31 December 2006

The Logic of Fred Phelps and the Weird Westboro Baptist Church

"God Hates America."
So says Fred Phelps of Westborough Baptist Church. Fred says alot of other weird things, but of course you would expect weird from a preacher whose church mantra is "God hates Fags." I'm sure you've heard this genius on CNN, MSNBC or maybe FoxNews. If not him maybe you've seen his his crazy-eyed daughter. They have a really charming schtick. They like to do picket protests at funerals, specifically they love to go to soldier's funerals, and the funerals of homosexuals. They achieved notoriety, in fact by doing just that at Matthew Shepard's funeral (There is-or was- an image of Matthew Shepard's head bouncing on flames, with a ticker that counted the days he had been in hell, on their web-site.) They carry signs that say all sorts of nasty things, "God hates fags" of course, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and the pithy, "America is Doomed." For some reason they also like "Don't Worship the Dead," as a picket sign. On one of their video broadcasts, which you too can see, if you can stomach it, on youtube.com or at googlevideo, they explain that people should not pay attention to the "fag enabler who is dead, but they should just accept God's punishment."
At the very least this not an ecumenical church.
Fred's thesis is that all the bad things that happen in this country or to its citizenry is the obvious product of God's hand. 9/11? God putting the smite down! A school bus crash where a student died? Praise be to God. Phelps is ready to thank God for any number of horrible things that happen. He believes that God let the White House be deceived by a host of liars, and thus lead them Iraq so he could kill American soldiers. The school bus accident mentioned above was a punishment for the citizens of Alabama. Hurricane Katrina? No brainer. All of this punishment seems driven-according to Phelps- by God's deep and abiding hatred of gay people.
The criticism of Phelps and his church is not exclusively secular, there are a considerable number of voices against his message that come from both liberal Christians as well the Christian Right.
There is a difference though, in these critiques. Liberal Christians just condemn the general message of hate (and may be in different philosophical places regarding the status of homosexuality as a sin). Whereas the Christian Right generally agrees with the main point, God, does hate fags, which it says rather clearly in the old testament. Jerry Falwell for instance wasn't nearly as happy about 9/11 as Phelps and his crew, but he did blame feminists, homosexuals, etc, etc for it. "Look what you did!" Falwell said to homosexuals, feminists and others during an interview. Still though, God gets his smiting on according to Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and their ilk. Katrina was God's wrath in their eyes too. The big difference between the Christian Right and the Westboro is that the Christian Right holds to the notion of Salvation through the acceptance of Jesus Christ. Liberal religious folk,tend not to see God's righteous hand in every action-just occasionally when something really, really good happens.
Which just goes to show how good people are at believing silly things based on scant, okay, okay, completely absent evidence. According to Phelps, God tricked Bush into going to war in Iraq....so he could kill American Soldiers? Jesus Christ! This is the almighty and powerful God, why doesn't he just kill them already. It seems like an awful lot of subterfuge for the most powerful being in the Universe. He could snap his fingers and 3000 soldiers could've fallen over dead in an instant, all their hearts missing or something else "divinely" inspired. Why do it so that it just looks to most rational people like bungled, dishonest leadership, bullets and bombs? Katrina resembled a hurricane to me, with all the random damage storms tend to impart to a landscape. A school bus accident that was really God's vengeance on Alabama? An auto accident? Hmmmmm. Now a school being lifted from its foundations and hurled into space...now that would be quiet a teaching aide. Unbelievably cruel. Not terribly efficient. But that is God. At least as he is portrayed in the Old Testament, an instantiation much beloved for some reason. Clearly God's works are identifiable not by some objective standard, but the subjective standards of believers.
Fred Phelps is a moron, no question. His followers, are not intellectual giants either. But it seems like all people who believe in Godly intervention seem to engage in this strange reasoning. It is a reasoning deeply uncoupled from reality. Perhaps there is a God. It doesn't seem terribly likely. And we certainly can't tell from his "works." By that I mean his hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and accidents. All of which need not be explained the supernatural rather than natural causes.
In closing, many churches not of the Phelps persuasion have taken to counter-picketing. To which I say, good on ya lads and lassies. It isn't likely that you will change any hearts and minds as you are all reading the same book and there really isn't much objective criteria you could turn to that would be useful argument settlers. Its all pretty much a battle of lit-crit. Perhaps its time though for a different approach. Instead of arguing over which reading of the bible is correct, why not just put it away. There is no need to hold up "God loves America," or "God hates America" picket signs. Even if such an improbable being exists, the evidence that it loves any country clearly doesn't.

30 December 2006

Judo Olympian Rhadi Ferguson - Two HUGE Competition Takedowns!

