As usual I am utterly broke, so the exciting new feature this week on the blog is – a DONATE button! It’s OK, don’t feel obliged, and I can’t imagine anyone will really want to financially support my blog (or me) but it’s always nice to give people the option, just in case. So if you cribbed your entire essay off my site for a homework assignment, then feel free to express your appreciation! In fact if one in a thousand visitors gave a pound, I’d have thirty quid now and be very happy indeed instead of deeply worried about how I’m going to eat next week!
So what goes on in my world? I’m actually quite busy – Becky is down to visit for a few days tonight, and I am very glad as an unexpected bank charge, just as mysterious as the last set, has cleared me out and i am now flat broke. I will get to the bottom of it and as before get it refunded, but it’s deeply frustrating as you can imagine.
On a happier note (which is not to say that Becky’s visit is not a happy note!) the new Rationalskepticism.org forum appears to be going well — I have stepped down as a moderator now that it is established, simply because of time pressures — and Richard Dawkins has apologised for the forum meltdown and a further update has been published by his admins.
All is well that ends well, I guess.
Despite having no money I have had quite a good week, and expect I will find time to write some more soon. I have been quite busy with various SPR related activities, and a friend has asked me to conduct some experiments on a psychometry claimant – should be interesting!
Sorry to have little to report: the old financial blues mean i have to spend even more time seeking paid employment, and less messing about on the internet. Still I’ll get there!
all the best
(Title nicked from brilliant Twitter post by someone, mentioned on Rationalia.com The image is by Gurdur)
OK, OK, I know I said I would not write on this tedious topic any more. But the despondency of this morning at seeing a lot of hurt unhappy people and musing over ‘rationalist’ websites ability to explode has no turned to mild good humoured amusement. Richard Dawkins managed to cheer me up – not because I agree with him or anything he says on this topic; completely the opposite — but because it was good old bellicose belligerent Dawkins coming out fighting, and because now we know not to blame Josh. PZ Myers has washed his hands of the matter, not wanting to get dragged in, but Richard Dawkins has now posted on his forum (shame nobody else can!) You can read his modest opinions on there…
A Message from Richard Dawkins about the website updates
Imagine that you, as a greatly liked and respected person, found yourself overnight subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commenters on a website. Suppose you found yourself described as an “utter twat” a “suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.” Or suppose that somebody on the same website expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down your throat. Also to “trip you up and kick you in the guts.” And imagine seeing your face described, again by an anonymous poster, as “a slack jawed turd in the mouth mug if ever I saw one.” (More there…)
All of the quotes he ascribes to posters are not from the few minutes between the letter being posted and the locking of the forum – they are all from Rationalia.com I can’t get on rationalia at the moment – the server is overloaded, but you can see there a discussion of how each quote was originally framed, and I note that many of them applied to Josh the administrator, not Richard. I’m not apologising – I never said any of those things.
Richard says in Ruth’s piece
‘I do think that the cloak of anonymity under which so many posters on the internet hide does encourage a culture of rudeness and extreme language which people would never indulge in if they were writing under their own name. I think anonymity does have bad consequences and we see them all the time. On the other hand, there are times when people genuinely need to be confidential. So I can see why, for example, people in America who lost their faith and do not want their families to know, or perhaps more seriously, people of an Islamic background who have lost their faith or become Christian, have every reason to be anonymous. But the culture of anonymity whereby the default expectation is anonymity does encourage rudeness.’
Following the bizarre collapse of the Richard Dawkins forum, I posted this on the excellent Rationalia and Thinking Aloud Forums. It will be my last blog entry on atheist forum politics I am after all not actually an atheist!
OK, I think I’m giving up on the whole atheist forum thing. I’ll tell you why, then move on to other topics tomorrow…
Firstly, I am still shocked, saddened and miserable about the demise of the wonderful RichardDawkins.net/forum. The problem is I have seen it ALL before, and not so long ago. If I thought this was Josh Timonen’s fault, or Dawkins, I could just laugh and move on, and help fight. The thing is I can’t any more. It’s something fundamental and deeper.
Years ago I knew a wonderful cryptographer, medium, and cynic, who I will call James. James joined a psychic research group I belonged to, and noted that every group tends to do the same thing: the leadership cock it up, it fragments, and two new groups appear. A few years later the pattern occurs again. James was an atheist spiritualist (there are a LOT of them, and one often sees their stuff cited by other atheist who are unaware of their rather strange ideas to modern atheists minds) and in a thoughtful moment he confided in me that exactly the same was true of every atheist group he had belonged to. I guess it’s true of gardening clubs, poetry societies, fan clubs and stamp collectors as well. As he noted, there must be something wrong with human nature. (In fact one sees it less in religious groups – because they can appeal to external authorities and impose their will by divine mandate, which makes them even nastier when it all goes tits up). Of course many groups do survive and prosper, but one thing ghostthunting groups (not parapsychological organisations) and atheist forums have in common is this incredible failure rate.
Now in fact Old Soul posted on my blog entry, and reminded me of something. We have seen this all before, just two years ago. Here is the Encylopedia Dramatica version of events back then on IIDB – http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Iidb The interwebs are serious business.
