Microedits and Macroedits


I’ve been dipping my toes in the Stand To Reason apologetics website – mostly through its podcasts Stand To Reason (with Greg Koukl) and Thinking Out Loud (with Alan Shlemon). This post is a response to Shlemon’s assertion in this episode that macroevolution is a whole separate thing from microevolution.

This is a familiar trope among those of us who try to keep an eye on the creationist pushback against the science of biological origins. Many many people have countered it – in books, in articles, in encyclopedias and FAQs, in blog posts and videos, in debates and other personal interactions.

I have nothing new to add, really: the science is in, and creationism fails the test. There are ways to work God into your worldview without contradicting reality, but many people aren’t willing to adapt their beliefs to the evidence. Their loss.

Anyway, as I was listening to Shlemon smugly dismiss the scientific objection that macroevolution is simply the accumulated effects of microevolution over large enough time spans, I was thinking how I might respond. If an acquaintance were to offer that argument, how could I respond in a way that might get them past the cognitive block they have?

Here’s what I came up with:

Imagine that each species can be described by a (potentially very long) line of letters. Let’s say we only use letters corresponding to the four basic elements: A (aqua, for water), C (combustia, for air), G (gasea, for air), and T (terra, for earth).

Now, imagine there are ways of changing the sequence of letters, so that a child doesn’t have exactly the letters of its parent or parents. Let’s call a single letter change “microevolution”. That could be, for example, a “C” changing to an “A”. Or a “T” being inserted between a “G” and another “T”. Or an “A” being lost altogether.

And let’s say that “macroevolution” means a wholesale change of the sequence: no letter is the same as it was before.

Can you imagine a way to do microevolution over and over again and eventually get macroevolution?

I sure can.

And that’s it.

Oh, there are some constraints. Biological evolution requires that each stage – each mutated offspring – is viable and is not at a substantial selective disadvantage relative to the other variants present in its population. So, in the real world, it is not the case that any species could evolve into any other species by any textually-sufficient chain of genetic mutations. But that’s not the claim of modern evolutionary science. The strongest claim it makes is that there has been at least one such path leading from life’s early progenitor(s) to each species that has ever existed on Earth.

Anyway, what do you think of my illustration? Does it replicate what someone else has produced? If so, please point to them in the comments. Does it seem clever? Useful? Scientifically accurate?

Podcast review: Grammar Girl


As a linguist, I am trained to look at language descriptively. I am also inclined to dismiss the prescriptions of grammarians and language mavens; they often reflect a narrow view of language. I found the Grammar Girl podcast because it was given as a model of the prescriptive attitude in a colleague’s slides. In it, Mignon Fogerty gives advice about how to use words and grammatical constructions in English. I thought, “Excellent. I’ll listen, and get a window into the other side – see how the prescriptivists go wrong, and be able to formulate arguments against them.”

But Mignon Fogerty foiled my plans. Rather than advocating a blind adherence to arbitrary rules (as some prescriptivists do), She and other contributors make an effort to understand language as it actually works. They tell listeners where forms come from. They advise based on how language is actually used. They do sometimes fall back on usage guides. (See this article from a far more accomplished linguist than me to understand why “usage guides” are not held in high esteem by linguists.)

I had to listen for some time before I came to a full appreciation of the subtleties of her perspective, and I’m afraid I offered her one or two snarky tweets along the way (from my other Twitter account, @TimPhon).

I still don’t agree with everything she says, but I stay subscribed because I know there’s plenty that I can learn from her. And because the episodes are short and fun.

Anyway, here was one attempt to redeem my behaviour to her:

(Yes, someone has already pointed out my idiosyncratic spelling of “weird”. Thankyou.)

God and morality: beyond Euthyphro


I am currently trying to deepen my understanding of the basic nature of morality. My main go-to for this investigation is philosophy. Yes, you can read that as “secular philosophy”, but only in the sense that I’m not presupposing any gods exist or play a part in morality. I’m not ruling them out either.

Many people (now and in times past) have thought that the existence of a god or gods was important to morality, and many people have pushed back on that idea. I’ve had a thought or two on that back-and-forth that I’d like to share.

I’ll start at the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato. It is a response to the claim that morality comes from God, and it has two prongs:

1. Is something moral because God commands it?

If so, then God could command the reverse and that would be moral. This goes against our intuitions. For example, rape is bad, whether God commands it or not. So this prong seems to fail.

2. Then does God command it because it is moral?

If so, then the morality of an act is logically prior to God’s command. God becomes the messenger of morality, but doesn’t really ground it. So this prong undermines God’s role in grounding morality.

That’s it.

In my experience, most atheists see the Euthyphro dilemma as fatal to the religious position that God grounds morality. I lean this way myself.

And, so far as I can tell, most theists disagree. (For samples of their responses, see Wikipedia, Stand To Reason, or CARM.) The best responses I’ve heard are along the lines of this: “Things are not moral because God commands them. Rather, their morality or immorality is derived from God’s very nature.”

I don’t know. On the one hand, this certainly avoids the first prong: morality doesn’t hang simply on God’s commands. But what about the second prong? I feel that one could restate the defense like so: “God’s nature partakes of the moral grounding, and so morality is fundamental to who God is.” So, while not temporally prior, the moral grounding is logically prior to or separate from God.

This response probably has holes in it too – I’ll leave that to more detail-oriented philosophers.

But, regardless of the nature of morality – objective, subjective, external, internal, whatever! – there is one thing an all-knowing God could help us with. They could share that understanding. They could say, “Actually, morality is fundamentally subjective. I’ve shared My top ten in this Holy Book, and I have a special prize for anyone who chooses the same morality as Me. But you know, take it or leave it. It’s not Ultimately better or worse.” Or, They could say, “I ground true morality, and it works like XYZ, and anyone who goes against it is Objectively Wrong.”

In other words, God could be a teacher.

So, while I’m not sure that gods’ existence has any material implication for the nature of morality, it would certainly have implications for our understanding of morality – if any god were inclined to communicate such things.

Based on this, and contrary to things I have thought and perhaps voiced in the past, I’d have to say that it would be nice if an all-knowing, good god existed.

So … why don’t I then look deeper into the morality of the Bible, or the Koran, or the Gita? Same reason as before: all the evidence suggests to me to point that these books came entirely from the minds of humans. And I have found better human expressions of morality elsewhere: more thoughtful, more humble, more true.

What would convince me that this ever-so-handy teacher-god existed, and was behind a particular work of moral philosophy? I don’t know. I suppose the appropriate kind of evidence would depend on the proposed traits of the god. But, as others have said before me, it is unlikely that a finite mind (like mine) could competently identify an infinite anything (which most modern conceptions of God are), so I don’t think there is any rational basis for me asserting to know that some perception of mine corresponds to an infinite being.

On the other hand, someone doesn’t have to be unboundedly good, knowledgeable, or powerful to be a valuable teacher. So even a more limited god might be handy to have around.

Still, I see no evidence even for that more modest, more comprehensible being.

Oh well. I guess I’ll have to carry on doing my best with what I’ve got.


Podcast review: The Atheist Experience


The Atheist Experience is actually a public-access cable television show based in Austin, Texas. But if you’re just after podcasts, there is a regular podcast feed and an iTunes feed. They also have a blog on Freethought Blogs.

I listened to the Atheist Experience podcast for several years. It is an hour-long show that generally starts with a brief discussion between the hosts, followed by interaction with callers. Some of the callers are atheists asking advice; many are religious people wishing to argue or discuss points of disagreement. Some calls are very short; some take a large part of the show. The hosts have no control over who calls (though they can and do hang up on people who are clearly wasting their time).

It is a great listen, because the hosts are able to articulate responses quickly that address callers’ questions or comments. I have picked up some useful tips for such discussions listening.

Over time, it became a little repetetive for me. I knew how the hosts would respond to most callers. I wasn’t getting much more out of it personally, so I stopped listening. I may pick it up again – it is still a valuable resource for atheists and believers alike who want to hear a clear, quick articulation of atheist perspectives on various topics.

I think that new atheists and people looking for arguments and responses to arguments for belief could find this useful. I expect that most believers would find the abrupt style of certain hosts grating – though from my perspective I really can’t fault them for their approach.

Though I don’t currently listen, I think this is a superb resource and I recommend you check it out.

People are animals too!


A recent edition of Science Friday talked about mental illness in non-human animals. One of the guests pointed out that this may involve anthropomorphizing other animals, and that got me thinking.

Whether it is malice attributed to stinging insects, propositional thoughts projected onto pet fish, or a sense of humour read out of a pet cat’s funny antics, there are plenty of cases where people are almost certainly reading their own mental states into other animals’ minds. It is a *failure* of empathy, a failure to understand the capacities and limitations of the other creature.

