CPT on the BBC

Something like a year after the tragic conclusion of a hostage crisis involving four of its volunteers in Iraq, Christian Peacemaker Teams gets some coverage over at the BBC. The Beeb has a photo essay about CPT’s team in Hebron, one of the worst flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also the team I happen to have visited during my undergraduate cross-cultural semester in the region. CPT’s stated mission is to bring a nonviolent presence to the worst conflicts in the world — to actually “get in the way” of warring parties — and the team I met were good folks. It’s good to seem their message reach a wider audience.

Via Young Anabaptist Radicals.

Robo-Adam and Eve-Machine

The Underground Press at Eastern Kentucky University has a photo-tour of a new Creation Science Museum that’s opening in their neighborhood. As previously reported by the New York Times, the museum is $27 million worth of flashy animatronics, special-effects heavy video displays, and pseudoscience all aimed at “proving” that the Earth and all its inhabitants were created ex nihilo in six days’ time about six thousand years ago. The Underground Press’s side-by-side comparisons of the museum’s accounts of “human reason” (science) versus “God’s Word” (Christian fundamentalism) is highly informative.

Now, I’m not going to tell anyone that they don’t have the right to believe what they want to, and even teach it to their children – but I do think it’s wrong to wrap yourself so deeply in your worldview that you can’t even hear the alternatives. As with most of anti-evolution propaganda, this museum isn’t going to convert anyone. It’s a sermon aimed at the choir, the intellectual equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and singing “I am the very model of a modern Major General” at the top of your lungs when you’re losing an argument. It’s sad.

Essay: Biology and morality

My new favorite podcast is Radio Lab, from New York Public Radio. It’s sort of Nova plus This American Life, with a heavy dose of the Douglas Adams sensibilities that I’ve come to associate with co-host Robert Krulwich. And it’s awesome.

What’s on my mind right now is the episode of 28 April 2006, “Morality”. It delves into emerging studies of the biology of human morals – what parts of the brain are involved in moral decision-making, and how evolutionary history shaped them. A key point is that there are two kinds of moral thinking, rules-based decision-making (“Thou shalt not kill”) and calculating (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”). And these two kinds of moral thinking take place in different parts of the brain. When they come into conflict, maybe because you’re thinking about killing someone in order to save several other people, a third area of the brain kicks in to decide between the two. This third area is (apparently) entirely unique to humans – not even chimpanzees have it.

But chimpanzees (and other apes) do have the rules-based moral thinking area. It helps them get along with other chimps. Which means that rules-based morality is evolutionarily primitive. If they could write, chimps could probably come up with most of the Ten Commandments! Where does that leave Christian morality? Is it all just pre-programmed behavior wrapped up in unnecessary mysticism?

No. As it happens, I’ve just finished reading Michael Ruse’s excellent book Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? (Cambridge University Press, 2001), which addresses exactly this question. And, as Ruse points out, Christ’s teachings call us to live beyond the Ten Commandments – those moral principles that seem to crop up in every human belief system.

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet those who greet you, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:46-8 (NIV)

In other words, Christians are to exceed the dictates of morality that everyone already follows. We’re to transcend our biology, using that part of our brain that sets us above the rest of the animal kingdom.

The flock

(It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep).

I can see them,
squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building,
where the printing press is housed.
All of them squirming around to find a little room,
looking so much alike,
it would be nearly impossible to count them,
and there is no telling which one will carry the news
that the lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

–Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry (Random House, 2005; my transcription, with line breaks mostly guessed, from an interview on NPR)

Encyclopaedia Biologica?

From news @ nature.com: work has begun on what is to be a comprehensive Encyclopedia of Life. Estimated “final” contents: multimedia presentations on 2 million species. Estimated time to completion: 10 years. The web portal is online now.

The sample pages are intriguing, particularly the weird slider on the sidebar that runs from “novice” to “expert” – apparently it filters the information presented depending on how deep the user wants to go. It looks as though it will be possible to browse through the tree of life, which is essential.

Hard to say how valuable this will actually be – certainly it looks like a good source for elementary science term papers, but will it actually be useful for basic research? What I would want (and what is maybe there but not visible in the sample interface) is easy connections to the primary literature (Google Scholar?) and public gene or protein sequence data.

Organlegging is reality

Wired has a scary new feature on black-market transplant sales. I’d heard about this before, but I never realized the scope of the thing until now – from the infographic, it looks pretty widespread, and it’s not just about people giving up their spare kidneys – we’re talking hearts and lungs here!

I hope Larry Niven has the grace not to gloat, just because he saw it coming.

So much depends on …?

Bill Moyers Journal continues to impress. This week Moyers talks to Jonathan Miller about his (Miller’s) new documentary “A Brief History of Disbelief.” It’s a wonderfully frank conversation about faith (or the lack thereof), probably in no small part because of Moyers’s resume includes ordination as a Baptist minister. One thing in particular that struck me is Miller’s description of the events people often associate with spirituality – birth, death, sunsets – as “vulgar”:

I have moments of – I suppose you might call them transcendent feelings; feelings which rise above what is immediately in front of me. But on the other hand, they’re almost entirely the result of what is immediately in front of me. Not birth; not death, though those are extremely important, and do give rise to very strong feelings. But often, just simply seeing that things are arranged in the way that they are. That there are ripples in the sand once the tide has gone out.

To which Moyers responds by referencing William Carlos Williams:

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

Which exchange is beautiful in ways I can’t really articulate.

And so the question I’m left with is, why is it that Christianity (and the big religions in general) seem to have such a strong association with platitudes on the lines of “sunsets make me feel spiritual” – is it because the mainstream absorbs cliches? Is it because platitudes are part of the luggage we get from our parents, (frequently) along with our religious faith?

More on flagellum evolution

So an anonymous comment to my last post on Liu and Ochman’s paper “Stepwise formation of the bacterial flagellar system” directed me to comments by Nick Matzke over on the Panda’s Thumb, which suggest that the L&O results could be an artifact of their methods. I don’t have much experience with the methods at the heart of the issue, but it looks like Matzke could have a point. That’s what I get for being all triumphalist.

That said, for publication at PNAS, L&O did pass peer review by people who know this sort of work. If Matzke feels he has a solid case, he ought to publish a response (he’s previously published on flagellum evolution [subscription], so he should get a hearing), and let the peer review process sort things out. It’s also worth noting that L&O are building on a lot of previous work on the evolution of the flagellum (their introduction section sums it up), which has given scientists good reason to think that the flagellum (1) did evolve in a stepwise fashion and (2) was assembled in part from pre-existing components with other functions.

Well, that about wraps it up for Michael Behe

Open access article in last week’s PNAS: Stepwise formation of the bacterial flagellar system. Of course, the Intelligent Design crowd will continue saying the same things they’ve always said without blinking, but it’s always nice to have a citation ready at hand for refutation.

The authors look at the relationships of the genes involved in building a flagellum, and are able to deduce that they arose through duplication – mutation and natural selection copied pre-existing components and exapted them to put together more and more advanced structures. It’s possible that all the intricately interdependent components of the flagellum originated from one ancestral protein.