Friday, December 21, 2007

Iran Again?

Because of the awful job the mainstream American Media does in portraying events that unfold in the world, many noteworthy news items are quickly overshadowed by useless information containing superficial material such as celebrity gossip. Even when the Media does feel responsible in covering important stories, they are so biased in the subjective analysis that those critical items are easily marginalized. We rarely have the pleasure of receiving objective information because as soon as the information filters down to the mainstream media, it is picked apart, over-analyzed and sucked of any importance by TV analysts, both on the political left and right. Those of us who've grown distasteful of such subjective bias have either become completely apolitical and apathetic, choosing to dissociate ourselves from politics all together, or forced to actively search for unfiltered and objective news on the internet. Sometimes, both of these forces come into play in determining how we interact with the outside world. As the world has become closely linked, and globalization a fact of life, news that happens on the opposite side of the world can have a serious impact on our way of life. When many politically unstable countries possess nuclear weapons (Looking at you Pakistan and Israel), any minor error in judgment can lead to a nuclear outcome. Choosing to close our eyes, ears, and mouth, remaining ignorant to global developments can have disastrous consequences. We can't grow accustomed to being spoon fed information that has been completely removed of impact and importance.

Having already written about Iran in at least 3 or 4 other blogs, recent key developments must be addressed. Thanks to the media coverage we have received, to those who obtain their news from the mainstream media, Iran appears to be this evil entity hell bent on destroying our way of life. We choose to forget that our actions towards Iran have never been completely benevolent. In fact, Iran's current non-secular Islamic Extremism is a product of the CIA's plot to overthrow their democratically elected leader, and installing in his place a corrupt dictatorship run by the Shah. The reason for this was an attempt at exploiting Iran's resources, especially the oil, and as the people grew weary of an inept government, they rose up and thus, the Islamic Revolution in Iran was born. As mentioned before, the US government has a track record of interfering and vilifying those countries that have the self respect to control their own resources. Venezuela for example is a recent player in global politics, mainly because as our dependence on oil has grown (thanks to an auto industry that for years has lobbied for continued production of gas guzzling fuel exploiting mini tanks called SUVs), we have become inadvertent financial supporters of their economies. For those sovereign nations that have allowed exploitation like Saudi Arabia, we have turned a blind eye to their globally dangerous behavior, while attacking those regimes that are a threat to our oil industry. Enter Venezuela, Iran and Russia. We demonize their political mistakes and constantly criticize and berate their leaders, when in effect, most people in those democratically elected countries support them. Having elected Bush, American's can't exactly feel any superiority to the general population of those countries in the negative spotlight.

Continuing with recent Iranian developments, the National Intelligence Estimate has just established that Iran stopped the development program for Nuclear Weapons in 2003. Naturally, news like this, though beneficial to global prosperity and peace, has become problematic for the Military-Industrial complex. As long as Iran was a credible nuclear threat, then forces could be amassed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Iran's northern neighbor, Azerbaijan, in a bid to contain Iran's political and economic influence. The pursuit of nuclear weapons development was just peripheral to the Administrations policy of security sanctions in an ever desperate bid to exploit Iran's internal divisions and thus control their resources, particularly oil and natural gas. When news of the Intelligence Estimate was released (1), the Mainstream media had to put some kind of negative spin (Washington Post Article). In addition to the saber rattling practiced by the US State Department, Israel, seeing itself as a self-imposed "party of interest" in containing and vilifying Iran, increased the tired rhetoric of Iran malicious intentions (2). As is often the case, Israel seems to consistently seek conflict and instability in the Middle East in order to receive protection both financial and militarily from the United States. The glaring hypocrisy in this instance is that Israel does possess nuclear weapons, hasn't ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Iran has ratified), and continually interferes with neighbors through cross-border raids into Lebanon and Syria (3). Claiming to have neutralized a "nuclear plant in Syria", it has now become clear that this was most likely a hostile act of pre-emptive bombing to send a message to Iran that the biggest threat in the Middle East is Israel (4). These kinds of actions are not exactly conducive towards peace in the region. As far as Israel's influence in the United States, beyond just a powerful lobby, it is American troops and American tax-payer dollars that will continue to fund Israel's amoral and misguided behavior. Israel's poweful lobby also stands in opposition of the United State's opening diplomatic channels with Iran on an official level. In direct contrast however, much of the current Middle Eastern mess would be better solved through an increased Diplomatic presence, and an attempt at understanding Iran's point of view. It should be noted however that understanding a point of view is not the same as accepting that behavior or condoning it.

It's understandable that Iran doesn't exactly provide a message of hope and stability for the future because ultimately they have a theocracy backed by Islamic Fundamentalists. Besides diplomacy, which is but one avenue of pursuit in achieving a stable region, how can we extend beneficial strategies to help usher in a more prosperous future? Of primary consideration is to endeavor in spreading the message of secularism, which can ultimately be propagated by science and education. Before embarking on such a grand scheme however (not just limited to Iran and the Middle East but other troubling regions of the world), we must strive to provide a solid core of science and mathematics education within the United States. Our own flirtation with theocracy is a direct result of the power that religion plays in the political process. Religion should have no power whatsoever in the secular political sphere. The only way to promote secularism and critical thinking is to increase science education at all levels and attempt at standardizing curriculi across American schoolboards. As we reform our educational system, we should also strive to promote the same in all countries of the world, especially those mired in political trouble. As we distribute foreign aid, we should hold accountable the educational bodies in those countries and help to promote their educational spending. When people start to think more critically, both domestically and abroad, their personal growth and prosperity is unlimited. They come to realize that the world is a far more complex place. Both the subtle and more obvious nuances that separate cultures can ultimately be resolved without a loss of the richness that the cultural fabric provides us. By understanding other cultures, and striving to support the beneficial elements within them, very little hostility need be exercised. Instead, some understanding, a change in perspective, and perhaps empathy can go a long way in resolving future conflicts and also raising the general awareness of the population.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Life-Affirming Perspective as an Atheist

Having come to terms with atheism, the most difficult aspect is making sense of life from the completely materialistic perspective. By Materialism, I am not speaking of acquisition of wealth or status, but of living in a non-dualistic, physical universe, which is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. In general, for all the mysterious phenomenon of the universe we don't easily understand, I'm not quick to pile them into a corner and label them as supernatural. Being aware that very little of the vast network we call the universe is understood, grasping a greater knowledge requires a foundation in empirical, evidence based science. So far, no religion in the world has ever explained our universe better then science. Science however is not to be confused in the same light as religion and spirituality. Unlike science, religion, with no need for evidence requires complete and total faith. Faith however, as noble as some believe it to be, cannot and is not an objective stance. Those whose faithful convictions are unassailable have often proved to be wrong. Science on the other hand thrives on rigorous proofs and any theory that turns out wrong is progress because it can be ruled out. Just believing something then does not make a rational explanation of the universe. Early on in Western Civilization, especially during the development of Greek Philosophy, much was made of theorizing. Generations of pederasts would sit in circles speaking of complex topics in a form we now call a dialectic. They would debate about vast topics that covered the length and breadth of human knowledge. Yet, without experimentation and verifiable proof, all their theorizing had little evidence based proof. Many concepts then, such as the atom, surely came to be proven correct, but only through the rigorous and empirical tools of science and mathematics. Furthermore, their ideas, though influential, where not grounded in the true material universe. In the case of atoms, they may have theorized that if you continue to partition matter into smaller pieces, eventually you will reach an end point. Similarly, atoms as we know today, are extremely exotic particles, and can in fact be further partitioned into subatomic particles like quarks and gluons. Yet, we do know that atoms form the basis of all matter and that in one aspect, the early philosophers were correct. Eventually, the belief in atoms that was propagated by Democritus was overtaken by the more elegant and appealing Aristotlian theory of the four elements. They may not have understood the nuclear processes that form the atoms as we know today and to them four elements made more sense than the 120 or so that we have in the periodic table. The false Aristotlian model was carried with us for nearly 1500 years, until the advent of the scientific method and the rigorous experimentation that went along with it.