Many of the IIDB exiles fled to RD.net, and discussed what was happening there: and in fact the response was largely one of disinterest, mild sadness, and modding to stop the fight spilling over on to our forum. In fact it is much like the very ambivalent if not positively unsympathetic responses one sees from the JREF today – http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=168039 (There are of course many deeply sympathetic JREF members, including tsig and Darat, and RD.net exiles should seriously consider registering there>)
Let’s face it, its the internet. No one will die of this. Still we can learn a lot from it, maybe…
Now Internet Infidels and Secular Web had a history going back to 1995, and were absolutely huge. I think it is fair to say that IIDB was in its day the largest Atheist site on the web – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Infidels- and it’s collapse left a vacuum that RD.net quickly filled, along with the Rational Response Squad. The RRS had its own problems in 2008/2009 including a highly publicised (physical, literal) punch up and a falling out with Richard Dawkins over allegations of his having an affair (even if true, who gives a f*ck, and it wasn’t anyway…) However the IIDB melt down,mass deletions, sacking of mods and general shittiness gave birth ot a number of forums, including Rants n Raves, a splendidly irreverent place which is sort of 4chan meets Atheism — http://www.rantsnraves.org/
All of this may seem by the by, but in fact you probably really need to look at this whole mess on IIDB, that we all chose to ignore.There are threads on RD.net – maybe someone with access to the database can find them? However the same things happened – admins sacked, mods dimsissed, members expelled, complete meltdown.
Hey there must be people here who lived through all this, and know first hand what happened? Old Soul wrote on my blog –
In 2007, the Internet Infidels Inc, a nonprofit educational group, shut down their extremely popular “IIDB” Internet Infidels Discussion Board, driving away thousands of people, many of whom had donated money to the group for both its regular operations and the upkeep of the forums. When the II, Inc. began banning and silencing its forum users, it lost very little real revenue, as the major donors who supported the organization did not care one bit about the teeming masses on the message board. The II, Inc. did not lose any real income or its reputation amongst the atheist elite. It sold the IIDB to a woman from New Zealand, who changed the forum name and continued to silence all dissidents. The II, Inc. did not suffer any loss or long-term damage after divesting itself of its forum. No problem there, either.
Yep, that was my understanding.He also has a very long term perspective –
Decades ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair shut down every chapter of American Atheists, alienating thousands of people, but doing no long-term harm to herself or the group. No problem there.
I suspect the young and British influenced RD’ers may not all know about the tragic and bizarre story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madalyn_Murray_O%27Hair Some of the links like the Time article are REALLY good reads. Anyone spot similarities with how AA was run and the current situation? OK, we don’t have claims of fraud and dodgy accounting, or blatant theft. Yet we have exactly the same pattern of self-proclaimed atheist leaders fleecing members, f*cking over the organisation and so called rationalist acting like compete arseholes.
Even after the great October Purge, when many of us left, I eventually drifted back to RD.net. TAF and Rationalia split: I can’t help but being reminded of the South Park episode Go God, Go! where the United Atheist Alliance (UAA) fight the United Atheist League (UAL) and the Allied Atheist Allegiance (AAA) –sure it was a shit episode by South Park standards, but there was more than a grain of truth in it.
Old Soul really hit the nail on the head though when he wrote
This is just business as usual for atheist organizations, why are you all so surprised? This is how it is done. Richard Dawkins will not lose any face. He will not suffer a publicity backlash. As far as his staff is concerned, you are all ungrateful for complaining about not being able to use the forums any more. Guess what? They do not care. They will make new websites, write new books, and speak at new conventions. Where thousands of you dare not tread, thousands more unsuspecting atheists will fill the seats you won’t occupy, and buy the books you won’t read, and visit the websites you won’t support. No problems.
It gets bleaker
There are millions and millions of atheists worldwide and no major atheist group has ever lost any money by not accommodating all of them. For every hundred of you who leave in disgust, two hundred more will take your place. For every post that is deleted… the same. The outcry of atheists who are offended by being silenced is not a problem in the grand scheme of organized atheist groups.
These groups operate in a realm that none of you occupy. It is a world in which *you* do not exist, and none of them (on the national or international level) are focused on “atheist community” or “the needs of nonbelievers.” They are money-making operations supporting authors, lecturers, philosophers, and publicity hounds, all in the name of atheism, and all for naught.
If you are operating a large atheist organization, shutting the internet out of your atheist group will not hurt you in the long run. This is demonstrably true, and the RDF staff certainly knows it. Now you all know it too. Visit this page again in 2 years, when Dawkins’ books are selling like hotcakes, his lectures are standing-room-only, and his new website discussion area is busy and bustling with passionate atheist activity. All of this complaining is not going to change anything.
There will be no problem for the RDF. Atheist herd migration will not disrupt the activities of any major atheist group, certainly not the biggest moneymaker of them all.[
He is indeed a wise old soul.
This has seemed I am sure to many of you yet another betrayal, but really, I am deadly serious. If we can’t get it together, are we (and I guess it’s not really we is it, I’m a Christian, but I count myself as one of you lot in that I remain a loyal member of the Richarddawkins.net internet community) any better than the religious groups etc? Sorry, it seems that the loss of the forum is irrlevant to most atheists, and will remain so, based on the examples of history. We will be a footnote ina wiki article, and spawn threads on a few secular websites, but no one is listening, and the RDF will laugh all the way to the bank. If you think people really care, look again at the JREF thread, or look at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe one – http://sguforums.com/index.php?topic=26298.0 Think about how much you heard, or cared, about the demise of IIDB – now sucessfully running as a series of small forums from what I can see, with new names, and a new identity.
