30 December 2010

Sam Harris's New Year's Resolution for the Rich

Because I think Sam has crafted a thoughtful addition to the discussion of national responsiblity and its intersection with personal wealth (in the form of an article at the too often attrocious Huffington Post), and duty I am reposting it in its entirety here. Click on the title to see the article at Huffpo.

While the United States has suffered the worst recession in living memory, I find that I have very few financial concerns. Many of my friends are in the same position: Most of us attended private schools and good universities, and we will be able to provide these same opportunities to our own children. No one in my immediate circle has a family member serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the only sacrifice we were asked to make for our beloved country was to go shopping. Nearly a decade has passed, with our nation's influence and infrastructure crumbling by the hour, and yet those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream--rather than merely dream it--have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore...

Most Americans believe that a person should enjoy the full fruits of his or her labors, however abundant. In this light, taxation tends to be seen as an intrinsic evil. It is worth noting, however, that throughout the 1950's--a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia--the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent. In fact, prior to the 1980's it never dipped below 70 percent. Since 1982, however, it has come down by half. In the meantime, the average net worth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled (to $18.5 million), while that of the poorest 40 percent has fallen by 63 percent (to $2,200). Thirty years ago, top U.S. executives made about 50 times the salary of their average employees. In 2007, the average worker would have had to toil for 1,100 years to earn what his CEO brought home between Christmas in Aspen and Christmas on St. Barthes.

We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure? Have you seen Ralph Lauren's car collection? Yes, it is beautiful. It also cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "So what?" many people will say. "It's his money. He earned it. He should be able to do whatever he wants with it." In conservative circles, expressing any doubt on this point has long been synonymous with Marxism.

And yet over one million American children are now homeless. People on Medicare are being denied life-saving organ transplants that were routinely covered before the recession. Over one quarter of our nation's bridges are structurally deficient. When might be a convenient time to ask the richest Americans to help solve problems of this kind? How about now?

It is easy to understand why even the most generous person might be averse to paying taxes: Our legislative process has been hostage to short-term political interests and other perverse incentives for as long as anyone can remember. Consequently, our government wastes an extraordinary amount of money. It also seems uncontroversial to say that whatever can be best accomplished in the private sector should be. Our tax code must also be reformed--and it might even be true that the income tax should be lowered on everyone, provided we find a better source of revenue to pay our bills. But I can't imagine that anyone seriously believes that the current level of wealth inequality in the United States is good and worth maintaining, or that our government's first priority should be to spare a privileged person like myself the slightest hardship as this once great nation falls into ruin.

And the ruination of the United States really does seem possible. It has been widely reported, for instance, that students in Shanghai far surpass our own in science, reading, and math. In fact, when compared to other countries, American students are now disconcertingly average (slightly below in math), where the average includes utopias like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Albania, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. President Obama was right to recognize this as a "Sputnik moment." But it is worse than that. This story was immediately followed by a report about giddy Creationists in the state of Kentucky being offered $40 million in tax subsidies to produce a full-scale model of Noah's ark. More horrible still, this ludicrous use of public money is probably a wise investment, given that such a monument to scientific ignorance will be guaranteed to attract an ovine influx of Christian tourists from neighboring states. Seeing facts of this kind, juxtaposed without irony or remedy at this dire moment in history, it is hard not to feel that one is witnessing America's irreversible decline. Needless to say, most Americans have no choice but to send their children to terrible schools--where they will learn the lesser part of nothing and emerge already beggared by a national debt now on course to reach $20 trillion. And yet Republicans in every state can successfully campaign on a promise to spend less on luxuries like education, while delivering tax cuts to people who, if asked to guess their own net worth, could not come within $10 million of the correct figure if their lives depended on it.

American opposition to the "redistribution of wealth" has achieved the luster of a religious creed. And, as with all religions, one finds the faithful witlessly espousing doctrines that harm almost everyone, including their own children. For instance, while most Americans have no chance of earning or inheriting significant wealth, 68 percent want the estate tax eliminated (and 31 percent consider it to be the "worst" and "least fair" tax levied by the federal government). Most believe that limiting this tax, which affects only 0.2 percent of the population, should be the top priority of the current Congress.

The truth, however, is that everyone must favor the "redistribution of wealth" at some point. This relates directly to the issue of education: as the necessity of doing boring and dangerous work disappears--whether because we have built better machines and infrastructure, or shipped our least desirable jobs overseas--people need to be better educated so that they can apply themselves to more interesting work. Who will pay for this? There is only one group of people who can pay for anything at this point: the wealthy.

To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called "self-reliance." Most seem to think that while a person may not be responsible for the opportunities he gets in life, each is entirely responsible for what he makes of these opportunities. This is, without question, a false view of the human condition. Consider the biography of any "self-made" American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible? None whatsoever. And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts--health care, education, etc.--while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can--but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky--the smart, well-connected, and rich--should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society.

The wealthiest Americans often live as though they and their children had nothing to gain from investments in education, infrastructure, clean-energy, and scientific research. For instance, the billionaire Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, recently helped kill a proposition that would have created an income tax for the richest 1 percent in Washington (one of seven states that has no personal income tax). All of these funds would have gone to improve his state's failing schools. What kind of society does Ballmer want to live in--one that is teeming with poor, uneducated people? Who does he expect to buy his products? Where will he find his next batch of software engineers? Perhaps Ballmer is simply worried that the government will spend his money badly--after all, we currently spend more than almost every other country on education, with abysmal results. Well, then he should say so--and rather than devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to stoking anti-tax paranoia in his state, he should direct some of his vast wealth toward improving education, like his colleague Bill Gates has begun to do.

There are, in fact, some signs that a new age of heroic philanthropy might be dawning. For instance, the two wealthiest men in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, recently invited their fellow billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to the public good. This is a wonderfully sane and long overdue initiative about which it is unforgivable to be even slightly cynical. But it is not sufficient. Most of this money will stay parked in trusts and endowments for decades, and much of it will go toward projects that are less than crucial to the future of our society. It seems to me, however, that Gates and Buffett could easily expand and target this effort: asking those who have pledged, along with the rest of the wealthiest Americans, to immediately donate a percentage of their net worth to a larger fund. This group of benefactors would include not only the super-rich, but people of far more modest means. I do not have 1/1000 the wealth of Steve Ballmer, but I certainly count myself among the people who should be asked to sacrifice for the future of this country. The combined wealth of the men and women on the Forbes 400 list is $1.37 trillion. By some estimates, there are at least another 1,500 billionaires in the United States. Something tells me that anyone with a billion dollars could safely part with 25 percent of his or her wealth--without being forced to sell any boats, planes, vacation homes, or art. As of 2009, there were 980,000 families with a net worth exceeding $5 million (not including their primary residence). Would a one-time donation of 5 percent really be too much to ask to rescue our society from the maw of history?

Some readers will point out that I am free to donate to the treasury even now. But such solitary sacrifice would be utterly ineffectual, and I am no more eager than anyone else is to fill the pork barrels of corrupt politicians. However, if Gates and Buffett created a mechanism that bypassed the current dysfunction of government, earmarking the money for unambiguously worthy projects, I suspect that there are millions of people like myself who would not hesitate to invest in the future of America.

Imagine that Gates and Buffett raised a trillion dollars this way: what should we spend it on? The first thing to acknowledge is that almost any use of this money would be better than just letting it sit. Mindlessly repairing every bridge, tunnel, runway, harbor, reservoir, and recreation area in the United States would be an improvement over what are currently doing. However, here are the two areas of investment that strike me as most promising:

Education: It is difficult to think of anything more important than providing the best education possible for our children. They will develop the next technologies, medical cures, and global industries, while mitigating their unintended effects, or they will fail to do these things and consign us all to oblivion. The future of this country will be entirely shaped by boys and girls who are just now learning to think. What are we teaching them? Are we equipping them to create a world worth living in? It doesn't seem so. Our public school system is an international disgrace. Even the most advantaged children in the United States do not learn as much as children in other countries do. Yes, the inefficiencies in our current system could be remedied, and must be, and these savings can then be put to good use--but there is no question that a true breakthrough in education will require an immense investment of further resources. Here's an expensive place to start: make college free for anyone who can't afford it.

Clean Energy: As Thomas Friedman and many others have pointed out, our dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy is not only bad for our economy and the environment, it is obliges us to subsidize both sides of the clash of civilizations. Much of the money we spend on oil is used to export the lunatic ideology of conservative Islam--building mosques and madrassas by the tens of thousands, recruiting jihadists, and funding terrorist atrocities. We should have devoted ourselves to a clean-energy Manhattan Project thirty years ago. Success on this front would still yield enormous wealth in this country, while simultaneously bankrupting the Middle Eastern states that only pretend to be our allies. Our failure to rise to this challenge already counts as one of the greatest instances of masochistic stupidity in human history. Why prolong it?

I am aware that a proposal of this kind is bound to seem quixotic. But what's to stop the wealthiest Americans from sponsoring a 21st Century Renaissance? What politician would object to our immediately spending a trillion dollars on improvements in education and energy security? Perhaps there are even better targets for this money. Let Gates and Buffett convene a team of brilliant people to lay out the priorities. But again, we should remember that they could scarcely fail to improve our situation. Simply repaving our roads, the dilapidation of which causes $54 billion in damage to our cars every year, would be better than doing nothing.