With a solid belief in materialism then, the warm comfort that religion and spirituality provide is suddenly uncovered. To some, the cold, unforgiving universe is just too difficult to bear, and even though they have reasoned for the possibility of a material universe, they would rather the universe have a pre-purpose (an intelligence at work often referred to as "the primary mover"). They can compartmentalized their illogical beliefs to allow them to function even within the realms of science, but the psychological comfort of religion and spirituality are difficult to break. The inevitable truth however is that the universe truly is a hostile place to live in. There's only one way to be born (when sperm meets egg, at least for now), but incomprehensibly vast ways to die. As the famous contemporary astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has described; on a galactic scale, one can be torched by supernovas, gamma ray blasts, active galactic nuclei, black holes, etc. Even just on a global scale, one can succumb to hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, tornadoes, volcanoes, ice ages, tsunamis and other such natural disasters. Within just our daily neighborhood and social interactions, one can suffer in the hands of carjackers, murderers, school shooters, swat officers mistaking addresses, drunk drivers, sinkholes, etc. With all of these seemingly malevolent forces at play, it is a wonder we continue to survive and thrive. Many liken this survival to a god-like entity, but they ignore the violent universe in which we've come to exist. This is not a perfect place that's created just for us to enjoy, but nevertheless, we must make the most of it. Life then is so fragile, even so much as a cosmic whisper can sterilize it without malice or criminal intent. Knowing all this, and rejecting the supernatural does lead to a dilemma of sorts. How are we to continue on with our lives knowing and accepting that we live in such an ambivalent, unforgiving and apathetic place?

In order to prosper, we must first recognize that even though our existence is truly an accident of chance, we are actually alive and have the ability to scrutinize our environment. We can reason, and through our linguistic abilities perpetuate our knowledge to countless others. As all animals, we are geared towards survival, even if it means crawling and clawing our way out of a deep dark hole in the ground. This inherent ability to survive (after all, without this inborn drive, life and the scarce competition of resources would not be possible) has not only provided us with instincts that can help protect us, but with the tools to apply our reasoning, intellect, and social bearing on the perpetuation of our existence. Almost every single species that has ever evolved on Earth has gone extinct (99%), yet, of all of those creatures, we are alone in the ability to look beyond just our local environment. We, above all other Earthly creatures have within us the potential to develop technologies that could avert major global catastrophes like an asteroid impact. With our developed sense of perspetive, other more menacing developments have also evolved. We not only have the potential ability to protect the world from catastraphic accidents, but also have the potential for destroying it. With our arsenal of nuclear bombs, we are but hours away from completely voiding the planet of dominant life. Yet, if we apply ourselves to more benevolent purposes, we can enhance the protection of our planet. Looking at life through this perspective tends to irk those who view such notions as egotistical. They claim that by acknowledging our superiority above mythical beings, we are leading delusional lives of megalomania and self importance. They feel that such a stance will lead to moral and ethical errors in judgement. Yet, as mentioned in my previous blogs, our ethics and morals don't come from any holy books, or any mythical beings. They lie somewhere in our biological makeup, but as of today, a well encompassing theory has yet to materialize. There are many good theories, but few have been tested against empirical research. What is known is that there has to be some link to our evolutionary past, and observing the behavior of our closest living relatives, such as the Great Apes can prove useful. In truth, accepting materialism is a life-affirming process, not a selfish mode of thought as perpetuated by the religious. Recognizing that all human beings have the same inherent rights, freedoms, and privileges upon birth is more intuitive to those embracing a material universe. Praying for invisible entities to come to the rescue when in need is a lot more frustrating then accepting that what all humans share is a bond called humanity. As a member of a single species, it is upon us to protect each other, the environment, and ultimately all our resources for survival.

We must accept the liberating fact that we are in charge of our own destiny. How we treat other human beings, the environment, and our potential towards a prosperous future of discovery and progress is in itself a wonderful sense of purpose. There was no consciousness behind the creation of the universe and life, but now that we are here, we can use our consciousness and self awareness towards the future. We must look at the universe in mystical awe, and realize that our existence is so unbelievable, we must do everything in our power to apply our inherent potential. Of all the possible humans that could have formed in our species' history, each of us as an individual is a unique development provided by the universe. We shouldn't mourn for those who've passed because the simple fact of they have existence is far grander then their non-presence. Even our existence, as fleeting as it is in relation to the universe as a whole is vastly important to the social network we interact with. Rearrange just one atom in any of the previous stages of life that lead to our development (from the first multicellular organism to one's conception) and our existence would be utterly nullified.

In conclusion, to some degree, religion and spirituality provides people with a type of psychological comfort, but science, although intuitively more difficult to grasp has rewards beyond mere dogma and faith. Science allows us to view the universe beyond the physical tools of our evolutionary past. We have come so far, not just as creatures with 4.3 billion years of evolution behind us, but as a culturally dominant force with just 10,000 years of major growth. Evidence for our external phenotype (to borrow a concept from the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) is all around us. The genes of the beaver (their genotype), for example, have evolved to provide it dense fur for warmth, an oily coat for better insulation, perpetually growing front teeth for gnawing wood, etc. These external characteristics, called the phenotype, can be furthered by the actions of the beaver on its environment. Beaver dams are a result of all of the special genes within a beaver allowing it to construct such a complex structure (external phenotype). Likewise, humans have also evolved certain genes that allow us to not only alter our environment for comfort, but expand on our genetic template. Our cultural evolution is unprecedented in the biological world, and our reasoning abilities provide us the tools to expand beyond our genetic constraints. I believe that it would be a shame to have evolved, both genetically and culturally to such an introspective point, and then throw it all away because of our need for comfort and warmth. We can derive comfort and warmth knowing that life is so fragile and fleeting that we must do all we can to appreciate it to the fullest. Of prime importance is understanding who we are, where we come from, and where as a species we're headed. Keeping such an optimistic view in light of a random and chaotic universe can by hard at times, but humans prosper and thrive under adversity. After all, adversity is the invisible hand that guides evolution and natural selection. Thus, adversity can also guide our cultural, ethical, and moral behavior.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Measure of a Man

What is the purpose of life in our modern society? Is it the acquisition of wealth and other material things? How about the acquisition of science and information to attain a working knowledge of the universe and the world we live in? Perhaps using one's intellect to benefit humanity, or even one's local community are also important purposes. Where do the notions of helping others, charity, good will, and attaining other such altruistic behavior lay? In this Winter Solstice (most people call them Holidays, some Christmas, other's Winter, etc) season, it's always the materialistic things that get notice. Now, even in a non-dualistic physical universe, as I'm convinced we live in, there are abstract notions such as philosophy, ethics, morality and countless other concepts that need to be explained and expanded. Most people are constantly on a quixotic quest, searching for a purpose to their own reason for existence. Some intuitively or culturally believe that the prime objective to life and a sense of purpose is the acquisition of wealth whilst others in the non-binding free spirited nomadic existence. Still others maintain that importance lies in family ties and the continuing support of a large extended family. In essence then, What defines the measure of a man (person)?

Culture is the first important motivator for a sense of purpose. Depending on the environment with which we're raised, and the values instilled in us, we develop a generalized notion of behavior. Taking altruism for example, some believe that helping others is beneficial because it's reciprocated in the future by some universal source called Karma. Other's believe karma to be selfish, and help others based on vague notions of moral righteousness. Still others that their invisible deity has inspired them to help, often in fear of negative judgment upon death. Yet, altruism is coded in our biological behavior and evolutionary past. It's still impossible to determine, based on looking at a person's genes whether they're going to be altruistic or highly selfish. In general however, most people do have a sense of altruism -- reasons often varying based on shared values and culture.

Ultimately, an objective perspective on our cultural values plays a large role in how we accept certain truths. Will we constantly be slaves to our cultural values or is it possible to look at life from the fresh points of view. I believe that we must break free of those cultural constraints that keep us tied to primitive notions of ethics and morality. We can't continue believing that religion is good for the masses, or that all cultural behavior should be protected from disintegration. As liberal and progressive as one's notions are of liberty and free will, some behavior, due to our evolving sense of morality is deplorable and should be terminated. Infanticide, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and slavery are notions that almost all people can accept as improper and in dire need of termination. Yet, some are unwilling to questions fundamentalist religious behavior. In general, nothing that harms others, whether psychological (as in the case of religion) or physical is above criticism. We should all accept individual freedoms as long as they don't interrupt those of others. Forcing outdated views on a population because most people are yet to awaken to a decent understanding is still wrong. Many creationists are rabidly attempting to force creationism or intelligent design to be taught along with general science in public school curriculum, when those beliefs, even if in the majority are completely wrong. The facts of the universe stand in isolation of majority thought, but many people still can't grasp that.