People don’t just not care, THEY DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. It’s just like us at RichardDawkins.net when IIDB went down – some one lese politics, proof the rationalist dream crashed when it meets the reality of messsed up humans. Good people will carry on and have a laugh, but the majority of the atheist population will just say “shut up and stop whining”. Bleak I know, but do a Google search and you will find its true… http://www.sciforums.com/showthread.php?t=99807
In fact even the blogosphere only returns Darkchilde, myself and Peter Harrison’s blogs. This is not going to hurt the RDF, or makke any difference; We lost, people got treated like shit, and no one will care outside of TAF and Rationalia.
I have had enough. I’ll find better things to do with my time
Welcome to Earth: Our Home — The Board Game!
For 2-4 players, ages 8+
For the contest this month I decided to do something a bit different, and so I have designed a board game. If you are brave enough you can print it out and play it, and if you do please tell me how it went! Feel free to modify or improve it as you see fit.
You can now download the components at (including much smaller and easier to printversions – read the text file first!)
You can see the board, counters and some of the cards here on this article, but if you want to print and play the game, and I really hope you will, then you will find it easier to download the printer friendly zip files and print the files in there which are configured for A4 card or paper.
What’s it about?
The game covers the development of life on Earth from the Cambrian era – c.500 million years ago, with the last turn representing he arrival of the first hominids – Homo Erectus and friends – about 1 million years ago. Even the most fanatical board game player will be pleased to hear that each turn is not a million years! Instead of 500 turns, game play is divided in to five EPOCHS – each epoch covering a lengthy period of Earth’s history.
So what do you do in it?
Well the problem with any game based on evolution is that the process is rather blind and to some extent random – and there is absolutely no guarantee that if we re-ran the tape of Earth’s history we would have human beings here now reading my writing, or indeed any recognisable species, or perhaps any life at all. So in this game we take the viewpoint in each epoch of a GENUS*, a set of beasties related to one another by descent, competing to adapt to and survive (and proliferate). Each turn you lay down 18 counters representing your current SPECIES on the map of the world, trying to control HABITATS. Of course its not just a matter of your species happily filling up these habitats. Other species probably want them too – each habitat can only support three counters (with one exception we will come to later). Given that other players are controlling the other species, and might well be fiercer, hungrier or just plain bigger than your species — well bad things will happen. If a habitat gets too popular, and hence overpopulated, bad things happen.
Only the species which is best adapted to life in that area is likely to survive, and many of your beasties will die: in the worst case some of your species may even go extinct, potentially removing you from the game, and certainly meaning you will have to explore other avenues of evolution. In fact given the constant struggle for resources, it may be that your species will have to kill off its relatives (from the same genus, but earlier epochs)just to find space to survive.
Survival of the Fittest
So how do your beasties take over habitats and make sure they don’t die out? By being better adapted to their habitats than their competitors, and that comes down to random luck to some extent – little bundles of chemical information called GENES. Each epoch your species gains new genes – and develops, becoming more effective at taking over territory. Unfortunately you don’t control what new abilities nature grants you – you just pick a gene card, and your new species counters get that added ability, as well as all the ones they have from their ancestors (your previous species).
As you add gene cards at random to your species however where they might prosper and the best strategy for which habitats to try an colonise will shift, causing you to make tough decisions. Not decisions about which genes you get – you can’t control that – but about how your beasties can make best use of the genetic heritage they have to prosper and survive.
You should firstly print off the big colourful game board. If you are short on ink, printing 16 pages of A4 (or whatever) and taping them together strikes you as hell, or you otherwise can’t print the map, it’s fine to just draw it on a big bit of card or a wall, so long as you get ti to look roughly the same in terms of areas. Take a look at the board: you will notice it shows two views of planet Earth from space.
The board for “Earth: Our Home” the game: a larger version is included in the zip file, you will need it to play.
Part of the globe is not shown: it’s the Pacific Ocean, and mainly sea, so in this game it’s represented by the little rectangular box labelled “Pacific Ocean”! As you can see the board is divided in to hexagons, some complete, some partial, which represent HABITATS. Some partial ‘hexes’ are too small to be bothered putting counters on so we ignore them, but most of them have one of three symbols – a water drop for a MARINE habitat (the sea!), a palm tree for a TROPICAL habitat and a pine tree for a TEMPERATE habitat. Temperate and Tropical habitats are LAND: marine habitats are, unsurprisingly enough, SEA.
Now take a closer look at the board. Earth is a funny old place, so to handle movement some zones are marked with a letter. A and A, see two of them? B and B? C and C? D & D? The two bits marked with the same letter are the same habitat: all the rules apply as normal (no more than three beasties in each, and so forth). Living on a globe plays hell with inventing rules for “movement”. The Pacific is a huge area where 11 counters can peacefully co-exist – enter from any region marked with a P adjacent.
The counters for Earth: Our Home board game: download the zip file to get printer friendly ones at the right scale.
Next up you should see counters: 100 for each genus, divided in to 5 species representing something about the type of life forms involved. Don’t take them literally – your creature in epoch one lives in the sea, and may well be a fish, but not a modern one, and the frog on the epoch two counter just means your species then is an amphibian, and can go on land. Epoch Three shows an Allosaur, but you might be anything, and Epoch 4 is just a mammoth for the age of mammals – but maybe on ‘your earth’ the dinosaurs never died out, and really it’s a big lizard. Use your imagination, and describe what your species looks like to the other players. That last little man is a Homo Erectus by the way. Still maybe your final species look like super-intelligent jellyfish, or lizardmen, or big birds, or… anyway you get the picture, it’s just an illustration. Now you will need to print the counters off: you use 18 of each species on the map, one is a spare, and one you place on your genes cards – more of which later. Stick them on coins, mount them on card, whatever works for you. You play them to the board by piling them in the appropriate habitat.