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27 December 2010

My Letter to the Phoenix Arizona Archdiocese

(Clicking on the title of this blog will take you to Bishop Olmsted's rather disgusting letter to the president of Catholic Healthcare West.)

The Phoenix Archdiocese is taking punitive action against a "Catholic" hostpital for electing to save a the life of a mother and spare several children and her husband a great deal of emotional devastation. For a fairly comprehensive page full of links to commentary and news sources on the whole Catholic hospital debacle Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason is a good place to begin. Ophelia Benson reviews the Olmsted's letter to Catholic Healthcare West on her blog Butterflies and Wheels. Medical News Today, reviews details of the case in the most succint way possible I think. And NPR can introduce you to the nun who was excommunicated for saving a life.

One letter certainly has no chance to move such cloistered out of touch people to review their own stances critically. So I hope many of you reading will take the time to contact the bishop in your own way. Here is how you can connect him with your own observations, your wicked wit and your general contempt for his desire to maximize human misery in his Archdiocese. Below all that contact information you will find my letter to Bishop Olmsted.

By phone and fax:
602-257-0030 (voice)
602-354-2427 (FAX)


Diocese of Phoenix
400 East Monroe Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85004-2336

To: Mr. Thomas Olmstead
I find your decision to castigate, so severely, St. Joseph’s Hospital has rather confirmed my suspicions that the leadership of the Catholic Church is callous in the face of real pain and tragedy. I am probably not alone in coming to this conclusion. On the dubious proposition of an afterlife you would condemn children to be motherless and a husband to be without a wife. The stance you take, that which you and the Roman Catholic Church would call moral, strikes no one possessing independent faculties as moral. It is at once inconsistent, and silly. A surgical process that saves the life of a mother, but by incidental action kills a fetus is okay, yet an in intentional termination of the pregnancy (and one for which there was no hope in the actual case) for the same ends is not? That this makes little sense is obvious to everyone who doesn’t wear a Roman collar. These policies can do little but lead to actual, real suffering in the here and now. Suffering and reality seem like they are pretty alien concepts in the world you inhabit, filled as it is with imaginary friends, and supernatural powers. But this insensitivity and arrogance really is par for the course for an organization with so odious a history of disregard for actual, living humans.
Your letter to the president of Catholic Healthcare West betrays this arrogance in stunning and unapologetic fashion while at the same time sidestepping your commitment to killing both mother and child, and laying emotional waste to surviving family members in such unfortunate situations as the one that prompted this controversy. It remains a bizarre fact of your organization that its leadership has no real family life of which to speak. You have no healthy contact with anything sexual, no kids, or wives of your own that they can see so negatively affected by such callous policies. So the effects of such things are really unexamined by you. They will never hurt a priest the way they would have that woman’s husband and that woman’s surviving children. The likelihood that Catholic leadership could be a credible authority on family, love, healthcare or the ethics surrounding such things is preposterously laughable, and that makes your particular (not terribly unique) arrogance on these matters even more contemptible.
Consider also that not all of the patients who find themselves under the care of St. Joseph’s are there of their own free will, and are probably not all Catholic and may not agree with the bioethical stances laid out by your medieval institution. Consider the case of some woman rushed into the ER of St. Joseph’s, dying perhaps and pregnant. Is it right for her, to be denied the best treatment available on the dubious authority of a bunch of family-less, virgins? Maybe our hypothetical patient is an atheist, or a Catholic who disagrees with you, or she is a Jew who finds herself in your hospital by an unlucky chance. Heaping suffering on people is not healthcare. Heaping suffering on people though is something at which the Roman Catholic Church seems to excel. Whether it is prevaricating on condom use in Africa, the massive deceit concerning child rape by priests, the expenditure of Church capital to oppose gay/lesbian/bi/transgender rights, or your confused, and I must repeat, callous approaches to bioethics your Church acts too often in such a way as to increase suffering in the real world. I am very glad to have left my Catholicism in my past, discarded for the petty, uninformed mythology masquerading for wisdom that it was and is.
Your removal of the imprimatur the Phoenix Archdiocese may well be a very good thing for the hospital. I can well imagine that this controversy served to discourage many promising and talented doctors from pursuing careers and residencies at St Joseph’s.

Very sincerely,
Max Driffill II

07 December 2010

Answers Not In Genesis: Biodiversity Dooms the Cruise at the Outset.

