Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Imagine there's no heaven

Imagine by John Lennon is a classic musical cry for peace and the rejection of the dogma that shrouds our attempts at attaining it. It is a great song, with a great message (at this point, one of my friends will no doubt point out that Lennon was a wife-beater but we can discuss that later). Lennon composed this song on an old upright piano which is now being carted around the world in the hope of promoting peace. Someone actually wrote into The Age (24/4) and declared that they were opposed to this tour because the lyrics of Imagine (imagine there's no heaven, no religion too etc. ) are representative of the secular ideology that is causing our society to devolve into an amoral, valueless quagmire of sleaze and depravity. I was so disgusted by this viewpoint that I raced down to a net cafe and instantly emailed The Age a rebuttal to the suggestion that a religious society is a moral society. Much to my delight, they printed my letter today. Here it is unedited:

Imagine launching an attack on a defenceless piano. It hardly seems like a fair or moral thing to do does it? However, Geoff Bloch (Letters and Emails, 24/4) assures us that our country should not embrace the piano on which Lennon composed ‘Imagine’ because it represents the moral decay that has been wrought by the ongoing secularisation of the world. We are told that there can be little doubt that there is a significant correlation between secularisation and the decay of society. This is a tiresome argument which has been rebutted many times already but I felt compelled to step in, if only to defend the honour of the piano. Imagine a country with an overwhelming proportion of religious believers, a land where atheists are the only minority that will not get elected to public office - The United States. According to a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 85% of Americans identify themselves as religious. With this kind of piety prevalent in the population, we would expect to see the most moral nation on earth. In reality we see massively high rates of violent crime, disproportionately high rates of teen-pregnancy and STD infection, CEOs that earn exponentially more than their employees and a war on terror that seems to be more influenced by archaic notions of holy war than by modern foreign policy. This is not yet another attack on America, just an illustration that maybe secularisation isn't the cause of 'moral decay'. There is no reason that a secular society can't be a moral society that values right and punishes wrong. There is no connection between religion and morality. Studies have shown that a sense of right and wrong are established in children long before they learn the Ten Commandments (And is it really that important to teach kids today that they are forbidden from making false idols?). A moral code comparable to our own has also been observed in chimpanzees. It has always troubled me that the religious seem to think that they have a monopoly on being good. After all, what is more laudable, being good because you think it is the right thing to do, or being good only because you think you are being supervised by a menacing parent-figure who will punish you for any misdemeanours? When I hear 'Imagine' on the radio I am grateful that such a simple message of rejecting faith is loved by so many people and that maybe a world free from religion isn't just a dream. Well, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope someday that piano may join us, and the world can live as one.

Lennon's piano goes solo

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Celibate German octagenarian unconvinced by evolutionary theory

I don't want to get into the habit of bitching about the Pope, but his holiness certainly says some dumb things for someone who is supposed to be an omniscient god's representative on Earth. Benedict and a bunch of his theologian mates have gotten together and written their reflections on life, the universe and everything in a book called Creation and Evolution. I haven't actually read the book because it's in German but I have read enough articles about it to suggest that the idea of the Pope and a group of theologians gathering to discuss the legitimacy of evolution would be the most pointless thing that has ever happened in the history of the world. Before I start ranting I think it's important to stress a point which seems to have escaped some people: there is no serious debate about whether or not evolution occurs, has occurred in the past and will occur in the future. Evolutionary theory is the central concept of all branches of biological science. Contrary to what the Pope believes, the theory of evolution is "a complete, scientifically verified theory". It is verified again and again over all disciplines of science from genetics to palaeontology to medicine to molecular biology. And before anyone starts defending the Pope's credibility as a debater note that he argues: "10,000 generations cannot be brought into the laboratory". Well, bugger me! Suddenly the foundations of evolutionary theory are coming crashing down around me! You can't bring a black hole into a laboratory either Benedict but I don't hear Catholics declaring that they're not real. You know what you can bring into a laboratory? Fossils of dinosaurs with feathers, fish with limbs and hominids with features of both humans and apes. I would have thought that the Pope and his team of crack theologians would have been aware of some of these basic facts when they decided to embark upon this venture. The thought of these people deliberating on evolution and creation is both hilarious and deeply depressing. Presumably all they were working out was exactly how much harm evolutionary thinking does to the first-century text that they live their lives by. They certainly weren't evaluating any scientific evidence (Do 'theologians' even know what scientific evidence is? What the hell do theologians do anyway?). The only people that are unconvinced by evolutionary theory are religious believers who are threatened by the thought that they weren't created by god breathing life into dust. There is no debate about the subject amongst the scientific community. The scariest thing is that the Pope actually sounds quite reasonable when compared to the beliefs of a large segment of Americans - results of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans believe that god created man in our present form exactly the way the bible describes it. A Newsweek poll asked the question "Do you think the scientific theory of evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community?" to which 39% of respondents said 'no'. Obviously, the scientific community needs to get out there and start really marketing evolution to the masses before we lose all our funding and start getting burnt at the stake by people who think that the entire universe was created around the time of the domestication of the dog. And christ knows we are not helped by a man who has a significant influence over millions of people world-wide declaring that he thinks the theory of evolution has significant gaps. "Not that I want to cram dear God in those gaps — he is too big to find enough space in those gaps," he said. How do we fill these gaps in our knowledge? Through diligent research, experiments and fieldwork done with an attitude of intellectual honesty, or by pouring through the bible and trying to find answers in a bronze-age book written by desert nomads who thought that the Earth was flat? I'll tell Pope Benedict where he can cram his dear god...

SBS World News article about Pope Benedict's opinion on evolution

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sea cow appreciation

Sirens are creatures of Greek mythology described as being beautiful nymphs who would lure sailors to rocky cliffs with their bewitching singing, cause them to shipwreck and then devour their bodies. These seductive beings are generally depicted as young maidens of exquisite beauty. So why exactly would anyone associate them with sea cows? Sea-cows are part of the Order Sirenia, which includes dugongs and manatees. I really like Sirenians, they are many things to many people, but they are not hot. They are however very interesting, unique animals. Sirenians are the only marine mammals that are entirely herbivorous. Their diet consists almost entirely of sea grass, which is related to terrestrial flowering plants and is not a seaweed (which are algae, not plants). Sea grass is restricted to shallow marine habitats where there is enough light to enable photosynthesis and this is where you find modern Sirenians. The group shares a common ancestor with elephants and are the only group of herbivorous mammals to have completely adapted to an aquatic habitat. Although modern Sirenians are extremely intolerant of cold temperatures and restricted to warm seas, this was not always the case. There are a number of fossil representatives of the group from temperate regions. My favourite Sirenian is one of these cold-water adapted species called Stellar's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas). Stellar's sea cow was found around islands in Bering Strait and (as the species name suggests) was a giant measuring up to 7.9 metres and weighing around 3 tons. That's freaking huge - imagine a sea cow the size of a small whale. Unfortunately, the predictable reliability of human violence and ignorance coupled with the slow reproductive rate of Hydrodamalis gigas meant that they were hunted to extinction by 1768, 27 years after its discovery. Nice work. There goes my chance to see a sea cow as big as a Minke whale.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Burrowing dinosaurs

There is something wonderful about a bunch of people being drawn together by something that is at best obscure and at worst ridiculously geeky. It's the kind of feeling you get at a Scrabble tournament, or a They Might Be Giants concert and it's a feeling I experienced today as I attended the 11th Australian Vertebrate Palaeontology Conference at Museum Victoria. You may laugh, you may scoff. You may point at me and throw things at me and shout 'Ha ha, poindexter!' - but what the hell did you do with your day? Back off and stop throwing stuff at me. One particularly interesting article of palaeontological note was brought to my attention - a paper describing a new species of dinosaur from Montana. The authors, David Varrachio, Tony Martin and Yoshihiro Katsura named the new dinosaur Oryctodromeus cubicularis, a small bipedal herbivore belonging to a group called the Hypsilophodonts. As they were excavating the fossilised dinosaur skeleton out of a mudstone layer it became apparent that it was inside a strange sandstone structure within the rock. This sandstone layer was the den of Oryctodromeus, the first dinosaur known to exhibit burrowing behaviour. In fact, in addition to an adult skeleton there were also two juvenile skeletons within the burrow as well. The presence of an adult with juveniles strongly suggests close parental care in this species, something which is suspected to be quite common amongst dinosaurs but for which there is not a lot of direct evidence. In this single fossil find you can see a snapshot of life for a particular species of dinosaur that lived between 99 - 93 million years ago. But why did Oryctodromeus burrow? Many animals today dig burrows for a variety of different reasons; to escape extremes of hot and cold, to avoid predators and to raise their young. It's probable that Oryctodromeus was a burrower for all these reasons. The undeniable existence of burrowing behaviours in some dinosaur species raises some interesting questions about the final mass extinction that wiped the group out at the end of the Cretaceous 65 million years ago. It is generally accepted that this extinction event was kick-started by a huge asteroid colliding with the earth, devastating a large area of the planet from the impact and throwing up a huge dust layer which blocked out sunlight and halted photosynthesis of plants. Of the groups that made it through the Cretaceous extinction (such as mammals), survival has often been attributed to them finding suitable shelter from climatic extremes. Burrowing dinosaurs would surely be in this category and could have theoretically survived the mass extinction but Oryctodromeus is known from the early Late Cretaceous not the late Late Cretaceous. Further excavations may reveal more burrowers from younger localities nearer the end of the Cretaceous, now that we know what to look for. Interestingly the authors suggest that burrowing may have been a behavioural adaptation for dinosaurs living in polar environments - such as the Hypsilophodonts known from the Cretaceous rocks of Victoria, Australia. We haven't found any conclusive evidence for them yet, but if you see a fossilised burrow that looks like it was dug by something the size of a wallaby give me an email.

Science Daily article about Oryctodromeus

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Cambrian Explosion vs. The Pope

Easter is a time of reflection. A time of spiritual solitude, which somehow became a bastardised celebration of eating rodents made from chocolate. It is a time when all of us mortal men and women should be turning to the church for moral and spiritual guidance - and what bigger or more authoritative church is there than the Vatican? During this years Easter message, Pope Benedict XVI reflected upon the many evils present in the world today obstructing our quest for world peace. His distress at the unrest in the Middle East moved him to denounce "the thousand faces of violence which some people attempt to justify in the name of religion," Isn't it great to hear the Pope speaking out against these issues? I can only presume that his disgust is limited to violence justified in the name of non-Christian religions. The Pope continues in this hypocritical vein when he describes the "underestimated humanitarian situation" in Africa. Could he be referring to the countless Catholic missionaries who are teaching Africans that condom use causes the spread of AIDS? Of course not. If Benedict is concerned about the humanitarian situation in Africa then maybe he should think about dispelling draconian, first century attitudes about sex that are increasing the spread of HIV in third-world countries? The Pope goes on:

"Suffering, evil, injustice, death, especially when it strikes the innocent such as children who are victims of war and terrorism, of sickness and hunger, does not all of this put our faith to the test?"
Presumably it would put your faith to the test when a supposedly benevolent and loving God wantonly strikes down innocent children in the most painful way. Maybe God isn't all that benevolent and loving after all? Or at least maybe you might want to ask yourself if this is a God worth worshipping? If I had a friend who caused as much mayhem and destruction as God does, God knows I wouldn't worship him. I don't think I would even buy him an Easter egg. Don't you think it's odd that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ by giving each other confectionary eggs? This is because Easter is a Christian highjacking of Pagan fertility celebrations following the spring Equinox and eggs are symbolic of fertility and rebirth (The connection with fertility and Easter is where we get words like 'oestrus', 'oestrogen' etc.). So, I propose a new way to celebrate Easter; have sex. What better way to celebrate the blossom of spring and make the fertility Goddess happy in one fell swoop? This Easter don't give your friends chocolate, give them some sugar!

Associated Press article about the Popes Easter message

Pagan origins of Easter