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Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics.

James Randi and I arrived well before our scheduled talk time and mingled among the crowds, swamped with well-wishers and camera-hounds and feeling the love from so many people that makes fighting the good fight for science and reason well worth it when you know there are people out there who care. Hanging out behind the stage and in the wings was an especially nice treat for me as I got to watch the speakers and performers and the audience together. Someone snapped this pic:

Shermer hang in out backstage

I think I was watching Tim Minchin, whom I have never met or seen perform live. It was clear from the start that he was a major headliner as the audience exploded in energy for him, cajoling him to remove his boots and perform barefoot, one of his trademark features, along with distinct eyeliner highlighting his radiant blue eyes (he says he uses make-up in order to highlight facial expressions for audiences because his hands are usually both busy on the keyboard). Here we are hanging out after his remarkable performance. He was brilliant, funny, witty, insightful, clever, and most of all inspirational. Minchin is a genius.

Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin

No less a showman in humor and poignancy was Mr. MythBuster Adam Savage, who quickly moved off his scripted comments to do stand-up commentary on why science is the coolest thing one can possibly do. Even though Adam said “I’m not a scientist, but I play one on TV,” I disagree. I think the MythBusters are doing science, at least provisionally in testing hypotheses by running experiments over and over and over until they get some result, often not the one they were expecting. The fact that they have fun doing it, and usually blow up the experiment at the end, should not distract us from the fact that the core principle behind MythBusters is testing hypotheses, which is the core principle behind science. Adam was absolutely loved by the crowd. Here we are back stage after his talk.

Michael Shermer and Adam Savage
God Hates Bags

One observation: there were rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church protestors were going to be there with their now-infamous signs declaring “God Hates Fags”, and in anticipation of this people decided to fight hatred and bigotry with humor and wit, pace signs that read “God Hates Figs” and this one (right) plastered on bags carried around: “God Hates Bags.”

I had 5 minutes to speak. It doesn’t sound like much, but consider the fact that the greatest speech ever given in American history, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, was only 17 minutes long, and most of his other famous speeches, such as his “How Long, Not Long” speech, were even shorter. I began my talk by inveigling the crowd to, on the count of three, yell out “Skeptics Rule,” then “Science Rules” then “Reason Rules.” I couldn’t resist filming it with my iPhone camera. Here it is, the loudest cheer I’ve ever heard for skeptics, science, and reason.

Michael Shermer next to Thomas Jefferson statue

Here I am with my hero, TJ.

I veered away from my written speech here and there depending on the response from the crowd, and I added this line, which was picked up by the press and published in many places:

“America was not founded on God and religion. America was founded on reason.”

I was especially motivated to make that comment because the day before I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which is a monument to reason. In point of fact, the Declaration of Independence is a monument to reason, along with the country it created.

READ MY SPEECH AT SKEPTIC.COM

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Teaching Allah and Xenu in Indiana

Last month, the Indiana State Senate approved a bill that would allow public school science teachers to include religious explanations for the origin of life in their classes. If Senate Bill 89 is approved by the state’s House its co-sponsor, Speaker of the House Dennis Kruse, hopes that this will open the door for the teaching of “creation-science” as a challenge to the theory of evolution, which he characterized as a “Johnny-come-lately” theory compared to the millennia-old creation story in Genesis: “I believe in creation and I believe it deserves to be taught in our public schools.” In this bill Kruse is challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard that the mandatory teaching of a bible-based creation story in Louisiana public schools was violative of the first amendment and therefore unconstitutional (by a vote of 7-2, with Rehnquist and Scalia dissenting). “This is a different Supreme Court,” Kruse defiantly said in an interview. “This Supreme Court could rule differently.”

The language of the bill, however, was expanded by the Indiana State Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, a democrat, and includes the possibility of teaching the creation stories of religions other than Christianity. “The bill was originally talking about ‘Creationist Science,’ and I thought that was a bit of an oxymoron,” Simpson told the Village Voice. “I wanted to draft an amendment that would do two things. First, it would remove it from the science realm. And second, school boards and the state of Indiana should not be in the business of promoting one religion over another.” The bill now includes the following proviso: “The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.”

