National Geographic on the evidence for evolution

Following my recent medical disappointments, I have been pondering, as you do in such circumstances, the big questions. Like: What Do I Really Believe? And it turns out that one of the biggest things I believe in is evolution, as the best explanation for why we humans are the sort of creatures we are, altruistic and selfish, affectionate and murderously aggressive, doomed to die, and so on. I was raised by Church of England atheists, and that is what I still am. The older I get the more this is so.

But what is the evidence for the truth of evolution, as opposed to the rival god-did-it explanations which evolution is slowly but surely replacing?

Was Darwin Wrong? asks a recent National Geographic cover. Inside, in very big capitals, the answer: NO. (Thank you Steve Stewart-Williams.) I opened up the article, to learn what I hoped would be more about all this evidence.

No one observation of the natural world would be enough to convert a convinced god-ist, because after all, god can do anything he pleases. Atheism is hard to prove with one knock-out punch. But evolution wins, for me, overwhelmingly, on points. Point after point after point, each point being made perfect sense of by the idea of natural selection of chance variations, and each point meaning that any god is going to have to have been the kind of god who, for no very obvious reason, wanted all creatures without exception to look exactly as if they had all evolved. Simply, evolution makes sense to me, while god, especially the idea of God that Christians and Muslims proclaim, makes, to me, no sense at all. It’s the range and volume of evidence that is so convincing.

Two of the many points made in the National Geographic article made particular sense to me. It’s not that I’d never thought before about such things, just that this time around, they both hit home with particular force.

Point one:

All vertebrate animals have backbones. Among vertebrates, birds have feathers, whereas reptiles have scales. Mammals have fur and mammary glands, not feathers or scales. Among mammals, some have pouches in which they nurse their tiny young. Among these species, the marsupials, some have huge rear legs and strong tails by which they go hopping across miles of arid outback; we call them kangaroos. Bring in modern microscopic and molecular evidence, and you can trace the similarities still further back. All plants and fungi, as well as animals, have nuclei within their cells. All living organisms contain DNA and RNA (except some viruses with RNA only), two related forms of information-coding molecules.

Such a pattern of tiered resemblances — groups of similar species nested within broader groupings, and all descending from a single source — isn’t naturally present among other collections of items. You won’t find anything equivalent if you try to categorize rocks, or musical instruments, or jewelry. Why not? Because rock types and styles of jewelry don’t reflect unbroken descent from common ancestors. Biological diversity does. …

Point two:

Vestigial characteristics are still another form of morphological evidence, illuminating to contemplate because they show that the living world is full of small, tolerable imperfections. Why do male mammals (including human males) have nipples? Why do some snakes (notably boa constrictors) carry the rudiments of a pelvis and tiny legs buried inside their sleek profiles? Why do certain species of flightless beetle have wings, sealed beneath wing covers that never open? Darwin raised all these questions, and answered them, in The Origin of Species. Vestigial structures stand as remnants of the evolutionary history of a lineage.

As I tried to explain in this conversation with Patrick Crozier, evolution performs, for me, many of the functions of a religion, in that it gives the best answers we humans have to the “big questions”, like: Where did we come from? And: Why does life feel the way it does for us? It even makes sense of things which we personally reproach ourselves for feeling, like an extreme and “irrational” fear of irrationally hostile strangers.

What I do not feel, now or ever, is any need to believe anything to be true that I do not in fact believe to be true. In that sense, evolution is not my “faith”, if that’s what faith is. Doubting Thomas, in the Bible (here comes my Church of England upbringing), says to Jesus: “Lord I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.” I simply believe what I believe, and doubt whatever I doubt. I believe in evolution, not just as true but as very helpfully and very illuminatingly true, and I do not doubt it.

When checking the links in the above, I discovered that National Geographic doesn’t want me to read that article again. It seems I have gone beyond my limit. I hope that if you want to read it, you’ll be luckier.

Hitchens talks to Paxman

I fear that I may now be an I-may-be-about-to-die bore. In the sense that I can think of nothing which I am now doing or saying or even thinking which is not happening under the shadow of my recent lung cancer diagnosis. And given the subject matter of this particular posting, any pretence along such lines would be absurd. Which is why I start with that now. Which could get very boring.

