NTS LogoSkeptical News for 9 March 2007

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Darwin's God



 Published: March 4, 2007

God has always been a puzzle for Scott Atran. When he was 10 years old, he scrawled a plaintive message on the wall of his bedroom in Baltimore. "God exists," he wrote in black and orange paint, "or if he doesn't, we're in trouble." Atran has been struggling with questions about religion ever since — why he himself no longer believes in God and why so many other people, everywhere in the world, apparently do.

Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, "belief in hope beyond reason" — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. "Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?" asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-ΰ-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. "If you have negative sentiments toward religion," he tells them, "the box will destroy whatever you put inside it." Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver's license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don't believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Atran first conducted the magic-box demonstration in the 1980s, when he was at Cambridge University studying the nature of religious belief. He had received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and, in the course of his fieldwork, saw evidence of religion everywhere he looked — at archaeological digs in Israel, among the Mayans in Guatemala, in artifact drawers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Atran is Darwinian in his approach, which means he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?

The magic-box demonstration helped set Atran on a career studying why humans might have evolved to be religious, something few people were doing back in the '80s. Today, the effort has gained momentum, as scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists — not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.

This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In "The God Delusion," published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. "Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful," Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote "The End of Faith," and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote "Breaking the Spell." The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

"All of our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs . . . are equally organically founded," William James wrote in "The Varieties of Religious Experience." James, who taught philosophy and experimental psychology at Harvard for more than 30 years, based his book on a 1901 lecture series in which he took some early tentative steps at breaching the science-religion divide.

In the century that followed, a polite convention generally separated science and religion, at least in much of the Western world. Science, as the old trope had it, was assigned the territory that describes how the heavens go; religion, how to go to heaven.

Anthropologists like Atran and psychologists as far back as James had been looking at the roots of religion, but the mutual hands-off policy really began to shift in the 1990s. Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.

The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists. You might think that the byproduct theorists would tend to be nonbelievers, looking for a way to explain religion as a fluke, while the adaptationists would be more likely to be believers who can intuit the emotional, spiritual and community advantages that accompany faith. Or you might think they would all be atheists, because what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism's cold, hard scrutiny? But a scientist's personal religious view does not always predict which side he will take. And this is just one sign of how complex and surprising this debate has become.

Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories. Charles Darwin noted this in "The Descent of Man." "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies," he wrote, "seems to be universal." According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth.

This is certainly true in the United States. About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from "distant" to "benevolent."

When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it's an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing: what would have been the advantage, when the human species first evolved, for an individual who happened to have a mutation that led to, say, a smaller jaw, a bigger forehead, a better thumb? How about certain behavioral traits, like a tendency for risk-taking or for kindness?

Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn't this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking "what is materially false to be true" and "what is materially true to be false." One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body demonstrably disintegrates, that person will still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion "does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy," Atran wrote in "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" in 2002. "Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It's unlikely that such a species could survive." He began to look for a sideways explanation: if religious belief was not adaptive, perhaps it was associated with something else that was.

Atran intended to study mathematics when he entered Columbia as a precocious 17-year-old. But he was distracted by the radical politics of the late '60s. One day in his freshman year, he found himself at an antiwar rally listening to Margaret Mead, then perhaps the most famous anthropologist in America. Atran, dressed in a flamboyant Uncle Sam suit, stood up and called her a sellout for saying the protesters should be writing to their congressmen instead of staging demonstrations. "Young man," the unflappable Mead said, "why don't you come see me in my office?"

Atran, equally unflappable, did go to see her — and ended up working for Mead, spending much of his time exploring the cabinets of curiosities in her tower office at the American Museum of Natural History. Soon he switched his major to anthropology.

Many of the museum specimens were religious, Atran says. So were the artifacts he dug up on archaeological excursions in Israel in the early '70s. Wherever he turned, he encountered the passion of religious belief. Why, he wondered, did people work so hard against their preference for logical explanations to maintain two views of the world, the real and the unreal, the intuitive and the counterintuitive?

Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one's mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.

While still an undergraduate, Atran decided to explore these questions by organizing a conference on universal aspects of culture and inviting all his intellectual heroes: the linguist Noam Chomsky, the psychologist Jean Piaget, the anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson (who was also Margaret Mead's ex-husband), the Nobel Prize-winning biologists Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob. It was 1974, and the only site he could find for the conference was at a location just outside Paris. Atran was a scraggly 22-year-old with a guitar who had learned his French from comic books. To his astonishment, everyone he invited agreed to come.

Atran is a sociable man with sharp hazel eyes, who sparks provocative conversations the way other men pick bar fights. As he traveled in the '70s and '80s, he accumulated friends who were thinking about the issues he was: how culture is transmitted among human groups and what evolutionary function it might serve. "I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d'κtre," he says. Soon he turned to an emerging subset of evolutionary theory — the evolution of human cognition.

Some cognitive scientists think of brain functioning in terms of modules, a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick. They do not tend to talk about a God module per se; they usually consider belief in God a consequence of other mental modules.

Religion, in this view, is "a family of cognitive phenomena that involves the extraordinary use of everyday cognitive processes," Atran wrote in "In Gods We Trust." "Religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them."

At around the time "In Gods We Trust" appeared five years ago, a handful of other scientists — Pascal Boyer, now at Washington University; Justin Barrett, now at Oxford; Paul Bloom at Yale — were addressing these same questions. In synchrony they were moving toward the byproduct theory.

Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood's being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.

Something similar explains aspects of brain evolution, too, say the byproduct theorists. Which brings us to the idea of the spandrel.

Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed "spandrel" to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align.

In architecture, a spandrel can be neutral or it can be made functional. Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase's but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct.

"Natural selection made the human brain big," Gould wrote, "but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels — that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity."

The possibility that God could be a spandrel offered Atran a new way of understanding the evolution of religion. But a spandrel of what, exactly?

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like "chase" and "capture." They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. "The most central concepts in religions are related to agents," Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, "Why Would Anyone Believe in God?" Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, "people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world."

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. "We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us," Barrett wrote, "and 'stuff just happens' is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events." The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus's thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It's an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word "theory" suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people's heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others', that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of "Descartes' Baby," published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The "false-belief test" is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that's where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to "rapidly and economically" distinguish good guys from bad guys. But how did folkpsychology — an understanding of ordinary people's ordinary minds — allow for a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? And if the byproduct theorists are right and these beliefs were of little use in finding food or leaving more offspring, why did they persist?

Atran ascribes the persistence to evolutionary misdirection, which, he says, happens all the time: "Evolution always produces something that works for what it works for, and then there's no control for however else it's used." On a sunny weekday morning, over breakfast at a French cafe on upper Broadway, he tried to think of an analogy and grinned when he came up with an old standby: women's breasts. Because they are associated with female hormones, he explained, full breasts indicate a woman is fertile, and the evolution of the male brain's preference for them was a clever mating strategy. But breasts are now used for purposes unrelated to reproduction, to sell anything from deodorant to beer. "A Martian anthropologist might look at this and say, 'Oh, yes, so these breasts must have somehow evolved to sell hygienic stuff or food to human beings,' " Atran said. But the Martian would, of course, be wrong. Equally wrong would be to make the same mistake about religion, thinking it must have evolved to make people behave a certain way or feel a certain allegiance.

That is what most fascinated Atran. "Why is God in there?" he wondered.

The idea of an infallible God is comfortable and familiar, something children readily accept. You can see this in the experiment Justin Barrett conducted recently — a version of the traditional false-belief test but with a religious twist. Barrett showed young children a box with a picture of crackers on the outside. What do you think is inside this box? he asked, and the children said, "Crackers." Next he opened it and showed them that the box was filled with rocks. Then he asked two follow-up questions: What would your mother say is inside this box? And what would God say?