With these thoughts in mind then, it's difficult to judge how society measures a person objectively. However, with some critical thinking, fact based evidence, and ultimately progressive thought, we can establish a new agenda. At the moment, many are occupied by attaining wealth, social status, fame, attention, etc. Few stop to think that within a century, their personal status is but a whisper in a vast ocean. Yet, if more people focused on attaining knowledge as their sense of purpose, instead of wealth or fame, the future would be far more prosperous. Progress is fueled by cumulative steps, and with more people involved in each initial stage of knowledge, more of it will be passed along. Just as in the case of populations, with larger gene pools leading to healthier more vibrant communities, a larger knowledge base in the general public will lead to a healthier and more vibrant future. Many obstacles prevent the transition to this mode of thought. Of primary consideration is that our society does not reward knowledge as it does wealth and success. Speaking of the situation in the United States for example, a decent education of the general public is frowned upon by the elite because it prevents their overthrow. When individuals awaken to understand their oppressed nature, they will have no choice but to revolt and overthrow the corporations and the 5% of the population that owns 70% of the wealth. An educated populace is a danger to the elite, but with a majority of people unable to awaken to the truth, then tyranny is the natural course of things. Of particular importance here is that a working democracy needs an educated populace. For all the faults of the Founding Fathers, one can't deny their ideals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideals are founded in a period of Enlightenment when rationality and common sense pervaded. They Founders knew that a voting population must be educated and well informed to further democracy. Threats from hell, eternal damnation, or spiritual destruction do not provide the means for a proper basis in morality, ethics, and in effect democracy.

Society therefore will prosper and stagnate based on the foundation that is the general populace. With societies which allow irrational thought and archaic useless notions like religion, then progress will eventually be halted, resulting in disorder and chaos. People must make a choice as to what they measure themselves with. Measure yourself based on those notions that will be widespread and acceptable centuries from now, and you are already progressive beyond the common cultural trends.

Ultimately then, regardless of the status quo and our current moral and cultural values, those who look ahead will always remain progressive and assist in ushering a clear path to a more evolved cultural, ethical, and moral future.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Legitimacy of the Founder Effect

One very pertinent question that always comes to mind when looking at the Founder Effect is the viability of the extant founder population and the subsequent deleterious effects from the lack of genetic diversity in their offspring. How is it possible for the offspring to continue to be viable when their genetic diversity is so severely reduced? We often hear about the likelihood that a population of less then 500 founding individuals is doomed to fail because they lack genetic diversity causing lethal alleles to accumulate through inbreeding. For example, the state of the Cheetah is in peril because their species went through a recent genetic bottleneck which lead to only a few individuals surviving and passing on their limited genetic diversity to future generations. In fact, cheetah's are so similar to each other that one can swap organs between two regionally distant animals and due to their histocompatability, their bodies will not reject the donor organ. This means that the organs of one cheetah are recognized by another cheetah's immune system as though they came from the same body. In essence, the variation between proteins on the surface of the cells (major histocompatability complexes) are small enough that there's a lack of an antibody mediated immune response, minimizing cross-donor rejection. This reduced genetic diversity limits the adaptability of the cheetah and major stressors can severely crash the population. Thus, the question once again can be restated by asking why are certain species able to cope with such limited founding diversity and suddenly flourish, while others are prone to extinction?

To further investigate this question, one must delve deeper into understanding not only the Founder Effect, but the interplay between Genetic Drift and Natural Selection as well. All of these factors occur to help perpetuate speciation. Speciation can occur when one or more daughter groups are isolated from the founding group, or the founding group itself branches into two or more extant populations that are isolated enough from each other to speciate. There are four main methods of speciation, ranging from complete geographic isolation, to mostly geographic, somewhat geographic, and finally no geographic barriers at all. Island populations that suddenly get cut off from the mainland when sea levels rise speciate due to complete isolation. Some species evolve to occupy certain ecological niches within the same geographic area. For example, perhaps a mutation for a slightly thicker bill in an outlying area within the same geographic boundaries results in a finch that has a thicker bill and perhaps the ability to extract insects from dead bark. This group then eventually exploits the rotten wood insect niche throughout the initial geographic range.

Genetic drift then is the random rate of variation that occurs within a given population and depending on the initial numbers and environmental conditions can be either kept in check by Natural Selection or allowed to proceed. Smaller populations are more likely to undergo genetic drift because of the limited genetic diversity, while larger populations intermix well and barring environmental changes that open new ecological niches for certain groups within the population to occupy leave little room for major drift. Natural Selection functions by allowing only those alleles that are biologically or reproductively adaptive to perpetuate, while genetic drift is just the random shuffling of alleles mostly irrespective of the adaptive pressure. Examples of Genetic Drift in Humans can include epicanthic folds in the eyes of Asians, increased hairiness in the bodies of Mediterraneans or Okinawans, Blond Hair and Blue Eyes in Scandinavians, wavy hair in Polynesians, and etc. Examples of Natural Selection in Humans on the other hand include darker or lighter skin, thicker, stockier builds in colder regions, barrel flared chests in Andean and Himalayan people, reduction of perspiration in Australian Aborigines, etc. It must further be noted that not all of these human characteristics are strictly a result of natural selection or genetic drift, some are a product of the interplay between the two forces.

Coming back to the Founder Effect then, we can look at a hypothesis as to how New World Monkeys came to Occupy the Americas when in fact, there was already a large gap between the continents when their ancestors branched from their African counterparts. It has been established, through the fossil record, and mitochondrial analysis that New World Monkeys emerged approximately 35 million years ago (link), during the early oligocene. At the time, the geographic distance between Africa and South America was at least 1300 miles (link) and therefore, quite a barrier for a founding population of pioneering monkeys. Vegetative Rafting has been proposed as a solution to the large oceanic gap that was bridged by these accidental voyagers. Due to the large volume of water discharged in the rainy season within Tropical locales, occasionally large swaths of vegetation get swept out to sea by huge rivers like the Amazon or the Congo. These vegetative rafts then float hundreds of miles out to sea, usually drying up. However, with prevailing winds and currents, some of these rafts can travel quite far, and this is the possible scenario that lead to the ocean voyage of some African Monkeys. This initial founder population then must have been very limited, perhaps a half dozen individuals. The genetic analysis has shown that they all originated from a small group of founders (just like a population bottleneck) but because of the rich geographic and environmental diversity, their populations exploded and speciated. In particular, population drift probably had a very large role to play in the diversity of current New World Monkeys and the ecological niches they occupy. The Question again is how this small founding population, with limited genetic diversity, blossomed into numerous species, irrespective of the initial inbreeding that could have resulted in numerous lethal alleles and population crashes. Several possible theories are likely, but none definitively stand out. Perhaps some animals are better able to cope with limited genetic diversity. Or, perhaps the new ecological niches helped increase the rate of speciation and variation within the population. Given that Genetic Drift had a large part to play with the small founding population, how did that effect the likelihood that lethal alleles were mitigated.

Such questions are the reason why Evolutionary Biology is such a fascinating field of study, and rarely are answers as complete as one would like. However, should anybody reading this have better knowledge on any of these topics or answers to my questions, please e-mail me or let me know in the responses what possible theories or holes in my reasoning can help to further illuminate this subject.

**02/17/2009 Update
The possible role of r/K selection in the founder effect.

The concept of r/K selection describes the selection of certain traits which promote success in particular environments. It comes about from an algebraic equation related to population dynamics. In general, species that are K strategists have increased investment in fewer offspring, while r strategists maximize the amount of offspring with as little investment as possible. Competition is the major key differentiating these two strategies. Since r strategists have little competition, they can focus on increasing their numbers as quickly as possible. Yet, once competition pressures increase as new species come about, other strategies, such as more investment in less offspring, evolve to cope. Ultimately, an ecological balance is reached between r and K strategists. From this, the relevance to the founder effect seems intuitive. Founder species, especially those like the ancestors of New World monkeys must have been r strategists. Finding themselves in an environment with countless niches, they must have reproduced quickly and evolved to fill them. Once enough speciation occurred to sufficiently increase competition, some monkey species may have adapted towards K selection.

Still, even though we can identify the ecological process that r/K selection plays within the founder effect, we must still explain the eventual success after the initial lack of genetic variability. Perhaps r strategists, with their hi fecundity, mutate rapidly enough that their genetic diversity is readily expanded within a few hundred generations, reaching a critical threshold when lethal alleles are balanced with genetic variability. The critical number of founders certainly differs among species, with those that are K-strategists probably requiring a larger gene initial gene pool. It's also possible that some species, regardless of their ecological strategies, are naturally prone to greater mutations; perhaps a less accurate DNA repair machinery, or environmental constraints that increase the adaptive advantage of survival through increased offspring variability.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Embrace of Atheism

Reading through some of my early blogs, even up to February of 2007, I realize how non-dramatic my acceptance of atheism has become. Initially, I viewed myself as an agnostic because I thought that there is no way to be conclusively sure that the physical universe is all that we have. Since we cannot rule out the existence of the supernatural, then agnosticism seemed the best view. The simple change that occurred was the inclusion of probability. The probability that something supernatural exists is infinitesimally small. We can't use the tools of science to prove the supernatural. We can attempt to explain the processes of the universe without invoking the supernatural, and through various fields of science, we have been able to probe and investigate our environment. We have developed tools that have shown the reason for the variability of species, why large bodies stay together, why subatomic particles don't float apart, etc. Just as the probability is infinitesimally small for the existence of gnomes that invisibly live in the attic of houses older then 100 years, yet, their existence cannot be proven because as soon as they are attempted to be found and sense this by magically disappearing, the probability of an invisible being occupying some unexplainable space controlling our every thought and answering prayers as sees fit is also just as unlikely. The difference being is that more people have faith in the omnipotent being then the attic gnomes. There may even come a time, after thousands of years that a large group of people come to believe in attic gnomes because nothing else, including their idea of ghosts can explain the noises. Yet, this doesn't change the fact that believe, either widespread, or limited, does not prove the existence of anything. With this in mind, I eventually realized that I cannot continue to remain "on the fence" just because some things cannot be disproved. Therefore, yes, however unlikely it is, there is a small chance, an infinitesimally small probability of the truth behind a religion or another but knowing how well science can explain and predict the universe (even with so many unknowns, the fact that we have grown so much in our knowledge within just the last 400 years), I can happily shed any remaining doubt and exist for this life that we have. Considering even one atom of change within any ancestors we may have had could nullify our existence, we should be happy to have the life that we have. We get one chance to live a life and use our potential as best we can. Sure, we can pursue a life of destruction, and neglect, but knowing that we only have one chance, and exercising the chance for the best possible outcomes is a venture that cannot easily be explained. Our destiny as a species is within our hands, not in the hands of some invisible beings, or whatever, but in our common goals for preserving this one world that every single creature we know of has called home. If we rely on some existential, outside force to govern our behavior, we are doomed to repeat the ineptitudes of the past, and never learn from our mistakes. To grow and prosper is to understand and love the world which we are a part of; to understand the creatures and use our knowledge for good. The topic of morality, and where it comes from in our evolutionary past, though still debatable is a part of our society. Although what we know as good and beneficial changes, the progress that we see can allow us to use our potential for good. We're still agnostic in understanding our evolution of morality and ethics, but with our skills as investigators, time is but a testing field for discovery.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Comfort in a warm religious blanket

Considering the extensive role that religion and spirituality have played in the lives of many, synthesizing a single explanation for those trends in the human species is a difficult, if not futile, prospect at best. However, keeping in mind that no single explanation can be effective in illuminating our understanding of why humans evolved, whether culturally or biologically, with some sense of the supernatural, we must nevertheless attempt to find a few basic root principles. Many of these principles have been expanded upon in great detail from authors such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jarod Diamond. The works of an evolutionary biologist, an evolutionary philosopher and a geographer with a linguistic background have greatly aided in our understanding of the biological, psychological, and environmental factors at play in allowing human beings to dominate most ecological niches and progress to our present form today. The concepts they discuss are just the beginning of a paradigm shift towards evolutionary explanations for physical, behavioral, and psychological traits. The belief in the supernatural therefore, has to take into account our evolutionary past. It should be understood that natural selection is not a wasteful process, and anything that is counter towards a species survival is culled before it can become well established. The belief in the supernatural can be a proximal product of some other evolutionary process, or a discrete product that aided our survival. At the moment, the range of opinion varies greatly, but each view is proposed in an attempt to explain the reasons for the expansive existence of religion and spirituality. Some behavioral and psychological traits among human beings are cultural in origin, while others are biological. Generally, the traits that the majority of human beings across different cultures share must have some basis in our evolutionary past. Laughter for example is a cross-cultural trait, and has been shown to have an evolutionary basis. Since spirituality and religion regardless of actual beliefs is a shared trait across the globe, an evolutionary biologist will look with interest into what processes evolved to help perpetuate it.

Of the various evolutionary traits that may provide the proximal outcome for religious belief, comfort and authority may be the most salient. As Richard Dawkins discusses in the God Delusion, authority is ingrained in us since childhood because it aids in our survival. Human children are born so helpless, that only through direct exposure in a culture, will they develop to their evolutionary potential. The initial learning required to effectively navigate through life, and therefore propagate to the optimal potential, requires at least two decades in human beings. We are social creatures, and with so much danger in the world, we're born with built in authority seekers. We need to learn from the experience of those older then us, especially parents, during our formative years. Perhaps this receptive ability towards authority when we're young blinds us to continue following authority when we're older. Certain traits don't necessarily shut off just because of an age difference. Although important for survival in our youth, this trait has lead us astray when we seek to follow those with authority who may actually not have our best interest in mind. For example, a parent might tell a child not to poke a sleeping bear with a stick, and if the child does not listen, then natural selection will effectively cull this trait from the gene pool. As the same child becomes an adult, perhaps the village chief will tell this individual that the only way the rains will return is if he pokes a bear with a stick. Now, this act is not in the best interest of the individual, but because of the authority seeking ability ingrained in us, most will do as told.

Another evolutionary trait that must be discussed is our need for comfort. This may not seem as discrete a trait as that of authority seeking, but it has a very large part to play with our persistent religious beliefs in the face of so much contrary evidence. As a species, feeling security is tantamount to survival. If there are large land predators around, then the security of a tree will aid in the survival of the individual. Similarly, as humans evolved from an arboreal species to a terrestrial species, we relied more and more on creative solutions to seek comfort. Various examples include enclosed dwellings, such as caves, or ones that we create ourselves, such as houses. Since we're able to control fire, this gives us an added feeling of comfort and security. As most mammals, it is ingrained in us to seek the shelter and comfort of our parents. Just as one cannot turn off the need for authority as an adult, one cannot just turn off the need for comfort either. Religion to some extent provides this safe cozy blanket that shields us from the harsh world around. It gives authority to the supernatural, and we justifiably feel safe from the cold reality of the world. Whether believers feel obliged to seek comfort in a singular authority like God (as in monotheists like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, etc), or a varied scope like the Hindus (among other polytheists), they share the need for some comforting authority. Even among animists (non organized religion, or folk religion), like the folk religion of most early hunter-gatherers, they often sought comfort with the belief that their dead ancestors had control over their lives.

With comfort and authority in mind, it becomes partly obvious why people across different cultures reach to the supernatural when faced with so much contrary logic. Science cannot provide the same warm comforts, at least psychologically, that religion can. When one bases their belief in the physical world that we live in, it's somewhat disconcerting to realize that there isn't an omniscient and omnipotent authority figure looking after one's best interest. Conversely, without such an authority figure, it frees us to seek guidance in the realm of science and the laws of the universe. The meaning of life can change from "God wanted me on Earth" to "How do I understand the physical processes of this amazing and vast universe that I live in?" When one is freed from the bonds of religion and authority, the freedom that's available is refreshing. There may be a part that misses that warm comforting blanket, the reassuring being(s) looking out for one's best interest, but even then, it doesn't make the existence of a higher power more likely. Just because there is a need in people to feel comfort and security even in their adult years, it still doesn't necessitate the supernatural. For example, if a billion people on the planet think and need to believe that God created the Earth as the center of the universe for it's sheer importance, it doesn't change the fact that this belief is wrong. We know that the Earth is just the third planet, from a negligible star, in an ordinary corner of an ordinary galaxy and no matter how much one would like to believe otherwise, science through its empirical methods and scientific reasoning has shown us the truth.

One must therefore strive to seek comfort and security in the physical world as we know it. Some may argue that it's arrogant to think we evolved through natural selection and random chance mutations. Instead, these people think that we must submit ourselves to the will of some entity that is largely a creation of our amazing imaginations and our need for comfort and authority. Others will have spent years of their life in a religious institution that has never been able to properly investigate the universe around us. Without a deep understanding of the physical, biological, and chemical processes that makes our existence possible, how can one understand life? This is the ultimate reason why those of us who have embraced science to the fullest have no regrets or empty voids that must be filled through some supernatural means. Comfort is nice, blankets are warm, but without shedding the blanket and investigating our environment, we are no different than creatures which we consider inferior to our intellect.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Progress from Genocide Denial??!!?!!

Along the long global march towards technological progress and the expansion of our scope as individuals, our sense of morality and ethics has concurrently evolved. The progression of morality does not occur at the same rate throughout the world, but in most modern nations, what was once considered common behavior is now becoming obsolete. For example, slavery, which was once acceptable in various societies, is now obsolete as a social institution. Other examples of archaic beliefs include cannibalism, human sacrifice, medical procedures like trepanation, etc. Various other beliefs have been completely overturned, largely based on the scientific method, and technological advances. The reasons for these trends are debatable, but once comes away realizing that our sense of morality, ethics, justice, and equality have all progressed consistently. There will always be pockets of resistance, but eventually, even the most conservative positions will seem archaic. For example, if we take Western Europe in the late 19th century, many progressives (for their time) recognized that those of African extraction were born free and should never be thought of as slaves. Yet, even the most progressive and liberal individuals felt that they were superior in race to these very same Africans. Although such belief can still be encountered, many of the progressives today, recognize that race is largely a construct of our need to categorize, and that ultimately, there is not such thing as a superior race. Most of this modern progress was brought forth from the fallout of the Eugenics movement, and the Nazi regime's infatuation with superiority.

Having largely described the progressive trends that has been described as a Zeitgest (German for current at some point in time), it becomes clear why the thought of another event with mass casualties and large scale warfare like that from WWII is harder and harder to imagine. Hopefully, diplomacy is starting to win out over the need to launch such global scale wars. In fact, the unfavorable opinion of many from the current Iraq war makes us realize the loss of life to such ill conceived wars is become more and more unbearable to people. Thought the loss of life from Iraq from a military standpoint is less that that from the Vietnam war, people are less tolerant of such casualties. Furthermore, the loss of civilian life cannot be underestimated. We now have a deeper understanding of just how many lives these wars cost, thanks to a larger net of global information.

With social progress in mind, we must never forget how far we've come ethically and morally. In order to continue to move forward, we must accept our previous moral indiscretions and move on accordingly. This is why the Armenian Genocide Resolution in Congress is such an important event in the minds of many Armenians. The Turkish Government fears that recognition of the Genocide will result in restitutions to the families of the survivors. The truth is, restitution aside, it's our moral duty and obligation as human beings to begin to accept such acts and bear personal responsibility for such events. Another issue in Turkish denial is that the Modern Turkish people cannot fathom how their ancestors were able to accomplish such an act when they themselves have progressed. Yes, there are extremist elements in Turkey, and the Kurds are to some extent suffering similar fates, but even so, most enlightened Turks can't imagine massacring a people and culture. Yet, the overwhelming evidence, and the total destruction of the Armenian presence in Eastern Turkey is pretty damning and conclusive evidence as to which culture was on the wrong side of the Genocide. If Turkey was truly objective, why go to all the trouble erasing the past as it pertains to Armenians?

Worse then the Turkish denial, was what seemed to be the silent approval by certain allies of Turkey (Such as the United States and Israel, oh the Irony) because ultimately, Turkey provided friendlier to the interests of those states then other nations in the area. During the Cold War, Turkey was critical in Containing the Soviet Union, and helping support Israel. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey has allowed itself to be further exploited by the West for profit. Our ethics and morality,especially in the sphere of government, obviously haven't evolved to where the majority think that profit is less important then the well being of others.

Granted, some may argue that due to current circumstances of the volatile Middle East region, acceptance of the Armenian Genocide measure by Congress will endanger the American Troops, and give free reign for Turkey to behave according to national interests. Well, if that's how an American ally will behave, "threatening to endanger our troops", then they aren't really allies in the first place (brings to mind that quote, "with friends like these, who needs enemies"). Besides, waiting for a perfect moment of acceptance of the measure will never occur, because the world is always in a state of flux, and there never is a perfect moment. As sure as the Germans recognized the Holocaust then, the Turks must recognize the Armenian Genocide. Some Cynics will argue that should the Armenian Genocide be accepted, then why not the Hawaiian Genocide, the Native American Genocide, the current Darfur Genocide, among many others. Well, why not accept all these events as genocide and move on. Throughout history, it has been shown again and again that there will always be powerful states, or societies trying to destroy weaker ones. Some are done in the name of god or gods, others in the name of the holy land (nationalism), still others in the name of xenophobia, internal strife, etc. Yet, all these events have a common link and that is that we must recognize so that we can move forward.

Should the Armenian Genocide Resolution not pass the House, or be blocked as it has been in the past, then whatever values those in Congress who didn't support the measure purport to have are completely groundless. The level of hypocrisy among these supposed progressive individuals is staggering. Ultimately, this isn't just a resolution for Armenians, it allows others who have been effected by such measures, such as the Japanese who were interred in US concentration camps during WWII, or Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, African Americans, to come together and build a coalition to prevent such tragedies from every happening again and stop those that are currently in progress (Palestine, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iraq.....)

It is my hope that humanity will view the early 21st century as the critical moment in time when people stopped living for materialism or hatred of others, but progressed to accept all of humanity as a singular race. We as a species are obligated to help not only each other, but the world that we live in. We must accept and in due course, progress further from these shackles which restrain us to our past. Will civilized discourse and diplomacy win over war and genocide? Will we remain ignorant of other's inalienable right to freedom? Well progress lead us to view our current times as we now view the Middle Ages? Will we stop viewing the world in Black and White, and start reasonably assessing the gray areas in between? These, and many other similar questions should be on the forefront of everyones mind.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Revolutionary New Punctuation Mark

With the constant evolution of spoken language, the written form is often left in a more conservative position. As is common with urban slang, it takes time before it's accepted and eventually incorporated within some orthographic structure.

Irony and sarcasm, are often lost on the written form. Some forms, such as satire, are nuanced, and they feed on the confusion and difficulties in understanding it. Other forms of irony, such as sarcasm, can often go unnoticed, and frequently the intention of the author is completely misconstrued due to a misunderstanding of tone. Through spoken word, we can inflect various parts of the sentence, to reflect the sarcasm, or irony that we seek. However, written, it becomes very difficult to determine the moment of inflection and therefore, it is frequently improperly interpreted.

My solution would be the addition of a New Punctuation Mark, I shall call the IRONY MARK. Looking at the keyboard, there is a symbol that is infrequently used, and can substitute, if not be eventually used as the Irony Mark. This would be the "~" symbol. Also, borrowing from the Armenian written language, where the punctuation mark is not placed at the end of the sentence, but at the point of inflection, the ~ symbol would be placed within the sentence, where the turn of voice would occur. For example, in English, one would say "Does anybody know where the car is?", but in Armenian, the question mark (which is a different symbol) would be placed where the voice is inflected within the sentence. Does anybody know? where the car is. Furthermore, the inflection could be on another part of the sentence, and therefore, the question mark would be adjusted accordingly. One could also say "Does? anybody know where the car is. Or "Does anybody? know where the car is. Or even, Does anybody know where the car? is.

