Conversations: Unintelligent Design?


Zoe
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” What do you think about that observation?

Helena
To be honest, one would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time.

Sappho
The truth is that, while there are now around three hundred and fifty thousand known species of beetles, God appears to have an even greater fondness for viruses. Biologists estimate that there are at least ten strains of virus for every species of animal on earth. Many viruses are benign, of course, and some ancient virus may have played an important role in the emergence of complex organisms.

Helena
Unfortunately, viruses tend to use organisms like you and me as their borrowed genitalia. Many of them invade our cells only to destroy them, destroying us in the process—horribly, mercilessly, relentlessly. Viruses like HIV, as well as a wide range of harmful bacteria, can be seen evolving right under our noses, developing resistance to antiviral and antibiotic drugs to the detriment of everyone.

Sappho
Evolution both predicts and explains this phenomenon; the book of Genesis does not. How can you imagine that religious faith offers the best account of these realities, or that they suggest some deeper, compassionate purpose of an omniscient being? Continue reading

On Relativity


“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

– Albert Einstein

What about Unintelligent Design?


‘The biologist J. B. S. Haldane is reported to have said that, if there is a God, He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” One would have hoped that an observation this devastating would have closed the book on creationism for all time. The truth is that, while there are now around three hundred and fifty thousand known species of beetles, God appears to have an even greater fondness for viruses. Biologists estimate that there are at least ten strains of virus for every species of animal on earth. Many viruses are benign, of course, and some ancient virus may have played an important role in the emergence of complex organisms. But viruses tend to use organisms like you and me as their borrowed genitalia. Many of them invade our cells only to destroy them, destroying us in the process—horribly, mercilessly, relentlessly. Viruses like HIV, as well as a wide range of harmful bacteria, can be seen evolving right under our noses, developing resistance to antiviral and antibiotic drugs to the detriment of everyone. Evolution both predicts and explains this phenomenon; the book of Genesis does not. How can you imagine that religious faith offers the best account of these realities, or that they suggest some deeper, compassionate purpose of an omniscient being?

Our own bodies testify to the whimsy and incompetence of the creator. As embryos, we produce tails, gill sacs, and a full coat of apelike hair. Happily, most of us lose these charming accessories before birth. This bizarre sequence of morphology is readily interpreted in evolutionary and genetic terms; it is an utter mystery if we are the products of intelligent design. Men have a urinary tract that runs directly through the prostate gland. The prostate tends to swell throughout life. Consequently, most men over the age of sixty can testify that at least one design on God’s green earth leaves much to be desired. A woman’s pelvis has not been as intelligently designed as it could have been to assist in the miracle of birth. Consequently, each year hundreds of thousands of women suffer prolonged and obstructed labor that results in a rupture known as an obstetric fistula. Women in the developing world who suffer this condition become incontinent and are often abandoned by their husbands and exiled from their communities. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that more than two million women live with fistula today.[6]

[6] The cure for obstetric fistula is, as it turns out, a simple surgical procedure—not prayer. While many people of faith seem convinced that prayer can heal a wide variety of illnesses (despite what the best scientific research indicates), it is curious that prayer is only ever believed to work for illnesses and injuries that can be self-limiting. No one, for instance, ever seriously expects that prayer will cause an amputee to regrow a missing limb. Why not? Salamanders manage this routinely, presumably without prayer. If God answers prayers – ever – why wouldn’t He occasionally heal a deserving amputee? And why wouldn’t people of faith expect prayer to work in such cases? There is a very clever Web site devoted to exploring this very mystery: http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com.

Examples of unintelligent design in nature are so numerous that an entire book could be written simply listing them. I will permit myself just one more example. The human respiratory and digestive tracts share a little plumbing at the pharynx. In the United States alone, this intelligent design feature lands tens of thousands of children in the emergency room each year. Some hundreds choke to death. Many others suffer irreparable brain injury. What compassionate purpose does this serve? Of course, we can imagine a compassionate purpose: perhaps the parents of these children needed to be taught a lesson; perhaps God has prepared a special reward in heaven for every child who chokes to death on a bottle cap. The problem, however, is that such imaginings are compatible with any state of the world. What horrendous mishap could not be rationalized in this way? And why would you be inclined to think like this? How is it moral to think like this?’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 24-25

Gympie Gympie


The Gympie-Gympie (pronounced gimpey-gimpey) is one of four species of stinging tree of the family Urticaceae in Queensland, Australia. It is said to have the most painful sting of any plant, not only in Australia, but the World.

“I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fuckin’ heroic.” – George Carlin

Although called a tree, the Gympie-Gympie is a soft-wooded shrub that can reach 4-5m, but is often found as a smaller shrub around 0.1-1m tall. It has broad, oval or heart-shaped leaves (which appear furry due to a dense covering of tiny stinging hairs) with saw-tooth edges, and white or purple-red fruit. The stems and fruit are also covered in the stinging hairs.