Finally there are 32 gene cards. There are four types of gene card, distinguished by the letters A, B, C, & D (in reality we would have the letters A, C, G & T for adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, but I was worried someone might take this too literally.) They are so important they get their own bit of the rules (see below).
At the beginning of each epoch comes the MUTATION PHASE. Random variations in offspring born have led to a development in your species: on turn one it will effect your little fishies. So shuffle the genes, and randomly deal each player a gene card, which they put face up in front of them with a spare counter of the current species on. So if it’s turn one, and you get an “A gene”, put the A card in front of you with your spare fish counter on it.
What do they do? Well an A card gives your beastie a +2 in SURVIVAL CONTESTS in temperate habitats, and represents some kind of adaptation (big teeth, camouflage, better brain, improved senses) which give it a big advantage in that type of habitat. A B card does exactly the same in Temperate climates. C & D cards do something similar – they reflect a new adaptation that works well in ANY environment, but if you happen to have the symbol in the corner, say you are playing blue square genus and you get the blue square C, well sheer random luck means it happens to be a very powerful adaptation, worth +2 in ay environment. (Really big teeth, or squirrelly reflexes – at first sign of danger you grab your nuts and run?) No having an A or B gene in Epoch One, when everyone is confined to Marine habitats is pretty useless.
However unlike in individuals today, genes can’t do you any harm: you are a species, only the members with good genes get to mate with the lady or gent beasties as much and have lots of little beasties, so no need to worry about poor genes.
Those fishy genes which only work on land areas (A or B cards) will come in to their own later, because when you take your new species, it draws new card, and adds that to the existing one. Any remaining members of the former species on the board don’t get the advantage of the new gene – only the latest species, but it gets both. So your Epoch 5 creatures will have the advantage of ALL 5 genes (assuming nothing terrible has happened along the way). So ok, they give you +1, or +2, in either certain habitats or anywhere.Why does this matter? Because you add up these bonuses to work out your species counters CONFLICT VALUE. A creature in a temperate environment with genes A, A, C (but no their symbol) gets 2 +2 +1 = 5. Their conflict value is 5. It’s not about fighting: it’s about how well adapted you are to your environment.
Gene cards: You need the A,D and B ones as well to play. Download or message me for a copy – it’s free
GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY
Firstly, if it’s not the first turn, choose one of your counters to mutate. Take it off the board, and replace it with a counter of your new species that has evolved out of the old one. In the first turn you just plonk your six counters down. Each turn after drawing your mutation each player plays counters to the board, representing their species going forth, multiplying, and slowly filling up habitats. In each turn someone is first player, and they MUST PLAY SIX COUNTERS (well five including the one that ‘evolved’ ) ONE AT A TIME to habitats adjacent to that species. You can put up to three counters in any one habitat, or spread out thinly, up to you, but each habitat you enter must be adjacent to, or the same as, a habitat you already have a counter of this species in.
Note species: if you are putting Mammoth counters down they must be adjacent to an existing Mammoth counter, not another older counter of your colour(they may be in the same habitat, and that’s fine, though) Once you have put six counters down, the player to you left plays six counters exactly the same way round their newly evolved species. .After there turn, the next player, and so on till it’s your turn again. You don’t start a new Epoch, you just play your second six counters, and when your turn comes round again your third six, so now hopefully (but not necessarily) you have 18 counters on the board.
In Epoch One your beasties must stay in the sea: In Epoch 2 they can go on sea or land, being amphibians, from Epoch 3 only land zones are used.
You have to play all your counters, and once played to the board they never move. Soon you will start to run out of space in habitats, as your giant horned bunnies or whatever eat all the Jurassic cabbage. No habitat (except the Pacific Ocean: it can hold 11) can ever have more than 3 counters of any colour in it.
If at any point, a fourth counter is placed there (or a 12th in the pacific) something has to give, and someone has to die. So who wins out? The better adapted species of course! Add up the CONFLICT VALUE based on your genes for the species counters in that habitat. Which ever species has the lowest value, remove one of their counters. Then continue: if you play another counter there (presumably because your opponents counter got removed not yours) you do it again immediately – remove on of theirs, add one of yours. If yours (or if two opponents are in the spare there) Survival Values are equal, then comes the tragic bit: both remove a counter; Still the habitat has space now for you to play another counter in., even if you lost one.
Note it is the absolute survival value: that matters: you DO NOT multiply the conflict value by the number of counters in that habitat, so if player A has SV 4 for their mammoth, and your hominid has SV 5, but they have two mammoths, doesn’t make any difference 5 beats 4. In human warfare God is on the side of the big battalions, but in this game it’s not really about warfare: it’s about outbreeding, out eating, out thinking and out living your opponents species.
Counters removed are out of the game: you don’t get to play them again.
As soon as you lay your 18th counter on each Epoch, but before the next player takes their go, you need to see how your species is doing. You DO NOT score any points for earlier species of your genus, so killing off your own counters is fine and dandy: eat your ancestors! For every habitat you have a counter of the current species in , even if shared with another players species, you gain points; 2 points for each Land habitat (tropical or temperate), one point for each Marine Habitat. Everyone can ask everyone’s scores at any point: it’s open information.
