Abraham Acquitted of Murder

I recently posted about an event in NYC where Temple Emanu-El was going to put Abraham on trial for murder, with attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Eliot Spitzer participating. Well, Abraham was acquitted by a vote of 687 to 590 (obviously, there was a good turnout for the event). I am a little surprised they didn’t find him guilty, being that this took place in a Reform congregation but the public was invited, so the audience was likely a mix of various backgrounds. There may have even been some Christian voters. Despite the outcome, I am happy that at least there were nearly 600 people there that day who obviously do not buy into the idea that it is okay to kill your kid just to please a deity. They do not consider Abraham, at least in this instance, a character to whom we would should look for an example of ethical behavior.

Evolution Myths: Part 5

Myth 5

This notion is based on the presumption that whatever function a feature performs today, it performed in the past. It is possible that a more rudimentary eye could serve a purpose or that a smaller wing would be beneficial to an organism, despite it being useless for flight. The eyespot of algae is able to absorb and reflect light; wings can be used to “sail” in the wind, even when not capable of flapping or achieving flight (Kreimer, 1999; Marden, & Kamer, 1995). The eyes of the butterfly differ from that of the octopus and those of the fly vary from the human. However, all of these eyes are useful for sensing light in some capacity. So too, could primitive variations in the eye serve a purpose, as could underdeveloped wing type features.

Kreimer, G. (1999). Reflective Properties of Different Eye spot Types in Dinoflagellates. Protist, 150, 311-323.

Marden, J.H. & Kramer, M.G. (1995). Locomotor Performance of Insects with Rudimentary Wings. Nature, 377, 332-334.

Photo:Brian Gratwick

Evolution Myths: Part 4

Myth 4

 

Whether or not a mutation is harmful to an organism is dependent on its environment. A mutation can be beneficial in one circumstance and harmful in another. An example of this is with sickle cell anemia in the human population. Sickle cell gene is caused by a single amino acid mutation (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). If an individual inherits the gene from both parents they will have sickle cell anemia. However, if they inherit the gene from only one parent, they have sickle cell trait (Gong, Parikh, Rosenthal & Greenhouse, 2013). This trait offers protection against the malaria virus (Aidoo, Terlouw, Kolczak, McElroy, ter Kuile, Kariukis., Nahlen., Lal, & Udhayakumar, 2002). If those with sickle cell trait were living in an area where malaria did not pose a potential threat, the sickle cell gene would not be of benefit. But because they do, the sickle cell gene mutation is actually beneficial. Those with one gene have a longer lifespan, are able to reproduce and pass the gene to their offspring. Research in AIDs has also found that individuals who inherit two altered CKR5 genes have protection against contracting HIV, while HIV in those with just one altered gene progresses more slowly (Dean et al, 1996).

Aidoo M, Terlouw D.J., Kolczak M.S., McElroy P.D., ter Kuile F.O., Kariuki S., Nahlen B.L.,Lal A.A., Udhayakumar V. (2002). Protective Effects of the Sickle Cell Gene against Malaria Morbidity and Mortality. Lancet, 9314(359), 1311-1312.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2014. Malaria. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov

Dean, M., Carrington, M., Winkler, C., Huttley, G.A., Smith, M.W., Allikmets, R.,…O’Brien, S.J. (1996). Genetic Restriction of HIV-1 Infection and Progression to AIDS by a Deletion Allele of the CKR5 Structural Gene. Science, 273 (5283), 1856-1862.

Gong, L., Parikh, S., Rosenthal, P.J., & Greenhouse, B. (2013). Biochemical and Immunological Mechanisms by Which Sickle Cell Trait Protects Against Malaria. Journal of Malaria, 12:317.

Vote in the Freethinker Faceoff

Camp Quest – a camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists and the like, is currently holding a fundraiser. The contest involves creating a deck of playing cards with the faces of famous freethinkers. In order to advance your choice to compete for the Ace or King spot, you make a donation. Those who reach $2500 first get the spots.

I am not sure why they made some of the choices they did and left out big names like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Carl Sagan. My husband is disappointed that Penn Jillette is not in the running for the Joker. At any rate, it just meant to be a fun way to raise money for camp.

To donate and advance your choice, go here – Freethinker Faceoff

Uses for Plastic Bread Bags

This is not the sexiest of topics but it is important. Some will suggest that you just buy bread that doesn’t come in a plastic bag. Where do you find this bread? I have no idea and I doubt many people are going to be willing to search for it. You want the bread you like, from the store you to go on a regular basis. I get it. Me too. Unfortunately, the bags are not recyclable. That doesn’t mean they cannot be reused.