(Clicking on the title of this blog will direct you to E.O. Wilson's magnificent, brainchild, the Encyclopedia of Life. There you can see in a clear way, the begining of Noah's problem)

The story of Noah's Ark isn't very charming. But I would be willing to bet that it has been responsible for more than a few rejections of biblical literalism, because even a cursory knowledge of the Earth's biota leads one to the following conclusion. No matter how one interprets the length of a cubit, unless that estimate describes a sphere with an equatorial circumference of 40,075.16 km there would probably not be enough space. It gets worse though when you add all the extant species with all the extinct ones. And this we must do because most biblical literalists think that humans, indeed all organisms, have existed for as long as the earth has. This means that , as the comedian Lewis Black memorably said many fundamentalist Christians believe that “the Flintstones was a documentary.” According to this view all of life as revealed by human observation (and numberless species that we have missed) have all existed together and was created some six to seven thousand years ago. This is a fairly sweeping dismissal of geology and the sweep of natural history that it has revealed.

Imagine this timeline with no lines and calibrate the starting date at 7000-10,000 years ago. That is what the history of the world looks like to Young Earth Creationist (YEC). No epochs or periods, no eons, or eras at least not as a modern geologist understands them.1

The geology needn’t concern us at the moment as we tackle the immediate problems faced by Noah and his paltry crew of eight. What we need is perspective. How big was the Ark? According to the biblical account the Ark would have been about 450 ft in length, approximately 75 wide, and about 45 ft high. Assuming a simple rectangular box (exactly the kind of thing it couldn’t have been) that gives a volume 1.519 x 106 ft cu. The ship was to be built of something called gopher wood. No one has any real idea what this might be. It could be a mis-translation, odd common name for a common tree, or timber after processing there is no consensus among the literalists. There is also no consensus among the literalists about what the boat would look like. It was to have rooms, apparently a single door and a single opening for light. No doubt translations vary on the details. It was to have rooms. Beyond that….well your guess is as good as mine.ii

But now that we have somewhat established the design space of the Ark we can move on to the second major hurdle he would have to face, namely the biota.

Biodiversity defeats Noah, his Ark and God.

To get an idea of the challenge that faced Noah and his tiny crew we must begin in Genesis where God gives instructions to Noah, though perhaps not very clear ones.
Genesis 6:19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, two of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. 21You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

Almost straight forward, but then God adds to the problems in the next chapter.

Genesis 7:2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal[ NOTE: According to the New International Version of the bible this seven means seven pairs] , a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.

Emphasis added

Noah presumably would have had little trouble identifying clean verses unclean beasts but there appears to be a small discrepancy between Genesis 7 and 6 concerning exactly how many animals he is supposed to have brought on his trip. Is it a pair of birds, clean animals (are birds clean I wonder?) or seven pairs? The difference will not be trivial. There are for instance 9000-10,000 species of extant birds. And Noah must take every kind of food too for himself and for the creatures in his care. Noah might have thought to suggest that God enact a more species specific smiting and save both he and God a lot of odd trouble.

What is a Kind or Why don’t Creationists have a consistent taxonomy?

A problem faced whenever talking to YEC is the fact that what represents a kind consistently waffles as you pin them down. The field of endeavor that is fundamentalist field of pseudo-intellectual endeavor responsible for all this waffling is called Barminology. According Carl Drews (2010), a biblical kind is any of an informal classification of animals and plants but that the term kind most likely refers to something between the genus and species level. The Northwest Creation Network suggests, rather baselessly that kind refers to Family level classification. The fundamentalist pseudo-scientific field of endeavor that is responsible for all this waffling at the apex of bad science and bad philosophy is called Baraminology. The word is derived from two Hebrew words, bara, created, and miyn, kind (Cracraft 1984, Drews 2010).

It would be hard to find a more confused effort than baraminology, just as it would be hard to find a more confused group of researchers than baraminologists. According to the Duane Gish, one of the early, and vocal YEC leaders, a kind can equate to a species, or a it can sometimes equate to the level of the genus. How a kind lines up with modern biological systematics depends on whether a plant or animal (it is always plants or animals with the people no thought given to the microbes) is “truly derived from (presumably by special creation) from a single stock (Gish, 1979).” Joel Cracraft (1983) has stated that YEC is really inconsistent on the whole matter of what constitutes a biblical kind. At times creationists claim that it is the capacity to produce viable offspring is that which constitutes a biblical kind. That would make biblical kind equivalent to the concept of the biological species. A biological species is any phenotypically similar group of interbreeding or potentially interbreeding individuals. Sometimes biblical kind is defined as ability to produce offspring and never mind about viability or reproductive isolating mechanisms. Amusingly, a single barminologist will sometimes contradict themselves by saying both things. Or worse yet they will say something mind numbingly indefensible. Gish (1979) said this of baramins:
We cannot always be sure, however, what constitutes a created kind. The division into kinds is easier the more divergence is observed….within the vertebrates, the fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are all different basic kinds. …Within the mammalian class duckbilled platypus, opossums, bats, hedgehogs, rats, rabbits, dogs, cats, lemurs, monkeys, apes and men are easily assignable to different basic kinds. Among apes, the gibbons, orangutan, chimpanzee, and gorillas would each be included in a different basic kind. (Quoted from Cracraft)

Here, Gish has managed to confuse the issue even more by introducing a strange new construct, the basic kind and essentially says it can be anything he wants it to be. It can be a class, mammals for instance, or it can be something as specific as a hedgehog. Struggle for a moment, if you will, to imagine a more useless theoretical construct than "basic kind."

The discipline has not really advanced since the heady days of Duane Gish and his 1970s ilk. As evidenced by the recent papers published by the Baraminology Study Group in their journal Occasional Papers of the BSG they, like all YEC, are not really interested in an honest examination of nature, but rather on imposing their world view on it. Sanders (2010) has worked very hard to ignore modern biological systematics while appealing to human intuition to create a new system for organizing kinds (he examined five groups of plants) based on pre-cladisitic, pre-molecular authorities. His method did not alter the traditional groupings by much and hinges on a fairly arbitrary metric, and the baseless assertion that it is preferrable to evolutionary analysis. From his conclusion:

It is thought that the cognitum is biologically significant because God created organisms to be perceived by humans who were created to recognize and
sort easily by “gestalt.”

Whatever that reasoning maybe it certainly isn’t scientific (it suggests any grouping is simply the way it is because God arranged it that way and has nothing to do with evolutionary processes-ignore whatever trends you see folks). But that really should not surprise us, because all vocal claims to the contrary, YEC and its pretentious sister Intelligent Design (ID) are not scientific endeavors. All of these specific YEC organizations BSG, The Discovery Institute, and Answers in Genesis all have statements of faith that employees must adhere to and that guide their research (such that it is). They all already back an a priori conclusion and their work can only support that. That they incapable of entertaining evidence contrary to their position almost goes without saying. But more about that later (though if you are interested you can click on the links and see these statements of faith).

All this fundamentalist hand waving about kinds does little to reduce the actual number of animals Noah would have had to wrangle, and it also tends to flout a general quirk that appears to be universal to human psychology. The American paleontologist Stephen J. Gould memorably wrote about the phenomena in an essay titled “A quahog is a quahog.” In it he describes the definitions, the limits of the definition of a species, and notes that almost all humans recognize species whether they are of the Western scientific tradition or organize their classification along indigenous or intuitive lines. Gould probably wasn’t the first to notice, and he certainly won’t be the last, that indigenous peoples classifications of organisms match almost exactly modern biological species level classification. Jared Diamond and Ernst Mayr, experiencing the phenomena through their ornithological expeditions, have both written about their firsthand experience of this during their work with the indigenous peoples of New Guinea. The number of species identified by modern biology and the people of New Guinea differed by only one (owing to the certain techniques of biological specialists). Humans are natural species identifiers and the vast literature on the subject of ethno-biology demonstrates this fact again and again (much to the consternation of many a post-modernist and creationist alike). Cultures from all over the world recognize the same criteria, and base their categories on things like ability to breed, and morphology. Everyone's folk biology is similar (Pinker, 2007), thus it is likely that people who told the stories of Noah certainly recognized the same "kinds" as we do today.

So at root the ambiguity in which the creationist deals is likely a subterfuge (either conscious or unconscious). The subterfuge represents an unwillingness to deal with the large number of species/kinds Noah would have certainly recognized. Even the phrasing in the relevant passage s doesn’t admit of all the vagueness creationists present, which suggests (by the emphasis on bring male and females) something very like the biological species concept. Noah then was faced with one more impossible task, wrangling at least more than a million species, perhaps as many as 50 onto a single boat. The good news for him, apparently is that many of these animals would come to him.

While reading that last paragraph many of you probably thought of animals that would have posed serious problems for Noah. Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) always spring to my mind. They have a very restrictive diet (the bulk of their calories come from eucalyptus leaves) are nocturnal and largely sedentary. I am unsure how hardy this species is, but their diet of course would have been impossible for Noah to imitate, the biology of the animals themselves precludes them traveling to him as well as the intervening geography? Polar Bear, Ursus maritimus is at least an equal zoo keeping problem, though they are at least used to surviving long periods without food. Polar bear diets are also hyper carnivore diets so Noah had better have had some meat. Housing an animal that can easily over heat even in cold temperatures on an overcrowded ship seems an unlikely feat without serious climate control technology. In these two examples Noah faces some pretty dramatic problems posed by two specialist species. The problem is imitating the diet and climate of ecological specialists. I bet you just thought of some more troubling species for Noah and his hapless crew. How about American Bison, Bison bison? Or Capybara Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris?

Seismosaurus, African Elephant, and the American Mammoth: A damning thought experiment.

This is going to seem ridiculous but creationists think all these animals co-existed (still co-exist in fact) so this is entirely necessary. I have no idea whether or not these creatures would be considered clean or unclean by Noah, but in single pairs or seven pairs it is all going to get a bit funny.

TheAfrican Elephant, Loxodonta Africana is an enormous animal. Weighing five to six tons (10,000-12,000 lbs) and standing three to four meters at the shoulder (males average around 3.75 m and females 3 m), an African elephant takes up a great deal of room (and two of them take up twice as much space as that). It has been estimated that an African elephant consumes about 661.38 lbs of food a day in the wild and 100-300 l of water. You have to see where this is going right? Sure you do, but I’ve done the math for you. Two elephants would require about 52,910.4 lbs (~26.5 tons) of food for their trip. A lot of this food will, of course, have to be off-loaded over the course of their time at sea as it will present itself at the other end. To give Noah a break let’s assume that he could have gotten by with 200 liters of water per elephant, that would mean he still had to bring 16,000 liters of water on board for the African Elephants alone. The amount of space required for the food and water to sustain these animals is several times that of holding the animals themselves. This is the case even if we assume some great packing efficiency of the elephant foodstuffs (think hay bales). Tangentially, but more interestingly, this is the reason Elephants, who travel in herds, migrate around Africa. Their ecological foot print is large and they quickly exhaust local resources and have to move on to greener pastures.

The Columbian Mammoth, Mammuthus columbi, another kind of elephant wandered the Ice Age wilds of North America and remains one of the most evocative of the late Cenozoic megafauna. It was quite a bit more robust than its African cousins, trending larger and heavier, and carrying much more massive tusks. While these animals trended larger than their African cousins, lets conservatively assume they could have gotten by for the trip on the same amount of food. That means we are adding another ~26.5 tons of food to the ship’s cargo hold for the forty day/forty night trip.

(Picture taken from planetdinosaur.com.)

Diplodocus hallorum, (also referred to as Seismosaurus) is a large species of long-necked sauropod dinosaur, that roamed the Earth in the Jurassic period would have posed an even bigger problem for Noah. D. hallorum, one of the largest of what are referred to as the diplocine sauropods, likely tipped the scales at around forty tons. Forty. Tons.. I’ve come up with a conservative estimate for what their dietary demands might be for such a trip. A pair of D. hallorum would require about 169 tons of food to see them through the cruise. Seven pairs of D. hallorum, if for some reason Noah held them to be clean beasts, would require 1,185.1 tons of food. And let’s keep in mind that D. hallorum wasn’t the largest of the sauropod dinosaurs with Noah would have to find room for on his boat. Looking at the image below (clicking on it will enlarge it)will help you to understand that for all of its size, D. hallorum wasn’t even the biggest sauropod Noah would have had to deal with. Hint, Diplodocus isn't the red dinosaur.
(image taken from Wikipedia)

To recap, and to be conservative, just three species, an African elephant, a new world Mammoth, and a Jurassic sauropod, will not only occupy space with their rather large bodies, but they will also take up enough space for, at the very least, 196 tons of food. Noah probably would have had all the water he needed given the alleged precipitation he was receiving. However that 196 tons only gets Noah and his intrepid explorers through the only forty days (and only for three pairs of gigantic megafauna). Multiply the problem by several million to account for all the other animals and you get a sense the ridiculous problem the Biblical literalists have created.

If the flood happened, the deluge described would have resulted in an ecological collapse worse than any extinction event that preceded it. This means that the amount of time Noah would have to care for the animals would extend well beyond the cruise, and into years of care, if not actually becoming a project of generations. So the question of course becomes this. How much food can the boat carry in addition to space it must necessarily dedicate to the animals it has to house? I don’t think I am pushing my luck when I suggest that the answer is obvious, and damning for any literal interpretation of the Flood story. There is simply no way that Noah could have carried enough food to sustain the animals for decades to centuries.

Worse still for creationists is the fact many facets of their “hypothesis” are utterly and easily tractable. A massive collapse of ecosystems four to ten thousand years ago? Easy. Massive dispersal of species from a single point four to ten thousand years ago? Easily tractable, and amenable to scientific analysis. Where is the universal genetic bottlenecking that we should see demonstrating extreme population crashes four to ten thousand years ago? This is a subject to which we will return in later installments.

Literature cited:
Cracraft, Joel. 1984. Godfrey, L.R. Ed. Scientists Confront Creationism: Systematics, Comparative Biology and Creationism. W. W. Norton, New York.

Diamond, J. 1992. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. Harper Perennial, New York, New York.

Diamond J. 1997. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton, New York, New York.

Drews, Carl. 23 February 2010. Biblical Kinds. http://www.theistic-evolution.com/kind.html

Lectures in Biology, 2007. Geological Timetable…Pre-cambrian Era. http://biology-g10p.blogspot.com/2007/01/geologic-timetable.html

Pinker, S. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, New York, New York.

Sanders, Roger W. 2010. A Quick Method for Developing a Cognitum
System Exemplified Using Flowering Plants. Occasional Papers of the BSG. 16:1-63

Wikipedia. 3 December 2010. Young Earth Creationism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Earth_creationism#cite_note-0

1 YEC isn’t precise where estimates of the age of the Earth, or the Cosmos are concerned. Much hinges on how begats are tallied and added, or on whether one accepts the Jewish date for Creation (set at 3670 BC), or, perhaps more absurdly, by adding the ages of some of the long lived patriarchs found in the Bible, and combining those calculations with those of the begats. It is all obscure and none of it is scientific. But the ages range from the mid-5,000 BCs to 10,000 BC. The most common figures I have heard give an average age of about 7,000 years. What is never adduced in support of these figures are facts from nature.

2 Establishing a reasonable estimate of the size of the Ark isn’t too tricky. It was said to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall. A cubit is apparently 45.7 cm (about 18 in). From there is all a matter of lwh to determine the volume. At first glance this gives an enormous amount of room. Some creationists will, doubtless marvel at the amount of volume such measurements provide. It shouldn’t because the Ark wasn’t a box, but a ship. If you are a creationist, contain your enthusiasm because I am about to dowse it. Most of this space would have been consumed by superstructure. Struts, cross support, rope, rooms, decks (my copy of the Bible suggests there were three decks), all would have very quickly used up vast amounts of this internal space. However well before that, we must consider that the largest wooden ships ever built were 350 ft long, were manned by large crews, needed massive amounts of metal work to support the wood, and leaked. These ships needed to be pumped constantly to keep them afloat. The Ark had only a crew of eight, and if we are to believe the literalists, millions of species for which they had to care in addition to all the ship maintenance to perform. Of course there is the engineering problem of eight people building such ship to contend with even before we have starting pumping out the water.

3 Calculating Mammoth and Diplodocus food needs.
I used the modern elephant’s dietary needs and extrapolated from there. I am assuming that the modern picture of the dinosaurs (that they were “warm-blooded” animals) is the correct one. I conservatively assumed they would have similar, just larger daily food intake requirements. A diplodocus (Seismosaur) is about 640 % larger than an elephant, so I simply increased their requirements by that amount. To say that is a simplified extrapolation would be correct. Simple or not, I think it is a fair and conservative one. I used the same technique to derive an estimate for the mammoths.

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01 December 2010

Answers NOT In Genesis: The Failures of Bibilical Literalism

An intoduction to a new column at IDGOFB.

What is the Problem?

Many Christians, perhaps rightly, fear the implications of not only evolutionary biology but cosmology, physics and geology on a literal interpretation of their scriptures. Indeed any scientific stance at all makes it hard to accept the miracles alleged in any religious text without actively looking away from the insights provided by a scientific education. To state it plainly, any such acceptance requires that a person actively look away from reality as it is demonstrated by the evidence while imposing wishful thinking on what they see. This kind of interaction with the world must surely be a prescription for disaster on both large and small scales. One product of this has been a pointless fight that the religiously literal minded cannot hope to win on evidentiary grounds, that wastes resources and precious time for all the parties involved.

An example of this waste is demonstrated in Kentucky by an unscientific, no, anti-scientific group called Answers in Genesis (AIG). This group developed the blight on the human mind that is the Creation Museum. Run by Ken Ham, it is not a place where one will find good science of any kind, but one will find quite a literal reading of the bible on display in fairly strange defiance of evidence. However even if there were no evidence at all of the history of life on Earth (prehistoric, and historic) the things that are on offer at Creation Museum are flatly contradicted by known science. Further the folks at AIG build there premise on a false dichotomy. Evolution could be completely wrong and the Creationists would still have all their work ahead of them. Why not Hindu Cosmology? Or Shinto, or, well, pick one among thousands. Advancing a positive claim requires evidence.

