Friday, March 27, 2009

Letter From Dad (My Response)

If you haven't already, please read Part 1 of this post.

Hey Dad,

I'm a little confused by this email.

I mean, I agree with the first couple paragraphs (i.e. being of a Jewish background, not caring about people saying "Merry Christmas"). But I disagree with 90% of his letter. He talks about taking prayer out of school like it's a bad thing, and he acts like nobody would have a moral bone in their body without the Bible. The Bible, need I remind you, tells you to stone your neighbor for not observing the Sabbath and promotes the selling of your daughter into slavery. Not to mention Ben Stein's latest attacks on science in his movie "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" where he equates belief in evolution to Nazism.

My confusion about this email arises not from Ben Stein's statements. I knew he was a Bible-thumping, anti-science bigot, no, I am confused by your statement at the beginning. "Food for thought." I'm not quite sure what you meant by that. Do you support this utterly one-sided, clearly religious viewpoint? That's fine if you do, but understand that what Ben Stein wants for this country is a lot worse than some hurricanes that hit us because we abandoned his god. He wants the injection of religious doctrine into our schools, not only in the form of prayer, but also in the form of anti-science "Creationism".

My real issue comes from his assumption that nobody has morals without the Bible. This is so easily refuted, it confounds me as to why people still believe it. The Bible (esp. the Old Testament), assuming it was written as early as the 12th century BC [1], is most definitely not the first moral code. Some examples of earlier codes of law are The Code of Hammurabi ca. 1760 B.C. [2][3] and the Code of Ur-Nammu, ca. 2100 B.C. [4][5].

What is interesting is that you don't need to dig up ancient ruins in order to prove Ben Stein's assertion wrong. You need only look as far as our closest relative, the Chimpanzee. Animals display what can only be described as "moral" behavior on a regular basis. But what is really funny about his statements is that Evolution, NOT his god or the Bible, has the best explanation of where morality comes from. Using the example of murder only because it is so straightforward, I will explain what I mean. If, when we were still tribal nations, we went around killing every other group of people that we encountered, there would not be many people left in the world. This is exactly what evolution would predict in terms of natural selection also known as "survival of the fittest". Any tribes that do not work together for a common good (i.e. survival) will die off, and the fitter (i.e. smarter, more willing to cooperate) tribes will prevail.

This is where Ben Stein's beloved morality comes from. Not the book written 2000 years ago by men in the desert, who were trying to figure out why the stars look like they do, and why the rain hasn't come. It is ingrained in every one of us through the struggle of survival of our ancestors and in the struggle we face everyday in our imperfect but beautiful world.

That's a positive holiday perspective I support.


1. Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Written almost entirely in the Hebrew language between 1200 and 100 BC";
Columbia Encyclopedia: "In the 10th century BC the first of a series of editors collected materials from earlier traditional folkloric and historical records (i.e., both oral and written sources) to compose a narrative of the history of the Israelites who now found themselves united under David and Solomon."

2. Louvre ( Arts and Architecture). Köln: Könemann. ISBN 3-8331-1943-8

3. (2006). "Was Hammurabi really the first law maker in history?"

4. Kramer, History begins at Sumer, pp. 52-55.

5. Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. (1915). "The Code of Hammurabi : Introduction"

A Letter From Dad


This is an email I received from my dad a few days ago. The part in grey is the text my dad wrote, the following line is from the previous person to send it, and after that is the main text. The main text is actually a letter written by Ben Stein with regards to his feelings on the current state of the world. The reason I am putting this email up as a blog post is because it really confused me. I was confused because my dad is not a very religious person, I would peg him at most as a deist. We have had discussions about the Bible, and he referred to it as a “compilation of stories by men in the desert, who didn’t know why the sun rose.” His statement at the beginning of the email, “Food for thought” is what really got me. I’m not sure what he meant by it. Does he want me to read Ben Stein’s letter and take it to heart, or was he sending it to me as fodder for a new blog post? Either way, I responded to his email and I have included it as part two.


Food for thought.

Here’s a positive Holiday perspective I support.

Written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees.. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't t hink they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrati ng this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu . If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this happen?' (regarding Hurricane Katrina) Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'

In light of recent events... terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with 'WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.'

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how we can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

Part 2

If Princeton Doesn't Understand Evolution, What Hope is There for the Rest of Us

For a long time I have been trying figure out why it is so difficult for some people to accept, let alone understand, the process of evolution. Then I found this article.

Notice, it is actually from the Princeton University website and it discusses research being done at the campus. The article focuses on the work of Raj Chakrabarti, Herschel Rabitz, Stacey Springs and George McLendon. While working on understanding the proteins that make up the Electron Transport Chain (ETC), part of the process of cellular respiration, they discovered something quite interesting. The proteins in the chain exhibit what can only be described as feedback control.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with control systems, feedback control is how cruise control in your car works. Basically, a desired speed is set with a button in your car. A computer then reads your current speed and compares it to the desired speed. It subtracts the two values and feeds the output back into the computer where it decides to either speed you up or slow you down. This is a very basic feedback control system.

Well, according to the new research at Princeton, the proteins in the ETC respond to environmental stimuli in a similar fashion. Any imbalance in the system is corrected through a molecular control system, allowing the ETC to function properly under a range of stresses. This is truly exciting research and it should really open a lot of doors in modern biology. My problem is not with the research or what it implies, it is with the article written about the research. Many passages in the article seem to contain misconceptions about science and evolution, and the mechanisms that drive the process of evolution. For example, the first paragraph of the article says:

"A team of Princeton University scientists has discovered that chains of proteins found in most living organisms act like adaptive machines, possessing the ability to control their own evolution."

I don't know about you, but when I read that I immediately thought "pseudoscience." For an organism to "control its own evolution" it would need to have actual conscious control over the molecules in each cell of its body. For those of you who have seen the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? you know that a common, but incorrect interpretation of quantum mechanics is that the observer somehow creates the reality that is around him/her. This paragraph seems to imply something similar to this interpretation. That somehow, an organism, when confronted by changes in their environment can consciously alter the way that their cells work, allowing them to adapt.

Not only is this a gross misinterpretation of the results of the research but it also points out a basic error in the writer's understanding of evolution. A single organism does not evolve ON IT'S OWN, but rather, the population that the organism is a part of evolves AS A WHOLE. This is a very common misunderstanding of evolution, and it can lead to full blown denial of the process.

Raj Chakrabarti is quoted as saying:

"The discovery answers an age-old question that has puzzled biologists since the time of Darwin: How can organisms be so exquisitely complex, if evolution is completely random, operating like a 'blind watchmaker'?...Our new theory extends Darwin's model, demonstrating how organisms can subtly direct aspects of their own evolution to create order out of randomness."

Evolution is NOT, I repeat, NOT completely random, and for a scientist of this apparent caliber to make a statement like this really worries me. The theory of evolution describes the change of species over time through two mechanisms. The first is the rare random mutation that takes place in the gametes (sex cells) of every organism during meiosis. Second, and most important, is the real revolutionary part of the theory, natural selection. This is the NON-random process that drives the change towards increasing fitness. Without natural selection there would be no evolution.

Now to be fair, natural selection is discussed later in the article. My problem is that this quote, possibly taken out of context, seems to imply actually says that evolution is completely random. Whether or not this is an error on the part of the writer, I don't know, but this is what creationists absolutely love. A scientist in the field of evolutionary biology stating that evolution is random. Also, the second half of the quote reasserts the initial misconception of an organism evolving on its own.

The article continues to restate the same thing over and over again, that this process of feedback control somehow directs the evolution of the organism. That is, until you reach the ninth paragraph, where the first inkling of a real understanding of evolution comes in. This paragraph seems to backpedal on many of the incorrect statements made earlier in the article. It states that populations evolve, which is correct. It also brings up the idea of natural selection, albeit in "quotes," seemingly discounting the idea as a mere hypothesis. Then it brings up the theory of evolution as understood by Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace's vision of natural selection was that it acted like a control system. The example he gives in his 1858 paper compares it to the centrifugal governor in a steam engine. According to the article, the research done at Princeton provides some evidence to support Wallace's theory.

The real problem I have with this article is that it misinterprets the findings of the research. It claims that the research provides evidence to show that the molecular control system present in the function of the ETC is somehow directly related to the evolution of a single organism, and that the presence of the control system cannot be explained by modern evolutionary theory, as quoted:

"The authors sought to identify the underlying cause for this self-correcting behavior in the observed protein chains. Standard evolutionary theory offered no clues….the proteins had developed a self-regulating mechanism, analogous to a car's cruise control or a home's thermostat, allowing them to fine-tune and control their subsequent evolution."

I'll use an analogy to explain why this is not only completely incorrect, but it fosters further misunderstanding of evolution by the layman.

In every automobile there is a way to control the ratio of the air/fuel mixture that is combusted in the engine. Carburetors were used for a long time before the fuel injector was invented. The air/fuel ratio needs to stay within a certain range or it will not ignite in the cylinder and your car will not work. The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere stays at about a constant 21% no matter what the altitude. However, the pressure decreases as the altitude increases. So when your car is at sea level it has no problem mixing the air and fuel together at the proper ratio. However, at higher altitudes the lower pressure causes the ratio to get worse. Fuel injectors use a feedback control system to adjust the mixture ratio in response to changing altitude. If they could not do this, an airplane using an internal combustion engine would need one type of fuel injector for the runway and one for flight.

The research done at Princeton shows that the ETC uses a similar process so that it will work for organisms in very different environments. This shows that very early in evolutionary history, a feedback control system was formed through the process of evolution to allow organisms to survive in very different environments. An alternative to this ingenious solution is to evolve a brand new ETC for every environment. This is clearly outside of the scope of evolution. I think that evolution would eventually be able to create a new ETC for each environment, allowing life to thrive, but it would have taken way too long. This article suggests that a feedback system could not have arisen by evolution. This is clearly not the case. In fact, it seems to be the best answer for such a problem. If evolution had to reinvent a the ETC every time a population moved to a new environment, life would still only exist as single-celled organisms in only the most similar of environments. It only makes sense that the ETC would function in the way as described by the research. Now, I'm not attempting to trivialize the research done at Princeton, I am only attempting to show that the article does not properly convey the results.

On a positive note, near the end of the article, it says:

"The scientists do not know how the cellular machinery guiding this process may have originated, but they emphatically said it does not buttress the case for intelligent design…"

That warmed my heart, although it concerns me that it needed to be said.

Overall, the article is shocking in its misconceptions and faulty interpretation, especially coming from one of the best schools in the world, Princeton University. Things like this really alarm me about how evolution is being conveyed to the public, and I am beginning to understand where many false impressions of evolution come from.

A Concise Explanation of the Theory of Evolution

Evolution, as Richard Dawkins puts it, is the non-random survival of randomly varying replicators. It explains the diversity of the planet through the mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation. The genes passed on from generation to generation are done so in a copying process that is not perfect, leading to small mutations in the genes of the offspring. These mutations are mostly harmless and will go on unnoticed. A small portion will be highly detrimental; however, another small portion will be ever so slightly beneficial to the organism. This organism will then be more likely to pass its genes on and this mutation will spread throughout the population. Over a long enough period of time, visible changes begin to stack up, and, if a portion of the population is isolated from the rest, sexual reproduction may become impossible between the isolated groups. This event is known as speciation. This simple but powerful theory explains how all the organisms on the planet arose from much simpler forms of life.