February 2011

Darwin Day Celebrations

The fourth annual Humanists of Utah Presents Darwin Day celebration will be held on Friday, February 11 on the Westminster College campus. Please note that this lecture will REPLACE our usual Thursday evening meeting. See details inside on page 3.

The SHIFT (Secular Humanism, Inquiry, and Freethought) student organization at the University of Utah will be celebrating all week. Speakers include Dr. Henry Harpending, Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Mario Capecchi, Dr. Matt Haber, Dr. Mark Lowen, and Dr. Anya Plutynski. Visit our website for the complete itinerary.

No Watchmaker Needed

This month the Utah Humanists discuss our thoughts on life and no “designer.”

  • Scientists don’t find this a hard question at all. The reason we believe there is no watchmaker is that there is no evidence for one. Besides, Darwin has shown us that life is “designed” by natural selection, so we don’t even need a watchmaker. Or, as Richard Dawkins put it, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
  • My one-word answer is “toenails”–I have had issues with ingrowns, rotten (ie: fungus farms), and since I’ve gotten bigger, I have a heck of time keeping them trimmed. What on earth do humans need toenails for? (Bonus: Do an internet search on “incompetent design”)
  • The point for me is not whether there is any evidence or not, but that we who do not believe it are always having to address disproving the myth in the first place. If we are not taught there is a watchmaker, we don’t need evidence to dismantle the myth. Others need us to uphold the myth for their sake. This is what is so uncomfortable in this perpetual debate: we are not allowed to be comfortable just being our non-believing selves! Here is a recent example: At my mother’s service, I stated in my eulogy to her that, as she was no longer living, she wouldn’t be able to hear me anymore when I said I loved her, but I would say it, all the same. Later, a Mormon cousin approached me and exclaimed, “But, She DOES hear you!” While I realize this was meant to comfort me, I was offended at the disrespectful arrogance. Suppose I had come up to him in his church, after his mother’s service, and ventured to offer him a different version of faith—namely mine? It is just another example of the 800-pound elephant feeling totally comfortable, wherever it finds itself, to spread its message, regardless of how inappropriate or out of bounds its speaker may be.
  • The best evidence for no ‘watchmaker’—humans for centuries are still doing the dumbest things (killing each other) and not learning from the past, but I guess the opposite is true too.
  • One thing that comes to my mind whenever thinking about or discussing this question is deep time. As I became more and more scientific minded the idea that the universe could be 6,000 years old and poofed into existence became useless. Understanding evolution both in the biologic and physics sense is a wonderful thing. An ancient universe that has been changing continuously for over 13 billion years is so much more grand and interesting. It needs no watchmaker.
  • Who in their right mind would put a waste treatment plant in the middle of a recreational facility?
  • I like this question because the first thing it makes me think of is this website: http://whywontgodhealamputees.com. Basically, I think that the best argument for there being no “Watchmaker” is that people claim all the time that a God has answered their prayers in some way. He has healed them of cancer or any number of life-threatening diseases, and they refuse to attribute their healing to any other possible cause. Statistically, there are many reasons why some people experience seemingly “miraculous” cures following onset of diseases. But the easiest explanation is of course, I prayed, or someone who loves me prayed, and I got better, so it must have been because of the prayer. However, as this website amusingly points out, this train of logic ultimately fails when we consider amputees. Never, not once in the entire history of mankind, has God ever “healed” an amputee…that is, we have never seen a missing limb re-grow because someone prayed that they could have the missing part back. Why would he heal cancer patients, or cure brain tumors, but never once allow a missing limb to re-grow? The answer is, when claims are held to scientific scrutiny, we can always come up with myriads of explanations (most of them not based in reality) for things that we can’t see. It invariably becomes more difficult to explain the things we can see, like God choosing to heal some cancer patients but not others, or God choosing to answer your little bitty prayer this morning that you would find your missing keys, while leaving children dying of starvation in refugee camps around the world.
  • As George Carlin pointed out, “…Everything that God (intelligent designer?) makes dies.” I suppose the complexity of life, human and non-human, is something to marvel at. But when someone argues that an intelligent designer had to have created life on earth, and life’s complexity is what supports this condition, isn’t this just rationalization for a flawed design? As Socrates said as he was dying, “To live—that means to be a long time sick.” In other words, we are born terminally ill. Hardly seems like a great design to me. The marvel of life’s complexity is what we have because there is no intelligent designer, and thank god for that.
  • One of the good arguments against creation science is the evolution of drug resistant bacteria. Why would a benevolent God create bacteria that are resistant to our current antibiotics and threaten lives of infected patients. Resistant bacteria are the rare bacteria that develop some resistance to our antibiotics and survive to reproduce. Eventually they become a pre-dominant strain of bacteria (survival of the fittest). This is just as Darwin outlined and predicted. The reason we can see plainly survival of the fittest in bacteria is their rapid life cycles and reproductive rates in hours rather than years. Many generations of the microbes cycle in a matter of days. This is clear evidence for evolution and survival of the fittest. It is evidence against a benevolent, kind, loving God creator.
  • I’ve seen too many different Gods and erroneous beliefs accepted on faith to put any reliance on faith at all. In contrast, the scientific method, while it too, can begin with wrong hypotheses and theories, is at least self-correcting and has overturned many beliefs accepted on faith (although too many people still accept them—on faith.) Thus, ironically, uncertain science has triumphed over the certainties of faith. I’ll put my confidence in science, which explains our world quite well thank you very much.
  • The last Pope (JP II) is seriously being touted for sainthood. If the man who refused to do anything real to stop the pedophiles in the outfit he led for 30 years then there can be no real threat of spiritual/divine/everlasting consequence. Lack of loud, continuous public condemnation of poverty, war, extreme wealth, and economic slavery are also indications that the clergy of ALL faiths do not take their own faith seriously—so why should I?
  • I suppose that for me the best evidence supporting the idea that there is no Watchmaker is that there is, in fact, no watch. The more we learn about our world, our universe and our bodies the more obvious it becomes that the universe is nothing like a watch. It is not linear. It is not logical. It cannot be explained accurately with language alone and is proving to be so arcane to our basically Pleistocene modes of reasoning that we will probably never fully understand it in terms of language. Our first glimmers of understanding about the material world made it seem that a mechanistic approach was possible and lazy thinkers ever since then have clung to the hope that the universe would turn out to be basically that simple. Physicists today still think in hopeful terms of “elegant simplicity” (even as their calculations call for more and more speculative fudge factors.) The idea of a “watchmaker” may always be necessary for some people because of an innate human need for order and a simplified concept of what that order might entail. Santa and his elves come to mind.
  • One of our Website of the Month links points to a great Seed Magazine interview with Don Wise. He refers to a little song he enjoys, sung to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic (best sung when all are perfectly off-key):

