Sunday, October 21, 2012


Sometime back, I read Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey and I was wondering whether I should write anything about it. I had almost decided to skip it when I remembered this quote by Charles Darwin:

"doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue"

If the man said it. then there must be something to it. In this profile, Richard Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan to make a similar point. That is two more guys I can't ignore so I decided to write something about it. You don't have any luck, do you? It is not my fault - blame it on Darwin!

Trilobites were marine arthropods that  lived for about 300 million years and died out before the advent of dinosaurs. I first heard about them (as far as I can remember) when I read  A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson., The word seemed familiar but I had no idea what it was.As I read on, I realised that I knew very little about the history of life on earth and it seemed an interesting way to spend the time. It turned out to be more interesting than whatever I had studied earlier. Another of Fortey's books, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth, was a useful tool in this endeavour.With books like these, it is easy to be an autodidact.

Returning to Fortey's trilobites book, it is  his attempt to make us 'see the world through the eyes of trilobites'..So you will learn about shells, legs, eyes, behavioural habits, etc. of trilobites with tongue twisters as names. You can see a bit about trilobites in the 2nd part of First Life. If you are desperately disappointed that I have not written more about these magnificent creatures, you can listen to Fortey holding forth on his favourite fossils. (Talking of fossils, you wouldn't want to be stuck like these poor creatures.) Fortey writes:
A puzzled fellow commuter on the train once asked me how I could go to the office day after day to study a trilobite.  I think he believed that there was only one trilobite, rather like the Mona Lisa, and that my day was spent contemplating it and making up new theories about its enigmatic smile.  I had to explain that my work was more like attending to an almost infinite system of galleries hung with Mona Lisas, and that often all we had was the smile.  And every time the end of one gallery was reached, there was another gallery beyond still to explore, and further again another... and hardly ever the legs.
Along the way, he discusses the lives of some lesser known scientists and how science gets done. He also discusses the importance of taxonomy which he says is more than merely stamp collecting. Here is a video of Richard Fortey and David Attenborough discussing taxonomy.

While describing exploration of Australia, Fortey writes:
The Fierce Snake lives in these wastes, the most poisonous snake in the world, a creature so spectacularly venomous that one of its bites can kill hundreds of laboratory mice. It obviously needs to be an effective predator in this terrain of thin rations - but why so outrageously lethal? After all, snakes do not eat kangaroos. Surely this is the most literal example of 'overkill' in nature.  
I immediately remembered a story I had read about an evolutionary arms race between the rough-skinned newt, 'the most ridiculously poisonous  animal in Anmerica', and the garter snake. My uninformed guess is that the Fierce Snake is also in some sort of evolutionary arms race. It is improbable that evolution will equip a creature with a feature so far in excess of its needs.

I know that mercy droppeth as the gentle rain upon the place beneath. I am told that it is twice blessed, blessing him that gives and him that receives. There was something about it becoming the throned monarch better than his crown. That being the case, I will end your torture here.

PS: If you want a massive dose of inferiority complex, look at this blog.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - IV

I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time. -- Isaac Asimov

It was not the religious fundamentalists who made me an atheist. (I would more accurately be called an agnostic atheist; or rather a naturalist but not a Hindu atheist. I would have been one from a young age going by Dan Dennett's criteria but I never thought about it. I would now have difficulty filling official forms.) Anyone would be repelled by their ghoulish ideology. Rather, it was the nice, moderate religious people who I have much in common with who increased my distaste for religion. If they had let me alone to waste my time in my own way, I would not have given a second thought to religion.

But no, they had to preach to  me about the wonders of their  pet gods and assure me that some tribal rituals will solve everything. I was tired of listening to sophisticated blather how ancient books tell everything of importance, comforting lies about how some powder can suspend the laws of nature (it is strange that the regularity of the universe and miracles, which are local suspensions of that regularity are both taken as evidence for the existence of god.), about being told that prostrating to god is the best thing that one can do, listening to how credulity is  wonderful...

My time to give up god had come. I was not accused of being religious to begin with. It was easier to take the small step towards godlessness than make the giant leap towards belief. Unlike Bertrand Russel. I did not decide this after considering all the philosophical arguments for the existence of god. It just makes life simpler.  Maybe a god is responsible for all our actions, nobody can disprove it but the assumption seems otiose. I would probably merit a 6.5 on the Dawkins belief scale.

In the words of Robert Frost, 'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/  And that has made all the difference.'  And as Bhagat Singh said, 'Reader and friends, is it vanity? If it is, I stand for it.'  (Before my stroke, I would not have so readily nailed my colours to the mast.) Bertrand Russsell's conclusion in this essay appealed to me:
My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.
I feel puzzled when I read about the fierce internal struggles that many people go through in the process of giving up belief. Perhaps it is very difficult to give up something around which you have based your whole life and rejecting what Hitchens called a 'poison chalice' is a struggle.. I don't know since I have never been in that territory. Perhaps it is psychologically healthier for believers beyond a certain age not to jettison their beliefs and suddenly feel that they have wasted their lives on a delusion. (But this sentiment does not happen in reverse.)