I'm not sure I've seen that taught in any Judo book or school....
Judo Olympian Rhadi Ferguson - Two HUGE Competition Takedowns!

His Official Site

Visit www.bullshido.net for MA discussion.

A wonderful lecture from Richard Dawkins

Here is a great lecture on the the possible limits of our minds to "intuit" the world around us.
Utterly compelling.

28 December 2006

Clerks II

Here's the deal.
Kevin Smith rocks. I know, I know. Love him or hate him.
There doesn't seem to be alot of intermediate ground. He's kind of a geek, and his films are easily the most profanity riddled around, but when you get past that there is a wealth of beauty.
And poetry too.
Smith gets people. At least he gets my people. Which is more than I can say for that douche Michael-fucking-Bay.

10 December 2006


Here it is. Matt Hughes vs George St. Pierre.
UFC 65

09 December 2006

If only more people did this to mormons.

Here is a funny take on the door to door belief pushing of the kind so embraced by the Church of Latter Day Saints.

I am quite sure this doesn't happen enough to these folks. I needn't labor here about all the shortcomings the LDS has. I will only say that followers of it are as gullible as the followers of Scientology.
At least traditional religious types-also wrong-were spared seeing the tendency to just make stuff up these so-called prophets have. Scientologists and Mormons are stuck with it.
poor little fellas.

Contingency in History and Evolutionary Biology Pt 1

Wyrdr bio ful araed (Fate is inexorable.)
-Danish proverb
History doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme
-Mark Twain