But there is another side to this. When someone objects to the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, there are those who will say that they are just animals, and cannot feel pain. There are those who will say that, even when a zoo animal displays all the symptoms that would point to depression in a human (social withdrawal, lack of appetite, etc), it can’t be actually depressed because it’s “just an animal”.

This anti-anthropomorphizing is no more rational or correct than the over-anthropomorphizing of the other side. The one is assuming that other animals are more like humans than they really are; the other is assuming they are less like humans than they really are.

Well, as I was listening to the Science Friday episode, I had a thought. Perhaps a way to bring both sides closer to a realistic assessment of other animals’ mental states is to look at it the other way. Instead of thinking of other animals in terms of human traits, why not think of humans in terms of animal traits.

After all, humans are simply one kind of animal. We are apes; we are mammals; we are vertebrates. Just like we share certain biological traits with other apes (such as long post-natal care period of young and fine motor skills in our hands), we probably also share certain psychological traits. Why? Because our brains, which shape our mental states, are similar in many ways to those of other apes. We also share some traits with other mammals (though fewer than with the apes, because we are related more distantly). And some with other vertebrates. And so on.

Anyway, I don’t have anything more specific to offer just now. Just something to think about. Don’t anthropomorphize other animals; zoomorphize humans!

Podcast review: Skeptics Guide to the Universe


The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe is a juggernaut of skeptical commentary, this long-running show is hosted by neurosurgeon Steve Novella. He is joined by the “Rogues”: Bob and Jay Novella (two of Steve’s brothers), Skepchick Rebecca Watson, and Evan Bernstein. I learn something every episode, but after a few years, I think the main reason I listen is because it’s part of the background of my life. I want to know what’s going on with them. I want to keep up on news in the international skeptic community. I want to see if I can ever improve my results in the “Science or Fiction” quiz.

There is a lot of personal interaction, and it may take new listeners a bit of time to get up to speed on that. But it is also packed with regular features, all with a science/skepticism theme, such as:

  • This Day in Skepticism (neat historical tidbits)
  • A news roundup with commentary (keeping abreast of breaking news in science and pseudoscience)
  • Who’s that Noisy? (try to identify where the sound comes from, or who is speaking)
  • Science or Fiction (try to identify which science news item is the fake; listen to the rogues’ reasoning as they try to puzzle it out themselves)
  • Quickie with Bob (short nuggets of fun science news)

One might glean, listening for long enough, that one or more of the hosts are atheists, but that isn’t what the show is about, and I think that this is generally a believer-friendly podcast. Only when religious figures step into serious science do they become fair game. I think anyone who identifies as a fan of science in any way should enjoy this show. Give it a try.



This is a beautiful idea: a funeral urn with a tree growing in it.

My family already has a tradition of cremation, with ashes spread on a particular hill at the farm. It is a deeply personal connection with the land I grew up on, and if my family is willing, I would like any part of me that is not used for transplants or other practical purpose to be cremated and put there.

But this … this seems to take the whole idea one step further. Beautiful. Simple.

It connects directly to the idea of cycles, of transformation. It provides the most beautiful kind of monument to a loved one; one that will itself cycle in time, back to the earth.

The website selling the urns prices them at $225. (I’m guessing that’s US dollars.)

I’m torn – I think an idea like this should be congratulated, rewarded.

On the other hand, what would make it even more personal, even more meaningful, would be to make the urn myself before I die. Or for my loved ones to make it. And to select a tree that reflects my own identity and the identity of the land it will grow in. (Spruce? Maple? Birch? I’ll have to think about that.)

That’s the problem with great ideas. They spawn more great ideas, without end.

Podcast review: Ask an Atheist


Ask an Atheist is a radio show, also distributed as a podcast.

It is produced by the atheist community in Tacoma, Washington – not far from the Canadian border. Hosts Becky Friedman and Sam Mulvey discuss news of interest to atheists (often with local and non-local guests). The show has an American focus, but they also cover news related to atheism around the world.

There are a couple of things that really draw me to this podcast. First, the topics covered are interesting to me. The hosts share my general worldview. Second, I like their tone. They are neither gratuitously shrill or offensive, nor blandly neutral.

I wouldn’t say they knock it out of the park every time, but it is a pleasant and reliable weekly listen.

This show should be interesting to atheists, humanists, and skeptics who want to keep up on current events. In decreasing order, it is relevant to Washington state residents, Americans, and atheists worldwide.