As earlier theory-of-mind experiments already showed, 3- and 4-year-olds tended to think Mother was infallible, and since the children knew the right answer, they assumed she would know it, too. They usually responded that Mother would say the box contained rocks. But 5- and 6-year-olds had learned that Mother, like any other person, could hold a false belief in her mind, and they tended to respond that she would be fooled by the packaging and would say, "Crackers."

And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, "Rocks." This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called "minimally counterintuitive": weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.

Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most "religious." The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.

It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people's belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. "If your emotions are involved, then that's the time when you're most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe," Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.

In John Updike's celebrated early short story "Pigeon Feathers," 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. "Don't you see," he cries to his mother, "if when we die there's nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It's just an ocean of horror."

The story ends with David's tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother's barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds' feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, "designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture." And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a "slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion's role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. "The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear," wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in "Religion Explained," which came out a year before Atran's book. "Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long."

Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? "Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it," the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in "Tragic Sense of Life." "The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing."

Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator," the narrator says at the end. "Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."

Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be "not alive anymore." Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse's body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.

"Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways," says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence."

It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it's natural for it to continue much as before after the other person's death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.

Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. "We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none," he says. "It's natural; it's how our minds work."

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today's food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with "a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections."

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. "Organisms are a product of natural selection," he wrote in "Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society," which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran's book, and staked out the adaptationist view. "Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense."

Wilson's father was Sloan Wilson, author of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," an emblem of mid-'50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, "A Summer Place," became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.

"I knew I couldn't be a novelist," said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, "so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science." He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: "I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark." He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father's literary leanings and the field required a novelist's attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist's flair for narrative.

Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. "I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big," he recalled. It wasn't until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that "religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all."

Dawkins once called Wilson's defense of group selection "sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity." Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it "mind blind" for essentially ignoring the role of the brain's mental machinery. The adaptationists "cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief," Atran wrote. "They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be."

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person's behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person's reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life's challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

"The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs," Wilson wrote in "Darwin's Cathedral." It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, "a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better." For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have "highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems" than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that "what seems to be an adversarial relationship" between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that "keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel."

Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.

"Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation," Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals "generate greater belief and commitment" because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are "beyond the possibility of examination," he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis's view, deeper and more long-lasting.

Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion's core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. "By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun," Sosis wrote, "ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: 'Hey! Look, I'm a haredi' — or extremely pious — 'Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?' " These "signaling" rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.

In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel's religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country's kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. "The net of science covers the empirical universe," he wrote. "The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging "respectful discourse" and "mutual humility." He called the demarcation "nonoverlapping magisteria" from the Latin magister, meaning "canon."

Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. "Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths," he wrote in "The God Delusion." "Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"

The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. "Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does," says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), "that doesn't mean science can't study what religion does. It just means science can't do what religion does."

The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren't entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.

And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in "an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being," as he wrote in an e-mail message. "I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other."

At first blush, Barrett's faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn't the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people," Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. "Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?" Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. "Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?"

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the "God of the gaps" view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer, has written recently for the magazine about the neurobiology of lying and about obesity.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

A Matter of Faith


If creationists are correct, there is no science

by Barry Henderson

There are admittedly some examples of legislation introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly that have challenged the theory of evolution. At the very least, the worst of our legislators' initiatives seem to indicate that man hasn't evolved very far.

The latest and lamest legislative foray into the actual subject of evolution is a resolution proposed by Raymond Finney, the Republican senator from Maryville.

Senate Resolution 17, submitted in Finney's name, would ask the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education to report to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2008 on whether the "Universe and all that is within it, including human beings, [was] created through purposeful, intelligent design by a Supreme Being, that is a Creator?"

The resolution goes on to spell out that it "does not ask that the Creator be given a name. To name the Creator is a matter of faith. The question simply asks whether the Universe has been created or has merely happened by random, unplanned and purposeless occurrences."

It further asks that "the latest advances in multiple scientific disciplines... be considered."

In that case, it ought to be an easy question to answer, but it won't be. It has plagued Tennessee's lawmakers for more than 80 years. The Legislature adopted a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the state's schools in 1925. That law remained on the books until 1967 despite the fact that teacher John Scopes' conviction in the infamous Dayton, Tenn. "monkey trial" was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1927.

Evolution theory has come a long way since then. Creationism is right where it's been for centuries. It's taught where it can be taught and where its teaching is shielded under the First Amendment's establishment of religious freedom, in churches and homes and other private--not public--institutions where science is yet to prevail and faith and its practices are protected.

If the idea behind creationism is correct, there is no science, and mankind hasn't existed for millions of years and adapted gradually to its surroundings on Earth, in spite of all the evidence in terms of bone structure, skin pigmentation and organ development that has been unearthed in the recent past.

Sen. Finney should know better. He's a retired medical doctor, who had to study the science that he now wants to renounce in favor of a myth that should be patently unbelievable on its face. The Genesis story was a way for a primitive people to explain their existence, and they did. The Bible is a beautifully written book, in its King James Version. It's filled with legends and parables, advice and admonitions that have had an inordinate impact on what is still a distinct minority of the world's peoples. It ought not be taken literally in its entirety by anyone alive and educated in this century.

Even so, Sen. Finney wants the commissioner of education to explain if the theory of evolution, which is evolving in its own right, is valid. The ultimate question the senator wants answered is "why creationism [is] not taught as an alternative concept, explanation or theory, along with the theory of evolution, in Tennessee schools."

That's a little like asking why the flat-earth concept isn't taught along with what we know about the nature of the world, but Sen. Finney seems adamant about creationism, which is a religious, rather than scientific, belief.

As such, the education commissioner shouldn't have to answer such a resolution's request at all. It should not have been asked. It's unconstitutional at the state and federal level in this country.

The Tennessee Constitution's Article 1, Sec. 4, declares: "That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this state."

That proscription against any religious test in Tennessee tracks similar language in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. It's there so that religious beliefs do not become entangled in the practice of government and so that no religious precepts become the basis for government's exercise. Public education is one of the greatest of those exercises.

Sen. Finney believes that a Supreme Being created the Universe and everything that's in it, he says. Fine, but if he believes that his request of the education commissioner isn't a religious test, he must not believe in constitutional law or the separation of church and state.

If he persists in his advocacy of this legislative folly and a majority of his Senate colleagues join with him in adopting it, Senate Resolution 17 ought to be restyled "The Blind Faith Restoration Resolution of 2007."

Creationism, evolution part of second intelligent design debate


Brian J. Averill News | 3/7/07

Engineer Mark Lamontia visited campus for the second time to continue the debate over evolution, intelligent design and creationism at an event sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ Tuesday night in the University Union.

"This is the second year, and in fact there was a lot of great reaction from it last year, so we had him come back," Larry Kelly, campus director of Cru, said.

About a third of the 200 seats set up were filled for the event.

"In many ways I'm an evolutionist. Evolution is a very elastic flexible word. It means many, many things," Lamontia said.

Lamontia does not believe in macroevolution - dramatic changes in evolution, like the formation of a new species or a mass extinction. Instead, he credits significant changes in organisms to a designer, whether that be, as he said, a space alien, time traveler gods or a single god.

Lamontia, a mechanical engineer with 27 years of experience, approached the topic from a secular perspective using his own professional understanding.

"The intelligent design controversy might be consistent with a religious position but it has little to do with religion at all, it's something that's based on evidence," he said.

Many of the students who attended were from Cru but it was open to all of campus.

"Its for everyone, even though it's sponsored by Cru we want to reach out to everyone" Carmen Shui, a sophomore animal behavior major and Cru member, said.

Students skeptical about intelligent design were vocal.