Having considered the previous examples, we can therefore attempt to determine how one would use the Irony mark. Would we place it, like the question mark in English, at the end of the sentence,? Or, should we place it where the inflection of the voice occurs? For example, the statement "Through his amazing insight, he was able to locate the car after 3 hours" would probably be used sarcastically. Therefore, the Irony mark could be used as follows: "Through his amazing~ insight, he was able to locate the car after 3 hours". If we would place the Irony mark at the end of the sentence, it would still be recognized as a sarcastic statement, but the nuance and subtle voice chance would be lost. What is irony without the powerful tool of the subtle change of voice? We could also use the Irony mark where it would be even more necessary. For example "The garden tomatoes were the best~ tasting ones I've ever~ had." Here, we could use two Irony marks to recognize that this statement was truly a sarcastic remark. A final example to illustrate the need of the Irony mark will highlight why it should be used for more then just sarcasm. In a situational Irony, the Irony mark could be used to enhance and "flavor" a statement. "Even in the worst of times, she had~ to be a hard worker because very few were able to determine just how she was able to purchase the new mansion down the street." Here, the irony in this situation is itself located with the Irony mark. This sentence can now be read with suspicion of some form of unmentioned implication. The irony in this example, would be that she wasn't a hard worker, and must have earned the money for the mansion through some means as yet unmentioned and perhaps sinister or clandestine. The purists will say that subtlety will be lost with the irony mark, but I believe that with any loss, there can also be benefits. Determining if the benefits outweigh the losses will be up to those who can perpetuate this new Punctuation Mark. Perhaps it will be used only informally, but I believe that even then, it can add to the richness and variety of the written language

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Limits on Perception and Scope

As early modern human evolved from the African savannah, certain aspects of the environment were engrained in our functional abilities. Thanks to the wonders of natural selection, traits that aided in the survival of our species perpetuated, and those that lead to a dead end (genetically speaking) were discarded. Certain aspects of our current psyche, dates back to our early progenitors, and no amount of civilized life, whether in an Urban Environment, or even in the middle of a 100 million dollar yacht located somewhere in the Indian Ocean, can fully extract us from our evolutionary past.

Certainly, from the evolution of our modern brain, particular traits were perpetuated, which counter the immense world that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. In essence, our brains are limited in both Perception and Scope from the knowledge which we obtain on a daily basis. We have a difficult time discerning things that are too far from our perceptional and reasoning abilities. Quantum Mechanics for example, in many ways is counterintuitive to our daily experience, because we are creatures of a larger level. If we exponentially increase the scale of our experiences, at a greater macro level, then even those levels which we can comprehend become counterintuitive. In general, if we look at the physical world at the smallest subatomic scales, then most of what we know as solid, is empty space. An atom is, for the most part, nearly empty. At the same time, if we increase the scale of our experience to that which involves galactic clusters, then most of space as we know it is itself empty as well. In fact, only 4% of the universe is made of luminous matter -- that which we can see and interact with.

Having discussed the ramifications of our limited biological brains in processing the physical universe (especially in scales that we don't encounter on a daily life), even our processing abilities on our own humanistic level is suspect. We as a species evolved, along with our brains, to interact with small clans, and analyze other groups on a limited level. It becomes immensely difficult when we decide to analyze a population that's larger then our brains biological tolerance limit. For example, economics is a difficult subject, specifically because in some ways it's an emergent phenomenon. From the actions of individuals, to actions of small groups, to larger groups, eventually a large-scale phenomenon is developed, that can be applied globally. Yet at this level, simple analysis fails us, because of certain emergent properties of large scale chaotic behavior. Just as nearly empty space at the subatomic level can lead to physical interactions that we, at our middle level are aware of, certain small scale trends can eventually lead to a higher system that seems independent in some ways. Typically, this is what's considered an emergent property. Similarly, the neurons in our brain, simulate the real physical world around us, and in doing so, activate what we know as thought, or consciousness. The exact mechanism is still unknown, but chances are, emergent phenomenon are at play. From what may be gathered, Emergent Properties, are aspects of our attempts at defining phenomenon that exceed our scopes and perceptions.

Looking at various examples that we encounter on a daily basis, can help illuminate us, into the limitations on our mental scope. First, let's consider the information from the rest of the world that we're bombarded with on a daily basis. Looking through various web sites that suit our needs, we are exposed to news of wars, famine, celebrity gossip, disease, mass death, plane crashes half a world away, natural disasters, etc. We have become global information filters, and initially, it may seem normal, but having evolved as small hunter and gatherer clans, it's mentally very taxing trying to keep up with all the global information. The mentally taxing aspect comes from having to deal with phenomenon that are beyond our mental scope. This is not to say that we cannot achieve some form of understanding, but it becomes harder and harder, with more inclusive information. Secondly, we can look at our individual daily interactions and realize how limited we are in scope. Police for example deal with a proportionally higher criminal element then for example, butchers. In that respect, an officer can perceive the whole world as more criminally biased, then a butcher. In the same token, a gastroenterologist, because of his daily interaction with ulcerative patients, will assume that a greater proportion of the population suffers, then the actual number of people. Ultimately then, SCIENCE frees us of these patterns of thought. A doctor can look at research papers that illustrate just how many percent of the population suffers from ulcers. Even with his limited scope, his reliance on science will help keep in unbiased and retain some measure of true perspective. Similarly, an officer can look at certain crime statistics and realize that although it appears that murders seem to have increased, maybe his interaction with certain cases make it seem so, when in fact, they're on the decline.

Ultimately, our reliance on empirical evidence and the scientific principle wills us to achieve perceptional ability and scope beyond our limited examples. Although the information that we receive may be excessive, and our mind may strain to understand counterintuitive properties of the universe, or subatomic matter, economics, consciousness, or even linguistic development, we will ultimately benefit from the accumulated wealth of scientific knowledge. Irrational beliefs (I'm not going to mention religion, even though I just did), are often a result of our limited scope and perception. Though difficult, we can break free of our mental chains, by allowing ourselves the freedom of exploring both the large, the small, and the absurd.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

From Independence to Tyranny: Downfall of Freedom


The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

(Example: Breaking the Shackles that have bound us to bipartisan Israeli Foreign policy)

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

(Such as the Tyrannical regime of George W. Bush)

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

(Lack of a 3rd party in politics)

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

(Immigration reform)

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

(Bush Subverting the Supreme Court and the Justice Department)

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

(Israel Again)

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

(Cuban Embargo, while Saudis lounge in their oil money)

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

(The Income Tax: non proportioned direct tax which is ILLEGAL)

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

(Guantanamo Bay and Secret Prisons in Europe)

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

(The subversion of our whole constitution by those in power)

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

(We are seriously talking about Bush here)

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

(Supporting "allies" with appalling human rights records)

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Debunking the Religious Right

Having recently reached the limit of the ignorant barrage of rational thought that the Religious Right attempts to feed people, the importance of unweaving the tapestry of garbage and irrationality that they contrive cannot be overstated. We are constantly being inundated with emotional appeals and fear into believing that the only true path (into understanding the universe and our place in it) is through the miraculous salvation of not only spirituality or religion, but through a specific belief system within those realms. Lately, an opinion by someone among the religious right has surfaced that covers many of the myths and topics that these individuals use to coerce those unsure of their place within the cosmos into the ignorant cover of their specific belief structure. The author's attempts to strike an emotional chord with the reading audience are both transparent and pathetic. I shall attempt to debunk his points paragraph by paragraph and provide a rational means for thoughtful debate and discussion. My retort to his views will be in red italics while his will be in standard type-face. Further, the USA Today article that this opinion was presented in will be shown in bold before the philosophical dissection of his ideas. Finally, a few thoughts of my own will be concluded in blue at the tail end of this essay.;_ylt=AskRKopu0v1PYhpNPo4B5Er6B2YD

Oh, for the days when one could safely stroll into a bookstore without tripping over the latest atheist title. Ironically, by writing their tracts, in the long run atheists might boost belief.

It appears that Feder here is threatened by non-religious views. Through this first paragraph it's apparent that he longs for a time when all one would see in a bookstore would be theological books without views that provided him grief. His turn of phrase stating that these books will boost religious belief does not detract from his impression that the world is better off without questioning religious dogma?

My local Barnes & Noble has the following titles on display -Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam ; The Quotable Atheist; Letter To A Christian Nation; God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist; and The God Delusion, which is a New York Times best-seller.

Of the handful of titles he does state, where is the mention of thousands of books that are religious and theological in nature? A few books with oppositional elements to his viewpoint does not result in a conspiracy to destroy his irrational belief structure. It's just a natural progression towards discourse in a topic that contains much animosity and misunderstanding.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., has become the first member of Congress to announce that he doesn't believe in God. He's probably just looking for a book deal.

Once again, the author feels a threat to his value system by just one individual. What he fails to mention is that there are 534 other members of congress that DO believe in God. Pete Stark just represents .002% of congress, while the same representative group of Americans who are not convinced of God's existence amounts to a conservative estimate of 9%. Just because there's one confirmed disbeliever against hundreds in Congress does not mean he's looking for a book deal. How cynical must one's opinion be that those parties who disagree with views do so because of superficial monetary reasons. What about all the religious ministers driving around in Top-of-the-line luxury vehicles, and wearing expensive Watches, claiming that everyone is created equal? Book deals are not exclusive to the non-believers. There are plenty of religious people who sign for book deals detailing why they have faith, and why they continue to oppose stem-cell research and abortion.

Why the sudden outpouring of atheist advocacy? Perhaps it's a way for the cultural left to assert itself in the face of the religious right. Or maybe it's meant to show that the anti-God argument can be framed more intelligently than in a Bill Maher monologue. Whatever the impetus, as a believer, I welcome the phenomenon. After all, the great enemy of belief isn't disbelief but indifference.

This paragraph I definitely agree with. There has to be debate about this subject, because otherwise, empty rhetoric like this will continue to coerce others into certain belief structures. This topic must not only be framed in context, but rigorously challenged by both sides of the argument.

Let the godless write their books and the faithful answer them. The disillusionment with religion that dominated British intellectual circles after World War I helped to shape the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. The surviving son of atheist icon Madalyn Murray O'Hair is an evangelical Christian.

Unfortunately, Feder does not differentiate between those who are confirmed atheists and those who consider themselves agnostic (who don't deny the existence of a higher power, but don't blindly believe in one either). He lumps all the opposition together in an attempt to frighten others into believing that a great scheme of destroying religious discourse exists. It's his attempts that stifle discourse and polarize groups of people.

The books referenced above assert that the debate is over and that atheism has won, but atheists have been saying that for more than 200 years. Since the French Enlightenment, the death of God has been confidently proclaimed. Religion has been made obsolete by egalitarian revolution, industrialism, or science, they insisted. Yet, early in the 21st century, faith endures.

A fallacy present here is oversimplification of facts. He summarizes nearly a half dozen books into a simple antagonistic phrase "the debate is over, atheism has won". Generally, what these books attempt to provide is a thought process based on rigorous science and subsequently a philosophical paradigm shift into understanding the universe without invoking religious dogma. Of course, it's better to read these books, because I'd be committing the same fallacy if I reduce so much literary energy into a summary of my own.

Outlasting the Soviet Union

For 70-plus years, the Soviets tried everything imaginable to kill religion: show trials, mass murder of clerics, confiscations, indoctrination and even attempts to co-opt religious symbols and ceremonies. But belief survived, while scientific socialism is now defunct.

What the Soviets did was replace Religion with a "cult of personality" in the form of "uncle Lenin" or "Papa Stalin". These figures were no different than religious iconographies. They were revered as saviors, just as some religions revere prophets. Upon decease, Lenin was preserved ON DISPLAY for everyone to see and worship.

In China, where communism's war on God continues, the home-church movement thrives. Half a world away, America has the highest weekly church attendance in the industrialized world, notwithstanding attacks on faith from Hollywood, academia and a judiciary seemingly intent on purging religious symbols from public spaces.

The Chinese did to Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), what the Soviets did to Lenin, and what the North Koreans do to former dictator Kim Il Sung and after his death, his son currently in regime Kim Jong Il (again, "cult of personality").

In the USA - the most science-oriented society in history - Christian bookstores, radio stations and TV programming proliferate. It seems as though a hunger for the Creator is imprinted on the human heart.

Here, the author speaks in absolute terms. He claims that the US is the most science-oriented society in history. I guess this is why the US Federal Government has yet to sign the Kyoto Treaty, or support Stem-Cell Research, or programs that prove that contraceptives distributed freely work much better then abstinence prevention programs. It's ironic that the leaders of this "science-oriented society" will bend backwards to destroy the credibility of scientists who dare oppose the status quo views held by these environmentally and scientifically ignorant imbeciles.
As for the hunger for a creator, perhaps this has more to do with the brain than the heart. It is shown that there are regions in the Temporal Lobe of the brain that are devoted to feelings of faith and religious euphoria. This does not mean that it's God's will. Perhaps these structures allow for greater cohesiveness in our social system and provided early man with opportunities to tighten the social bonds which in turn resulted in an environment where our genes would flourish.

What would a world without God look like? Well, for one, morality becomes, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult. "Thou shalt not kill" loses much of its force when reduced from commandment to a suggestion. How inspiring can it be to wake in the morning, look in the mirror, and see an accident of evolutionary history - the end product of the random collision of molecules?

The Universe itself is an amazing place with or without religion. Just the fact that we exist is so highly improbably that we cannot fathom a reason for it. Those who take the easy way out either say that God created things that way (where's the imagination?), or what's the point of discerning things if there is no creator. Both views require a strategic shift in thought. Perhaps it's not about what our purpose of existence is, but where our future lies. Not individual futures, but the future of humanity in general.

A universe that isn't God-centered becomes ego-centered. People come to see choices through the prism of self: what promotes the individual's well-being and happiness. Such a worldview does not naturally lead to benevolence or self-sacrifice.

This paragraph also shows the lack of imagination on the author's part. The universe doesn't necessarily have to become ego-centered because there is something more then the self. As I stated before, there's humanity in general. Attempting to further our cultural evolution and our future as a species is not ego-centered. We now realize, through science, that the environment is highly important because this is the only place in the universe where humans exist. This little blue dot is our planet, and is shared by all of humanity, not just one individual. Self sacrifice and benevolence does not come from religion but from a social environment that's furthered through advancement in technology, thought, science, and self-awareness.

An affirmation of God can lead to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Declaration of Independence. In terms of morality, a denial of God leads nowhere.

It's funny how a generalized conversation on religion by those with dogmatic beliefs will always switch into a specific religious view. Here, Feder brings up the Ten Commandments and fragments of HIS religious world view. There are millions of other religions and billions of other people in the world who support views that are completely different. Yet, he claims "denial of God lead nowhere". Who's God is he talking about? Clearly it's the Judeo-Christian God, and not that of other unrelated religious beliefs. Morality is present within us, with or without religion. The ancient Romans had strong moral principles (even though when compared to today's world, they may seem barbaric -- who's to say in 1500 years if people view us as barbaric for eating meat, playing violent video games, fighting wars, supporting capital punishment?), yet they were polytheists. They believed in multiple Gods and yet, they had principles that are dictated by culture and society. We have come a long way from our cave dwelling ancestors, in terms of our moral principles, but that's not because of religion but scientific and technological progress.

There are no secularist counterparts to
Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce (the evangelical responsible for abolition of the British slave trade), Martin Luther King Jr., or the Christians - from France to Poland - who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Sure there are. What about all the scientists, engineers, inventors, and numerous others who made the world a better place to live, and expanded on our understanding of our place in the universe. Just a few of the examples (not individuals because the advancement of humanity is not based on individuals but on a collective of individuals working either in groups or from the latest advancement of their predecessors in improving our outlook) include Medicinal Advancement, Industrialization, Safety implementation, Alternative Energy, Economic Reform, and Genetic Engineering that allowed for the Green Revolution, which subsequently helped feed millions if not billions of impoverished around the world.

True, terrible things have been done in the name of religion. Terrible things have been done in the name of every noble concept, including love, charity, loyalty and kinship. Yet, the worst horrors of the modern era were perpetrated by godless political creeds. The death toll from sectarian conflict over the ages is dwarfed by ideological violence, from the Jacobinism of Revolutionary France to the charnel houses of communism and fascism.

As mentioned before, most non-religious regimes replaced religious dogma with cult of personality. What they didn't change is the wiring in the brain that allows for faith, whether in a mythical deity that lives in the heavens constantly watching over and participating in our lives, or a deceased all-powerful leader who helped usher in a new age? These deaths would not have occurred had rationalism prevailed and the understanding that all that we have and all that we are is on this little planet. We are all more similar then dissimilar. We may be insignificant to the greater universe, but not to each other or this planet.

This is not to say that atheism leads naturally to guillotines and gulags, but, just as "love your fellow man as yourself" can be corrupted, so too can liberty, equality and fraternity.

Therefore anything can be corrupted, religious or not. This point I agree with.

Signs throughout history

There is no irrefutable evidence for God's existence or non-existence. But, if you look closely, his footprints can be discerned in the sands of time.

This all depends on one's basic starting premise. If one begins a view from a singular perspective, then all the following will support their opinion. However, if one looks at issues like an astronomer observing the universe, then the bias in an opinion is minimized. For example, the Astronomer must first look, and then theorize, and then attempt to validate those theories. That's why most people believed the Earth to be the center of the universe until the Copernican revolution. They started with the premise that the Earth was the center, so anything observed had to be around the Earth, so they had to introduce greater and greater complexity into their beliefs, until the true nature of our place was discovered.

Jews introduced the world to monotheism. They also were the first people to perceive history as linear- an unfolding story moving toward a conclusion. Is it a coincidence that this tiny, originally nomadic people generated the ideas that shaped the Western world, including equality, human rights and a responsibility to our fellow man? Jews are the only people to maintain their identity during two millennia of exile, and then return to their homeland and re-establish their nation.

The world was introduced to Monotheism well before the Jews. Zoroastrians, before the bastardization of the belief structure in Achemenid Persia, was by and large a monotheistic religion. Also, Egypt had numerous monotheists cults, of which the most well known was that of Atun. The Pharaoh Akhenaton himself attempted to supplant the dominant Egyptian religion with that of Monotheism (known now as the cult of Atun-Ra). It's possible that the Jews either adopted the monotheism concepts present in Zoroastrianism, or those found in Ancient Egypt. As an Armenian, I can attest that it is possible to retain national identity without necessarily dominating monotheism. The Armenians exited a good millennia before converting to Christianity, and yet, the language and culture survived. The Jews that did return to re-establish their "nation" where not the Jews read in the bible but largely ethnically Central and Eastern European. The ethnically Semitic Jews of the bible are more closely related to today's Palestinian, and Syrian people, then the European Jews that have settled the land and called it their own, just by chance of their religion (not ethnic heritage).

Mark Twain wrote: "The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up, held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" Had Twain been a believer, he might have answered his own question.

The secret of immortality of the Jews is with the Bible and Christianity. Judaism is progressed through anyone who attempts to read the Bible, and comes away with a history lesson of the people and places of a certain region of the Middle East. My criticism does not lay solely with Jews but religion in general attempting to replace truth with dogma. Many of the stories gleamed from the Bible, in fact, are rooted in myths and legends of not just ancient Semites, but Sumerians, and Egyptians as well.

America's survival and rise to global pre-eminence are equally improbable. Challenging the greatest empire of the 18th century, America should never have won its independence or should have self-destructed during the Civil War.

Improbably doesn't necessarily translate to God's footprints. Just because something is deemed improbable doesn't mean it is impossible. Here, Feder attempts to support a doctrine similar to Manifest Destiny. The nation is what it is because of the belief in God. Well, how about those nations that believed in God, and where doomed to failure? What about those people, such as Armenians, God Fearing Christians, who were brutally massacred by Turks? Where was this God that supposedly blessed so much upon the United States? These thoughts lead to endless speculation as to how God spares some, and allows others to die. The easy answer is that God's will is not well understood, and that things happen for a reason. Well, there are no easy answers, just many questions. Things may happen for a reason, they may not, but it's unjust to assume that because some nations faltered when others succeeded, it was due to their level of generosity and belief towards God.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the genius of our infant republic lay not in its farms and workshops but in its churches whose "pulpits flame with righteousness."

How does this quote provide legitimacy to the religious point of view? Just because one digs enough and finds a quote to support their view by a person of fame in history does not make that quote absolute. I'm sure many quoted Hitler before his true brutal nature was realized or currently quote Machiavelli who's doctrine was to effectively and violently suppress individual liberties (this from a Christian). Further, billions thought the world was flat, but you don't hear quotes from many of the Popes and religious figures who believed the Earth was the center of the universe quoted in that context. The issue with Tocqueville is that he may have provided the infant American republic with some legitimacy but if he knew what we know today, would he have quoted the same? This was at least 200 years before the proper application of the scientific method (When it was in its infancy). Moreover, how would all of those famous dissenters against progress and supporters of religion view the world with the knowledge, education, and framework that modern science provides?

Atheists are free to disbelieve and to try to propagate their disbelief in books and other intellectual forums. But saying the debate is over doesn't make it so. A bit of humility might make their case more convincing. Then again, humility is itself a religious concept.

Again, Feder attributes human characteristics as the domain of Religion. Humility does not need a religious explanation. Humility can come from realizing one's insignificance in the vast expanse of the universe, and at the same time, elevating the significance that human beings and the planet Earth has on us as individuals. Where is the humility from the religious point of view? In Feder’s case, believing that Judeo-Christianity is the one true path, while others, although carrying positive messages, cannot compare to the splendor of his archaic dogma? Isn't this arrogance? Questioning everything and not taking anything for granted come closer to humility then an unalterable believe in a system that is not well understood. Granted, Feder may believe he hears God, sees God in everything, just as a Buddhist may feel one with the Buddha, but this does not make either's point of view any more valid.

Don Feder is a former syndicated columnist and author of Who's Afraid of the Religious Right?

Having thoroughly destroyed the weak philosophical arguments and tactics that Feder uses to establish his point of view, a new paradigm must be exapted to explain the nature of the universe without necessarily incorporating faith (especially concrete, organized faith like the one Feder attempts to defend).

In terms of probability, any number of faiths have a greater then zero probability that they have some aspect of the universe correctly interpreted. This does not mean that having a non-zero probability, which is infinitesimally small, will be the defining view. There are many mysteries to the universe to be explained, and more questions then there will ever be answers. We, through evolutionary processes, have evolved brains that act on reason, beyond just blind instinct. We are able to ask questions of our environment, create tests to validate them, and subsequently attempt to discern our place in the universe. In other words, we RATIONALIZE the world around us, and a natural byproduct of that is to explain things we don't understand as religious guise. Before we understood evolution, there had to be a reason why there were so many different species (because God wanted it that way). Before modern Cosmology, there had to be a reason why the Earth was in the center of the universe (because we're special in God's eyes -- so much for humility). As science and technology progressed, we were able to reduce the effect that religion had over our daily lives. Comets did not foretell disaster, the Earth is not the center of the universe, all creatures on Earth are linked through a common ancestor, the actual age of the planet is 4.6 billion years, and it is possible to reach the heavens. Furthermore, we now realize that diseases are not caused by evil, or other people's influence, or the devil, but by microscopic organisms, or pathological changes, or metabolic dysfunction, or any number of concepts only recently (within the last few hundred years) discovered.

One major problem with Feder's Arguments would be the complication should extra-terrestrial intelligent life every be discovered. In fact, even the discovery of microscopic non-sentient organisms would shift the paradigm to more rational thought. How would Feder's myopic and arrogant view that his faith is the truest be retained, when a civilization outside of Earth is discovered. The Bible never mentions extra-terrestrial environments. If God was truly behind the Bible, then where is the mention of the true nature of the universe? Where are the planetary surfaces, or galactic super clusters, or even just the Earth's core? There is little, if no real science in the Bible, and should there have existed a creator that would have created the universe as we know it, then he most necessarily could have found a way to explain some of it. Feder, like others, will take these examples as tests of faith. Maybe, in their thinking, God is tricking us into believing that the universe exists as it does, when in fact it's all a ruse. Well, I'm sure that's good and well for him, but it doesn't work for rational thought. Further, even with such views, he will continue to take medication provided him from the benefits of ingenuity, and science. He will continue to drive cars that could not have been made possible with just sitting around and absorbing faith. Of course, for every argument I pose, he will have a counterargument regarding God's absolute authority. He will say that God gave us brains to create such masterpieces of technology. Well, if God gave us brains for that, then we can also alter DNA sequences, and through genetic engineering, create life forms that would never have naturally existed. This, for people like Feder, would be crossing the line. Yet, where does he draw the line? Perhaps certain forms of genetic engineering will benefit mankind, perhaps cloning will? His views are not based on rational thought, and all is needed, is the exaptation of God into the argument. Well, if his understanding of the Universe was greater, perhaps his need for summoning this mythical being that exists in the heavens directing his and all our lives, would not be as forthcoming.