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Are you a closet atheist?

Posted on March 31st, 2008 in Culture,Religion by Robert Miller

I am what Richard Dawkins would call a closet atheist. That means I am an admitted atheist, but I don’t go around bragging about it. In fact, if possible, I avoid talking about the subject at all cost. I spent too much time in my youth going over and over this issue and I am a little weary of it: in the age of absolutism, it seems hard to change any minds or have meaningful discussions on this issue. The Socratic method of dialog died and with it went my interest in duscussing this almost pointless issue. But, there is a biological and an important cultural point of view to all this. In Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion,” he emphasizes how Darwin’s principle of natural selection offers a completely rational way of accounting for the seemingly most complex biological specializations we have identified. Some of these biological complexities, such as the rotor motor of bacteria or the vertebrate eye have been used in modern times by the “intelligent designers,” to infer the existence of God, as the master planner and designer. To me, the intelligent designers are the shills of religious dogma, reflecting the truly desperate religious fanatics who can’t live with science because they find it is encroaching on their religiosity: I certainly hope that’s true. But the science phobia of today is not doing America any great service. Dawkins’ point is that one could in fact, historically justify the concept of intelligent design right up until 1859, when Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” was first published wherein he introduced the concept of natural selection as the means by which all biological complexities could arise and thereby be explained by evolution. Darwin in fact used the eye as an example of something that seemed to be of some intelligent design, but, on closer examination, one could find examples of progressive evolutionary steps along the phylogenetic tree from the simple, pinhole camera eye of Nautilus to the most sophisticated eye of raptors and primates. Dawkins’ excellent book on this topic, “The God Delusion,” sold 1.5 million copies in its first year of print. He is a fluid and flamboyant writer who infuses his writing style with the high enthusiasm he has for science and evolution and the popular issues of religion and atheism. Richard Dawkins is currently a professor at Oxford University where he holds the Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science. He is certainly our most famous and widely read atheist and a prominent secular humanist.

Barack Obama on Racism in America: a new tool in the toolbox

Posted on March 23rd, 2008 in Politics by Robert Miller

I was unable to watch Barack Obama’s speech on racism last week, but finally managed to do so late last night on YouTube, where, by then, it had been viewed more than 400,000 times. I did hear a lot about the speech through the news media and also on the C-Span Washington Journal which I try to catch in the mornings. It was a moving speech, one very consistent with Obama’s strategy of trying to appeal to both sides of our gigantic racial divide. But, for once we heard from a politician speaking to his audience as if they were adults rather than naughty little children, as Mark Shields commented on the Jim Lehrer PBS news hour on Friday. While Obama condemned Pastor Wright’s racist remarks, he also emphasized that we had to understand their origins and reflect on their cause. This was a major speech for Obama and not without risk as it came at a time when Wright’s comments grabbed headlines and everyone was watching to see which way Obama would squirm and whether he would commit poor political judgements. The political pundits I listened to before seeing the speech for myself, suggested, that by refocusing attention on Wright’s speech, Obama ran the risk of giving additional exposure to the issue, which might be best left to die of natural causes. I always dismiss this kind of advice about political risks, as it always seems to be coming from advisers who are trying to apply a micrometer to politics rather than the yardstick or the mile ruler that should be used for such numeric exercises anyway. It was supposedly Wright’s speech that stimulated Obama to give his, but you had the impression that Obama had this one written some time ago, wanted to give it and was waiting for an opportunity which came last week in response to Pastor Wright’s speech and Geraldine Ferraro’s comment, the latter of which was unnecessary, and an obvious bad cop ploy for Hilary.

George: how Darwinian Natural Selection gave us Democrats and Republicans

Posted on March 22nd, 2008 in Culture,Environment,Evolution,Politics by Robert Miller

Social Darwinism argues that altruistic behavior among socialized animal groups arises through natural selection, favoring the development of a gene pool which promotes subordinate interactions among members of the same clan, to gain a survival niche for the larger group. In this evolving structure, the survival of the individual is achieved through their commitment to a role within the socialized unit. This may seem counter-intuitive to anyone who views evolution as the simplistic “survival of the fittest.” It is certainly true that a more socialized gene pool makes individuals within the clan more subordinate and less likely to survive on their own. But, as the adaptive success of the social group becomes increasingly established, it serves as the best and perhaps the only means by which the species can survive. Extreme examples are found among socialized insects where you could not imagine a bee or an ant going out and surviving on its own. They need the social unit fed by their submissive function, just as the social unit, which, in reality is a bunch of DNA, needs membership submission for its survival. Thus, counter-intuitive though it may be, it is the selfish gene pool that strives to survive and the individuals who carry the genes are only the temporary vassals of the DNA that is always striving for a better outcome. In a way, you might think of the words of Samuel Butler “a hen is only the egg’s way of making another egg.” In a more scientific light, the organism is DNA’s way of making more DNA, as Edward O. Wilson has stated in his book: “Sociobiology.” Victims of our DNA? Absolutely, but enjoy the ride!

So let’s take our newly emergent knowledge of Social Darwinism 101 and apply it to the evolutionary origin of modern Democrats and Republicans in America. Surely this kind of analysis is crying to be done. If we stretch our imaginations far back into an earlier, evolutionary stage of our ancestral development, at a time when we were a group of tree dwelling primates, we can appreciate some of the pressures that might exist for natural selection to favor one type of clan organization over another. Let’s imagine our distant ancestors in an environment where food was plentiful, with a vast carpet of fruit trees amidst a plush jungle of vegetation, rich enough to support a lavish lifestyle of eating at will and living continuously above the ground, safely removed from most predators. This environmental nirvana of abundance put little pressure on social unit formation and allowed for wide variance of individualistic behavior, even though early social units were also evolving into place, through a process known as genetic drift. Through this mechanism, multiple behavioral motifs were evolving simultaneously in the same species and developing in parallel and within the same general geographical area. It was as if nature was experimenting and probing in a variety of ways to optimize and specialize in the anticipation of future changes that could not be foreseen. But at this moment in time, these differences seemed to offer no obvious benefit and no identifiable clues for any survival value.

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