I’ve used larger bread bags to store my laundry when traveling. They also come in handy for storing shoes in a suitcase. My husband wears a size 15, but I can still manage to get each show inside two large bread bags. If it works for him, it’ll work for just about everyone. If you have a pet and you take them for a walk in a park, you’ll generally notice the signage to pick up after them along with plastic bags for the task. What is the point of taking new bags, using new plastic and creating more waste if you have a pile of bread bags at home? I don’t have a dog but I’ve given my bags to a friend who says they work great.

I’ve actually used bags to make my own ice packs. Several months ago I was lucky enough to develop shingles. The pain (which is still lingering) was so intense it felt like my arm was being severed. Ice was the only thing that provided a bit of relief and I needed it around the clock. I put three bread bags inside of one another, filled with ice and tied it closed. It worked great. I could carry it around and even sleep with it and it didn’t leak (except once). There are all sorts of ways to reuse our junk.

 

Charging Abraham with Attempted Murder

Traditionally, Abraham is championed as the picture of obedience. He’s a shinning light to the heathen nations. Many Christians (and some Jews) may not be aware that this is only one interpretation of the text. Another perspective sees the story of the binding of Issac as an utter failure. Abraham grows up in a culture where polytheism and human sacrifice are normal. His family worships multiple gods. He’s convinced there is but one powerful god and therefore, is chosen to communicate with him. Years later, after devastating infertility, he’s given a child (actually, two sons). Eventually, his god requests that he take his son and make him a sacrifice – the god wants Abraham to kill Issac.

Abraham obliges. This is good, right? He’s being obedient to master of the universe. Not really. Abraham argued more ferociously for a city full of rude and disgusting people than he did for his innocent son. Abraham had already been told that human sacrifice was wrong. Does he remind god how horrible it is to murder other human being to appease deities? Does he refuse and decide that this god isn’t the best to worship after all. Well, no. Abraham does nothing here but show himself to be still steeped in the culture of his time. Perhaps he’s grown but he’s still holding on to the baggage of his past. He’s all too ready to throw his kid under the bus.

The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center in NYC will be holding an event later this month during which they put Abraham on “trial” for child endangerment and attempted murder. Alan Dershowitz will be serving as the defense. Do not take as an endorsement for a literal reading of the text, as Dershowitz is an atheist Jew. In place as the prosecution is a bit of an odd choice – Eliot Spitzer (yes, that one). At any rate, it sounds like an interesting event. I don’t live in the area or I would attend. I’m curious about the verdict.

Waking Up with Sam Harris

Like many, the use of the term “spirituality” did not appeal to me but I felt I needed to give it a chance. It did not disappoint. I certainly do not share his admiration for men who can sit motionless like bumps on a log for days at a time or remain silent for a decade. I don’t see any real value in mastering that level of meditation. But he does go into the health benefits of meditation which I think are worth investigating – such as the building of grey matter which indicates meditation could slow down age related degeneration of the brain.

Also interesting is the section of the book that explores the functioning of the brain and how it compensates when the connections between the hemispheres are severed. He uses the example of a child who is asked what he’d like to be when he grows up. One side of the brain answered verbally with an occupation while the other side of the brain answered via spelling out an occupation with letters. Each side of the brain chose a different occupation. The argument here is that if severing the brain gives us two different “selves” – so what does that say for consciousness and the sense that we have a self inside our head?

The remainder of the book goes into Sam’s own experience with meditation, how to spot a genuine spiritual teacher versus a manipulative maniac, critical analysis of near death stories and how drugs can produce spiritual experiences. While there are a few criticism of religion and the basis of the book is how to we can explore consciousness and meditation without religion, it is quite readable by people of a variety of persuasions. I don’t think that those who religious leaning will necessarily be alienated by the content. It has something to offer for anyone who is interested in meditation, consciousness or how the self relates to reality.

What Should We Say on Veteran’s Day?

Veteran’s Day is the day we are supposed to thank the men and women of our military and all that they do for us. It seems like rather than a “thank you”, most of them deserve an “I’m sorry”. I fear though, this would only come across as condescending. I making no endorsement of the Democratic Underground; I know nothing about the website but I did find an letter written by a veteran’s wife that I think sums it up fairly well. I’m posting it below (it was public) but you can find the post here. 