(AIG) is partnering with an organization called Ark Encounter, to build a “life size” version of a mythological boat for an estimated 150 million dollars. The mythical boat to which I am referring is of course the Ark. It will be, and be surrounded by, an amusement park. One can review the whole sad, and gaudy insult to the intelligence, and intellectual rigor of Kentucky and the greater US here. Sadly the Governer of Kentucky, Steve Beshear (who is apparently as credulous as the rest of these people, or at least wants his constituents to draw such conclusions) is on board the great ship, and on some level thinks Ark Encounters and Answers in Genesis are performing a great service promoting bible stories as if they were established historical fact and constituted good science. However, building monuments to baseless mythology isn't science, or history. But this benighted governor is so enamored of the idea, he is willing to give something like 37 million dollars in tax incentives to AIG and Ark Encounter to see the project gets done in his great state. One cannot help wondering if this somehow violates the Seperation Clause in the US Constitution. That is an argument for another time.

The entirety of the enterprise turns on the following fear, I think, and on some level it seems to be shared by fundamental biblical literalists, and people of more liberal religious constitutions. Confusion and quagmire reign for many a religious mind when the absolute bedrock upon which they have built a world view is shaken. Fundamentalists seem to understand this quite well as the most powerful of their rhetorical maneuvers (and it isn't that powerful) is an appeal to negative consequences. They worry that accepting evolution will cause massive social upheaval because the bedrock of morality, the Bible according fundamentalists, will lose any claim of being absolutely true. It will all come down to competing interpretations with no evidence to distinguish which interpretation is correct or if any can even be considered correct. Assume for a second that this is the case. That is let us assume that in the West we actually do get our morality from the Bible and that ruining its claims of absolute truth will lead to societal ruin. Does that consequence have any bearing on the truth of the matter of religious claims? Specifically, are the truth claims of the Bible dependent on such outcomes whatever they are? Clearly the answer to this is no. It is in fact the same as saying, No, no my grandma can't have cancer, because if she did, if that were true, well..that would be bad. So it can't be true. Grandma either has cancer or she does not. The goodness or badness of the situation that follows doesn't affect what is.

If the believing academic theologian is more comfortable with the metaphysical troubles brought on by scientific progress is isn't by much. Bishop Harries, a rather splendid fellow, finds himself quite convinced that biologists are fine without being forced to carry the ideological lense of Genesis around, but even he puts himself ahead of the evidence on other supernatural matters. Even in the process of evolution he seems to want to suggest that God’s hand is in there guiding the processes. Both liberal religious person and fundamental religious person see their God, to a greater (sometimes much greater)or lesser (sometimes much lesser) extent as involved in the origin of life and certainly in the origin of Homo sapiens sapiens. Neither stance is a scientific one. That will seem perhaps too tangetial, but I suspect that to teach people credulousness, and to accept things without evidence, even a little bit, is to store up trouble.

The purpose of this series of blogs, which I will call, Answers Not In Genesis will be to break down the arguments of the folks at Ark Encounters and AIG (or indeed any biblical literalist), and assess their scientific merits. We will find them wanting. But hopefully the exercise will be fun anyway. The inspiration for this endeavor comes largely from Ken Ham’s twin projects The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. Both projects will prove disastrous for American education (and perhaps they will prove problematic for British education too). My fear is that it will bolster public support in a small way (hopefully not a large way) for the continual efforts of creationists to get their mythology taught alongside real science in public school classrooms. AIG neither publishes or performs real scientific research. All they attempt to do is poke holes in existing science. And that they don’t do well in the slightest. They could do some real research as the Flood account alone provides (as we will see in the next installment of Answers NOT in Genesis) numerous easily tractable scientific predictions.

Such efforts by Ham and company will cause teachers to avoid teaching evolutionary biology in school, to get into pointless arguments with students and parents, as well as other faculty. Nor is it just biology that will suffer the effects of such efforts, but physics, cosmology, geology, and history are all immediate and obvious casualties in this fight. But art, and literature are also potential victims.

The degree to which these efforts are popular is also the degree to we are laughed at and mocked by our neighbors abroad. There is a very real danger that our future scientists, MDs, professional people will be judged by how prevalent accepting attitudes on Judeao/Christian Creationism are in the US. Our institutions of higher education will also be judged. These are not small concerns when one considers the number of foreign students that have historically come to the US for the quality, durability and, most importantly, transferability of US degrees.

My intention with this new feature is to help in the fight against anti-science and its ugly twin pseudo-science by providing a tool people can use. These will be easily linkable essays on the ideas of Fundamentalists and why they fail. Hopefully they will be useful to those of you who find yourselves in these arguments with creationists. And, I hope, they will be fun to read. Some of you will note that I am jumping the gun a little bit by skipping straight to the Ark and not dealing with the Biblical creation account. That is in honor of Ken Ham and his infamous Ark Encounter.

In the next installment Answers Not in Genesis....Biodiversity defeats the Ark.