The first player card– Adam & Eve frightened by a blue butterfly.
If your former species from a previous Epoch vanishes it’s sad but has no game effect. If your current species fails to make it, that’s a bit more serious. The most likely scenario is that having played some of your species counters other players kill them off before you can get all 18 down: it’s no big deal. Flip over one of your predecessor species, discard your species gene and draw a new one, and lose 5 points off your score. It happens. Another form of your species evolves and continues, except you might not have many of them. If your species is completely wiped out, you do not get to evolve at the beginning of the new Epoch though. You play Mammoths (or whatever) again while the others move on to hominids. Your points are halved now.
WINNING THE GAME
At the VERY end of Epoch 5 everyone indulges in a last round of point scoring, in addition to the one at the end of their turn. Every habitat, land or sea, that they have their (hominid) species in grants 1 additional point. Add to existing scores, and the person with the most wins! If you never evolved to hominid counters you don’t get these bonus points.
* I tried to design a gene viewpoint game, but it was not as attractive visually sadly, nor as readily linked to “Earth Our Home”. It may well appear on the Richard Dawkins forum in the future though if I get it to work.
There are very few things less enticing to the British public than the sight of CJ in the bath. While occasionally Marmalade the lunatic kitten comes to balance precariously on the edge of the bath tub, and watch the great pink hippo wallowing in the foaming waters, human beings seem to find the mere prospect revolting. So I apologise in advance for calling this scene to your minds, and hope you have not recently eaten.
It was Wednesday evening: I was sitting in the bath, reading a book on Biblical Archaeology, and rather wishing I wasn’t, when I began to ponder what to write about for the RD.net Science Writing contest. And then – Eureka! I leapt foaming from the bath, hurtled excitedly out in to the kitchen, skidded across the lino and hearing someone in the living room frantically hid my modesty behind a bemused Cuddles-cat. Not an easy task, I can assure you…
The Bathtub Fallacy
And in that moment of inspiration in deciding what to write about, I perfectly illustrate the first of the perils of myth-making in the writing of History of Science; what I shall call the Bathtub Fallacy. I am sure many readers have heard of Archimedes supposed moment of revelation inthe bathtub, how he leapt out cying Eureka, and excitedly solved a problem. Reading the history of Science mere mortals like I can feel inspired – will I dream of a snake eating it’s tail, and work out the structure of Benzene tonight? (bit late!) Perhaps in a flash I will work out an elegant solution to the world’s energy needs? And this is the Bathtub Fallacy – the belief perpetuated by the anecdotes by which we make the process of discovery and science understandable, the human interest bits, that genius and a moment of sudden insight alone solves scientific problems. If it did we would spend all out time in the baths. I could of course have called this the Apple Concussion Fallacy - the well known story about Newton and a n apple falling on his head, but as my street is singularly lacking in apples, and I have never been nearly brained by anything heavier than a stray conker from a tree, I didn’t, and you all have to live with the thought of me in the bath instead.
The danger of the Bathtub Fallacy is that there is an element of truth to it: yes, insights do arrive like this. What is often not made plain by historians is the vast struggle, the endless hard work, and the single minded devotion to the problem which occupied the genius for maybe months or years before the answer came in a creative flash. Trust me, I have spent many years laying on my bed, sitting in the bath or staring blankly out of the window waiting for my Nobel Prize winning insight. Sadly, it seems you need more – work, dedication, study, and perhaps a little obsession. The bathtub fallacy is not a myth as such: these things happen– but the inference pure luck, the will of the gods, or sitting in the bathtub is what counts is very dangerous to the would be scientist, and I think when reading the history of science one should not emphasize these serendipitous moments, but concentrate more on how the heroine or hero prepared for their ‘revelation from on high’.
The Persecution Complex
My title, aimed at a little free controversy, was Damning Darwin. Why? Have I suddenly become a member of the Buttplugg, Arizona, First Church of Flanders, and adopted Young Earth Creationism? Nope. Long term readers of this forum will know that I have argued passionately that the response of many 19th century Christians to Darwin’s work was one of polite interest, enthusiasm, or overwhelming support. (You can say the same about Copernicus actually.)
Evolution was pioneered in America by the devout Evangelical Asa Grey, writing Darwinia (1876) which reconciles his Evangelical beliefs with orthodox Darwinism, and indeed being the only non-British member of the Darwin circle who saw Origin of the Species (1859) prior to publication. He dedicated much of his life to publicising and popularising Darwinian Evolution. A large number of Evangelicals were already evolutionist and many of the objections raised to Darwin’s ideas (like those of Soapy Sam Wilberforce) were primarily scientific not theological. The Evangelicals response was extremely positive. John Van Wyhe (Historian of Science, Cambridge University, leader of the Darwin Online Project) published a very interesting article in BBC History magazine — January 2009 – Volume 10 in which he exposes ye olde myth.