I really don’t know how it would come across to believers. On the one hand, I think their tone is right.It would probably appeal to a religious believer who wants to see how current events (such as the recent American supreme court ruling in the Hobby Lobby health care case) look to atheists and humanists. On the other hand, they do not go out of their way to explain inside references, and they are not there to give reasons for atheism or humanism. So it probably wouldn’t appeal to a religious believer who wants to hear the arguments for “the other side”. As for someone who is examining different worldviews in search of something that resonates … well, give it a try.

Gillian Bennett: a heroic suicide


Have you heard of Gillian Bennett?

I think you should.

She was a philosopher and psychotherapist from New Zealand, most recently living in Canada.

She had Alzheimer’s Disease, an affliction which can strip your very self. More than one of my loved ones have been afflicted, and I am probably genetically predisposed to it myself, so I certainly understand the horrors and indignities of the disease.

Well, Gillian Bennett weighed her options, and chose to end her life while she was still herself. I won’t walk through the arguments for and against here: I think she does a far better job than I could on this website, Dead at Noon. Her words hold particular weight because I know that she has acted on her convictions.


Here are some articles about Gillian’s choice and its connection to the larger social debate:

When the time comes – hopefully many decades from now – I certainly hope I can die with the same dignity and integrity that Gillian exhibited. And I hope that, by then, the law is such that all of my loved ones who wish to can be with me, and that they can provide what help I need.

How about you? Are there circumstances where you would want to have the freedom to choose death? Why or why not? Do you think others should have that freedom? How far should that freedom extend?

Unequally yolked: egg on whose face?


two-wayEarlier this month I reviewed Dale McGowan’s book, In Faith and In Doubt, which talks at a very practical, human level about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage between religious and non-religious partners.

Just this week, I listened to a twenty-minute conversation between conservative Christian radio host Greg Koukl and a guest wondering about whether he was morally permitted to officiate at a wedding between a Christian and a non-believer. Koukl asserts unapologetically that it’s prohibited by the Bible.

Side note: The exchange was on the Stand to Reason apologetics podcast – this episode, from 1:18:10 to 1:38:20. I’m listening to it as part of an effort to expose myself not only to stuff I enjoy or agree with, but also stuff that irks me or that I disagree with. I really want to fight the tendency to isolate myself in a silo of like-minded thinkers. But let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Now, I think Dale is definitely right when he says that religious/non-religious mixed marriages can succeed. He has the statistics and testimonies to show that it’s true, and the rationale to explain how it happens.

I also agree with Greg that his scripture (specifically, the “unequally yoked” passage in 2nd Corinthians chapter 6, verses 14-18) speaks against such marriages. And what abuot those mixed marriages that Dale or I would call successful? I think Greg would probably count them as failed, since they often require bracketing beliefs (not abandoning them, but setting them to the side in marital discussions) and focussing on shared values. That is, these marriages involve compromise on certain principles that are central to Greg’s worldview.

But it’s interesting to me that, in the middle of that passage in the New Testament that is so crucial to Greg’s argument, the writer (almost certainly Paul himself) says “What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” In the context, that is clearly a rhetorical question whose answer is understood to be nothing.

But the actual answer, as a matter of empirical fact demonstrated by the stats that Dale presents, is clearly a whole lot. We share many beliefs (such as most of our beliefs about the physical world), and many values (most of those dealing with interpersonal relationships). Among believers and nonbelievers with a similar European, Canadian, or American background, we also share the bulk of our cultural practices and traditions.

Why do I mention all this?

Well, partly it’s just a musing on two lines of thought that I’ve been exposed to lately. Same topic, completely different conclusions – one from a perspective of dogmatic intransigence, the other from a perspective of openness and bridge-building.

And partly, of course, it is me as a humanist crowing about how much better my side is than the other (my side being liberals interested in tolerance and coexistence; the other side being fundamentalists interested in drawing lines and declaring wars). Nyah nyah! Except, of course, my side is only better from its own perspective. Aside from the easily-shrugged-off empirical niggle, nothing in Dale’s book really undermines the conservative Christian position. The Pauline position is the better answer when viewed from within that silo.

Does that sound like waffling? I suppose it does. I am still comfortable in the friendly humanist camp: the most important thing in this life is human thriving, and by all available measures the couples in these mixed marriages thrive just as well as those in more religiously-homogenous marriages. But I recognize (as does Dale in his book) that if you are starting from different values, you may get different mileage. Meaning that – at least this far – I am a relativist. And why the dickens shouldn’t I be?


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