Anyway, what I want to link to is this video, lasting about half an hour, in which Jeremy Paxman talks with the late and then staring his about-to-be-lateness in the face Christopher Hitchens.

Here’s a still from this video, which I think I am presenting because one of the many things I like about this conversation is how Hitchens looks. His head entirely shaven, his face serious, the very picture of a ancient stoic, looking both at death and at the kind of life he might have to suffer before death with an unflinching gaze:

Hitchens’s appearance reminds me of that of my friend and fellow Samizdatista, Paul Marks. “The Sage of Kettering”, as the Samizdata commentariat refers to Paul, looks a lot like this already, despite the fact that to the best of my knowledge Paul is only going to die in the same medically relaxed sense that we all are.

The link to this video was, of course, sent to me, by a friend who had learned of my current medical predicament and thought that I might appreciate learning about it and watching it. Which I very much did, having missed it the first time around.

The friend picked out a bit right at the end, where Hitchens says that he especially appreciated communications from strangers who had in one way or another appreciated something that he, Hitchens, had said or written or done. “If in doubt about whether to send me such a message, do not hesitate. Send it.” Or words to that effect.

He added that he regretted having failed to do this for others in similar circumstances.

I agree on both counts. I am being very cheered up right now by all the kind things that I have persuaded various people, not a few of them pseudonymous Samizdata people whose identities are otherwise unknown to me, to say to me about my own various sayings and doings over the years. And I too regret having failed to do as much of this as I could and should have, when I saw valued friends and intellectual comrades nearing their ends.

New category in the category list below: Death. Here’s hoping that at least some of the remaining postings I manage here are not thus tagged.

By the way, that could be quite a few more. Hitchens was facing the certainty of death, pretty soon, when he did this interview, and he duly died soon after it, I believe. Not long, anyway. All I can really say about my lung cancer is that it sounds pretty bad. But that might merely mean it being pretty bad for quite a while longer.

The Babylon Bee joins Twitter and Facebook in seeking to suppress claims that Hunter Biden is not entirely honest

Yes, my favourite insect has for many weeks been a bee, the Babylon Bee. But now, the Bee is telling me this:

Since you did not click on that article, you were not horrified by all the alleged revelations about H. Biden. So your life is much better for not reading the completely false story. We are glad you did not read it and share it with others. Because you are a good, upstanding citizen and would not share false smears about someone. Good job!

Until now, I had been supposing Hunter Biden, the son of candidate Joe Biden in an election they’re having over there, to be a corrupt scumbag of the scummiest and baggiest sort. But now that the Babylon Bee has come out alongside Twitter and Facebook in defence of Hunter Biden, I realise that I may have to revise my opinion of this handsome and vigorously entrepreneurial young man. Have I been thoughtlessly misjudging him? Who am I to doubt the Bee?

But, I don’t know, somehow, being told not to click on that article, even by such a respected insect as the Babylon Bee, well, that just doesn’t sit right with me. Who are the Babylonian Bee people to be telling me what I can and can’t read? So, here I am doing this posting in exactly the way they wouldn’t want me to, and including the link to the article, which I personally think that maybe you should read, because, well, as of now, I’m keeping an open mind on this Hunter Biden issue.

The Babylon Bee is run and written by hardcore, fundamentalist Christian extremists, the sort of Christians who actually believe in a lot of that Christian stuff. I, on the other hand, am a moderate middle-of-the-road atheist, who knows that all Gods are made-up hobgoblins, apart from the ones in Wagner operas. I always thought this might in due course lead to a political parting of the ways between the Beeites and me. Maybe this is that parting.

LATER: I take the Babylon Bee seriously, and I am delighted to report that I appear to be in good company.

“I love it when Dawkins admitted that!”

I recently watched this duet rant by David Wood and, when he can get a word in, Robert Spencer. David Wood, a new name to me, is a Christian, but not the sort of Christian who believes in turning the other cheek when his enemy threatens to slap him hard enough to cause serious harm. That doesn’t work. (That this doesn’t work is one of the many reasons I’m not a Christian at all.) But Wood makes many excellent tactical points about what you are up against when you interact with seriously Islamic Islamicists.

From that, I then found my way to this snatch of video. In the latter, a bunch of scornful Christians introduce a clip of Richard Dawkins talking about whether there is any evidence he can imagine that would convince him that God exists. Dawkins says he used to say: Yes. If evidence appeared, he’d change his mind and believe in God. But then, he was persuaded that he actually cannot imagine any evidence that would persuade him of God’s existence.

As I say, the Christians are scornful. This guy freely admits that there is no evidence that would change his mind about God!

Dawkins’s position is precisely my own position. I was once challenged along the same lines. If evidence appeared for God’s existence, would I start believing in God? I said: Yes. But then, I realised that I could imagine no such “evidence” that it would not make more sense to interpret in a non-God way. An hallucination, or a trick. Or maybe an alien who seemed to me like God, but who was merely clever at creating misleading effects, perhaps based on knowing more than humans do about how the human body and mind function, by getting inside the workings of my brain.

The reason I think this way is that the idea of God, as presented to me by Christians and Muslims, makes no sense. So to interpret a clutch of “evidence” as evidence in favour this senseless idea is itself senseless. These facts must have some other non-God explanation. If the only reason to believe in God is this one little clutch of evidence, then the chances are that this evidence isn’t actual evidence either.

A theory doesn’t only have to “fit the facts”, as in a small clutch of facts that seem to contradict it. It also has to make sense. What does “make sense” mean? Something like: Consistent with everything else I know about the world. A theory must must not merely “fit the facts”. It must fit all the facts.

The history of science is full of episodes of this sort. A theory is proposed which fits a lot of facts and which makes a lot of sense, despite being radically different from what scientists used to believe. Then, some facts materialise which seem to contradict the theory. Dump the theory! You are refusing to face the facts! You are a dogmatist! But then, these “facts” turn out not to be facts, and the new theory, because of the sheer weight of the evidence in its favour, sails on in triumph. Or, if lots of other evidence piles up against it, not.

I freely admit that what I think about evidence depends on what I already think. As does what you think. Worldviews differ. This is not scandalous. It is merely how things are. To get someone to change their worldview, you have to supply lots of evidence, not just a little bit.

On Ex-Muslims and on the lack of social media omnipotence

Over the course of the last few days, Facebook suppressed Ex-Muslim TV but has now allowed it back on air again.

Which provides me with a perfect excuse to write some topical commentary on the subject of Ex-Muslims, and on social media and the allegedly dictatorial powers of the social media. I have a hook. XMTV got suppressed, and then unsuppressed. By social media. Over the last few days. I can now have “Current events” in my category list for this posting.

My commentary on XMTV goes like this: Islam is an ideology of conquest, of the world, by Islam. Submit or die. Islamic terrorists interpret Islam correctly. “Moderate” Muslims either don’t read, or don’t listen to, what they nevertheless insist on going through the motions of saying they do believe. Or they’re just lying, to us and to themselves.

Those who react to the above truths with a shudder, often come back with the claim that, well, yes, that may be true, but this is not a nice thing to say. Yes, Islam does indeed need to “reform”, but if you describe Islam too accurately, that will only arouse opposition from angry Muslims, and they’ll dig in their heals and refuse to make Islam any nicer.

I, on the other hand, think that if any “reform” of this transformative sort ever materialises, it is now decades away from happening. In the meantime, if and when such “reform” (actually a radical rewrite) ever happens, the reason why it will happen will be that millions upon millions of Muslims are publicly abandoning Islam altogether, refusing to wait for it to stop being the nasty thing it has been since it was founded and as of now remains. Only when staring extinction in the face will Islam’s remaining adherents seriously set about remaking their beliefs to the point where they might become truly nice. Will it then be too late for Islam thus to save itself from oblivion? I don’t know and I don’t care.

So, in the meantime, I regard the transformation of Muslims into Ex-Muslims as by far the most important thing now happening to Islam, and also (because also) the best thing. Do you think of yourself as “moderate” and a Muslim. I say: Make up your mind which of these two things you want to be. Choose nicely and wisely. Choose to become an Ex-Muslim.

In the event that history carries on getting nicer, you Ex-Muslims are in the vanguard of it. Hurrah for you. That’s commentary part one of this posting.