Now, who accepted evolution in those first years? It’s a who’s who of Evangelicals — BB Warfierld, AH Strong, Van Dyke, Landey Patton, AA Hodge, WT Shedd, James McCosh — all hard core Evangelical leaders. Let us not forget Frederick Farrar, James Orr, Charles Kingsley and Henry Drummond, who Henry Morris castigates for misleading Christians – the father of YEC loudly denounced the dreadful treachery of his Evangelical forebears in accepting Darwinism or other forms of Evolutionary theory. These Evangelicals critique the science from time to time, but accepted fully its theological compatibility with their Evangelical beliefs. Others like Rev.Macloskie, JD Dana, GF Wright, JW Hulke etc were evangelicals who fought hard for the scientific NOT just the theological acceptance of evolution – one could go on, but many historians of science and religion have already surveyed this territory and found that on both sides of the Atlantic works in favour of Darwin in Christian circles far outnumbered the minority opposition of Darwin. So who damned Darwin? It was not the Church of his day. One of those famous stories everybody know is the debate between Bishop Soapy Sam and TH Huxley – which of course is nothing like what people believe it was. The myths were already building fast even by then, indeed before the end of the 19th century, one of the most famous being about the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce over the On the Origin of the Species. There is a superb essay on the history of this by JR Lucas here, — http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/legend.html
So why this conflict myth, which I will dub the Persecution Complex? It was not actually created by the Fundies, the nut-jobs and the loonies. It was created by serious historians of science with an axe to grind. The fact it is a steaming pile of poodle jism has done nothing to stop it becoming accepted uncritically, and the myth has inevitably created a backlash of Christian fundies who think they are defending Biblical Truth, and who are managing to actually be far less theologically sophisticated than their 19th century forebears. Henry Morris created a lot if it in the 1960′s — and we all have to live with it today, but the myth started long before.. Two men gave us it — John William Draper wrote the History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion (1874), the second Andrew Dickson White, with The Warfare of Science (1876) and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Draper was alarmed by the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1875; White was responding to the criticism he received from conservative Christians on his secular appointment to a University position. Neither condemned all religion – Draper was concerned only with Roman Catholicism, White’s target was Protestant fundamentalists, but this is often overlooked. The books were dismissed by scholars as flawed and filled with canards, but a myth had been born. This one is more dangerous than most – it gave us YEC…
Ya Canna’ Change the Laws of Physics!
Darwin of course attracted a lot of sympathy and support for his brilliant work right from the start: geology had already demonstrated the Earth to be many millions of years old (though limited by Kelvin’s calculations on the sun which gave the Earth an age of not more than 25 million years – which led to his and many other physicists rejection of Darwin’s idea of Natural Selection as physically impossible. The debate between physicists and geologists over the age of the Earth was ongoing, until the understanding of the actual processes involved in the sun (fusion not combustion) showed the geologists were right. Physicists however probably were greater opponents of Darwinism in the early years (as pseudo-science that defied our understanding of physical law) than Evangelicals. I think we can call this the Wicked Stupid Opponents fallacy, where people who raised objections to the ideas of the genius are seen as mere muppets who were just being awkward for the sake of it. I fear Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigm shift has made this even more of a threat – those who resist fringe scientific ideas today are seen as hidebound reactionaries, like the men who laughed at Einstein. Unless that is the new scientific ideas resisted involve little grey men having abducting rural farmers for a quick probing session: then you are OK to doubt, and I’m with you as it happens.
Yet time and time again we are reminded of the sad story Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift, and how his ideas were rejected by a hidebound geological establishment. Sure they were, ‘cos until the 1950′s or 1960′s other theories explained the data just as well if not better! There is no ‘sin’ in doubting some new radical claim (or an old one) and we should respect Kelvin for his common sense objections, not belittle him (Darwin wasn’t keen on him – he refers to him as “that pale spectre”.) The historians of science often work in a world where ‘history is written by the winners’ – watch out for this…
The Myth of the Lone Gunman
And this I think brings me back to my problem with last year’s celebrations of Darwin. No look, I’m a fan. I own several standard lives, Darwin’s books, have read through the Darwin Correspondence archive and have enthusiastically supported a number of Darwin related projects. Yet increasingly I find myself frustrated that Darwin is misunderstood, misrepresented, or just a caricature. And really, I think the ultimate problem is that Darwin is not all that important.
If I asked someone on the street in Britain why Charles Darwin was important they might well say “he discovered Evolution”, completely oblivious to the fact that Evolution was widely known, and to some extent accepted, before Charles. I could point to Lamarck, Buffon, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus or probably the greatest popularizer of the theory, the Scottish writer Robert Chambers.
A few people might say more accurately “he invented the idea of Natural Selection” – except of course he did not, and the idea can be found back as far as the Ancient Greeks, and especially in some of the pre-Socratics. He did however introduce the phrase, retaining it too the 5th edition where he uses Spencer’s “survival of the fittest.” A curious circle here: from the political economics of Thomas Malthus, who inspired Darwin, to Darwin to Herbert Spencer and his “social Darwinism” of political economics again.
What Darwin did, and his importance, is that alongside Alfred Russel Wallace he collected so much evidence for the idea of Natural Selection that it, in spite of grave objections from the physicists of the day – for it was in violation of the known natural laws of physics which dictated a younger Earth, but so was Uniformitarianism in Geology, so something had to give – anyway what he did was make the first reputable evidentially solid case for the hypothesis of Evolution by Natural Selection. That was clearly a work of great importance, and worthy of our respect.
Much Darwin believed was wrong – his notion of how inheritance worked was nonsensical, and not to my mind really that far from Lamarck’s, though Lamarck gets a bad press, why I know not really – sure I know about the tragedy of Lysenkoism, but it may be more understandable than those unfamiliar with plant breeding believe – anyway – Darwin’s & Wallace’s idea would have gone nowhere without Mendel’s breakthrough – genetics.
So what is the fallacy of the Lone Gunman? Simple – the over-praising of Darwin obscures the actual history of the idea, and how a scientific hypothesis was refined, developed across a number of research communities, and slowly advanced against a series of seemingly fatal objections; how an idea, Evolution by Natural Selection, that was very ancient –and fairly obvious. If you could not infer something of the sort from animal husbandry and breeding stock, well poor old Johnny Ray and the Linnean system had pretty much classified the Animal Kingdom in a way that shouted “look, lifeforms are diversifying”.
We have lost sight of the history of Evolution as an idea, have allowed myths about a supposed widespread conflict between religion and science to obscure the actual truth of what happened back then, and all too often imposed our own ideological nonsense on the history of science. We have made it all one man, elevating him to a saintly role, and creating pious hagiographies, that espouse the myth of the Eureka moment, of a man who revolutionized science – and ignoring the quiet dedicated work of the many who worked before, were contemporary with, or the tens of thousands who have developed our knowledge of morphology and evolutionary biology since.
We need a poster of Darwin with a safety pin through the nose, Sex Pistol’s cover style. We need to metaphorically defecate on his grave, to drag him from the ridiculous pedestal where he stands taunted by Creationists, who unfairly understand Evolution =Darwin: because we implied it was so! We need more New Scientist headlines saying “Darwin Was Wrong!” not less, more real understanding of the history of science, and more realization that science is a progress done by women and men, not just bearded geniuses of another age. No lone gunman, no bearded genius from a far away country gave us modern science: it was built on the work of thousands of anonymous hardworking men and women, and geniuses are justthe pop stars of the science worlkd – the ones who we all remember. Maybe next time you pick up a history of Science book, and get very excited by the hero’s amazing successes and triumph over adversity, it is worth remebering that for that one great thinker, a thousand more dedicated researchers worked quietly building the framework for thei rbreakthrough.
We all stand upon the shoulders of giants: but we see further when we are supported by a human pyramid of dedicated scientists we never get to read books about too: it’s good to be reminded of that fact. The Hollywood Myth of the maverick who takes on the system and wins is endearing and sells books; but in the end the mountains of journal articles, the decades collecting specimens, and the humble assistance of the millions who selflessly dedicate their lives to increasing human knowledge counts for more.
While I don’t have as much free time as I would like these days, the forum at http://forum.richarddawkins.net/ remains one of my favourite places to hang out on the net, along with the JREF forum and UK Skeptics. My beliefs are of course very different to the majority of posters in these places, which makes it all the more fun.
Anyway got a message this morning, it seems that the RD forum has a new monthly science writing competition, which seems very apt, and a move which I applaud heartily. The rewards for winning are intangible – but I am sure the competition will be fierce. If I had any science writing skills I might try, and to be honest if any month the topic is on an area I am familiar with I might try anyway.
To quote Mazille from the forum
The Monthly RDF Science Writing Award
We have a lot of professional scientists and very well-versed laymen on the forum and so we decided to make use of those formidable intellectual resources. We challenge you to write an article about a specific topic – which will be revealed later on – and enter it into a competition for “The Monthly RDF Science Writing Award”!
Every month we will give you the opportunity to take part in this competition. The goal is to write the best article covering a scientific topic of your choice – although with certain restraints. For each round of the competition we will set a general topic (e.g. “Our Solar System”, or “The Subatomic World”), from which you can choose any field of interest to write about. After we have announced the general topic of a new round, competitors will have three weeks time to write their articles and enter them in the competition and after those three weeks users will have another week to vote for the best scientific article.
Hopefully some of the readers of my blog will be interested enough to register at RD.net if the have not already, and enter. Full details of the competition can be found here.
This is the aspect of Dawkins I really like – his science writing, not the dubious atheistic arguments. Anyway a great idea, and I hope it succeeds well!
Had a bad day. today. Dave Sivier came over and we had an enjoyable discussion on increasingly bizarre plans for “better faster cheaper” space exploration – NASA’ s current strategy in case you have not heard the phrase, culminating in a discussion of ideas for building a cheap Brunel-era tech space elevator, and I read some stuff Beast brought over on the development of the mammalian brain, and got very excited about the morphology of Eocene Lemurs. The gas man failed to show, but I slowly went down with a feverish cold and feel rubbish, and not at all with it. Therefore as I feel rough I shall attempt to offer something not too ambitious in the way of posts tonight – my old attempt at a logical proof of the existence of God seems a good start…
OK, it was a couple of years ago, and someone challenged me to prove the existence of God in one post on the Dawkins forum, and silliness ensued. May amuse…
“OK, I shall argue the existence of God from the World of Warcraft.
1. WoW (or any MMORPG) is a simulated world with it’s own programmed physics in which players take part in an immersive mutual reality. If you are not familiar with it the best documentary is South Park’s episode Make Love, not Warcraft (link contains sound and obscene humour) which is on cable most nights this week I think.
2. My proposal, based on Nick Bostrom’s famous paper http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html - the Simulation Hypothesis – is that given predicted exponential growth in computing (assuming we break the supposed Silicon limit) future virtual universes may be indistinguishable from the real thing. See the work of noted theologians Rob Grant & Doug Naylor in their opus Melior Quam Vita, part of their Rutilus Dwarf series of philosophical investigations for an example. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Better_Than_Life
3. Given that our universe is said to appear to be highly “designed”, as in the infamous problem of Fine Tuning, and the collapse of our normal understandings at Quantum levels, I suggest that this may simply be the level of programming code, and that it is extremely likely that we are living in a simulated universe generated by a civilization that has surpassed our own level of advancement. As virtual universes are easier to construct than real universes, we might infer the odds of us existing in a virtual universe are far higher than those of us existing in a real universe.
4. As the response to Fine Tuning usually suggested (including by Professor Dawkins) is multiverse, let us run with this and allow an infinite (or vast as required by Fine Tuning) number of universes. The odds of those universes having produced an advanced civilization which manufactures virtual universes therefore approaches certainty, and as these numbers increase vastly so does the number of virtual universes increase (probably exponentially) as does the likelihood we live in a virtual universe. This argument was amusingly developed by cosmologist Paul Davies. SO Fine Tuning or NO Fine Tuning, the argument holds.
5. The programmer of such a universe is outside time/space, super-natural, can change physical laws at whim, created and can destroy the simulation, and can of course “incarnate” by entering the simulation. Furthermore they can provide virtual afterlife, or switch players from previous simulations, giving reincarnation type effects. In effect with regard to their creation (including us) they are a God. This idea fits perfectly with the model of reality proposed by certain atheistic forms of early Buddhism, or more recently by William James in Human Immortality. If you must you can mention The Matrix, a film I have never actually seen, because my friends try to lynch me whenever it comes on.
6. Therefore the existence of God(s) is at near certainty! If Christianity’s claim that we are made in the image of God is to be considered, then these deities might be rather worrying though.
Feel free to critique my logic — somehow I doubt anyone is going to convert! As you may have gathered, I’m not entirely serious, though actually it is rationally coherent and entirely as far as I can work out logical. I welcome any serious critique, because though I have not, you can seriously argue this! Is it not a rational proof of the existence of Gods? “
This led to much discussion – but despite the bad humour and tone, I was being serious. I’m not convinced, but once you start to think in these terms it’s much easier to understand how real theology works and why the whole God hypothesis is not as ridiculous as people seem to assume. If you are interested in the cosmology underlying this look for the works of Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society – especially Just Six Numbers – and Professor Paul Davies excellent The Goldilocks Enigma which I had not read at time of writing but which covers all the arguments for Fine Tuning of the universe wonderfully, as well as giving you a whistle stop tour of modern astrophysics. However one night a few weeks ago I was up at 4am or something, and caught What We Still Don’t Know, a documentary series presented by Lord Rees. It was superb – and one episode in particular struck an incredible resonance with me, and might well amuse anyone who has read my argument. Have a look at it, because the exposition of the ideas I’m playing with is a thousand times more beautifully presented here, by people who know what they are talking about. If I have time tomorrow I’ll talk through the critiques of Cosmological Fine Tuning briefly, and discuss why “I still believe in God, even if He no longer believes in me” to slightly misquote Wayne Hussey Here is the episode on YouTube (contains sound and flashing images) – but really, do take the time to watch this…
What We Still Don’t Know -final episode, Lord Rees
I’m off back to bed to rest. Night all.
An old post of mine from the Dawkin’s forum, I happened to think of…
My headache was such tonight I finally gave up on writing, and went out walking. It is a bitterly cold night, and my face is raw. I walked through Nature, admiring the handiwork, yes the Design; the staggering variety of form, texture and shape, the fragile ephemeral beauty of Nature’s dance, the rhythm of the scurrying life forms. The designs startled, enthralled, and confused me – at times I could see no real purpose in them. The night was filled with colours, a vast prismatic spectrum of shining jewels – yet I could not see why I would be able to perceive them at all? I am glad I can, humbled by their splendour, and the little green goblins which bade me cross the road shone like burning emeralds across the cityscape, but why can humans see so many colours? Is it a by product of some other evolutionary process?
Mystery! Can a God creep in here, into this nest of incomprehension?
Not tonight – I am a Christian, but here the hand of the Designer I beheld was the hand of humanity.
Let my friends go to some woodland glade to picnic in Nature – my Nature is the city at night! Let them walk over hill tops, staring at picturesque farms and flower filled meadows, and babble at the beauty of Nature – forgetting that even ugly old CJ is part of nature, and his house, these curious alleys, tiny streets, and towering glass malls are all part of Nature! They look for Nature as something other, something distinct – they hope to commune with the natural. Yet how can they do otherwise? the rivers of headlights, the pounding of the dance music from the clubs, the staggering waves of students reeling home – every bit a natural as the Lark and the Linnet? Why do we admire the wonder of the cherry blossom, and feel excited by the sight of a sunrise, yet miss the beauty of the cat graffiti’d on the wall of the Working Men’s Club, and the cascade of golden lights which fall down the Bingo Hall?
The hand of humanity is everywhere in the City – yet the farms, hilltops and woods are just as much shaped by those hands, its just those who did not grow up out there, where the town is an amber glow on the horizon, amidst the rustling of the woods, the shuffling of cattle, and the great loneliness beneath the stars — they miss the Designer.
We humans are part of Nature, and our towns are part of Nature too. The Lie we are not; Nature is the Other, is a strong and sometimes seductive one, but I resist it now, and see it’s idiocy! Maybe the cold effected my brain, and I will come to my senses as I thaw, but for now, I praise the natural world, and the mysteries of bus depots, the magic of the pavements, the wonder of the shining electrical stars.