Fake Ark, Fake Religion

Fairy Tale ArkWell, it finally opened: the $100 million-dollar Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky that features an allegedly life-size model of the mythological boat described in the Bible. It’s 510 feet (155.4m) long, 85 feet (26m) wide, more than three storeys (51 feet) tall, uses 3.1 million board-feet of lumber, steel and other modern materials, on a base of rebar-reinforced concrete.*

The only two materials specifically mentioned in the Biblical tale are gopher wood and pitch. But this reconstruction doesn’t use gopher wood or pitch – curiously, both are conspicuous in their absence in this modern remaking. In fact, pitch isn’t even mentioned in the website about the theme park. Details, schmeetails…

It was built using a large crew equipped with modern cranes and tools based on diesel and electrical power. Without which, a bronze-age farmer would have had a tough time building something of this scale, let alone go to Australia and New Zealand and the Antarctic and Tibet and Mongolia and Rhodesia to collect the birds and animals he was supposed to carry.

The ark under construction

Now if you know the story in Genesis, the ark wasn’t supposed to go cruising, just float. It didn’t have sails. As it points out on the Friendly Atheist blog, Ham’s ark is completely wrong in its design and purpose:

That implies that it was designed to go somewhere with a purpose. Cruise ship. Cargo ship. War ship. But Noah’s Ark wasn’t a ship. Noah had one job — to make sure the Ark floated and keep everyone on it alive. His Ark didn’t have propulsion, engines, or sails. It just had to float.
That means what Noah built was a barge. It was made to simply hold something while an external source pushed it around… what “launch” is he talking about? In the Genesis story, the Ark was built and then floated as the water rose. It was never “launched” as we would see of ships today… Also, as far as a “landing,” who cares? If Noah successfully guided the Ark to the point where he could “land,” the method of doing it would have been irrelevant since the Flood was over and everyone survived.

So basically, the look, design and construction of this thing are all made up. Imaginary. Fictional. Like all the stories and myths in Genesis itself (I’ll write more about that sometime soon, but you can already guess my approach). But let’s look at the ark itself.

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The Rational Gods of Iceland

CreationismWhile 61% of Icelanders say they believe in God, according to a recent poll, absolutely none  under the age of 25 believe that their personal hairy thunderer created the world:

Less than half of Icelanders claim they are religious and more than 40% of young Icelanders identify as atheist. Remarkably the poll failed to find young Icelanders who accept the creation story of the Bible. 93.9% of Icelanders younger than 25 believed the world was created in the big bang, 6.1% either had no opinion or thought it had come into existence through some other means and 0.0% believed it had been created by God.

None. Zero. That’s pretty astounding and progressive, especially when you compare it to the USA, where 42% of Americans still have superstitious, medieval creationist beliefs, according to a mid-2014 Gallup poll:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Well, a lot of Americans also believe in Donald Trump, so one can’t really be surprised at their lack of acuity, scientific education and common sense. There is some faint hope for a growth in secular (critical) thought, though, as Gallup notes:

There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.

I’m not holding my breath for any sudden dawning of mass rationalism in the USA. Not while Trump, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter get any media attention. It’s the home of the truther, open-carry, anti-vaccination, climate-change-denial, Tea Party and the TVangelist movements, after all. The vast majority of wingnut, conspiracy and pseudoscience sites I have seen are American made, too (local blogs notwithstanding).
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Gut instincts

Ars TechnicaA story on Science Daily says research suggests our so-called “free will” may be less free than we ever imagined. We may, instead, be meat puppets ruled by the desires and cravings of the smallest symbiotes we carry: our gut bacteria.

The story opens:

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity… researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way… the authors believe this diverse community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, may influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses.

Actually this is not really surprising. It has long been known that human evolution has been affected by both viral and bacterial presence, as well as having our own DNA encoded with bits from them. And recently it was discovered bacteria can encode DNA from other animals – even dead ones – into their own.

The discovery of the recombinant DNA process should have alerted everyone to the wider possibility that there may be biological analogues already. After all, it only makes sense that in any symbiotic relationship, there must be some way for all parties to communicate with each other for mutual survival. The gut is a competitive environment with numerous species, so they also need a mechanism for cooperation and communication in ways that also help keep the host alive.

Most life on the planet has some form of symbiotic relationship and many are mutually beneficial like that with our gut flora, although there are also parasitic relationships as well.

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Gangs of Feathered T-Rex

Packs of tyrannosaurs
Imagine, if you will, an early morning scene in the late Cretaceous. The air is quiet as the day warms. At the edge of a large forest a plain of ferns ripples in the light breeze (grass would not evolve for another 20 or so million years). Under the canopy of the ancient beeches and maples, there is movement. Nothing fast, just a hint. A flash of mottled colour against the background. A glint of light off an eye. A soft snuffling. A feather falls silently to the forest floor.

Among the nearby ferns, a pack of ceratopsians grazes, adults watching the woods carefully, nervously, herding the young towards the safety of the pack’s centre with prods of their heads, honking to get the young ones’ attention. They eat the flowers that dot the plain among the ferns and cycads, chew the horsetails that grow at the edge of the ponds and streams. A youngster sees a tasty patch of moss and, unnoticed, slips out between the elders to get it.

Suddenly the forest explodes. Leaves scatter and branches snap as the muscular forms crash through the cover and converge on the young triceratops, separated from the horned protection of the pack. Two large adults, a teenager and two younger tyrannosaurs running a well-coordinated hunt as they have done many times int he past. Their speed makes them a blur against the trees.

The ceratopsians bellow in fear and rage, and quickly form a circle, heads out, protecting the oldest and youngest within the centre. The pack of tyrannosaurs’ charge sounds like thunder, and they screech in anticipation as they race to surround the doomed youngster. They circle rapidly, darting to avoid the feeble attempts at defence from the surrounded dinosaur.

The herd can’t save it, and they move away, quickly, the outer ring still shuffling backwards to keep their ferocious, horned heads facing the danger. The tyrannosaur pack ignores the herd as it feeds, tearing off chunks of the living flesh as the youngster’s screams get fainter.

Their hunger slaked for the moment, the pack would soon retire to the forest to look for another easy target that might venture close by.

Triceratops vs tyrannosaur

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Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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