The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould made a lot of heavy weather about the concept of contingency in evolutionary history. Its unclear to me if he was deliberately non-committal with his definitions or if he never worked out what exactly he meant by the phrase.
Contingency was Gould's answer to any lingering Linean tendencies to see progress in nature. The notion of progress he railed against was that one could rank species in terms of higher forms and lower forms along a Scala Natura.
Evolution wasn't a ladder of progress, just an unpredictable branching pattern whose form was based on accidents of history, contingencies. Replay the tape of life and you wouldn't likely get the same suite of species. That is to say you and I, not to mention the rest of our species, Homo sapiens, would likely not be here. Nor would mammals, or birds or reptiles among others. Gould thought this was one of the most important things to be said about evolutionary biology. In fact he may even have thought it revolutionary. He built his case for the pre-eminence of contingency as a significant force in evolutionary processes in his book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Without delving into great detail the book reviews the amazing fossils of the ancient Burgess Shale. 600 million year old rock containing not only soft part fossilizaiton but also a host of organisms unlike any other in the history of life. Whole unknown phyla just springing into existence. Or being snuffed out. Maybe evolution worked in a different way. At least that is Gould's interpretation. Simon Conway Morris, one of the discovers of the Shale formation, disagrees with Gould's hypothesis that evolution worked somehow radically different than it does now. That aside, Gould really is on to a key shaper of history. Namely that events-either biological or cultural/historical-don't happen in a vacuum but rather happen in context.
Psychologist, and historian Michael Shermer has defended Gould's radical contingency and also done some much needed work in fleshing out the theory. He lays out definitions quite succinctly in his book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God. He also points out how it is hard to predict what events in the present will have large scale effects on the course of history. We can post-dict by reviewing historical records what it was that shaped history. He also echoes Gould in noting that the earlier in the system you look the more impact a small event can have on the ontongeny of the system. This is because early in the system there is not much stability, or historical inertia. As stability accrues, the greater the magnitude of the event necessary to have large scale, long term effects. An example of this might be the history of mammals. Early in the system several mammal like reptiles arose alongside the archosaurs. No group really held ecological preemience so there was a great deal of variety. But for what ever accident of history, the archosaurs gained a foothold and the age of the Dinosaurs began, and a 150 million years of stability. Mammals didn't begin their own adaptive radiation until the dinosaurs followed an astroid into oblivion. Contingency is really Chaos theory applied to history. Were there anyone left in the sciences that still held to notions of progressivism then maybe Gould and Shermer's "radical contingency" really would be just that.
I think there is much to the idea of contingency but I don't think it is nearly as radical, or limiting as Gould or Shermer think it is. Nor does it limit certain types of progress in evolutionary processes. Co-evolutionary arms races are just one type of progress that is un-affected. There are more.
Clearly they are right in saying that evolution was not on a progressive march up to humanity, and that were we to "rewind the tape of life" and play it back it would be an unlikely event indeed that we would see the dominance of a big brained bipedal primate. But that being said, could we expect anything similar at all of this rewound tape.
The answer I think is yes. One of my favorite Stephen Jay Gould essays, and one of his most famous, was "The Panda's Thumb." In it he describes the "thumb" of pandas which is a tool for stripping bamboo. Of course pandas have no true thumb but a modified radial sesamoid bone (the radial bone is the top bone of the forearm). The thumb of the panda is not nearly as efficient as primate thumbs for gripping but it gets the job done. Michael Shermer uses this as an example of contingency. Gould used it to illustrate both that and the silliness of an intelligently designed biology. In How We Believe, Shermer cites Gould's Panda Principle, which states "The complex and curious pathways of history guarantee that most organisms and ecosystems cannot be designed optimally." Shermer adds, "Historical events that come together in an unplanned way create inevitable historical outcomes." To which I say optimal for what? From whose perspective is any organism optimally designed? To deduce the extent to which anything is optimal we had probably better start by looking at the problem from the organism's perspective.
Any design optima is going to be shaped by any number of factors, but that doesn't make an organism any less "optimal" in its given environment and its contingent history. Whatever Gould may mean by optimal, I don't get it. When you read Wonderful Life, or listen to some of Gould's lectures it becomes clear that his targets were human vanity, and his own bogeyman: an evolutionary biology overrun with adaptationists who saw in everything progress and optimality. Contingency was Gould's answer to the progressivism he thought was rampant in evolutionary biology. Shermer found the idea utterly intriguing and bristled at its critics, chiefly Daniel Dennett.
"In my opinion, Dennett, and others, who adhere to a strict Darwinian adaptationist program, may be trying to find in nature, a non-existing pattern that shows us-Homo sapiens- as the nearly inevitable result of evolution." So says Michael Shermer of Dennett and unnamed others. If there is a finer example of windmill tilting, I've not seen it. What evolutionary biologist holds this position? Certainly it isn't Dan Dennett. Or Richard Dawkins, or any other "orthodox" Darwinian of which I know.
So where does that leave the history of life and Gould's tape? We cannot replay the tape of course but we can look at the history of our planet and point out that while contingency figures prominently into evolution we can also see that, in a generalized way, there is much that repeats. Dennett called this phenomena "good moves in design space." It is estimated that eyes have evolved, independently at least forty times. Here is an example of something in which evolution has hit on again and again. Echo-location as a tool for navigation is not limited to the bats, but used by whales, and Oil-birds to name just two others. Use of electromagnetic fields as a sensory tool has been hit upon by such disparate organisms as platypus and morymid fishes. Intelligence, and extreme social organization has been hit on several times. Canids, Elephants, primates, and whales are excellent examples of the independent evolution of this useful adaptation.
A more dramatic example of ability of natural selection to again and again hit upon similar good moves in design space is the experiment of islands after the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinction event that wiped out the Dinosaurs. Natural selection managed to create functionally equivalent ecologies despite the contingencies imposed by given founder populations. Placental mammals diversified in the old and new world (along with many marsupials), in Australia it was the marsupials. What is interesting is that similar strategies were hit upon again and again. There were no monkeys in Australia, but the arboreal niche didn't go unfilled. Kangaroos fill it. Ungulates are thin on the ground in Australia, but kangaroo species fill that plains grazer niche too. This phenomena of similar strategies, and forms, is called convergent evolution and it positively abounds in biology. Borrowing Richard Dawkins favorite example the thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, we see the phenomena of "good moves" writ large. Here a marsupial separated by at least 100 million years of evolutionary history has hit upon the telling characteristic form and function a dog. In fact one would be hard pressed at a glance to tell a thylacine-sadly now extinct- wasn't a dog.

New Zealand, though, is another matter altogether. A huge island, a thousand miles long, it lacked, until quite recently, any mammals at all. Its vertebrate colonizers? Birds. There were no large grazers, no squirrels, no large predators. Again a pattern repeats, as several niches found in other places are again rediscovered by the birds. Moas became large terrestrial grazers (the largest of these species weighing nearly 1000 lbs), kiwis the ecological equivalent of squirrels, and a ground parrot that would find itself welcome among rabbits. This is an awful lot of meat on the hoof, or claw as it were, to go unexploited, so it will be no surprise that the large predator niche was filled out by a huge eagle capable of bringing down the largest of the moa species (this to me is a frightening prospect!).
In some sense the experiment of the tape has been run over and over again, in parallel and sometimes chronologically after an extinction event. And the result seems to show that there are good moves in design space that keep getting rediscovered by natural selection. This doesn't discount contingency as a potent force in evolutionary history, but I think it must make us see that it isn't the terribly radical mover Gould and Shermer thought it was, at least not in evolutionary biology.