25 February 2011

The Rite: A Brunch Film Review

Lets begin by saying that anything useful, original, intriguing or scary that could be said in that weird genre of horror that is Christian, specifically Catholic, horror was said or done in either The Exorcist, or The Omen (the latter of which is available "instantly" on Netflix for those interested in such things). Director Mikael Håfström has offered nothing new with The Rite. In fact he has borrowed rather extensively from the two films mentioned above (even borrowing a scene in a boxing gym from The Exorcist so blatantly that one is almost tempted to call the scene a plagarism). At its best, The Rite merely provides a vehicle for the very capable Anthony Hopkins to show off his skills. It is only when Hopkins inhabits a scene that the film even comes close to being effective. At its worst the film wastes our time with creaky dialogue, shallow characters and rather sillier than usual theology.

The film, breathlessly claiming to be inspired by true events, follows the adventures of a seminary student, Michael Kovak (played more or less like a block of wood by Colin O'Doneghue) of less than stellar faith who has enrolled simply to score a free four year degree from an accredited institution. Michael's plans, not exactly saintly, are to bail on the priesthood and enjoy his ill gotten degree. A kindly priest, Father Matthew (played by Toby Jones) sees the light of Jesus in the boy, and attempts twice, to get the wayward, faithless block of wood to give the priesthood more time. Without giving too much away, the nice Father Matthew behaves in the unethical fashion we have come to expect from such men and coerces the conflicted Kovak into a course on exorcism in Italy. Apparently demonic possession is on the rise and more and more priests are being called on by their charges to perform this unique and vanishing skill set in villages, towns and big cities whereever the demonically afflicted are found.

"You will be in Florence for three months, what's the worst that can happen?" Asks Father Matthew after he has forced Michael into the cource. Its a useless bit of foreshadowing dialogue, because the viewer already knows that Michael Kovac, closet atheist, and all around priestly failure is in for a rather unpleasant tour of Florence's possessed underbelly.

I will be surprising no one by telling you that Kovack's faith is restored before the end of the film. The script fails rather spectacularly at describing a person who may once have had some faith, perhaps a very serious faith, who has after some considerable reflection found they can no longer believe. This probably isn't the point. The crisis of faith is almost a sub-genre of this kind of film, and the arguments that led to the initial crumbling of that edifice aren't nearly as important as the contrived (and often utterly heartless) coincidences that restore the faith of the hero. It is also rather obvious that Father Michael Kovac is something of a moron. There are some rather obvious, and hard to explain away indiciations that something that could be plausibly described as supernatural is occurring, but his character manages to not even reflect on these incidents, not even momentarily, after they have happened. He maybe offers a quizzical look, or a horrified one and then it is simply forgotten. This seems hardly the stance of someone profoundly concerned with the truth of propositions. And his incurious nature is somewhat at odds with a statement he makes in the film. Early in Kovac's interactions with Father Trevant (Hopkins)he makes a crucial observation, about the problem with holding a position that rules out evidence in making an assessment about the veracity of the position. The conversation becomes pointless when the lack of evidence for the devil is actually proof of the devil (or God one must suppose). Strangely enough Mother Teresa would have understood exactly what Father Kovac was saying, or rather she would have seen Father Trevant's argument coming. For at least forty years or so Mother Teresa was in exactly the same place (up until the time of her demise I think). Yet her Church handlers told her that the fact that she saw no evidence for God, and no she no longer felt his presense actually constituted evidence for God. So while you may spit your massive movie soda out when Father Trevant offers this logic chopping gem up, know that it was, and is used among Catholics at least, even Catholics of very high rank.

So on the one hand we are left with no evidence being a potent form of evidence for Gods and Devils. But also in the film we are shown signs that demons are about, and they are spectacularly banal (through out much of the film). When ordinary bugs, roaches say, or centipedes, crickets, cats (of course poor felines will be impugned)or the occasional frog are a sign that a demon is afoot then anything can be a sign. One can probably already see problems inherent in such a system. Though a quick quibble. The toad that seems to be a sign for demonic possession this movie could not be more harmless. Common in the pet trade, the innocuous, and largely docile Fire-bellied Toad is apparently a fairly sure sign that demons (or at least one particular demon) are about their business in your abode. Or your body. Or your something. Strangely this is a common enough frog in central and eastern Europe, according to the Encyclopedia of Life, so is maybe not an uncommon sight in Florence. Whether are not they are a natural occurence in fair, fair Florence, this humble anuran enjoys a more or less world wide distribution thanks to its popularity as a pet.
What would Fathers Trevant and Kovac make of that? Given their standards of evidence, they probably think they have a lot of exorcizing to do.


22 February 2011

Answers NOT in Genesis.

(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 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.1i

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 try to pin down the definition of kind. The fundamentalist, pseudo-intellectual endeavor responsible for all this waffling is called Barminology. The word is derived from two Hebrew words, bara, created, and miyn, kind (Cracraft 1984, Drews 2010). According Carl Drews (2010), a biblical kind is any of an informal classification of animals and plants. Drews suspects, on what grounds he is never clear, 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 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). Return to the quote above, it is a conclusion that doesn't flow from any evidence whatsoever. It is a faith based conclusion.

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 if a cognitum represents classification by gestalt, then the people of Noah's era were almost certainly dealing in the equivalent of the biological species concept.

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 passages 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 equally thorny 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 that 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 the scope of the poor sailor's problem. 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 gets Noah and his intrepid explorers through 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.

2Establishing 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.

3Calculating 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 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.