When touched, the tip of the hairs break off which turn the hairs into a self-injecting hypodermic needles. It is reported that brushing against it is like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.

The actual chemicals contained in the toxin are not completely understood; however, it is probably a peptide (organic chemical molecules made from linking amino acids together in a certain order) called moroidin, hence the plant’s taxonomic name Dendrocnide moroides.

After a person has been stung, the small hairs can become embedded in the skin, which can lead to long-term pain and sensitivity – there are many accounts of people suffering heavily for months from a sting.

Worse still, the Gympie-Gympie is just as capable of stinging when its leaves are dead. The toxin in the hairs seems unaffected by age.

One account a soldier in the bush during World War II was caught short of toilet paper, used the wrong leaf, and was in so much pain that he shot himself in an attempt ease the pain. In 1866 a surveyor reported that his pack horse was stung by the plant, went mad and died in two hours.

“…and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?” – Vincent van Gogh

23/iv mmxv


In Argentina, it was forbidden to say “Juan Domingo Perón” after the coup that deposed him in 1955; the media referred to him as the “Deposed Tyrant”.

Orang-utan means ‘person of the forest’ in Malay.

Liquorice is used in Chinese medicine.

94% of happy, healthy participants, when placed in a totally silent room developed tinnitus.

At the age of 100, Teiichi Igarashi became the oldest person to climb Mount Fuji – in his socks.

See other: Quite Interesting Facts

Abortion, Mother Teresa and El Salvador


‘Mother Teresa is a perfect example of the way in which a good person, moved to help others, can have her moral intuitions deranged by religious faith. Christopher Hitchens put it with characteristic bluntness:

[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

While I am in substantial agreement with Hitchens on this point, there is no denying that Mother Teresa was a great force for compassion. Clearly, she was moved by the suffering of her fellow human beings, and she did much to awaken others to the reality of that suffering. The problem, however, was that her compassion was channeled within the rather steep walls of her religious dogmatism. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she said:

The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion…. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child—what is left for me to kill you and you kill me—there is nothing between.

As a diagnosis of the world’s problems, these remarks are astonishingly misguided. As a statement of morality they are no better. Mother Teresa’s compassion was very badly calibrated if the killing of first-trimester fetuses disturbed her more than all the other suffering she witnessed on this earth. While abortion is an ugly reality, and we should all hope for breakthroughs in contraception that reduce the need for it, one can reasonably wonder whether most aborted fetuses suffer their destruction on any level. One cannot reasonably wonder this about the millions of men, women, and children who must endure the torments of war, famine, political torture, or mental illness. At this very moment, millions of sentient people are suffering unimaginable physical and mental afflictions, in circumstances where the compassion of God is nowhere to be seen, and the compassion of human beings is often hobbled by preposterous ideas about sin and salvation. If you are worried about human suffering, abortion should rank very low on your list of concerns. While abortion remains a ludicrously divisive issue in the United States, the “moral” position of the Church on this matter is now fully and horribly incarnated in the country of El Salvador. In El Salvador, abortion is now illegal under all circumstances.

There are no exceptions for rape or incest. The moment a woman shows up at a hospital with a perforated uterus, indicating that she has had a back-alley abortion, she is shackled to her hospital bed and her body is treated as a crime scene. Forensic doctors soon arrive to examine her womb and cervix. There are women now serving prison sentences thirty years long for terminating their pregnancies. Imagine this, in a country that also stigmatizes the use of contraception as a sin against God. And yet this is precisely the sort of policy one would adopt if one agreed with Mother Teresa’s assessment of world suffering. Indeed, the Archbishop of San Salvador actively campaigned for it. His efforts were assisted by Pope John Paul II, who declared, on a visit to Mexico City in 1999, that “the church must proclaim the Gospel of life and speak out with prophetic force against the culture of death. May the continent of hope also be the continent of life!”

Of course, the Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50 percent of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman even realizing that she was pregnant. In fact, 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgement: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 13-14

Problems with Stem-cell Research


‘Your qualms about embryonic stem-cell research are similarly obscene. Here are the facts: stem-cell research is one of the most promising developments in the last century of medicine. It could offer therapeutic break-throughs for every disease or injury process that human beings suffer—for the simple reason that embryonic stem cells can become any tissue in the human body. This research may also be essential for our understanding of cancer, along with a wide variety of developmental disorders. Given these facts, it is almost impossible to exaggerate the promise of stem-cell research. It is true, of course, that research on embryonic stem cells entails the destruction of three-day-old human embryos. This is what worries you.

Let us look at the details. A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembering, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.

Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. This is a fact. The argument from a cell’s potential gets you absolutely nowhere.

But let us assume, for the moment, that every three-day-old human embryo has a soul worthy of our moral concern. Embryos at this stage occasionally split, becoming separate people (identical twins). Is this a case of one soul splitting into two? Two embryos sometimes fuse into a single individual, called a chimera. You or someone you know may have developed in this way. No doubt theologians are struggling even now to determine what becomes of the extra human soul in such a case.

Isn’t it time we admitted that this arithmetic of souls does not make any sense? The naive idea of souls in a Petri dish is intellectually indefensible. It is also morally indefensible, given that it now stands in the way of some of the most promising research in the history of medicine. Your beliefs about the human soul are, at this very moment, prolonging the scarcely endurable misery of tens of millions of human beings.

You believe that “life starts at the moment of conception.” You believe that there are souls in each of these blastocysts and that the interests of one soul—the soul of a little girl with burns over 75 percent of her body, say—cannot trump the interests of another soul, even if that soul happens to live inside a Petri dish. Given the accommodations we have made to faith-based irrationality in our public discourse, it is often suggested, even by advocates of stem-cell research, that your position on this matter has some degree of moral legitimacy. It does not. Your resistance to embryonic stem-cell research is, at best, uninformed. There is, in fact, no moral reason for our federal government’s unwillingness to fund this work. We should throw immense resources into stem-cell research, and we should do so immediately. Because of what Christians like yourself believe about souls, we are not doing this. In fact, several states have made such work illegal. If one experiments on a blastocyst in South Dakota, for instance, one risks spending years in prison.

The moral truth here is obvious: anyone who feels that the interests of a blastocyst just might supersede the interests of a child with a spinal cord injury has had his moral sense blinded by religious metaphysics. The link between religion and “morality”—so regularly proclaimed and so seldom demonstrated—is fully belied here, as it is wherever religious dogma supersedes moral reasoning and genuine compassion.’

Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 11-12

International Condom Day


International Condom Day seeks to promote the use of condoms as a means of preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

It is an informal observance celebrated in conjunction with Valentine’s Day. The holiday is also promoted by the AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) in an effort to reduce the spread of HIV through safe sex practices.

The simple fact is that scientific research demonstrates that condoms are an effective and important tool in the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted infections. Let’s consider some interesting nuggets of that large body of research:

  • When it comes to HIV, using a condom makes sex 10,000 times safer than not using a condom. – Carey, Ronald F., et al. (1992)
  • There is no medical reason why someone can’t use a condom. Even people with latex allergies can use them — there are latex-free condoms made of polyurethane and polyisoprene. – Hatcher, Robert A., et al. (2007)
  • Condoms have been around a long, long time. The earliest known illustration of a man using a condom is a 12,000–15,000-year-old painting on the wall of a cave in France. – Parisot, Jeannette (1985)

Who binds with chains the poet’s wit,
The navvy’s strength, the soldier’s pride,
And lays the sleek, estranging shield
Between the lover and his bride.”
― George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying

  • Condom availability in places of need around the world is increasing significantly, with 25.8 million female condoms provided through international and nongovernmental funding sources in 2009. Condom distribution increased by 10 million between 2008 and 2009. – UNAIDS (2010)
  • The condom is one of the most accessible and inexpensive forms of birth control available. The cost of condoms is as low as $0.04 per unit. – UNAIDS (2010)
  • Only 39 percent of American high school students are taught how to correctly use a condom in their health classes. Programs that teach young people about abstinence as well as contraception help youth to delay first sex and use condoms and other forms of contraception when they do have sex. – Kirby, Douglas. (2007)

“Staying in Africa, I think it will one day be admitted with shame that it might have been in error to say that AIDS is bad as a disease, very bad, but not quite as bad as condoms are bad, or not as immoral in the same way.” – Christopher Hitchens

And consider these other quite interesting facts about condoms:

  • An average condom can hold a gallon of liquid. (The average healthy man over 24 produces a tablespoonful of 15 millilitres of sperm in a single ejaculation.)
  • The oldest known condoms (that is to say, as in the oldest ones physically found) were discovered in a toilet in Dudley, England and were made from fish and animal intestine. They were dated around 1640.
  • The term used by medical professionals and safer sex educators to refer to the phenomenon of decreased condom use is condom fatigue.

“Use a condom. The world doesn’t need another you.”
― Carroll Bryant

  • 5 billion condoms are used every year, worldwide.
  • The Chinese hold the world record for creating the largest condom. During the celebration of the World population Day in 2003, the people of Guilin, China, made a 80 meter x 100 meter condom and placed it on top of a hotel.
  • The formal Danish word for condom is Svangerskabsforebyggendemiddel; whereas the Greeks employ the beautiful word προφυλακτικό.

“It’s the strange thing about this church, it is obsessed with sex, absolutely obsessed. Now, they will say we with our permissive society and our rude jokes, we are obsessed. No, we have a healthy attitude, we like it, it’s fun, it’s jolly, […] it’s a bit like food in that respect only even more exciting. The only people who are obsessed with food are anorexics and the morbidly obese, and that in erotic terms is the Catholic Church in a nutshell.” – Stephen Fry