Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Mythical Monkey Trial

The Scopes trial, or “Monkey” trial in the early 20th century is one of the most famous modern clashes between science and religion. Specifically, it was a clash between progressive, educated liberals and a bunch of religious ignoramuses over whether evolution should be taught in public schools. At least that’s the usual story, most famously portrayed in a play (and movie) called “Inherit the Wind.” In this version of the trial of John Scopes, in trouble for teaching evolution, we witness a brilliant agnostic lawyer take on a foolish religious bigot, John Scopes sent to jail, and mobs of angry Christian folk antagonizing anyone who disagrees with them. If one wishes to discover the real story, Edward Larson’s Pulitzer prize (in history) winning book Summer for the Gods is there to help.

In the 1920’s there was indeed a push (misguided, in my opinion) by religious fundamentalists to pass laws that would ban the teaching of evolution. The reasons for the stronger negative reaction from religious folk are complex, but included a growing scientific acceptance of Darwin’s particular naturalistic mechanism of evolution, natural selection (which had been almost universally rejected by scientists throughout the 19th century), the perception that naturalistic evolution would lead young folk astray by convincing them that the human soul and morality are illusions, and a growing discomfort with the teachings of eugenicists. This latter reason was one of the most important to William Jennings Bryan, the politician who famously represented the prosecution in the Scopes trial, defending the Bible and Christianity from the perceived evils of evolution and dying a few days after the trial ended. He is generally portrayed as an ignorant religious bigot and fundamentalist, but this is hardly an accurate description. He was of course a Christian, and he was not exactly a sophisticated intellectual, but he was a champion of the common people (his nickname was “the Commoner”), an advocate of women’s rights, an advocate for peace, an anti-imperialist, and he frequently railed against what he saw as the growing, rampant greed of capitalist corporations in America. In fact, his most famous moment was a speech delivered to the Democratic National Convention in the late 1800’s where he argued against policies that would only help larger businesses to the detriment of the average businessman. But of course you’d never know any of that from his portrayal in “Inherit the Wind.”

Bryan saw evolution (specifically the evolution of mankind) as an idea that undermined morality. He was particularly opposed to eugenics (sometimes called “social Darwinism), that idea that it would be wise for humans to exterminate the “inferior” members of their species while encouraging the reproduction of intellectuals and other “more fit” members in order to further the evolution of mankind. Bryan saw this as morally despicable; the rest of the world came to agree with him after the atrocities of Nazi Germany. He therefore became involved in the movement to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools.

What most people don’t realize about the Scopes trial is that it was in fact simply a publicity stunt. Organizers in the little town of Dayton, Tennessee were looking for a way to increase business and publicity for their town. A law banning evolution had been passed but had not really been enforced. They contacted the ACLU to set up a test case. John Scopes, who was not actually a science teacher but a substitute teacher and coach, volunteered to be the defendant despite not even being sure he had actually taught evolution. So, far from being an example of religion persecuting science, it was actually an example of a small town purposely stirring up controversy for its own benefit. John Scopes ended up convicted of breaking the law and was fined $100. Whoop-de-do. Bryan even offered to pay the fine himself. While I can appreciate people being opposed to the ban on evolution in the first place, this episode is hardly the clash of science and religion that it is commonly assumed to be, and the play and movie “Inherit the Wind” is quite simply a deceptive piece of propaganda (regardless of the original intent of the film's creators) that Draper and White would be proud of (see earlier post on the flat earth). This film is still shown on college campuses, and I'm guessing most people in the audience have no clue just how much artistic license was taken by its creators.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Flat Earth Myth

One of the great modern day myths surrounding science and religion involves Christopher Columbus and a flat Earth. Most of us were taught in school that Columbus wanted to travel the world despite all the dire warnings about falling off the edge of a flat Earth. He bravely set sail anyway and changed the world through his discoveries, or so the story goes. Many of us were taught in school that throughout the early and late Middle Ages most people thought that the world was flat. In addition, we are told that this state of affairs was the result of the oppressive religious authorities of the time. 

