Monthly Archives: February 2009

Rating NZ blogs

I have had a go at rating New Zealand blogs along the lines used by Tumeke and Halfdone. It’s an interesting exercise because it raises the questions of what one is measuring – and why.

human-contactObviously we want to get some idea of a blog’s influence or “reach.” But really that would take complex sociological surveys and would produce only vague results. So, inevitably, the blog rank must be defined by the methodology used. So it’s no surprise that Tumeke’s and Halfdome’s surveys do produce different rankings for most blogs. Especially when we get below the top 20.

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Meditating on one’s own beliefs

How often do we critically assess our own beliefs? We usually run a critical eye over the beliefs of others, beliefs we disagree with. But with our own beliefs we are more likely to only consider arguments justifying the belief.

While people can usually provide arguments rationalising their beliefs they hardly ever consider the real reasons for the beliefs – reasons which may be more historical or emotional than rational.

In a recent Point of Inquiry interview John W. Loftus, (author of  Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity) called on Christians to adopt the “outsider” approach to a critique of their own beliefs. He defines the “outsider approach as the critical consideration Christians give to the beliefs of others with different religions or no religion.

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How we all subsidise creationists

I think our laws granting tax exempt status to religious organisations conflict with our human rights legislation – or at least the principles underlying that legislation. This tax exemption is based on the granting of “charitable” status to religions purely because of their advocacy of supernatural teachings. Consequently, humanist and other non-religious organisations cannot get similar tax exemptions (although they may qualify on other genuine charitable grounds) (see Taxation offense and, How to lower taxes).

So, it is a slap in the face to the non-religious to be forced to subsidise religious activity via tax exemptions. It’s even worse when organisations with tax exempt status engage in commercial activities for profit. Worse still when the religious tax exempt status supports commercial activity aimed at promoting attacks on science.

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Theme testing – feedback welcome

Just trying out a new WordPress theme.

I have wanted something a bit cleaner for a while so will see how this goes.

Apologise for any disruptions and welcome any feedback

Beware of science!

Most of us living in a democracy appreciate our pluralist society. We are used to relating to others who have different religious, political and other beliefs. We accept that our employers, employees, teachers, students, doctors, patients, customers, shop-owners, etc., may think differently to us. This is usually not a problem – providing people are respectful to one another.addis-doubt-church-cartoon

But what about the individuals who are so sensitive they cannot tolerate relationships with those holding different beliefs to theirs? Life must be very difficult.

At one stage our institute took part in a scheme for the temporary employment of unemployed people. One guy we had was a real problem. He was an extreme Christian and took offence at nearly everything that went on in the workplace. Some of it related to what he considered blasphemy but I also wonder if he was also offended by the scientific research that went on there. I could see how his attitude made it difficult to maintain employment.

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Only 25% of Americans oppose evolution

Reporting of poll results is not good at the best of times. But it seems polls surveying attitudes towards evolutionary science almost inevitably are reported with an anti-science basis. It’s not just creationist sources like the Discovery Institute with their bogus polls (eg. Darwin Day Poll Shatters Stereotypes). Recently we had the Theos poll in the UK  which was reported as  Poll reveals public doubts over Darwin’s theory of evolution – but could equally have been reported as 78% of Britons support Darwin?.

Now we have the US Gallup poll headlined On Darwin’s Birthday, Only 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution. But that could also have been reported with headlines unfavourable to the anti-evolution brigade. For example:

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Pinker on morality

Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True, has posted an interesting comment from Steve Pinker on his blog (see Steven Pinker’s take on the material mind). I will just quote here the section where Pinker comments on the origins of human morality.

“Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.”

A beautiful brief statement which encapsulates some of my own attempts to explain the sources of our morality (see Where do our morals come from?, Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler! and A naturalistic approach to human morality).


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Cosmological cranes – not skyhooks

In his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett draws out the philosophical significance of evolution by natural selection. Darwin himself hesitated to apply his ideas to humanity, let alone to wider philosophical issues.


Dennett describes how natural selection explains phenomena such as development and evolution, using “cranes”, rather than “skyhooks”. How development can arise internally rather than relying on an external “designer” or “manipulator.” He also describes natural selection as the “universal acid.” All this implies the concepts of natural selection can be applied more widely than just biology.

One application Dennett mentions is in cosmology and he briefly describes Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection in his book. 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. It is also the year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (February 12) and the 150th anniversary of publication of his The Origin of Species. So it is fitting to link the two commemorations and cosmological natural selection does this.

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Darwin Is The 1000th Steve!

From Science News / AAAS: Darwin Is The 1000th Steve.

Eugenie Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization dedicated to keeping evolution in the public schools. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, six years ago, she launched Project Steve — a tongue-in-cheek response to a list of Darwin-doubting scientists that another group had collected to challenge the authenticity of evolution. Scott’s parody project encouraged scientists named Steve (or any related name, such as Stephanie, Stephen, Stefan, Etienne or Esteban) to formally endorse evolution.

The first year there were 220 signatory scientists. A little over an hour ago, Scott — again at a AAAS annual meeting — announced to reporters that the 1000th Steve had just been added to her list. Later this evening (when his delayed flight from New Orleans finally arrives), Steven P. Darwin — yes, Darwin — of Tulane University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (and director of its Herbarium), takes the top spot. He will receive a thumbless-panda statue (a cute if tacky stuffed animal affixed to a block of wood) from another member of the far-from-elite Stevie pack: writer Steve Mirsky of Scientific American.

Approximately one percent of Americans are named Steve or some variation of that, Scott says. So the current signatories to Project Steve represent an estimated 100,000 scientists who accept evolution, she contends. And yes, this fete comes the day after Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.

For comparison the intelligent design supporters list (Dissent from Darwinism) has about 700 signatories – of which 8 are Steves! (See Dissenters from Darwinism in context & Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?).

Human genetic history

I recently watched an excellent documentary about the journey of humans out of Africa in the last 60,000 years or so. It is based on genetic evidence obtained from analysis of markers in the DNA of the Y chromosome which is passed on from father to son.

The documentary is narrated by Spencer Wells a scientist working in this area and author of the books Deep Ancestry: Inside The Genographic Project and The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey.

The figure below is from Deep Ancestry and shows the human journey based both on the Y Chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA (passed from mother to daughter) evidence.


The documentary is entitled Journey of Man – A Genetic Odyssey and is available on line for viewing and downloading. Its well worth the time and effort.

Journey of Man – A Genetic Odyssey Part 1 of 13:


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