“On this Veteran’s Day, I would like to whole-heartedly say to my husband Victor, an Iraq war veteran, I’m sorry. While you will hear so many people half-heartedly say to you today “Thank you for your service”, I know what you really need to hear is “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry our country repeatedly put you in harms way and made you do things you can not live with yourself for doing, for a war only G.W. knows why we started. I know you signed up to be an American infantry officer when you were young and you wanted to help protect us and stop genocide, and I’m sorry our country abused you and forced you to fight in a war you didn’t even believe it. I know you damn-near lost your life many times, and continue to, and I’m sorry. I know the toll that war took on you and continues to take, and I’m sorry. I’m only thankful that your holiday is and continues to be Veteran’s Day, not Memorial Day, as it is to some of your buddies. On this Veteran’s Day, Victor, you will hear many “Thank you for your services”, and I will watch you try to not roll your eyes, but from me, you will hear “I’m sorry for the hell our country put you through.” Because, as your wife who has been alongside you through all of this for over 10 years now, I know what you really need to start hearing from us is: “I’m sorry.” Victor, I love you and I’m so glad you are still alive.

Thirty Days of Sagan

During November, my facebook is often inundated with the “thanksgiving” of my friends and family. Less so this year, since I’ve hidden almost all of them but that’s another topic. It had me thinking. I don’t dislike Thanksgiving (aside from the bird killing and the shopping at midnight) and certainly it’s a good thing to be grateful. However, I’ve never been comfortable displaying all my gratitude in the public sphere in order to let everyone know I’m conscious of how fortunate I’ve been in life. For some reason, I feel it sometimes comes across as smug. Perhaps it is because the gratitude is rarely directed at an actual individual. It feels like superficial boasting – not always, but too often. I’m just not a fan.

November is also the birthday month of the late Carl Sagan – for whose contributions to society I’m very grateful. So rather than 30 days of Thanks, why not 30 days of Sagan, with a quote for each day? Surely someone has been doing this already but unfortunately, it hasn’t been anyone in my circle.

Most of my friends and family aren’t even aware of Sagan, so I would also be introducing them to someone I’d greatly admire whose written work they may actually enjoy. It is the 10th, so I’m late but I may start this year. It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with twenty great Sagan quotes for the remainder of the month.

Evolution Myths Part 3

Myth 3

There will always be gaps in fossil records because each time a new fossil is found, it creates a gap on either side. Also, many soft body parts do not lend themselves to proper fossilization (Understanding Evolution). It would be impossible to find a transitional fossil for every species that has ever existed. What researchers are able to do is make predictions about what type of fossils should be in the record and make comparisons between what they do find.

A variety of transitional fossils provide evidence for evolution. One of the most recent and well known is that of Tiktaalik roseae which provides a picture of the transition from water to land. Tiktaalik had fins, gills and scales like a fish but also wrists, finger bones and a neck which are more similar to land species (Shubin, Daescher & Jenkins, 2006).

Homo habilis represents one of the earliest members of the genus homo but also shares features with species in the Australopithecus genus (Becoming Human). They lived about 1.6 to 2.5 million years ago in areas of Africa. Homo habilis was bipedal, had defined arches in their foot like humans, weak brow ridges and hands that attach similarly to the way human hands attach to the wrist (Becoming Human). Their upper to lower limb shaft proportions were of debate but research has indicated they were fairly similar to that of humans (Haeusler & McHenry, 2004). Their fingers resemble both ape and human fingers but their arms are more similar to apes. They also had muscles that would have been highly efficient for climbing (Becoming Human). These represent just a few of the fossils within the fossil record that indicate transitions between earlier and more recent species.

5.  Shubin, N.H., Daescher, E. B., Jenkins, S. A. (2006). The Pectoral Fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the Origin of the Tetrapod Limb. Nature, 440, 764 – 771.

6. Becoming Human. 2008. Homo Habilis. Institute of Human Origins.  Retrieved from http://www.becominghuman.org

7. Haeusler, M., & McHenry, H.M. (2004). Body Proportions of Homo habilis Reviewed. Journal of Human Evolution, 46(4), 433-465.

Human Evolution Education

The topic of evolution can be controversial to some. The topic of human evolution even more so. A 2008 study of pubic school biology teachers found that 17% omitted human evolution from their curriculum entirely. In a public school! Another 35% only gave it 1-2 hours of instruction time during the school year and 25% set aside 3-5 hours for human evolution [1].