There are many ways to create meaning in our lives without leaning on the crutch of religion.  My outlook is best summarised by Stephen Jay Gould in Ever Since Darwin - "I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers". And who better to follow in this endeavour  than David Attenborough? I would not have liked to be like the prisoners in Plato's The Allegory of the Cave. I saw a quote by Richard Dawkins which was relevant to me:
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”
Of course, I can think along these lines because of the incredible social support network I have which means that I keep being pampered. I have never been in a situation where I felt lamenting like Pran. As the song in  'The Sound of Music' goes, 'Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good...'.

 Believers will say that I have made a Faustian bargain but since I have to worry about it only after my death, I thought I will risk it.  The burden of proof lies with the person making the positive claim. And what if I am wrong? I will let Dawkins answer that question. (And I do get religious experiences.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Change in attitude towards religion - III

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion-- several of them. --  Mark Twain

Some theologians and some folks who themselves are not religious but think that religion is a necessary illusion for lesser mortals contend that the characterisation of religion by the New Atheists is a caricature and takes aim at only the low hanging fruit. Well, they should come down from their ivory tower and mix with actual believers a bit more.The majority of people I know seem to think that god is a magic guy who fiddles around with the laws of nature for your benefit if you pester him long enough.  In this debate, one side describes a concept of god that I encounter regularly. The other side describes a concept that would be alien to most people I meet. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
We are much better off if we know the best available approximation to the truth - and if we keep before us a keen apprehension of the errors our interest group or belief system has committed in the past.  In every case the imagined dire consequences of the truth being generally known are exaggerated.
Often  Bertrand Russell and Carl Sagan are referred to as atheists who spoke about religion with calmness and respect unlike those loud New Atheists. But they don't seem to have shown all that much respect.  They must have received as much opprobrium from believers during their lifetime. Now that they are safely dead  and can't answer for themselves, they are being co-opted into the category of 'nuanced' atheists.

And what about Dawkins? He has the patience of a saint. He keeps answering the same inane questions and quotations mistakenly attributed to him without losing his cool. People say exactly the opposite of what he has actually said. As he said in another context in The Extended Phenotype - 'There is a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.' People seem to be surprised that he doesn't actually possess fangs. If he had written far more polemical works on any other field of human endeavour say, economics or politics, he would have passed under the radar of most people but speaking about religion in less than deferential terms is beyond the pale.

The famed 'religious tolerance' is on display in this video where Dawkins reads some of the hate mails he receives. It is always a matter of preaching what one does not practice. And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?  Even mild criticism in measured tones comes as a slap in the face for many believers. Hitchens' observation in this interview rings true:
“I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness. Amazing.”
I can understand Hitchens' exhortation to Dawkins to be more strident. People who don't know a shit about evolution make silly statements because of their religious beliefs. It is is not hard to guess where I stand on accomodationism.

I sometimes see an article or debate where some believers will extol the virtues of their faith. It all seems so infantile that I soon move on to something else.  One can only think, 'Okay. Now what?' The only interest is in seeing how words can be strung together to form grammatically correct sentences that don't mean anything. The competition of superstitions and the hair-splitting discussions about picayune details in their holy books makes one wonder if Homo is really sapiens. They all remind me of a story about George Bernard Shaw that I saw in this post:
I remember the story (probably apocryphal) attributed to George Bernard Shaw.  He supposedly asked a woman at a party if she’d sleep with him for a million pounds.  She responded, “Well, I’d have to think about that.”  Shaw then asked, “Well, would you sleep with me for one pound?” The woman answered indignantly, “Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”  Shaw answered coolly: “Madam, we’ve already established that.  Now we’re just haggling over the price.” 
Similarly the various religions seemed to be just haggling over the price. They all have superstitious beliefs (of course, there are fundamental differences between beliefs) of some kind that boggles the mind. Believers are quick to see the absurdities in other religions but their own religion is a different matter. It was wearying trying to read the minutiae of various company policies. They are all experts in obfuscation, circumlocution, mystification, self-righteousness etc. which give you the impression that you are trying to catch gas. It is simpler to look up this table.  It is hard to disagree with Sam Harris or the other religion baiters. As Julian Baggini writes:
Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother. 
(I don't agree with his gratuitous comment about Dawkins in the beginning of the article. It seems a fashion among some sections of the intelligentsia to establish their 'nuanced atheist' credentials by first dissing Dawkins.)

Secular morality keeps changing over time due to advances in human knowledge and religion is brought kicking and screaming into line. Only when it comes to Buddhism does a religious leader say something different from what most religious people say. In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan writes:
In theological discussion with religious leaders, I often ask what their response would be if a central tenet of their faith were disproved by science.  When I put this question to the current, Fourteenth, Dalai Lama, he unhesitatingly replied as no conservative or fundamentalist religious leaders do: In such a case, he said, Tibetan Buddhism would have to change.