"I thought it was kind of one-sided. It was composed mostly of criticism of evolution and none of intelligent design," Eric Kelly, a junior biology major, said. "I think he kind of picked and chose the kinds of facts he used."

Lamontia used pop references from Star Wars, Mary Poppins and Ice Age to explain the complex arrangements in organisms.

Kelly said the aim of the program was to provide a forum where people could hear about intelligent design.

"It's not generally taught in school, so as a public university that is supposed to be open to new thoughts, we thought we'd like to propose this as an alternate to Darwinism and evolution which is so readily taught and accepted," Kelly said.

Lamontia is planning to return to campus to debate astrophysics professor Alex Storrs.

"As long as it's educational," Lamontia said. "That's what the university is supposed to be about."

Evolution versus creationism under the microscope again


By Sylvie Belmond belmond@theacorn.com

The debate over evolution versus intelligent design was rekindled at a recent Ventura County Board of Education meeting when a school official and a parent expressed concerns over the content of a new seventh-grade science textbook.

Trustees were considering whether "Focus on California Life Science," published by Pearson Prentice Hall, should be used in the courts and in community schools administered by the county board of education.

The publication was selected by a committee of teachers and administrators. It's one of eight new state-approved seventh-grade science schoolbooks available.

County school officials tabled the motion to approve "Focus on California Life Science" because of a written objection to the book, said said trustee Marty Bates, who represents Thousand Oaks and surrounding communities on the county board of education.

In a detailed five-page letter addressed to county school officials, Carl Olson, a San Fernando Valley resident whose daughter attends Simi Valley High School, said the book has inaccuracies.

"Olson spends a lot of time reviewing textbooks for accuracy purposes," said Charles Weiss, Ventura County superintendent of schools.

Although Olson wasn't contesting the issue of creation versus evolution, according to Bates, others said they were seeking a "more balanced" text.

The delay provides an opportunity to review other available science textbooks to see if they're more balanced, said trustee Ron Matthews, a committed Christian.

The proposed book generally indicates that evolution is a theory, but, according to Matthews, it crosses the line on page 262, where it takes evolution out of the realm of theory and presents it as fact.

School textbooks should present both creationist and evolutionary concepts because the lack of faith in public schools has created a spiritual vacuum, Matthews said.

"But since God was taken out of schools there has been a downward spiral," Matthews said. Atheism is also a faith, he said, yet schools are basing their curriculum on that principle.

Public schools shouldn't profess one belief over another and they shouldn't discount something just because it comes out of a Judeo-Christian or other religious belief, said County Supervisor Peter Foy.

"Evolution is about survival of the fittest- that's just the nature of things- but worms don't evolve into dogs," Foy said, indicating that sort of evolutionary path is not proven.

"Education officials are supposed to provide students with all the tools necessary to make their own decision and allow the students to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and ideas," said Chris Valenzano, who represents Camarillo and several other cities on the board of education.

Valenzano suggested that students be given the opportunity to take an elective course that reviews religious literature so they can pursue that information voluntarily.

Science and religion are not in conflict--''they are spheres of our life," said Rabbi Ted Riter of Temple Adat Elohim, a reform synagogue that serves about 700 families in Thousand Oaks.

Most of the Jewish community don't want theology taught in schools, Riter said.

"We want to see a separation of religion and government," he said. Schools should only teach evolution because creation is a theology--not a science. Religion should be taught at home, in churches, synagogues and mosques, the rabbi said.

Evolution is based on scientific facts, Riter said.

"Although it's not provable because none of us were here then, the evidence points in that direction and that's where scientific theories come from and they seem to hold," Riter said.

According to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the campaign to challenge the theory of evolution in public schools and in courts to promote one religious view in public school curricula is dangerous, especially to those who cherish true religious liberty.

"It's a good philosophical discussion for students, but sciences classes are for proven facts that students can verify," said Simi Valley School Board member Rob Collins, a former teacher and school administrator in Simi Valley who also served on the Ventura County Board of Education. He now teaches political science at College of the Canyons and Moorpark College.

"You can't teach a nonscientific inquiry as a science," said Weiss. All science books mention evolution because it's a state requirement, he said.

"Evolution is not a theory--it's a process. Fossil records prove that evolution is true," said Clint Harper, an agnostic who teaches physics and astronomy at Moorpark College. The college has been hosting a yearlong series of events about science and religion to spark debate.

Often, that debate can be highly provocative.

"When comparing science to religion, I tell my students: Religion gave you 9/11, takes your money every Sunday and wastes part of your weekend . . . science gave you antibiotics, iPods and cellphones. Take your pick," Harper said.

The county office of education serves about 500 students in special education and another 400 students who are incarcerated or who were expelled from their former schools. The office also manages the Regional Occupational Program and provides services to 20 local school districts.

County school officials don't dictate curriculum for local school districts, said Weiss. "The county board does not override local school boards," he said.

Intelligent Design Scientists Will Showcase Evidence Challenging Evolution at Dallas Conference


DALLAS, March 8 /PRNewswire/ -- What is intelligent design and what scientific evidence supports it? How does it differ from Darwin's theory of evolution? Is there a purpose to the universe? What new scientific facts are turning evolutionary theories upside down?

Answers to these and other intriguing science questions will be the focus of a two-day conference called Darwin vs. Design, coming to Dallas April 13-14 at McFarlin Auditorium on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

Join journalist and New York Times bestselling author Lee Strobel and a panel of scientists at Discovery Institute's Darwin vs. Design Conference as they explore the evidence for Darwin's theory of evolution and explain the emerging scientific theory of intelligent design

Featured speakers include:

-Lee Strobel, journalist and bestselling author of The Case for a Creator.

-Dr. Stephen Meyer, Director, Center for Science and Culture (CSC) at Discovery Institute, and co-editor of Darwinism, Design, and Public Education.

-Dr. Michael Behe, Lehigh University biochemist and author of the bestselling book Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, and CSC senior fellow.

-Dr. Jay Richards, Research Fellow of the Acton Institute, co-author of The Privileged Planet, and CSC senior fellow.

Attendees will interact with intelligent design scientists and experts whose discoveries in cosmology, biology, physics, and DNA present astonishing scientific evidence that is overturning the evolutionary thinking of the past. Conference goers will hear firsthand the astounding implications these discoveries are having on our society, our politics and our culture.

The two-day conference is $55 for General Admission and $5 for Students (with valid ID at time of admission). Advance purchase group rates are also available by contacting conferences@discovery.org. Purchase tickets online at http://www.ticketweb.com (use key word Darwin). For more information visit our website at http://www.darwinvsdesign.com.

SOURCE Discovery Institute

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Evolution education update: March 2, 2007

A creationist measure in the Tennessee state senate is raising eyebrows. Meanwhile, the Michigan Science Teachers Association reaffirms its support of evolution education, and Not in Our Classrooms receives a further pair of favorable reviews.


Senate Resolution 17, introduced in the Tennessee state senate on February 21, 2007, by Raymond Finney (R-District 8), would, if enacted, "request the commissioner of education to provide answers to questions concerning creationism and public school curriculums in Tennessee," beginning with, "Is the Universe and all that is within it, including human beings, created through purposeful, intelligent design by a Supreme Being, that is a Creator?" If the answer is yes, then SJR 17 poses the further question, "Since the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught in Tennessee public schools?" If the commissioner declines to answer on the grounds that it is impossible to prove or disprove any answer, then SJR 17 poses the further question, "Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?" And if the answer is no, then SJR 17 poses no further questions, remaining content to express admiration of the commissioner "for being able to decide conclusively a question that has long perplexed and occupied the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, educators, and others."

After the obligatory discussion of the trial of John Scopes for teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, the on-line news source NashvillePost.com (February 26, 2007) speculates, "This move by Finney, while not likely to receive the same level of interest as the Scopes case, may well have its roots in the same reasoning that encouraged the Rhea County leaders to spark the debate: a desire for attention. The resolution needs only to be passed by the Republican-controlled Senate in order to force Tennessee's Department of Education to answer on the record. A joint resolution would have to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, where it would likely find itself relegated to a black hole committee and not see the light of day. By circumventing ... the House, Senate Republicans would then be forcing a Bredesen cabinet member to weigh in on the creationism argument, right before next year's legislative session when both parties would be seeking to add to their numbers in the 2008 elections." (Philip Bredesen, a Democrat, is the current governor of Tennessee.) The fact that the courts have repeatedly ruled -- in, for example, McLean v. Arkansas, Edwards v. Aguillard, and Kitzmiller v. Dover -- that the teaching of creationism in the public schools violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is not mentioned.

For the text of SR 17 (PDF), visit:


The Michigan Science Teachers Association adopted a new position statement on the teaching of evolution and the nature of science. The statement concludes:


It is the position of the Michigan Science Teachers Association that evolutionary theory is an integral, validated and therefore essential component of modern scientific inquiry and should therefore be taught in a manner commensurate with this importance. Furthermore, it is the position of the MSTA that teachers should teach only evolutionary theory as a scientific explanation of the development and diversification of life on Earth. Evolution should be taught unaccompanied by non-scientific ideologies offered as "alternatives" to evolution. Teaching theological or philosophical explanations alongside or in place of evolution theory would not make the classroom presentation "fair or equal" but would result in the offering of false scientific alternatives to our students which would be a violation of academic honesty and our professional responsibilities as trustees of our student's academic development and science literacy.


MSTA previously adopted position statements opposing specific proposed antievolution legislation in Michigan, including HR 4946 and HR 5005 in 2003, and HR 5251 in 2005. MSTA seeks to stimulate support and provide leadership for the improvement of science education throughout Michigan.

For MSTA's position statement, visit:

For information about MSTA, visit:

For NCSE's previous coverage of events in Michigan, visit:


Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools recently received a pair of favorable, if brief, reviews in science education publications. First, in the NSTA Recommends section of the National Science Teachers Association's website, Charles K. Jervis writes that Not in Our Classrooms "packs a powerful wallop in laying out, in a concentrated way, many of the issues surrounding the newest 'Trojan horse' of the antievolution movement. It is recommended for teachers, citizens, and policymakers," adding, "It is a welcome and recommended addition to a library of materials that strengthen and enlighten science instruction in the era of a narrowly defined theism in the United States today." Second, a review in the December 2006 issue of the International Organization for Science and Technology Education's newsletter praises Not in Our Classrooms as "a timely resource for science educators, parents and the general public."

Not in Our Classrooms was edited by NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott and deputy director Glenn Branch, and contains essays by them as well as by Nicholas J. Matzke (also of NCSE) and Paul R. Gross, Martinez Hewlett and Ted Peters, Jay D. Wexler, and Brian Alters (a member of NCSE's board of directors). The foreword was contributed by the Reverend Barry W. Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Praising the book, Bill Nye the Science Guy wrote, "If you're concerned about scientific literacy, read this book. The authors of Not in Our Classrooms are authorities on the various battles fought over the teaching of evolution -- biology's fundamental discovery." If you order your copy now from Beacon Press, you receive a 10% discount -- just enter NCSE in the discount code field. And if you want postcards advertising Not in Our Classrooms to distribute, please get in touch with the NCSE office.

For the NSTA review, visit:

For the IOSTE review, visit:

And for further information about Not in Our Classrooms, visit:


The evolution education update for February 23, 2007, described New Mexico's HJM 14 as being tabled in the House Education Committee; in fact, it was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee.

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Thanks for reading! And as always, be sure to consult NCSE's web site: http://www.ncseweb.org where you can always find the latest news on evolution education and threats to it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Book posits evolution is fraud


(MyBookNews) --- Why Evolution is a Fraud: a Secular & Common-Sense Deconstruction, written by former technical writer Tom Sutcliff, breaks the stalemate of the evolution debate by examining evolution on its own merits.

"Every time I'd hear a discussion about evolution, it quickly broke down into this 'science-versus-religion' stalemate and that was the end of it," Sutcliff said of his newly-released, non-fiction book. "Discussions about chemistry and physics don't fall into the same trap, so why should evolution?"

Easy-to-follow and non-technical, Why Evolution is a Fraud reads like a newspaper or magazine article. Sutcliff's journalistic style and ability to explain complex topics completely and concisely make this book a fascinating read.

The author is quick to point out that the book is not about an alternate view of how life arose, but a critical and independent examination of this ever-controversial topic. "It's not about any other view point," said Sutcliff. "It's just about the validity of evolution."

Heavily researched, with all 44 sources listed on the book's website www.evofraud.com, Sutcliff spent five years researching and writing the eight-chapter book, which reveals how genetics disproves evolution and how evolution is mathematically impossible. In addition, Why Evolution is a Fraud addresses why evolutionists cling to a failed theory.

He also exposes evolution's close ties to the Holocaust and the racist history that's been underreported for years. "In Europe, the idea that some humans were closer to ape-like hominids was accepted and normalized over several decades," Sutcliff said. "While evolution did not commit the evil acts at the Nazi concentration camps, the normalization of evolution over generations made it easier for the executioners to do it."

Media Contact info: 1-(817)-886-8781 or presscontact@evofraud.com
Title: Why Evolution is a Fraud: a Secular & Common-Sense Deconstruction
ISBN: 978-0-6151-4058-2
Author: Tom Sutcliff
Non-fiction, 162 pages
Red State Publishing, Inc.

Intelligent Design is Neither


Brian Trent

February 28, 2007

In a debate at the Cato Institute between evolutionist Michael Shermer and so-called Intelligent Design proponent Jonathan Wells, the latter was asked point-blank what his alternative to the evidence for natural selection was.

"I don't think I'm obligated to propose an alternate theory," Wells publicly stated. "I don't pretend to have an alternate theory that explains the history of life."

Therein lies the problem with modern Creationism. Having largely (but far from completely) backed off from the Genesis tale, today's proponents try a different spin. They claim to have a scientific theory on their hands.

This "theory" isn't one at all, but we'll return to that point in a moment.

My recent commentary on evolution and the so-called "Intelligent Design" argument drew a few comments from the ID crowd. Steve Renner, of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center, rushed to his ideology's defense. His first move was to assail me for "denigrating the 90% of Americans who have faith-based beliefs."

Like much else from the modern Creationist crowd, this comment itself a misdirection.

This isn't about denigrating religious belief. The debate between evolution and ID-Creationism is about what should be taught as knowledge. Belief is irrelevant; this debate is simply an issue of evidence which, I point out again, Renner, his ally Michael J. Behe, and Wells cannot supply.

They try very hard to manufacture the veneer of science with lots of charts, illustrations, and canned fallacies. But the bottom line argument, when you cut through the pages of desperate justifications of "See? We are teaching science!" is that they look at the natural world and see the fingerprints of a designer. I'm happy for them. As a species, we like to find patterns in things. We see faces in trees, rocks, and even on Mars.

The ID-Creationist groupies like to quote Behe in particular on his irreducible complexity argument. It boils down to belief: The world around us is so complex, it surely must have been designed by a designer.

We've been here before. Isaac Newton, in studying the solar system, wrote a spectacular paper on the movements of planetary bodies and concluded by saying that the orbit of the planets was so amazing, so astonishing, so designed, that God had to be responsible. Only "the council and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being," he wrote, could have created the solar system.