My bones proclaim a story of incompetent design.

My back still hurts, my sinus clogs, my teeth just won’t align.

If I had drawn the blueprint, I would cer-tain-ly resign.

Incompetent Design!

Evo-Evo-Evo-lution! Design is but a mere illusion.

Darwin sparked our revolution. Science SHALL prevail!

  • For me, it is all about faith and hope. If there is a voyeuristic God, hiding from us, while there are still evils, like death, then we are eternally screwed and there can be no hope. For even if we become as powerful and good as that God, could we expect to do any better? If there is not yet a God, on the other hand, then there is room for hope and faith that evils, like death and hiding, aren’t that hard to overcome, after all, and that someday humanity might overcome them. We can hope that from then on, no voyeuristic hiding, isolation, death, or any other such evils will ever exist for the rest of eternity. The same thing goes for Jesus being divine. If Gods have to “condescend” to our level, and suffer like us, then that is the worst of all possibilities. If you believe this, it is the opposite of faith and hope—it is abandonment of such. If, on the other hand, when there really are Gods, they can raise all of us up to their level, and easily eliminate all the evil and hiding; that is what I hope for Gods and maybe even us some day, long before we are anything close to being a God. I have faith and hope that most evils aren’t that hard or impossible to overcome. Theists that claim to be people of “faith,” to me, are just ignorant liars. For if there are already gods or even spirits that hide from us, then there can be no faith or hope. If you are rational, you realize what a truly scary thought that is. Atheists are the only ones that can have true faith and hope.