Within the informal education setting there seems to be a variety of opinions on whether evolution should be addressed at all. One of my classmates works for a zoo and will sometimes mention it, if the situation seems appropriate but she is cautious. I myself have never been told not to bring up the topic of evolution and one of the places where I volunteer actually has a kids lab where they can learn about evolution using M&M’s.

I think that in the informal setting, there will be those who are offended by any mention of evolution, let alone human evolution. But also there are those who while they don’t accept it as true, also aren’t going to be offended by it either. Off course, it is up to the organization to determine whether they feel it is appropriate for their venue but I would strongly urge them to err on the side of science. I think there is a way to address the topic while still acknowledging and respecting the beliefs of those who disagree. I’m a very non-confrontational person. There are few venues where I am comfortable discussing evolution (along with religion and politics). I do feel that schools, museums, and zoos should be places where science can be discussed freely without trying to shield the public from hearing ideas with which they disagree. It is not our job to protect them from the facts. The message can be delivered gently and kindly, without judgement. If they choose to disregard the information, that is their choice but we needn’t be mute on the topic – including human evolution.

1. Berkman, M. B., Pacheco, J. S., & Plutzer, E. (2008). Evolution and creationism in America’s classrooms: a national portrait. PLoS Biology, 6(5), e124.

Evolution Myths Part 1

 

Myth 1The colloquial use of the word theory gives rise to the misunderstanding in formal and scientific literature. A scientific theory is not based on speculation, a hunch or a guess. A scientific theory, like that of evolution or gravity, is an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events (Merriam-Webster). A theory must be supported by evidence and it must be able to make predictions (Understanding Science). Evolution is the set of facts that explains the abundance of diversity in living things on the planet, including humans

1. Merriam-Webster.com

2. Understanding Science. 2014. University of California Museum of Paleontology. Retrieved from http://undsci.berkeley.edu

Should Children Have Access to the Bible?

Last week, Focus on the Family encouraged kids to take their Bibles to school. Fine. Perfectly legal, no problems there. The comments made on the American Humanist Association Facebook Page, however, we’re absolutely ridiculous. I’ll not get into it all now but suffice it to say that living within the non-theist spectrum does not automatically make you a rational, intelligent human being. One comment that stood out to me was made by a woman who claimed that if she had a child, she would not have a Bible in her home. The idea being that a child shouldn’t be exposed to that kind of literature. I disagree.

I’ve been both on the inside and the outside of Christianity. As a Jew, I’ve had a number of people try to convert me. I’m not openly atheist, so that isn’t as much of an issue. It comes up on the internet but in daily life, Christians assume I hold to whatever beliefs and values Jews hold (and they are largely ignorant of those). There are hundreds, if not thousands of organizations dedicated to converting the nonbelievers to Christianity, some rather casually while others being more obnoxious, such as Jews for Jesus. One thing all of these groups count on  is that you don’t know or understand the Bible. They prey on this ignorance. There is a common joke that there exist a people who actually have read the entire Bible, they are called atheists. I think to some extent, this may be true. It is easier to understand the absurdity of fundamentalist claims when know what you are dealing with exactly and in detail.

The Jews for Jesus types attempt to lure in those who they know are ignorant of both the Bible and Jewish teachings. They target the elderly and Jewish immigrants who barely speak English. They know that if you have a good grasp of the Hebrew Bible, you are much less likely to buy the crap they are selling. The same holds true for non-Jews and Christianity. It’s not so important to see where the Christian Bible (New Testament) is blatantly at odds with the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), as it is when dealing with J4J types, but familiarity leads to an understanding of why we can be confident that this book is not divinely inspired. It is easier to grasp the full extent of what you’ve being asked to accept as true.

I believe that knowing and understanding what the Bible says is an important tool in being able to calmly and rationally reject attempts at conversion into a death cult religion. Preventing a child from obtaining this knowledge is not only unnecessary but I think it also does them a disservice. If they have absolutely no interest, don’t push it but in a country where a large majority of the population claims to be a Christian – a child needs to know what it is they reject and the valid reasons they have for doing so. Otherwise, it will be assumed that they simply need to hear about Jesus and they will be more than happy to accept him as their lord and savior.

The Reason Atheists Lack True Morality

Mans HandsMost of those who want to debate a lack of morality in an atheistic worldview do not deny that atheist can be ethical people but more so that we have no basis for absolute morality. However, you can find those who want to push the idea that without god, it’s too easy to be a depraved, homicidal lunatic. They will even go far as to say that without Jesus, they would go out to rob and murder their neighbors. Nonsense. We all have a baseline personality and it doesn’t change dependent on our reliougs or nonreligious belief. But for some, this is a very difficult concept to grasp.

These people attribute their ethical behavior to their god. They truly believe that Jesus is what makes them who they are and allows them to avoid cheating on their spouse and stealing a cute pair of heels whenever the mood strikes. If you ripped that god away from them, most would continue to behave the way they did in the past. Why do they claim otherwise? They confidence in their own ability to be a decent human being. They have been told repeatedly that they are disgusting, filthy rags. They don’t recognize that any of the goodness, compassion and strength they have is their own. They have been taught that it is impossible and they believe it.

I had a friend who  was constantly singing praise to Jesus for the strength she had to leave her abusive husband. Without Jesus, I think she believes she wouldn’t even have the will to live, let alone to attempt to save herself and her children from the disaster that was her marriage. I wish that she could see that SHE had that strength. It was HER, all along. SHE did it! But, she’s been taught she’s nothing without Jesus and she truly believes it. She has no idea that she has her own power. No idea at all that she carries with her the ability to pick herself up after every failed attempt to reconcile, after every argument, after each time he threw her into a wall. She believes that she’s entirely dependent on someone else, that invisible father figure. This is what she’s been taught since childhood and 40 years later, she’s still holding on to it.

Being taught the concept of original sin and the idea that all humans are void of their own goodness,  it naturally follows that Christians would claim that their god is the only thing keeping them from acting on their sinful nature. It is not surprising that they are baffled by why atheists would make claims to or exhibit in their own lives, any kind of moral or ethical behavior. They have been taught they are incapable of it without Jesus, so how could we be any different? Sure, this all sounds silly to atheists (and those from other religions too, such as Judaism) but this is the reality of their belief. When speaking with someone who is convinced that goodness is wrapped up entirely in their deity, a meaningful conversation on morality outside of that framework, may not even be possible. They are too busy loathing themselves to fully contemplate whether you are able to be a truly good person. It’s not about you. It’s about them.

Conservation: Optimism vs. Realism

dandelion fieldFor those who are focused on conservation issues there is always a struggle to maintain balance between the gloom and doom and positive messages. This can be difficult.  I personally try to stay on topics that pertain to issues the general public can do something about. It is true that the bush meat trade is decimating wildlife (and spreading ebola, apparently) but my neighbors here in United States cannot do anything about that. The children that visit the museum where I volunteer cannot do anything about it and do not need to be traumatized by being told exactly what happens to gorilla mommies in the wild.

Therefore, while those things are important, much of the time they are not emphasized. The public can choose to recycle, drive a more fuel-efficient car, reduce use of plastic, recycle cell phones (which helps gorillas, by the way), throw fishing line in a proper receptacle, check  products for palm oil, and maybe even install solar panels. Palm oil is a big problem because harvesting destroys habitat and releases CO2 but it is a problem where individual people can make a difference by changing their own behavior. It is fairly easy too (I’ll say more about this later).

While there are a lot of environmental and conservation issues that concern me, I don’t feel that it’s beneficial to bring them up and most casual settings because it only serves to make people feel sad and powerless. I have friends who like to post the most depressing new stories on facebook, both about humans and nonhuman animals. Why? What good does it do? Most likely, none. Instead of compelling others to go out and do better, it may have the opposite effect. We have to learn to balance our message to avoid alienating people from the issues.

I tend to believe we’ve  done fairly well at laying down a foundation of chaos for the environment. I have no hope that we’re going to be able to address all of our social issues well enough to give societies the freedom to focus on our environmental issues. Even if that were possible, how would we reverse the damage that is already done? I don’t think we should give up and throw in the towel but I do think some of who are concerned about these issues come across a bit more pragmatic compared others who hold to a more idealistic attitude. I would say both perspectives are useful in a balance. The idealists save the realists from drowning in despair and realists can prevent the idealists from frittering away more time and energy in projects that will never make an impact.

If we lead people to believe that with more work will resolve all of our problems, when that doesn’t happen they may lose trust or become apathetic because they feel their actions no longer matter. That being said, I do think we should do what we can, give it our best effort, continue to encourage scientific exploration and better figure out how we can build sustainable societies. We can let the public know there is more to be done and positive change is made all the time. I believe that most people will be able to recognize that environmental problems are like other problems in their life. Nothing is perfect, we always have setbacks but we keep going and we do what we can. We can be realistic but we should continue to emphasize the positives rather than letting the sad stories take over the narrative.