Scientology? Yes, Scientology has an origin story. Here it is. Imagine this account being taught in public school science classes in America: Around 75 million years ago Xenu, the ruler of a Galactic Confederation of 76 planets, transported billions of his people in spaceships to a planet named Teegeeack (Earth). There they were placed near volcanoes and killed by exploding hydrogen bombs, after which their souls, or “thetans,” remained to inhabit the bodies of future earthlings, causing humans today great spiritual harm and unhappiness that may be remedied through psychological techniques involving a process called auditing and a device called an E-meter. This creation myth, formerly privy only to members who had achieved Operating Thetan Level III (OT III) through auditing, is now well known via the Internet and a widely-viewed 2005 episode of the animated sitcom television series South Park.

The absurdity of teaching religious origin stories in a science class could not be more poignant, but if there is any remaining doubt imagine the teaching of Islam and Allah in American public schools. There are, in fact, not multiple origin stories. There are only two: science-based and everything else. And legal precedence dictates that it is both inappropriate and illegal to force science teachers to teach non-science-based origin stories in science classes. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court voted against the teaching of creation-science in 1987, in 1981 the constitutionality of Arkansas Act 590, which required equal time in public school science classes for “creation-science” and “evolution-science,” was ruled illegal by the federal judge William R. Overton on the grounds that creation-science conveys “an inescapable religiosity.” Overton noted that the creationists employed a “two model approach” in a “contrived dualism” that “assumes only two explanations for the origins of life and existence of man, plants and animals: It was either the work of a creator or it was not.” In this either-or paradigm, the creationists claim that any evidence “which fails to support the theory of evolution is necessarily scientific evidence in support of creationism.” Overton slapped down this tactic: “evolution does not presuppose the absence of a creator or God and the plain inference conveyed by Section 4 [of Act 590] is erroneous.” Judge Overton’s opinion on why creation-science isn’t science, and by extension what constitutes science, was so poignant that it was republished in the prestigious journal Science:

  1. It is guided by natural law.
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
  3. It is testable against the empirical world.
  4. Its conclusions are tentative.
  5. It is falsifiable.

Overton concluded: “Creation science as described in Section 4(a) fails to meet these essential characteristics,” adding the “obvious implication” that “knowledge does not require the imprimatur of legislation in order to become science.”

By extension, the lesson to be gleaned from this latest legal battle in Indiana is that knowledge that requires the imprimatur of legislation is not science. QED.

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The Natural & the Supernatural: Alfred Russel Wallace and the Nature of Science

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” Before reading this week’s post, you can review my opening statement in my previous Skepticblog and Flannery’s reply. The following is my response. A link to Flannery’s final reply can be found near the end of this page.

Michael Flannery’s assessment of Alfred Russel Wallace as a prescient scientist who anticipated modern Intelligent Design theory is premised on the belief that modern evolutionary biologists have failed to explain the myriad abilities of the human mind that Wallace outlined in his day as unanswered and—in his hyperselectionist formulation of evolutionary theory—unanswerable. In point of fact there are several testable hypotheses formulated by scientists—evolutionary psychologists in particular—that make the case that all aspects of the human mind are explicable by evolutionary theory. Flannery mentions just one—Steven Pinker’s hypothesis that cognitive niches in the evolutionary environment of our Paleolithic hominid ancestors gave rise to abstract reasoning and metaphorical thinking that enabled future humans to navigate complex social and cognitive environments found in the modern world. In his PNAS paper Pinker outlines two processes at work: “One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the ‘cognitive niche’.” And: “The second hypothesis is that humans possess an ability of metaphorical abstraction, which allows them to coopt faculties that originally evolved for physical problem-solving and social coordination, apply them to abstract subject matter, and combine them productively.” Together, Pinker concludes: “These abilities can help explain the emergence of abstract cognition without supernatural or exotic evolutionary forces and are in principle testable by analyses of statistical signs of selection in the human genome.” Pinker then outlines a number of ways in which the cognitive niche hypothesis has been and can continue to be tested.

In point of fact, Darwin himself addressed this larger problem of “pre-adaptation”: Since evolution is not prescient or goal directed—natural selection operates in the here-and-now and cannot anticipate what future organisms are going to need to survive in an ever-changing environment—how did certain modern useful features come to be in an ancestral environment different from our own? In Darwin’s time this was called the “problem of incipient stages.” Fully-formed wings are obviously an excellent adaptation for flight that provide all sorts of advantages for animals who have them; but of what use is half a wing? For Darwinian gradualism to work, each successive stage of wing development would need to be functional, but stumpy little partial wings are not aerodynamically capable of flight. Darwin answered his critics thusly:

Although an organ may not have been originally formed for some special purpose, if it now serves for this end we are justified in saying that it is specially contrived for it. On the same principle, if a man were to make a machine for some special purpose, but were to use old wheels, springs, and pulleys, only slightly altered, the whole machine, with all its parts, might be said to be specially contrived for that purpose. Thus throughout nature almost every part of each living being has probably served, in a slightly modified condition, for diverse purposes, and has acted in the living machinery of many ancient and distinct specific forms.1

Today this solution is called exaptation, in which a feature that originally evolved for one purpose is co-opted for a different purpose.2 The incipient stages in wing evolution had uses other than for aerodynamic flight—half wings were not poorly developed wings but well-developed something elses—perhaps thermoregulating devices. The first feathers in the fossil record, for example, are hairlike and resemble the insulating down of modern bird chicks.3 Since modern birds probably descended from bi-pedal therapod dinosaurs, wings with feathers could have been employed for regulating heat—holding them close to the body retains heat, stretching them out releases heat.4

So one testable hypothesis about the various aspects of the mind that so troubled Wallace is that cognitive abilities we exhibit today were employed for different purposes in our ancestral environment. In other words, they are exaptations, coopted for different uses today than that for which they originally evolved. But even if these hypotheses fail the tests new hypotheses will take their place to be empirically verified, rejected, or refined with additional data from the natural world. This is how science operates—the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

By contrast, Intelligent Design theorists offer no testable hypotheses at all, no natural explanations for natural phenomena. Instead, their answer to the mysteries of the mind is the same as that of all other mysteries of the universe: God did it. Although their narratives are gussied up in jargon-laden terms such as “irreducible complexity,” “specified complexity,” “complex specified information,” “directed intelligence,” “guided design,” and of course “intelligent design”—these are not causal explanations. They are just linguistic fillers for “God did it” explanations. It is nothing more than the old “God of the gap” rubric: wherever creationists find what they perceive to be a gap in scientific knowledge, this must be where God intervened into the natural world. If they want to do science, however, they must provide testable hypothesis about how they think God (or the Intelligent Designer—ID) did it. What forces did ID use to bring about wings, eyes, and brains? Did ID intervene into the natural world at the level of species or genus? Did ID intervene at the Cambrian explosion or before (or after)? Did ID create the first cells and pack into their DNA the potential for future wings, eyes, and brains? Or did ID have to intervene periodically throughout the past billion years to build bodies one part at a time? And more to the point here, did ID layer on cortical neurons atop older naturally evolved brain structures to enable certain primates to reason more abstractly than other primates?

The reason scientists do not take seriously the claims of Intelligent Design theorists today is the same reason scientists did not take seriously Wallace’s speculations about an “overarching intelligence” that guided evolution. As I noted previously, Wallace’s hyperselectionism and hyperadaptationism blinded him to the possibilities offered in a multi-tiered evolutionary model where the concept of exaptation expands our thinking about how certain features might have evolved for reasons different from what they are used for today. As Wallace’s biographer it is my opinion that he was driven as much by his overarching scientism of which his theory of evolution as pure adaptationism was a part, and that even his spiritualism was subsumed in his scientistic worldview.5

Read Flannery’s final reply in this debate.

References

  1. Darwin, Charles. 1862. On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing. London: John Murray. p. 348.
  2. Gould, Stephen Jay and Elizabeth Vrba. 1982. “Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Paleobiology, 8, pp. 4–15.
  3. Prum, R. O. and A. H. Brush. 2003. “Which Came First, the Feather or the Bird: A Long-Cherished View of How and Why Feathers Evolved Has Now Been Overturned.” Scientific American, March, pp. 84–93.
  4. Padian, Kevin and L. M. Chiappe. 1998. “The Origin of Birds and Their Flight.” Scientific American, February, pp. 38–47.
  5. Shermer, Michael. 2002. In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Alfred Russel Wallace was a Hyper-Evolutionist, not an Intelligent Design Creationist

A couple weeks ago, I participated in an online debate at Evolution News & Views with Center for Science & Culture fellow Michael Flannery on the question: “If he were alive today, would evolutionary theory’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, be an intelligent design advocate?” The following is my opening statement in the debate. A link to Flannery’s reply can be found near the end of this page.

The double dangerous game of Whiggish What-if? history is on the table in this debate that inexorably invokes hindsight bias, along the lines of “Was Thomas Jefferson a racist because he had slaves?” Adjudicating historical belief and behavior with modern judicial scales is a fool’s errand that carries but one virtue—enlightenment of the past for correcting current misunderstandings. Thus I shall endeavor to enlighten modern thinkers on the perils of misjudging Alfred Russel Wallace as an Intelligent Design creationist, and at the same time reveal the fundamental flaw in both his evolutionary theory and that of this latest incarnation of creationism.

Wallace’s scientific heresy was first delivered in the April, 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review, in which he outlined what he saw as the failure of natural selection to explain the enlarged human brain (compared to apes), as well as the organs of speech, the hand, and the external form of the body:

In the brain of the lowest savages and, as far as we know, of the prehistoric races, we have an organ…little inferior in size and complexity to that of the highest types…. But the mental requirements of the lowest savages, such as the Australians or the Andaman Islanders, are very little above those of many animals. How then was an organ developed far beyond the needs of its possessor? Natural Selection could only have endowed the savage with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one but very little inferior to that of the average members of our learned societies.

(Please note the language that, were we to judge the man solely by his descriptors for indigenous peoples, would lead us to label Wallace a racist even though he was in his own time what we would today call a progressive liberal.)

Since natural selection was the only law of nature Wallace knew of to explain the development of these structures, and since he determined that it could not adequately do so, he concluded that “an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature.”

Natural selection is not prescient—it does not select for needs in the future. Nature did not know we would one day need a big brain in order to contemplate the heavens or compute complex mathematical problems; she merely selected amongst our ancestors those who were best able to survive and leave behind offspring. But since we are capable of such sublime and lofty mental functions, Wallace deduced, clearly natural selection could not have been the originator of a brain big enough to handle them. Thus the need to invoke an “Overruling Intelligence” for this apparent gap in the theory.

Why did Wallace retreat from his own theory of natural selection when it came to the human mind? The answer, in a word, is hyper-selectionism (or adaptationism), in which the current adaptive purpose of a structure or function must be explained by natural selection applied to the past. Birds presently use wings to fly, so if we cannot conceive of how natural selection could incrementally select for fractional wings that were fully functional at each partial stage (called “the problem of incipient stages”) then some other force must have been at work. Darwin answered this criticism by demonstrating how present structures serve a purpose different from the one for which they were originally selected. Partial wings, for example, were not poorly designed flying structures but well designed thermoregulators. Stephen Jay Gould calls this process “exaptation” (ex-adaptation) and uses the Panda’s thumb as his type specimen: it is not a poorly designed thumb but a radial sesamoid (wrist) bone modified by natural selection for stripping leaves off bamboo shoots.

Wallace’s hyperselectionism and adaptationism were outlined more formally in an 1870 paper, “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man,” in which he admitted up front the danger of proffering a force that is beyond those known to science: “I must confess that this theory has the disadvantage of requiring the intervention of some distinct individual intelligence…. It therefore implies that the great laws which govern the material universe were insufficient for this production, unless we consider…that the controlling action of such higher intelligences is a necessary part of those laws….”

After an extensive analysis of brain size differences between humans and non-human primates, Wallace then considers such abstractions as law, government, science, and even such games as chess (a favorite pastime of his), noting that “savages” lack all such advances. Even more, “Any considerable development of these would, in fact, be useless or even hurtful to him, since they would to some extent interfere with the supremacy of those perceptive and animal faculties on which his very existence often depends, in the severe struggle he has to carry on against nature and his fellow-man. Yet the rudiments of all these powers and feelings undoubtedly exist in him, since one or other of them frequently manifest themselves in exceptional cases, or when some special circumstances call them forth.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the general, moral, and intellectual development of the savage is not less removed from that of civilised man than has been shown to be the case in the one department of mathematics; and from the fact that all the moral and intellectual faculties do occasionally manifest themselves, we may fairly conclude that they are always latent, and that the large brain of the savage man is much beyond his actual requirements in the savage state.” Thus, “A brain one-half larger than that of the gorilla would, according to the evidence before us, fully have sufficed for the limited mental development of the savage; and we must therefore admit that the large brain he actually possesses could never have been solely developed by any of those laws of evolution…. The brain of prehistoric and of savage man seems to me to prove the existence of some power distinct from that which has guided the development of the lower animals through their ever-varying forms of being.”

The middle sections of this lengthy paper review additional human features that Wallace could not conceive of being evolved by natural selection: the distribution of body hair, naked skin, feet and hands, the voice box and speech, the ability to sing, artistic notions of form, color, and composition, mathematical reasoning and geometrical spatial abilities, morality and ethical systems, and especially such concepts as space and time, eternity and infinity. “How were all or any of these faculties first developed, when they could have been of no possible use to man in his early stages of barbarism? How could natural selection, or survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, at all favour the development of mental powers so entirely removed from the material necessities of savage men, and which even now, with our comparatively high civilisation, are, in their farthest developments, in advance of the age, and appear to have relation rather to the future of the race than to its actual status?”

Modern Intelligent Design creationists generally (with few exceptions) believe that the designer is God. Nowhere in this paper does Wallace invoke God as the overarching intelligence. In a footnote in the second edition of the volume in which this paper was published, in fact, Wallace upbraids those who accused him of such speculations:

Some of my critics seem quite to have misunderstood my meaning in this part of the argument. They have accused me of unnecessarily and unphilosophically appealing to “first causes” in order to get over a difficulty—of believing that “our brains are made by God and our lungs by natural selection;” and that, in point of fact, “man is God’s domestic animal.” … Now, in referring to the origin of man, and its possible determining causes, I have used the words “some other power”—“some intelligent power”—“a superior intelligence”—“a controlling intelligence,” and only in reference to the origin of universal forces and laws have I spoken of the will or power of “one Supreme Intelligence.” These are the only expressions I have used in alluding to the power which I believe has acted in the case of man, and they were purposely chosen to show that I reject the hypothesis of “first causes” for any and every special effect in the universe, except in the same sense that the action of man or of any other intelligent being is a first cause. In using such terms I wished to show plainly that I contemplated the possibility that the development of the essentially human portions of man’s structure and intellect may have been determined by the directing influence of some higher intelligent beings, acting through natural and universal laws.

Clearly Wallace’s heresy had nothing to do with God or any other supernatural force, as these “natural and universal laws” could be fully incorporated into the type of empirical science he practiced. It was not spiritualism, but scientism at work in Wallace’s world-view: “These speculations are usually held to be far beyond the bounds of science; but they appear to me to be more legitimate deductions from the facts of science than those which consist in reducing the whole universe…to matter conceived and defined so as to be philosophically inconceivable.”

In Wallace’s science there is no supernatural. There is only the natural and unexplained phenomenon yet to be incorporated into the natural sciences. That he left no room in his evolutionary theory for exaptations of early structures for later use is no reflection on his ambitions and abilities as a scientist. It was, in fact, one of Wallace’s career goals to be the scientist who brought more of the apparent supernatural into the realm of the natural, and the remainder of his life was devoted to fleshing out the details of a scientism that encompassed so many different issues and controversies that made him a heretic-scientist.

If modern Intelligent Design theorists restricted their visage to only natural causes they would, perchance, be taken more seriously by the scientific community, who at present (myself included) sees this movement as nothing more than another species of the genus Homo creationopithicus.

Read Flannery’s reply to my opening statement and tune into Skepticblog in a couple weeks for my response to him.

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Singularity 101: Be Skeptical! (Even of Skeptics)

Michael Shermer appeared on the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast after meeting its creator, Nikola (a.k.a “Socrates”), at a recent Singularity Summit in New York (watch Michael’s lecture). Discussion included a variety of topics such as: Michael’s education at a Christian college and original interest in religion and theology; his eventual transition to atheism, skepticism, science and the scientific method; SETI, the singularity and religion; scientific progress and the dots on the curve as precursors of big breakthroughs; life-extension, cloning and mind uploading; being a skeptic and an optimist at the same time; the “social singularity”; global warming; the tricky balance between being a skeptic while still being able to learn and make progress.

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST AUDIO, or watch the videos below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

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