Well, not really. The "perfect" movement of those planets and comets has been thoroughly explained and, aside from the wildest fringes, is not the subject of any debate whatsoever.

Similarly, in his book "Darwin's Black Box" Behe compares life (like a bacteria's flagellum) to a carefully-designed mousetrap. Remove one piece, i.e. the spring or hook, and it becomes useless; thus, a biological mousetrap couldn't have evolved from singular individual springs and hooks because, as Behe claims, they would have been useless on their own. He relates this to a flagellum, which operates like an "outboard motor" for bacteria. If you remove any of the proteins responsible for it, then it doesn't work at all.

"Darwin himself pointed out the fallacy of this argument," write Robert and Dr. Steven Novella of the New England Skeptical Society, "a fact that calls into question the scholarship and/or intellectual honesty of anyone who would trot it out a century and a half later."

The Novellas point out what evolutionary biologists have known for some time. "There is no reason within evolutionary theory to assume that the flagellum had to evolve directly to its current usage." In other words, what is being used for one function has likely been adapted from earlier functions. Dr. Novella points out that there is "compelling evidence that some of these crucial proteins were once used as part of a membrane pump in the cell walls of bacteria."

As Michael Shermer discusses with terrific eloquence, structures were often used for other purposes in the past and were "co-opted later for a different use."

ID-Creationists are slick tacticians; having failed with the direct approach, they now try to piggyback in under the banner of science. But again, they don't have a theory. They have a perspective that a designer must be responsible for what we see around us. And that's not scientific theory, method, or anything remotely considered science.

This isn't an attack on theology. In fact, even in sciences like astronomy and physics there are ideas which are currently seeking evidence to support them, but can't. I personally am a big fan of string theory. I like it tremendously. But it's not yielding anything testable, and is thus more of philosophy. Maybe that'll change. Maybe not.

The ID-Creationist crowd try and cry, but they haven't risen to the challenge of providing real scientific arguments. Saying they are being scientific is not the same as being scientific… a distinction often missed by the public. This, more than anything else, is what the Renners and Behes are trying to exploit.

But they're losing. Microevolution was once in doubt and now is accepted, even by Creationists. It's no longer possible to deny the effect of mutations in the rapid generations of microorganisms.

Whether humans evolved through the sieve of time, or were designed by a cosmic watchmaker, are two of many possibilities. But possibility is not probability, is not theory, is not science.

And so we return to Wells again, who stated he wasn't obligated to provide an alternate theory.

Well, Mr. Wells, you're not alone among your group in that admission.

Readers are encouraged to look up a couple links for discussion:



Study re-writes evolutionary history of vespid wasps


Scientists at the University of Illinois have conducted a genetic analysis of vespid wasps that revises the vespid family tree and challenges long-held views about how the wasps' social behaviors evolved.

In the study, published in the Feb. 21 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found genetic evidence that eusociality (the reproductive specialization seen in some insects and other animals) evolved independently in two groups of vespid wasps, says this press release by EurekAlert.

These findings contradict an earlier model of vespid wasp evolution, which placed the groups together in a single lineage with a common ancestor.

Eusocial behavior is quite rare, and generally involves the breeding of different reproductive classes within a colony. The sterile members of the group perform tasks that support their fertile counterparts. Eusociality occurs in only a few species of insects, rodents, crustaceans and other arthropods.

The evolution of eusociality in wasps has long been a source of debate, said U. of I. entomology graduate student Heather Hines and entomology professor Sydney Cameron, who is the principal investigator of the study. A prior model of vespid wasp evolution placed three subfamilies of wasps – the Polistinae, Vespinae and Stenogastrinae – together in a single evolutionary group with a common ancestor. This model did not rely on a genetic analysis of the wasps, but instead classified them according to several physical and behavioral traits.

Cameron's team included University of Missouri biology professor James H. Hunt, an expert on the evolution of social behavior in the vespid wasps. Hunt observed that many behavioral characteristics of the vespid wasps contradicted this model of the vespid family tree.

Hunt's observations, along with those of other behavioral experts in the field, prompted the new analysis.

Instead of affirming a linear, step-wise evolution of social behavior from solitary to highly social, Cameron said, her team's analysis shows that the Polistinae and Vespinae wasp subfamilies evolved their eusocial characteristics separately from the eusocial Stenogastrinae subfamily of vespid wasps.

Experts on vespid wasp behavior have long noted the significant behavioral differences between the Stenogastrinae subfamily and the group that includes Polistinae and Vespinae. And others have tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the earlier non-genetic model of vespid wasp evolution. In 1998, German researchers J. Schmitz and R. Moritz also used a genetic analysis to propose that the subfamily Stenogastrinae was evolutionarily distinct from the Polistinae and Vespinae subfamilies.

Proponents of the non-genetic model criticized their work, however, because it relied on an analysis of less than 600 base pairs from two genes (one ribosomal RNA, the other mitochondrial DNA) and included very few representative species, some of which were unsuitable for the analysis.

The new study examined variations in fragments of four genes across 30 species of vespid wasps. Four independent statistical analyses tested the reliability of the pattern of relationships that emerged from the data.

This work confirms the ideas of Schmitz and Moritz, said Cameron, by adding to the weight of evidence that their hypothesis was accurate.

The fact that eusociality evolved independently in two groups of vespid wasps also sheds light on the complexity of evolutionary processes, Cameron said.

"Scientists attempt to make generalizations and simplify the world. But the world isn't always simple and evolution isn't simple. This finding points to the complexity of life."

Cleveland museum identifies new species of horned dinosaur, intermediate step in evolution


The Associated PressPublished: March 3, 2007

CLEVELAND: A new dinosaur species was a plant-eater with yard-long (meter-long) horns over its eyebrows, suggesting an evolutionary middle step between older dinosaurs with even larger horns and the small-horned creatures that followed, experts said.

The dinosaur's horns, thick as a human arm, are like those of triceratops — which came 10 million years later. However, this animal belonged to a subfamily that usually had bony nubbins a few inches (centimeters) long above their eyes.

Michael Ryan, curator of vertebrate paleontology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, published the discovery in this month's Journal of Paleontology. He dug up the fossil six years ago in southern Alberta, Canada, while a graduate student for the University of Calgary.

"Unquestionably, it's an important find," said Peter Dodson, a University of Pennsylvania paleontologist. "It was sort of the grandfather or great-uncle of the really diverse horned dinosaurs that came after it."

Ryan named the new dinosaur Albertaceratops nesmoi, after the region and Cecil Nesmo, a rancher near Manyberries, Alberta, who has helped fossil hunters.

The oldest known horned dinosaur in North America is called Zuniceratops. It lived 12 million years before Ryan's find, and also had large horns.

That makes the newly found creature an intermediate between older forms with large horns and later small-horned relatives, said State of Utah paleontologist Jim Kirkland, who with Douglas Wolfe identified Zuniceratops in New Mexico in 1998. He predicted then that something like Ryan's find would turn up.

"Lo and behold, evolutionary theory actually works," he said.

Tennessee bill asks about creationism


Mar 2, 2007, 18:34 GMT

NASHVILLE, TN, United States (UPI) -- A Tennessee state legislator is trying to engage the state education commissioner in a dialogue on creationism.

State Sen. Raymond Finney, R-Maryville and a retired physician, introduced legislation calling on Commissioner Lana Seivers to say whether the universe was created by a 'Supreme Being,' the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel reported.

Finney, who said he believes the universe was created by a supreme being, told the newspaper he wants to get the Education Department talking about teaching creationism and the theory of intelligent design.

'There has never been any proof offered that Darwin`s theory of evolution is correct,' he told the News Sentinel. 'I`m not demanding that she (Seivers) do anything,' he said, 'just asking, `Are you sure we`re doing the right thing?` '

The newspaper said Seivers was not available for comment but her agency`s lobbyist said the commissioner is bound by the state Board of Education`s curriculum decisions.

The legislation would revive a debate that has raged on and off in Tennessee since 1925, when lawmakers set the stage for the John Scopes 'monkey trial' by forbidding the teaching of evolution, the newspaper reported.

Finney`s proposal would require Seivers to answer his question 'in report form' by Jan 14, 2008.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International

Saturday, March 03, 2007

What's New Friday March 2, 2007


Early in his presidency, George W. Bush issued an executive order creating a White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives that gives billions of dollars to religious groups of its choosing without oversight. No politician dares to challenge it, but a group of atheists who pay taxes sued in federal court, arguing that it violated the "establishment clause" of the 1st Amendment. An appeals court ruled that the case can go forward. However, the White House director short circuited the process by asking the Supreme Court, stacked with conservatives, to weigh in. The issue is whether taxpayers have standing under the establishment clause to challenge the way the executive branch uses money appropriated by Congress. The Court heard oral arguments this week and is expected to rule before adjourning for the summer.


The documentary, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," airs on the Discovery Channel, Sunday. It claims to have found a tomb in Jerusalem that held the remains of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, their son Judah, his mother Mary, and assorted other family members. Coming just before Easter, it outraged the faithful who point out it couldn't be the same guy, that one ascended bodily into heaven. The War Between Religion and Science, ignited by the Intelligent Design movement, is heating up. According a front page story in today's Weekend Journal section of the Wall Street Journal, it's now generational. The story says that the new thing in adolescent rebellion is to be excessively devout, driving liberated parents nuts.


Opinions are the author's and not necessarily shared by the University of Maryland, but they should be.

Archives of What's New can be found at http://www.bobpark.org

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble?


Published: February 27, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Brian Kappus, a physics graduate student at U.C.L.A., tipped the clear cylinder to trap some air bubbles in the clear liquid inside. He clamped the cylinder, upright, on a small turntable and set it spinning. With the flip of another switch, powerful up-and-down vibrations, 50 a second, started shaking the cylinder.

A bubble floating in the liquid — phosphoric acid — started to shine, brightening into an intense ball of light like a miniature star.

The shining bubble did not produce any significant energy, but perhaps someday it might, just like a star. A few small companies and maverick university laboratories, including this one at U.C.L.A. run by Seth Putterman, a professor of physics, are pursuing quixotic solutions for future energy, trying to tap the power of the Sun — hot nuclear fusion — in devices that fit on a tabletop.

Dr. Putterman's approach is to use sound waves, called sonofusion or bubble fusion, to expand and collapse tiny bubbles, generating ultrahot temperatures. At temperatures hot enough, atoms can literally fuse and release even more energy than when they split in nuclear fission, now used in nuclear power plants and weapons. Furthermore, fusion is clean in that it does not produce long-lived nuclear waste.

Dr. Putterman has not achieved fusion in his experiments. He and other scientists form a small but devoted cadre interested in turning small-scale desktop fusion into usable systems. Although success is far away, the principles seem sound.

Other researchers already have working desktop fusion devices, including ones that are descendants of the Farnsworth Fusor invented four decades ago by Philo T. Farnsworth, the television pioneer.

Achieving nuclear fusion, even in a desktop device, is not particularly difficult. But building a fusion reactor that generates more energy than it consumes is far more challenging.

So far, all fusion reactors, big and small, fall short of this goal. Many fusion scientists are skeptical that small-scale alternatives hold any promise of breaking the break-even barrier.

Impulse Devices, a small company in the small town of Grass Valley, Calif., is exploring the same sound-driven fusion as Dr. Putterman, pushing forward with venture capital financing. Its president, Ross Tessien, concedes that Impulse is a high-risk investment, but the potential payoffs would be many.

"You solve the world's pollution problems," Mr. Tessien said. "You eliminate the need for wars. You eliminate scarcity of fuel. And it happens to be a very valuable market. So from a commercial point of view, there's every incentive. From a moral point of view, there's every incentive. And it's fun and it's exciting work."

The Sun produces energy by continually pressing together four hydrogen atoms — a hydrogen atom has a single proton in its nucleus — into one helium atom, with a nucleus of two protons and two neutrons. A helium atom weighs less than the four original hydrogen atoms. So by Einstein's E=mc2 equation, the change in mass is transformed into a burst of energy.

That simplest fusion reaction, four hydrogens into one helium, works for turning a ball of gas like the Sun, 865,000 miles across, into a shining star. But it is far too slow for generating energy on Earth.

Other fusion reactions do occur quickly enough. Most current fusion efforts look to combine two atoms of deuterium, a heavier version of hydrogen with an extra neutron. For reactions that can achieve break even, the researchers look to fusing deuterium with tritium, an even heavier hydrogen with two neutrons.

The appeals of fusion are many: no planet- warming gases, no radioactive-waste headache, plentiful fuel. Even though only 1 out of 6,000 hydrogen atoms in sea water molecules is the heavier deuterium, that is enough to last billions of years.

"One bucket of water out of the ocean or a lake or a river has 200 gallons of gasoline worth of energy in it," Mr. Tessien said. "It's the holy grail of energy technologies, and everybody has the fuel for free."

Tritium, a short-lived radioactive isotope, has to be generated in a nuclear reactor.

The tricky part is heating the atoms to the millions of degrees needed to initiate fusion and keeping the superhot gas confined.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2016 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

The recurrent criticism of fusion is that its promise has always been decades away. The task has proved harder and more expensive than what scientists anticipated when they started in the 1950s. Even if lasers and tokamaks prove technologically feasible, giant, expensive fusion reactors could still turn out to be too expensive to be practical.

So the mavericks ask: Why not take a closer look at some alternative approaches?

"It's really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program," said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year's budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department's acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. "Since the mid-'90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy."

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

"I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded," said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. "Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off."

Robert W. Bussard, an independent scientist, advocates a return to the Farnsworth Fusor, otherwise known as inertial confinement fusion. Farnsworth and Robert L. Hirsch, who later ran the Office of Fusion Energy for the Atomic Energy Commission, developed a fusor consisting of two electrically charged concentric spherical grids. They accelerated charged atoms, or ions, to the center.

"It's like the electron guns in your TV tube," Dr. Bussard said.

In the process, positively charged ions fly through the center, slow down as they approach the positively charged outer grid, then stop and fall back toward the center like a marble rolling back and forth in a bowl. Sometimes two ions collide at the center and fuse. But too often the ions run into the grids before they fuse. Dr. Bussard, a deputy to Dr. Hirsch at the Office of Fusion Energy in the '70s, said he had a design eliminating the grids.

Most fusion scientists doubt Dr. Bussard's assertion that he has solved all the underlying physics issues with inertial electrostatic confinement and knows how to build a working fusion power generator.

Dr. Bussard's Navy grants dried up two years ago, and he is looking for investors. Dr. Bussard said he needed a few million dollars to restart his research, and $150 million to $200 million to build a fusion reactor capable of generating 100 megawatts. One megawatt is enough power for 1,000 houses.

Mr. Lerner hopes to harness a phenomenon known as dense plasma focus, which is also an old idea. Take two cylinders, put a gas between them and set off a big electric spark. The jolt heats the gas and generates extremely strong, unstable magnetic fields that compress and heat the gas to fusion temperatures.

Mr. Lerner has a three-year, $1.5 million collaboration with the Nuclear Energy Commission of Chile to research dense plasma focus. After that, $10 million and another three years would be needed for engineering development, he estimated. A result could be a compact five-megawatt generator.

"The whole device would fit inside anyone's good-size garage." Mr. Lerner said. "If all goes well, we hope to have our first prototype within six years."

Skeptical physicists say too much energy is lost along the way in dense focus fusion to reach the break-even point. Mr. Lerner said his calculations showed that the very strong magnetic fields reduced the energy losses..

Dr. Putterman of U.C.L.A. and Mr. Tessien of Impulse Devices are perhaps furthest from success. They have yet to show fusion occurring. The phenomenon of glowing light as the sound-driven bubbles expand and collapse has been known since the 1930s, leading to speculation, but not proof, that the bubbles would perhaps be compressed so violently that trapped atoms might fuse.

In 2002, researchers led by Rusi P. Taleyarkhan, now a professor of nuclear engineering at Purdue University, claimed to have achieved fusion in such a system. That result has yet to be reproduced outside Dr. Taleyarkhan's laboratories.

Neither Dr. Putterman nor Mr. Tessien could duplicate that experiment.

Mr. Tessien, who started his quest for sonofusion 12 years ago, said he had abandoned using Dr. Taleyarkhan's approach and returned to his own designs. Those use steel spheres, allowing high pressures to be exerted on liquids in addition to the forces of the vibrating sound waves. He is confident that he will find fusion.

"There is zero question that fusion is hiding in some system," he said. "I just need to figure out the right recipe."

Dr. Putterman's group experiments with different liquids like the phosphoric acid in the rotating cylinder. Phosphoric acid, it turns out, gives out much brighter light, but so far no fusion.

Dr. Putterman receives most of his financing from the Defense Department, although he has gotten money from novel sources, including $72,000 from the BBC, which was making a program about sonofusion.

He is philosophical about why more money is not flowing, saying the scientists have not given the doubters a reason to stop doubting. "Maybe that's the brutal answer," he said. "People are waiting for it to work. Maybe some explanations are simple."


Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

Hear Ian Juby Present "Evidence for Noah's Flood"

Did Noah's ark really exist? Was the flood really globa? What about that Black Sea flood? The evidence for a past global flood is overwhelming. It was truly the greatest judgment from the Creator that the earth has seen to date.

Ian Juby is the founder of Canada's first Creation museum, the Creation Science Museum of Canada. He is also the founder and director of the International Creation Science Special Interest Group for Mensa members and a member of Mensa Canada. He has studied the origins debate for over 15 years and his museum displays can be seen in seven museums throughout North America.

New Location

Dr. Pepper Starcenter
12700 N. Stemmons Fwy
Farmers Branch, TX

Tuesday, March 6th, 7:30 PM

Michigan science teachers reaffirm evolution


The Michigan Science Teachers Association adopted a new position statement (Word document) on the teaching of evolution and the nature of science. The statement concludes:

It is the position of the Michigan Science Teachers Association that evolutionary theory is an integral, validated and therefore essential component of modern scientific inquiry and should therefore be taught in a manner commensurate with this importance. Furthermore, it is the position of the MSTA that teachers should teach only evolutionary theory as a scientific explanation of the development and diversification of life on Earth. Evolution should be taught unaccompanied by non-scientific ideologies offered as "alternatives" to evolution. Teaching theological or philosophical explanations alongside or in place of evolution theory would not make the classroom presentation "fair or equal" but would result in the offering of false scientific alternatives to our students which would be a violation of academic honesty and our professional responsibilities as trustees of our student's academic development and science literacy.

MSTA previously adopted position statements opposing specific proposed antievolution legislation in Michigan, including HR 4946 and HR 5005 in 2003, and HR 5251 in 2005. MSTA seeks to stimulate support and provide leadership for the improvement of science education throughout Michigan.

February 28, 2007

Law Review Article Supports Constitutionality of Teaching Intelligent Design


A recent law review article by self-described "liberal First Amendment theorist" Arnold H. Loewy argues that it is constitutional to teach intelligent design in public schools. Writing in First Amendment Law Review, Loewy points out that "[t]o allow all ideas about the origin of man that do not presuppose an intelligent designer, but forbid all theories that explore the possibilities of such a designer, expresses hostility, not neutrality, towards religion." Similar to the position of Discovery Institute, Loewy does not believe that intelligent design should therefore be required in schools. But he does think that it should not be prohibited simply because many will perceive it has having "partial congruence with religion":

I believe that teaching intelligent design in public schools is constitutional (outside of the unusual context of the Kitzmiller situation). First, under Establishment Clause doctrine, States may not disapprove of religion. And, a fortiori, courts cannot disapprove of religion. Of course, I am not arguing that a State must teach intelligent design. States are free within quite broad parameters to set their own curricula. As important as the question of intelligent design is, failure to teach it hardly constitutes disapproval of religion. But when the Court invalidates teaching a theory of origin because of its partial congruence with religion, that is disapproval.

(Arnold H. Loewy, "The Wisdom and Constitutionality of Teaching Intelligent Design in Public Schools," 5 First Amendment Law Review 82, 88 (2006).)

This is precisely what Discovery Institute argued in its amicus brief to Judge Jones: religious or anti-religious implications do not prohibit a theory from being taught, and even if the Dover School Board had religious motive, that does not mean ID could not be taught in a different setting under a variety of legitimate secular pedagogical purposes. Loewy agrees, and he thinks ID should be permitted under free speech principles:

[I]nvalidating the teaching of intelligent design in public schools is flatly inconsistent with free speech principles. … If the Supreme Court ever gets a case, unlike Kitzmiller, where the School Board or Legislature's apparent motive for integrating intelligent design into the curriculum is to maximize student exposure to different ideas about the origin of the species, and not to indoctrinate religion, the Court should uphold the provision.

(Loewy, 5 First Amendment Law Review at 89.)

As will be discussed in a forthcoming post, Loewy's support from intelligent design brought him a barrage of harsh ridicule from a Darwinist attorney in the Kitzmiller case. Hopefully Loewy will stick to his position and not be intimidated into adopting the party line by the namecalling.

Posted by Casey Luskin on February 28, 2007 3:27 PM | Permalink

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Lawmaker tries to stir up creationism debate


Posted on Tue, Feb. 27, 2007 By TOM HUMPHREY - Scripps Howard News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A state lawmaker proposes to use the legislative process to get an answer to the question of whether the universe was created by a "Supreme Being."

Under the measure, introduced by Republican state Sen. Raymond Finney, the answer would come from state Education Commissioner Lana Seivers "in report form" no later than Jan. 15, 2008.

Finney, a retired physician, said Monday that his objective is to formally prod the Department of Education into a dialogue about the teaching of evolution in school science classes without also teaching the alternative of "creationism," or "intelligent design."

The move would thus renew a debate that has raged off and on in the Tennessee Legislature since at least 1925, when the 64th General Assembly enacted a law forbidding the teaching of evolution - setting the stage for the famous John Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn., later that year.

Finney said there is no doubt in his own mind that everything in the universe, including human beings, was created by a Supreme Being.

"There has never been any proof offered that Darwin's theory of evolution is correct," he said.

"I'm not demanding that she (Seivers) to do anything," he said, "just asking, 'Are you sure we're doing the right thing?' "

He said the resolution is "giving her the opportunity to say, 'You're wrong. There is no creationism.' "

As the resolution is written, if Seivers does answer no to the first question - stating that the universe was not created by a Supreme Being - she would be offered "the General Assembly's admiration for being able to decide conclusively a question that has long perplexed and occupied the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, educators and others."

But if she answers yes, or states that the answer to the creation of the universe is uncertain, then there is a follow-up question that must also be answered: Why is creationism not being taught in Tennessee schools?

Finney said he suspects that Seivers would answer that the means of creation of the universe is uncertain. Seivers was not available for comment.

But Bruce Opie, legislative liaison for the Department of Education, said state policy has been "over the last several years" that it is appropriate to teach students about creationism in religion or sociology classes, but not in biology classes.

"As far as his (Finney's) question embedded in this resolution, I am a little bit confused," said Opie. "It's awfully interesting that he wants an answer from the person sitting as commissioner."

The State Board of Education actually decides curriculum for public school courses, he said, and Seivers is basically bound by those board decisions.

As a Senate resolution, the measure needs approval only by the Senate - where Finney and fellow Republicans have a majority of members - to become effective as a formal request to Seivers. The Democrat-dominated House need not take any action.

The 1925 statute banning the teaching of evolution in Tennessee was passed by the General Assembly in March. Teacher Scopes was charged with violating the law and went on trial in July.

He was convicted and fined $100, but the conviction was overturned two years later by the state Supreme Court. The statute was repealed by the Legislature in 1967.

Alternative medicine, simplified


12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One of the perks of writing about health is that you end up with a terrific collection of books. A decade ago, most of the tomes on my shelves were the traditional sort: biology textbooks, medical dictionaries, pharmaceutical references and the like.

Lately, thanks to a deluge of new titles, I've got an impressive library of books about alternative and complementary medicine. Some are so dense and soporific that I wouldn't recommend them to any but the most determined reader. Some are so light and fluffy as to be useless.

But many are quite good. Here are my favorites.

Judy Foreman's column appears periodically in Healthy Living.

Mayo Clinic Book of Alternative Medicine

Mayo Clinic

(Time Inc. Home Entertainment, $24.95)

Pretty and full of colorful images: women doing yoga, peaceful women smelling blossoms, huge garlic heads floating in space. By contrast, the text seems a bit bland.

But there is a lot of good information in sidebars and the book's system of green, yellow or red traffic lights to signal approval, caution or disapproval for various treatments is quite helpful. This is especially useful for herbs. Valerian, for instance, the herbal sleeping pill, gets a green light, while kava, the anti-anxiety herb that once appeared so promising, gets a red light because of potential liver toxicity.

The Duke Encyclopedia of New Medicine

The Duke Center for Integrative Medicine,

Richard Liebowitz, Linda Smith and Tracy Gaudet

(Rodale Books, $39.95)

Another graphically pleasing, solid reference (more women doing yoga, more women running through meadows and getting massaged, more gigantic garlic heads).This book has easy-to-use information about how the body works and about specific diseases, plus a separate section on alternative and complementary therapies.

The latter section is excellent, though it includes some crazy stuff I would have left out. Like sophrology, supposedly the study of "harmonious consciousness" (with a picture of a bare-chested guy rock climbing), and "neurocranial restructuring," manipulating the skull bones to treat medical problems. Like the Mayo book, Duke uses red and green color strips with check marks to indicate benefits and risks. To its credit, Duke rates sophrology as having minimal benefit (and minimal risk), and warns people to stay away from neurocranial restructuring.

Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine

Dr. Marc S. Micozzi

(Saunders, $62.95)

Another good, general guide to the field, this book doesn't provide the nitty-gritty assessment of various techniques and individual herbs that many consumers may be looking for.

The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs

Mark Blumenthal, Josef Brinckmann, Bernd Wollschlaeger

(Thieme Medical Publishers, $79.95)

The American Botanical Council's 2003 book has no color pictures, but it is a must-have resource if you're seriously into herbs. It has many footnotes on the 29 most commonly used herbs and easy-to-read tables that share information on studies of major herbs. With chamomile, for example, used worldwide in teas, the guide gives precise descriptions of chemical composition, details its uses for stomach upsets (and for some skin problems), lists dosages, contraindications, regulatory status in 12 countries and common brand names.

PDR for Herbal Medicines

Joerg Gruenwald

(Thomson Healthcare, $59.95)

This third-edition guide is another excellent source on herbs. With write-ups on roughly 600 herbs, it's more encyclopedic than the ABC guide, although the ABC guide is easier to use because it summarizes research in a more accessible way. Both books are helpful for serious herbalists, herbalist wannabes and physicians trying to figure out what patients are taking.

Textbook of Natural Medicine

Joseph E. Pizzorno and Michael T. Murray

(Churchill Livingstone, $229)

For those seeking an understanding of the scientific basis of natural medicine, this is a thorough, 2,000-page, two-volume set.

The Clinician's Handbook of Natural Medicine

Joseph E. Pizzorno, Michael T. Murray and Herb Joiner-Bey

(Churchill Livingstone, $49.95)

This book is more useful and distinctly cheaper than the Textbook of Natural Medicine. It's especially useful for figuring out which dietary supplements may help with various illnesses.

{WebDesk} Link: Judy Foreman hosts a radio show about health Wednesdays from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. Dallas time. Call in questions at 1-866-488-1443 and listen online.


Nontraditional care acceptance grows


By DR. SETH TORREGIANI, Special to The News Journal

Posted Tuesday, February 27, 2007

When I began writing about alternative medicine in this space a little over a year ago, there were few resources in the state for patients interested in complementary healing.

There were Delaware practitioners in a variety of fields, ranging from herbalists, acupuncturists and osteopaths to chiropractors, massage therapists and holistic physicians. But these clinicians practiced more or less in isolation, focusing on treating the patients who came to see them. A sense of community among the state's "alternative practitioners" didn't exist.

What a difference a year makes.

The First State has witnessed explosive growth in resources devoted to integrative medicine, an increase in interest by patients and a real sense of community developing among the state's integrative medicine practitioners. Next month alone, the Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington will play host to two conferences on alternative medicine and healthy living.

Delaware's second Conference on Alternative Medicine is March 31. Sponsored by Alt- MedAngel, a local nonprofit dedicated to advancing alternative medicine, the event will feature local integrative medicine practitioners including Alan Tilotson, a nationally known herbalist; Dr. Robert Abel Jr., an ophthalmologist who has written on natural eye care remedies, and Lorna Lee, a Delaware acupuncturist. Speakers will present on topics ranging from proper nutrition and healthy aging to holistic dentistry and holistic medicine for pets. Exhibitors will include local health-based businesses and integrative practitioners. For more information, visit www. altmedangel.com.

Lifetime Expos, a Newtown, Pa.-based company, will sponsor the Delaware Healthy Living Expo on March 10. The event will feature speakers on lifestyle, health and fitness topics, as well as local and national exhibitors including massage therapists, holistic health care practitioners and others. For more information, visit www. lifetimeexpos.com.

Delaware's hospitals also have gotten into the game. Beebe Medical Center in Lewes was the first hospital in Delaware to open an Integrative Health Department. That was in 1997. Today, the department continues to grow and gain attention, and now offers a full range of integrative medicine services, including acupuncture, naturopathic medicine, massage and reflexology.

Christiana Care also has decided to devote resources to providing integrative medicine services to its patients. The hospital is planning to offer such services at its Preventive Medicine & Rehabilitation Institute near Greenville, under the direction of Dr. Gerald Lemole, a Christiana Care physician. The goal of the Center for Integrative Health will be to combine traditional medicine with holistic approaches to health and wellness.

The center will incorporate a life coach, nurse practitioner, physicians with integrative medicine experience and practitioners in allied fields. Services will include diet, nutrition and supplement advice, acupuncture, tailored exercise programs, hypnosis, tai chi, yoga and osteopathy. Patients in good health and those with chronic diseases may benefit from this unified approach to health care.

In addition, Christiana Care is planning to set up an electronic medical record system designed to capture data on the effectiveness of integrative therapies, which will allow the center to produce research on these important healing modalities.

It sure has been quite a year for integrative medicine in Delaware.

Dr. Seth Torregiani practices holistic medicine, osteopathic manipulative medicine and acupuncture in Newark.

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