The truth, however, is that the West has known the Earth was a sphere since at least the 4th century B.C., when Greek philosophers like Pythagoras followed by Aristotle and Ptolemy all laid out arguments for a spherical Earth (a few, like Eratosthenes, even took a shot at calculating its circumference). This knowledge survived into the Middle Ages, and virtually all educated people and scholars still affirmed a round Earth. Columbus and company all believed the Earth was round; no one warned him about falling off any edge. He was warned about his faulty calculations, which led him to believe that the Earth was much smaller, and India much closer, than it really was. As we all know, he ended up in North America instead.

So how did we end up believing this fable about Columbus and the rest of Medieval Europe? Historians have traced this flat Earth myth to the 19th century. One of the first appearances was in the early 19th century in Washington Irving’s fictional account of the Columbus story, and sometimes Irving is given most of the credit for the flat Earth myth. However, recent scholarship shows that the myth became a staple in textbooks in the late 19th century after the publication of two books by John Draper and Andrew White. These men were overzealous secularists who wrote distorted (but highly influential) histories of science. Their intent was to provide a narrative involving science and religion where science is struggling for truth and progress and religion is doing its best to hamper scientific advances. The flat Earth myth was one pillar in their overall thesis: religious superstition is always trying to snuff out scientific progress. 

How exactly did Draper and White convince us that Medieval peoples believed in a flat Earth? They found two minor figures (no others have been found), Lactantius (245-325 A.D.),  a North African writer, and Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 540 A.D.), a Christian merchant from Europe, that wrote in support of a flat Earth and made this minority opinion appear to be the norm from the Dark Ages and onward. In fact, from the patristic period to the late Middle Ages (i.e. whenever you look), all church scholars, ranging from the Venerable Bede to Augustine to Aquinas, affirmed a spherical Earth.

Historians of science have dismissed Draper and White’s books as sloppy, selective scholarship that ignores the bulk of the historical data. Unfortunately, the myth persists. When I was teaching, I would ask my students each year if they had been taught the Columbus myth, and each year at least half of the hands were raised (I suspect most of the rest had also been taught it, but had forgotten). This is kind of sad. Here we are in the 21st century believing that people in the Dark and Middle Ages were fooled by religious authorities into believing in a flat Earth, when in fact we are the ones clinging to a discredited myth.

Further Reading: 
Stephen J. Gould's essays Dinosaur in a Haystack 

Carbon Dioxide Levels

I want to clarify something I said in the nitrogen post about carbon dioxide. I mentioned that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions still can't compare to natural carbon dioxide emissions. This may have given the impression that human contributions aren't the biggest problem since nature gives off more each year (by a factor of around 11 for just plants and animals alone). This is actually a common argument: we needn't worry about our emissions since nature is emitting a lot more than we are. This is in fact a deep misunderstanding. While it is true that plant and animal life give off far more carbon dioxide than we do, vegetation absorbs slightly more carbon dioxide than the total given off naturally. In other words, nature absorbs slightly more CO2 than it gives off, so each year planet Earth breaks about even. Human emissions, then, are on top of that balanced cycle, leading to an overall increase in CO2 levels each year.

Consider a large water tank connected to a pool by two hoses: one hose delivers water to the pool, the other hose brings water from the pool back to the tank. Let's say that each day the tank delivers 1000 gallons to the pool, and 1000 gallons are also returned to the tank throughout the day. A little boy playing with a bucket and a garden hose decides to fill up his bucket and dump it into the pool. His mother comes out and, after watching him dump bucket after bucket into the pool, warns him to stop or else the pool will overflow. "Don't be silly, Mom!" the boy yells as he fills up another bucket, "that water tank puts way more water in the pool each day than I do, how could these few buckets of water make any difference?"

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Secret Life of Nitrogen

Putting "the secret life of" in front of the title of your book topic or tv show is pretty trendy right now, so I figured I'd join in. Nitrogen, as part of the nitrogen cycle, is a little known player in both global warming and the formation of acid rain. Both the carbon and nitrogen cycles are extremely important biogeochemical processes. Carbon dioxide gets a lot of press nowadays, but you don't hear about nitrogen very much. An ecology professor I know likes to call nitrogen "carbon's ugly little step-sister" who nobody pays much attention to. While total anthropogenic (human caused) carbon dioxide emissions are significant (somewhere around 6 gigatons per year if I remember correctly), we still have not come close to the annual output by natural processes. Due to the enormous growth of agriculture, however, human contributions of nitrogen actually passed natural contributions back in the 1980's. That's pretty impressive. Unfortunately, as industrially fixed nitrogen (for fertilizer) cycles through the ecosystem, the resulting reactive forms of nitrogen can have a variety of effects including: increased acid rain which damages soils and plant life, an enhanced greenhouse effect (warming the atmosphere), interference with natural ozone forming processes which occur in the stratosphere, and increased smog in some areas. The burning of fossil fuels also contributes reactive forms of nitrogen to the ecosystem. So, for those of you concerned with carbon footprints (yours or our nation's), don't forget about carbon's neglected little sis, nitrogen.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On Omnipotence

The following essay was written in late spring 2008 during an episode of Lost. A master's student at UConn (where my wife is studying English lit) found out that I was a Christian and promptly asked questions like "can God create a square circle"? My quick answers needed some fleshing out, hence this essay. I don't think I have actually read any professional philosophers' take on these questions, so I welcome any comments or corrections.

A traditional objection to the possibility of God’s omnipotence (and therefore the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God) comes in the form of a question: can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? Or, another: can God create a square circle? The fact that it is difficult (or impossible) to answer these questions is supposed to demonstrate that an omnipotent being could not exist. How serious are these objections? Let’s take a look at the latter question first.

Wittgenstein, the 20th century Austrian philosopher, took the view (for a time, at least) that many of the problems of philosophy were actually problems with language. While it seems obvious that not all problems of philosophy reduce to a matter of unclear language, at least some problems can genuinely be seen as merely illusions due to language. The idea of a square circle is supposed to pose an unsolvable problem for an omnipotent being, demonstrating that such a being could not exist. Upon closer inspection, asking an omnipotent being to create a square circle is very much like asking them nothing at all. What is a square circle? It is not a thing. These two words joined together in the English language simply do not mean anything. We should not be bothered, then, by the fact that an omnipotent being cannot create a non-thing we pretend exists by stringing together two words. I can imagine someone demanding that God create a square circle, or else they won’t believe that he is omnipotent. One may as well stand before God and demand that he “couch shave while plant big in beer toe.” If he can’t, so much for God. I think the problem is that "square" and "circle" are such simple words that it is easy to pretend such a small phrase is intelligible when in fact it is no more intelligible than the above beer toe example. The phrase is literally nonsense and as such cannot tell us anything about God.

What about the first question? Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? This objection seems to be the stronger of the two. Assuming the existence of such a being, obviously the answer must be either God can create a rock so big that he can’t lift it, or that God can’t create a rock so big that he can’t lift it. So perhaps the question should be which answer should be true for God to be as omnipotent as is logically possible. Let’s see. Would it be more impressive if God could create a rock that he then could not lift, or if God created the heaviest rock possible but could still lift it?

First, the very form of this question is problematic, as we are assuming that God has a physical body subject to physical laws (e.g. gravity). The heaviest rock possible? There is no logical limit to how massive an object may be; infinite mass is a possibility. This makes the question difficult to answer sensibly. I suggest a reformulation; this question, at its base, is asking: can an omnipotent being impose limits of power on itself? Imagine it this way: an omnipotent being creates maximally strong unbreakable (and let's say metaphysical too) handcuffs for itself and then cannot escape. Or, the being creates maximally strong unbreakable handcuffs for itself and then breaks them. It is clear that if an omnipotent being could impose limits of power on itself that it would only be taking away from its own omnipotence (e.g. if it could not break the handcuffs). Logically then, an omnipotent being cannot take away its own power without violating its own omnipotence. On the other hand, why couldn’t such a being willingly impose limits on itself? If it then decreases its own power, so what? How does any of this suggest that such a being could not exist? At best it suggests that we should approach the term “omnipotence” with care. Perhaps an omnipotent being’s omnipotence is tentative, contingent on its will. Or perhaps no matter what God does he could always later undo it.

Either way, it is not clear to me that these objections go very far in arguing against the existence of God (or superbeings in general).



The purpose of this blog is to share and discuss ideas. Some posts will be essays that I would love feedback on. I find that the best way to understand an idea (my own or another's) is to write about it. The process of fully articulating the idea often brings out flaws or nuances not previously seen. There will probably also be some random posts about my life or other random things, but my life is not terribly exciting, and I am not much of a "talker" so I don't know how common those posts will be. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your feedback.

Jeff L