands of mobile resources which they can exploit for a while. They're happy to let us strut this little hour on the stage because they'll still be here when we're gone. But, you see, you don't see that unless you're willing to look at the history of life as the full range of its variation through time. I mean, it is true the most complex thing has gotten more complex. Once there were only bacteria. Now there are humans, but that's not the result of an intrinsic defining central drive. It's just a kind of random movement away from a necessary beginning at maximal bacterial simplicity. That's all it is.

Stephen Jay Gould

Monday, February 8, 2010

Earth Evolution: The Janus head of Gaia & Medea

The Gaia hypothesis: named for the Greek Earth goddess Gaea, holds that the Earth as a whole should be regarded as a living organism and that biological processes stabilize the environment. First advanced by British biologist James Lovelock in 1969.
(NASA Thesaurus) The hypothesis that the Earth's atmosphere, biosphere, and its living organisms behave as a single system striving to maintain a stability conducive to the existence of life.

The Medea hypothesis: In The Medea Hypothesis, renowned paleontologist Peter Ward proposes a revolutionary and provocative vision of life's relationship with the Earth's biosphere--Using discoveries from the geological record, he argues that life might be its own worst enemy. This stands in stark contrast to James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis--the idea that life sustains habitable conditions on Earth. In answer to Gaia, which draws on the idea of the "good mother" who nurtures life, Ward invokes Medea, the mythical mother who killed her own children. Could life by its very nature threaten its own existence?

According to the Medea hypothesis, it does. Ward demonstrates that all but one of the mass extinctions that have struck Earth were caused by life itself. He looks at our planet's history in a new way, revealing an Earth that is witnessing an alarming decline of diversity and biomass--a decline brought on by life's own "biocidal" tendencies. (Princeton University Review Press)

"Ideal types are used to simplify a complex reality."

Patricia Crone

"All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of actual life springs every green."


When I consider the Gaia and Medea hypothesis's put forth by Lovelock and Ward I see it as a difference of emphasis and a point of what one highlights versus a right or wrong dichotomy. Life is a dynamic mix of life and death. Awesome and dreadful. Wonderful and horrific. Beauty and agony. Order and chaos. Beyond the dogma. To use an ancient roman god I would use a metaphor of the Janus god. The two faced god interlocked and connected. The two faces of Gaia and Medea are one. The Janus hypothesis.

Janus: Roman god of doorways and archways, after whom the month of January is named. Often depicted as a double-faced head, he was a deity of beginnings. He was one of the principal Roman gods, the custodian of the universe. Janus was usually represented with two bearded heads placed back to back so that he might look in two directions at the same time. Symbolic for entrances or exits-His chief function was as guardian deity of gates and doors.

Entrances and exits. Life and death. Evolution and extinction. The day and night exist in reference to each other. Gaia and Medea do not face in each other in conflict but attached to each other they face their gateways of life and death in unison. Another way to look at it is through the perspective of Cosmic Evolution when one considers the violence of exploding stars and how that brought about a process of new life birthing planets and new stars. Our Sun in our solar system and the Earth itself comes from a supernova. A violent death bringing new life. Medea working with Gaia in a dynamic mix of destruction and creation.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Elemental Drama of Life

Sensitive souls as Becker implied who open themselves up to the grand and gory drama of natural history do not come to comforting dogma but to the stormy seas of contemplation. Man does not live on bread alone but man must eat to live at all. And eating is about taking energy from other organisms. A vicious cycle. By eating plants, herbivores steal these energy-storing molecules to maintain their own life processes. By eating animals, carnivores plunder the molecules that store the energy originally captured by plants. By feeding on dead tissue, decomposers exploit whatever molecules remain in the dead plants, herbivores, and carnivores.

Brain and digestive system compete for limited share of metabolic energy budget.
Our world is a constant re-cycling of energies into different forms. And this constant exchange of energy is not always a pretty picture.

"I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. And I reply and say, "Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well," and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful God with that action."

-David Attenborough

"That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Which is more likely, that pain and evil are the result of an all-powerful and good God, or the product of uncaring natural forces? The presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection."

Charles Darwin

"Religious fundamentalists may deny that evolution exists, but in the natural world it is religion that does not exist."

-John Maisey of American Museum of Natural History

"Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination."

Edward Abbey

Montaigne believed animals had something to teach humans and along that line I too think that animals past and present have something to teach in terms of theology.
Sir Francis Bacon stated, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth man's minds about to religion."
But in the light of modern science( the size and age of the Universe, and the age and evolutionary drama of planet earth) I would like to counter that quote. Now it is a problem of coping with what we have found out in the scope of geological time. A little imagination leads one to religion but when one really thinks and imagines with depth the Universe and Earth's evolutionary drama surely any typical religious concept of god becomes exposed as petty, provincial and limited.

One of the most resourceful and lasting species has been crocodiles and sharks and one thinks of the millions of years of their survival and how much depends on a vicious cycle of consumption. I knew a boy I grew up with who was taken down by a crocodile in front of his father. In a world such as this that existed before the evolution of modern humans one wonders what pleasure the christian god got out of the elemental evolutionary drama. A God who watches the sparrow fall has no problem overseeing this blood sport. His eye is on T-Rex and I know he is watching me? Not so comforting a thought is it.
In the light of geological time the christian god makes no sense. It did not make sense even in the blink of an eye of human written history much less in evolutionary time.
The created gods of the human mind are too small and petty for the grandeur of the stars and universe. Human gods do not even cover the scale of the earth and its history much less the universe.
It used to be said that a little philosophy would lead to atheism but much philosophy would lead to religion. Again in the the light of modern science and natural history I would counter by saying a little knowledge and imagination leads to religion but greater knowledge and greater imagination leads to wonder and skepticism.

"A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians ."

"A general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the god portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy much less of a universe."

Carl Sagan

"Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms they can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking. Seen in these stark terms, life on this planet is a gory spectacle, a nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh...

Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons that Darwin so shocked his cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person's life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.

Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good."

Ernest Becker

"Voila mes philosophes." (Here are my philosophers)

The French materialist La Mettrie used to say this of his senses...He claimed to have reached this insight during a fever, when he realized that his intellect was entirely subject to his body.
Entelodont, crocodiles, sharks, and T-Rex: Voila mes philosophes.

One must eat, sleep, strive for sex and then die. Anyone with a harsh disease or illness knows the burden of the body. Anyone who has seen death come upon your loved ones and friends knows the power of the body. Anyone who has starved or suffered merciless due to the body...knows. Many people who have full stomachs, healthy bodies or a modest safe society can judge from an arm chair philosophy that life is divine but they fail to use their imagination of other realities besides their own. (See Primo Levi writings) But the body will come and ask for its debt at some time and then they will know the body is a philosophy unto itself. Death comes to us all.
The limits of the body are combined with the free imagination of the human mind. A glorious combination or the human horror? Viktor Frankl stated “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering." Could it be that suppressing reality and creating illusions might be vital to human life with its burden of consciousness?
Humans do not have to be indifferent to the pain and suffering of other living organisms and that is where humanity can use its bigger brains to heal and care for life instead of reveling in solipsistic survival and comfortable inertia. Otherwise this passive nihilism will hatch anew Marquis De Sade's ascent.