As to the second part of the commentary I want to attach to this Facebook-versus-Ex-Muslims contretemps, well, Facebook surely could have kept the Ex-Muslims permanently off their platform, but only at the cost of a relentless drizzle of anti-Facebook anti-Islamic commentary, such as are to be read in this posting, in the paragraphs above this one and, to carefully moderated extent, in the paragraphs that follow. Worse, they might provoke a mass-migration to Parler or Gab or some such alternative. (Every time something like this Ex-Muslim thing happens, I get an email from Gab telling me all about it, and telling me to switch to Gab. One day, I just might.)

But, meanwhile, note that I found out about this news item via Twitter. Twitter, like Facebook, is anti-anti-Islamic, in the sense that this is surely the attitude of most of their two workforces. Yet, although presumably also constantly nagged by Non-Ex Muslims to scrub the Ex-Muslims from their site, Twitter did not do so, despite I am sure must have been a definite little spike of attention being paid by the world to the various Ex-Muslim tweets, denouncing Facebook, that they found themselves hosting.

The problem Twitter and Facebook both face is that they are juggling two contradictory agendas. There is the big money-spinning agenda, the one that says that people can say whatever they hell they like, much as I can say whatever I like on this blog, because it’s my blog. And then there’s the agenda that says that the social media should promote virtue and suppress vice, by allowing and drawing attention to virtuous messages and ignoring and scrubbing all the vicious ones, virtue and vice being defined in accordance with the wokist principles adhered to by, at the very least, an influential and noisy minority of their workforces. Because the wokists want wicked ideas suppressed, rather than merely argued into obscurity, these two agendas can’t both happen. And often the clash between the two generates fireworks, and more attention for particular agendas that the wokists dislike, as may have happened with this temporary interruption of Ex-Muslim TV service.

I don’t want to underplay the amount of grief that the wokists can do to any individual or organisation that they pick out from the herd and concentrate their attacks on. But killing an individual animal is not the same as wiping out the entire herd. If it were, there’d have been no Brexit, no Trump, no actually existing modern world. The Anglosphere is currently having an ideological civil war, and there’s nothing that social media can do to prevent this, not least because they themselves have constructed many of the battlefields and thus helped to make the war happen. They are now merely a part of this war, and a very ambiguous one at that. To switch metaphors from a herd to a conflagration, the social media often fan the very flames that the people who run them and who work for them are trying to extinguish.

Excellent photo of Ricky Gervais

Now that I still can’t be showing off any of my own photos, I am keeping my eye more than usually open for other photos worth linking to. So, what do you reckon on this? I think it’s a wonderful photo.

In his Twitter bio, Gervais now describes himself as a “Godless Ape”. That’s how this photo makes him look, I think.

Islam can’t be made nice

Says Armin Navabi:

The only way to reform Islam is to get rid of Islam.

A short video, lasting just over two minutes. Navabi is right, provided by “reform” we mean “make nice”. That verbal quibble aside, agreed.

There are many nice people who want to remain nice but also to remain Muslim. Can’t be done. Islam demands nastiness from its followers, and there’s no way round that, only out of it.

The current Western governmental view of Islam is: resist the bad stuff, appease the good stuff. But the only good stuff in Islam is good people trying to be good but being told not to be good by Islam. Islam itself is the enemy.

The way to defeat Islam is to persuade a large number of its current adherents to stop being its adherents. That will put Islam on the defensive, both ideologically and physically. Muslims will be put in the position of trying to explain that Islam is nice. They will fail, but will then look weak, because they will have abandoned their strongest weapon, which is the fact that Islam demands nastiness. And the Muslims will thus lose. There will still be many “Muslims”, so-called, in the world, but the ones who really believe in it will become a beleaguered minority, constantly betrayed to their enemies by other “Muslims” who are trying to prove, to the world and to other Muslims who are thinking of leaving Islam, how nice they are, despite going through all the motions of saying that they still believe nasty things.

In other anti-Islamic news, Dawkins notes a stirring of atheism in the Islamic world. I hope, and more and more think, that this is right, and very good news. The more I learn about this man, more I admire him, even though I mostly don’t agree with him on domestic political issues.

If you are now, still, a Muslim, stop it.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog