16 February 2009

Biological Origins of the Soul Pushed Back to 30 Million Years Ago ...

The molecular biologist Francis Collins has suggested that the human soul with its capacity for ethical decision-making is evidence for the existence of God:
Ultimately, Collins offered his own way to reconcile faith and science: Theistic Evolution. In this vein, God created the universe 13.7 billion years ago with its “parameters tuned to allow the development of complexity over time,” meaning that God planned to include evolution, including the evolution of human beings. After evolution had “prepared a sufficiently advanced ‘house’” in the human being (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of free will, good and evil, and a soul. God used DNA as an information molecule; thus DNA is the language of God. (as quoted from The Stanford Review)
A recent paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention documents the appearance of ethical behavior in chimps and monkeys.

Chimps and humans last common ancestor was approximately 5 to 7 million years ago. The last common ancestor for chimps, monkeys, and humans was approximately 35 million years ago.

These non-human primates are demonstrating a wide range of ethical behaviors:

Here's an excerpt from the news coverage on this research in the Irish Times:
A session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting debated the evolutionary origins of morality yesterday, the closing day of the event. While many held that morality was invented by human society, it was far more likely that it emerged as a result of natural selection, Prof Frans de Waal, professor of primate behaviour at Emory University, Atlanta said.

Altruism had long been assumed to exist only amongst humans, but many apes, monkeys and even birds displayed what could be taken to be altruism. This suggested that there was a natural selection pressure towards the behaviour that today we view as moral.

Prof de Waal has done extensive work with primates. “We have evidence for empathy, we have evidence for reciprocity, we have evidence for pro-social tendencies and we have evidence for fairness principals,” he said.

He described a range of studies involving chimps and monkeys that demonstrated these tendencies. One of two monkeys was offered the option of receiving a treat for itself or a treat that could be shared with the second, with sharing almost always the option chosen.

“They actually have a preference for choosing the pro-social option that rewards both,” he said, although there was no immediate benefit to the monkey that chooses to be generous.

In a trial that demonstrates a sense of fairness, two chimps are taught a task and rewarded with pieces of cucumber which they readily accept. The task is repeated, but the reward for one chimp is upgraded to grapes. This chimp continues to perform the task, but the second, receiving only cucumber will throw away its reward and stop performing the task, Prof de Waal said.

“I can equate it to the bonuses being given on Wall Street,” and the strong negative public response to them, he quipped.
If the human soul (the source of free will and knowing the difference between good and evil) has biological roots extending back up to 35 million years ago among our primate cousins, perhaps we should entertain the possibility that what we call ethics, morality, and free will all have their roots in natural selection.

As reported in The Times:
Some researchers believe we could owe our consciences to climate change and, in particular, to a period of intense global warming between 50,000 and 800,000 years ago. The proto-humans living in the forests had to adapt to living on hostile open plains, where they would have been easy prey for formidable predators such as big cats.

This would have forced them to devise rules for hunting in groups and sharing food.

Christopher Boehm, director of the Jane Goodall Research Center, part of the University of Southern California’s anthropology department, believes such humans devised codes to stop bigger, stronger males hogging all the food.

“To ensure fair meat distribution, hunting bands had to gang up physically against alpha males,” he said. This theory has been borne out by studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes.

In research released at the AAAS he argued that under such a system those who broke the rules would have been killed, their “amoral” genes lost to posterity. By contrast, those who abided by the rules would have had many more children.

And the biologist PZ Myers makes the following observation about these findings:

It's a little glib and speculative, but it's enough to shut down the claim that morality couldn't have evolved.

And now we can say that being ethical is an all-natural additive-free organic behavior that we share with some animals.

15 February 2009

Rejection of Evolutionary Biology in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation?

During the brief post-DVD discussion today, one of our congregation's leaders said that she had wished that people from both ends of the evolutionary biology debate spectrum had been at today's Thank God for Evolution DVD screening.

I asked if the folks who were rejecting evolution were members of our congregation or members of the wider community (we had a brief announcement about the DVD screening in the local paper).

I learned that we have some members of our congregation who reject evolution.

I was surprised. I would not be surprised that some members of our community outside All Souls would reject evolution - conservative religion is prevalent in our town.

But I was surprised that members of my congregation would reject evolution.

I know that we are a non-creedal faith tradition - but seriously?

A free and responsible search for truth doesn't mean one can believe anything one wants to believe. Responsibility would suggest that one should not reject settled scientific matters like the theory of evolution, the germ theory of disease, or the heliocentric theory of the solar system.

It's possible that some ideas may be nonsensical.

In a 1973 essay that criticized creationism and espousing theistic evolution, evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote:
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.
The entire essay can be read here.

Perhaps we can need an adult religious education class using the book Your Inner Fish? There's a catchy and fun music video associated with this book.

Thoughts After Viewing "Thank God for Evolution" DVD at Church

On Sunday afternoon after our morning worship and religious education class time, our church screened a portion of the companion DVD for Rev. Michael Dowd's book Thank God for Evolution. A description of the DVD can be found here.

You can download a free excerpt of Dowd's book using this web page.

After seeing part of the DVD today, it still seems like a very cleaver way to reframe religion so it's compatible with modern-day evolutionary biology - an example of memetic religious adaptation happening right before our eyes.

However, I was puzzled by something that Michael said in on the DVD.

Here's a quote in his book that is identical or nearly identical to an idea that he presented in his DVD:
Religious believers can hardly be expected to embrace evolution if the only version they've been exposed to portrays the processes at work as merely competitive and pointless, even cruel, and thus godless. Is it any wonder that many on the conservative side of the theological spectrum find such a view repulsive, and that many on the liberal side accept evolution begrudgingly?
[Source - Thank God for Evolution, page 7]
The troubling thing about this idea is that it justifies a rejection of a scientific theory if it appears to contradict one's religious beliefs.

First, some very basic evolutionary biology before we explore the theological issues with Dowd's suggestion.

One of Darwin's contributions to evolutionary biology was natural selection.

Natural selection operates through a simple algorithmic mechanism that follows from the following facts:
  1. Heritable variation exists within populations of organisms.
  2. Organisms produce more offspring than can survive.
  3. These offspring vary in their ability to survive and reproduce.
Given enough time and this simple process, one ends up with both great beauty and great cruelty in the natural world. The three steps are mindless but they have produced both mindfulness and awareness in our world - perhaps the ultimate demonstration of evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel's "Second Rule" that he coined in response to anti-evolutionary appeals to irreducible complexity:
"Evolution is cleverer than you are."
Natural selection was not advanced as a theory because biologists wanted to promote a "competitive, pointless, cruel, and godless" theory like natural selection.

As a theory, it was proposed because it:
  1. Fit known facts
  2. Provided opportunities for making future predictions (testing and falsifiability) along with further refinement through discovery of new facts (which has done extensively since 1859)
  3. Was an excellent example of parsimony (parsimony in science is the "preference for the least complex explanation for an observation")
I find it puzzling that one would entertain the suggestion to reject a theory that simply because it appears to be "pointless" or "godless" from a human perspective.

Although we have removed ourselves from the center of universe in 1543, many of us still need to accept or reject scientific theories not on the basis of evidence but rather on the basis of how well they serve human aesthetic or psychological needs.

Perhaps we need to face the possibility that creation may be indifferent to our aesthetic or psychological needs?

On the DVD, Dowd talks extensively about the evolutionary trend towards greater cooperation and he suggests that evolution is a directional process.

Unfortunately, there is nothing in the simple evolutionary algorithmic process that requires cooperation in all instances.

Cooperation is an adaptive response in some circumstances and that is why we see examples of it in nature.

However, there are instances where competition is very successful biologically.

However, that doesn't make ruthless self-interested competition the most ethical choice for us today. Given the cultural tools that we have, we can predict the future negative outcomes that come from individual self-interest.

As humans with culture and communication, we can explore cooperative options through the cultural adaptation options available to us.

14 February 2009

Shreveport Area Darwin Day Events

Update - Rev. Michael Dowd (author of Thank God for Evolution) will be at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport on 26 February 2009. See the updated information below for details.

Here's information on four upcoming events for this year's celebration of "Darwin Day" in the Shreveport-Bossier City area:

Tuesday, 10 February 2009, 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM -- Re-broadcast of Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on KLTS (local PBS affiliate) -- This documentary is about the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District trial that ruled against the teaching of intelligent design in public schools due to church-state separation issues. This documentary features excellent interviews including Dr. Barbara Forrest who spoke at Darwin Day in Shreveport in 2008.

Saturday, 14 February 2009 from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM -- Darwin Day Bicentennial at LSU-Shreveport Science Lecture Auditorium -- Thanks to Dr. Cran Lucas and the LSU-Shreveport Biology Department, the following program is being offered in our community:

1:00-1:10 PM -- Introduction by Dr. Stephen Banks, Professor of Biological Sciences, LSU-Shreveport.

1:10-2:00 PM -- "Why Intelligent Design Is a Protestant Theory of Creation" By Dr. Holly Wilson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Louisiana - Monroe.

2:00-2:50 PM -- “The Influence of Charles Darwin on British and American Literature” by Dr. Helen Taylor and Dr. Stephen Brennan, Professors of English, LSU-Shreveport.

2:50-3:40 PM -- “The Evolution of Charles Darwin: A Brief Biography” by Dr. Cran Lucas, Professor of Biological Sciences, LSU-Shreveport.

3:40-4:00 PM -- Birthday cake and refreshments.

Sunday, 15 February 2009, 11:00 AM - 12:15 PM - At All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Chaplain Barbara Jarrell is in the pulpit for our celebration of Evolution Sunday.

Sunday, 15 February 2009, 12:30 PM - 2:30 PM - At All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, we will be showing the DVD Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. This book is by Rev. Reverend Michael Dowd, a United Church of Christ minister. After watching the DVD, we will have a brief discussion about the movie and the ideas presented in it.

Thursday, 26 February 2009, 6:30 PM - 9:00 PM - Rev. Michael Dowd (Author of Thank God for Evolution) -- All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church is proud to present the Rev. Michael Dowd, who will be here with us to share his live presentation based on his book.

Known as "America's Evolutionary Evangelists," Michael Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow live on the road sharing the "Good News" of the 14-billion -year epic of cosmic, biological and human experience. Michael's' book has been endorsed by Nobel Prize winning scientists and religious leaders across the spectrum as a work that builds bridges, provides guidance and offers realistic hope for people of any religion or belief system. This event is free and open to the public. Please bring your friends and help us spread the word. An offering will be collected, and books and DVD's will be available for sale.

01 February 2009

Free Ubuntu Pocket Guide

In case you need a free "how to" book on Ubuntu Linux for use in your congregation or other non-profit organization. Here's the description from the book's web site:
The ultimate Ubuntu book!
Written by award-winning author Keir Thomas, Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference is a totally unique and concise guide for everyday Ubuntu use. It's the world's most popular Ubuntu book, with over 150,000 people already having read it!
  • Focuses on core competencies and background knowledge needed to be an expert Ubuntu user;
  • Readable, accessible, and easy to understand—even if you've never used Linux before;
  • 100% new and original! Written from the ground-up to cover Ubuntu 8.04 and 8.10.
You can download the book as an Adobe Acrobat PDF document using this link here.

"Thank God for Evolution" - An Example of Memetic Evolution

I'm still waiting for Susan to lend me her copy of Thank God for Evolution by Rev. Michael Dowd.

While I'm waiting, I downloaded the sample free chapter from the authors' web site today. The excert covers the first 44 pages of the book (plus some promotional "book blurb" info for the book).

The first thing that struck me here was that Rev. Dowd's message is an example of memetic evolution in action -- an attempt to reframe both religious views about evolutionary biology and evolutionary biology itself in such a way that religion and evolutionary biology are not viewed as incompatible.

Here's a short description of memetics from Wikipedia:
Memetics is an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer based on the concept of the meme. Starting from a metaphor used in the writings of Richard Dawkins, it has since turned into a new area of study, one that looks at the self-replicating units of culture. It has been proposed that just as memes are analogous to genes, memetics is analogous to genetics.
In the preface of the book, Rev. Dowd is reaching out to the following groups of readers:
To those of you who have rejected evolution . . .
I promise that the secular version of evolution you have rejected is not the version of evolution presented in these pages. Indeed, if the understanding of our collective past and the vision of our common destiny outlined here do not inspire you to be more faithful in all your relationships, to find new ways to bless others and the world, and to awaken eagerly each morning to a life filled with meaning and purpose, then please continue to reject evolution!

To those who accept evolution begrudgingly (like death and taxes) . . .
I promise that this book will provide you with an experience of science, and evolution specifically, that will fire your imagination, touch your heart, and lead you to a place of deep gratitude, awe, and reverence. You will also find here effective ways to talk about evolution to any friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors who are biblical literalists or young earth creationists.

To devoutly committed Christians . . .
Whether you are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical, Anabaptist, or New Thought, and whether you consider yourself conservative, moderate, or liberal, my promise to you is that the sacred evolutionary perspective offered here will enrich your faith and inspire you in ways that believers in the past could only dream of.

To Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other non-Christians . . .
I promise that it will be easy to apply most of what you find here to your own life and faith. I also promise that if you explore the meaning of your tradition’s insights within an evolutionary context, as I attempt to do with Christian doctrine, you will provide an invaluable service to your religion and our world.

To agnostics, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers . . .
I promise that you will find nothing here that you cannot wholeheartedly embrace as being grounded in a rationally sound, mainstream scientific understanding of the Universe. I also promise that the vision of “evolutionary spirituality” presented here will benefit you and your loved ones without your needing to believe in anything otherworldly.

To those who embrace an eclectic spirituality . . .
I promise that this perspective will enrich your appreciation of the traditions and practices that nourish you most deeply, while helping you find new excitement in each. It will also help you communicate and relate to others who hold very different religious or philosophical worldviews.
Making evolutionary biology more appealing to the traditionally religious is an idea full of good intentions. On the surface, greater acceptance of evolutionary biology will help evolutionary biology gain greater acceptance in North America if the popular perception is that evolution is compatible with religion.

However, a change in popular perception may also benefit those religions that are perceived as being pro-evolution and pro-science. By retooling religion, we may be seeing an adaptive change in religion.

None of this reframing of evolutionary biology and religion has anything to do with the truthfulness or usefulness of evolutionary biology theory. The truthfulness and utility of a theory are determined through scientific methods.

However, the reframing of religion so it's perceived as being compatible with science may be useful for the long-term survival of religion.