—Lisa Miller

DNA and the Watchmaker

Referring to Lisa Miller’s Community Corner Conversation I have to say that, for me, the clincher is the fact that the genome is largely composed of junk DNA. I have been programming computers for a living for some 35 years now, and I view DNA as a large program for molecular machinery that operates cells and drives life itself. DNA, instead of being a long sequence of binary digits stored in a computer memory, is a long sequence of proteins. And DNA, instead of being clocked, word by digital word, into a processing unit for execution like a computer program, is read by special molecular structures to construct the RNA that eventually triggers different cellular functions. The analogy is close and interesting. DNA is the program of life.

Large and long-lived computer programs evolve. As the computer user’s environment changes, the software must be adapted to fit that environment. Payroll programs are changed to match new tax laws, operating system software is adapted to run on new computer hardware, and the networking software I develop now is modified to meet the demands of the rapidly changing internet, to list a few examples. When examining an old program, a programmer often sees signs of those adaptations that have accredited over time. Old functions have been rendered inoperable but the code left in place for later reference. Other functions have been modified in very awkward ways to meet new requirements without restructuring the whole edifice.

DNA shows similar changes. Genes that perform one function in one species have been changed to perform sometimes completely dissimilar functions in other organisms. It has obviously been adapted over time. But these artifacts in themselves don’t deny the existence of a ‘watchmaker’. They just imply that if such a watchmaker exists, he is what we in the software business often call a ‘hacker’. Such a hacker isn’t malicious; he is just making quick and economical changes to a computer program in the interest of doing a particular job with as little impact on the rest of the system as possible. No, it is the presence of junk DNA that does nothing at all that eliminates the idea of a watchmaker, a divine programmer.

The genome is filled with long sequences of AGCT protein pairs that do not encode RNA. This stuff is just there and is ignored by the cellular machinery. Indeed, the majority of human DNA is apparently such junk. It is as if a computer programmer put large sequences of nonsensical machine instructions between the blocks of real program code for filler. A real designer would never do this. There is no discernible reason for it. Using the software analogy again, it makes the program longer, taking more space and more energy to support. It makes the DNA copying process longer, less efficient, and probably more prone to error. Its presence, along with the other adaptations I mentioned above, seems to shout that DNA wasn’t designed but was cobbled together willy-nilly out of odd bits of this and that over a very long period of time.

And this cobbling has no apparent pattern to it. The useful DNA is interspersed among the junk just as one would expect if random processes had shaped the molecular structure over the ages. The junk DNA is the smoking gun of randomness. No intelligent designer would build such a thing.

Steve Hanka

Website of the Month

Chapter member Flo Wineriter suggests the Edge website as a place to spend some cyber-time.

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.


President’s Message

For Humanists of Utah, February brings our Annual Darwin Day event. I am happy to say this will be our fourth, and I hope one of many more to come—a day we have chosen to celebrate and advocate for science.

As I have been looking at my introductory remarks at past Darwin Day events, I feel a bit guilty about using nearly the same text each time. Yet I keep reminding myself and coming to the same conclusion that the reason we even have a Darwin Day have not changed, and I think a reminder even here in the newsletter is worthwhile.

The idea of science advocacy is an important concept. Disseminating scientific knowledge and making it interesting and enjoyable at the same time is a good goal. We need to do just that as much as possible. I believe I speak for all the Board of Directors (and I hope for the entire Humanists of Utah membership) when I say that Darwin Day is a good time to celebrate one of the most important discoveries ever made, evolution. The understanding of evolution and the later discovery of DNA as its mechanism made our view of biology change in many ways.

Yet evolution isn’t just about biology, it is also basic to physics. When physicists discovered nuclear fusion, they learned that change (evolution) in the creation of other elements by means of fusion in the interior of stars.

How grand it is to look out on the universe and to wonder at images of galaxies far away and to also look inward at the sub-atomic and to know that it has all been changing and evolving for billions of years.

One thing that got me motivated about creating Darwin Day happened years ago when I first used the internet to see what creationists had to say about evolution. While they had a lot of criticisms, there were also statements that evolution was a fraud, it was made it up, etc. It struck me as kind of funny because that made it sound like Darwin invented something. But it was a discovery, not an invention. Evolution has always been there.

I hope you will join us on February 11 for our fourth little act of advocacy, and to enjoy hors’ d’oeuvres, a presentation by our featured speaker David Goldsmith PhD in Paleontology, a video of Darwin’s life and accomplishments, and of course to have a piece of Darwin’s birthday cake.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU