Books Are Pretty

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The God Delusion.

This is a shiny, shiny book.

I know it looks gray here, but if you actually hold the book in your hand, you will see that it has the reflective property of unwrinkled aluminum foil. If you're walking around outside with it, I recommend you hold it topside-down, or you'll find yourself temporarily blinded when the sun bounces off it right into your eyes. Dawkins says in the book that he is sure his main audience will be other atheists, but I think maybe, for whatever reason, he secretly also wanted to appeal to crows.

Soon atheism will sweep through the avian world, and the next thing you know there will be billions of the godless soaring over our heads. Atheism's master plan is revealed! You read it here first.

Richard Dawkins holds the rather unwieldy title of the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, and, if The God Delusion is to be viewed as an extension of that job, he's very good at what he does. Dawkins seems to have stepped into the sensible shoes of the late Madelyn Murray O'Hair as the world's most infuriating atheist, sort of an Atheist 2.0. He is a much better upgrade, actually, because Dawkins seems to be a decent person who brings more to the table than merely being an obnoxious big mouth. No, it seems Dawkins angers people by being able to back up his seemingly inflammatory statements with fact and reason instead.

The reactions to The God Delusion often make his case vis a vis the danger of religion. Dawkins says that our reticence to challenge religious belief, even when it is violent, bigoted, offensive or just flat out wrong, does a tremendous disservice to progressivism. This really seems to piss people off.

A fantastic example of defensive religious apolegetics is in Jim Holt's review of The God Delusion in the New York Times.

In a particularly low blow, [Dawkins]accuses Richard Swinburne, a philosopher of religion and science at Oxford, of attempting to “justify the Holocaust,” when Swinburne was struggling to square such monumental evils with the existence of a loving God.

Low blow? Really? Why don't we see for ourselves what Swinburne actually said? When Dawkins was on a television panel with Swinburne and fellow Oxford professor Peter Atkins, Swinburne attempted to justify the Holocaust "on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble."

That's some struggling! It reminds me of the time I was working at Barnes & Noble, and one of my coworkers got married and changed his last name because he and his wife wanted to create a new name to represent their new lives together. Another one of our coworkers was extremely offended by this, saying that anyone who changed his last name didn't really love his father. I said, "Hm. I changed my name when I got married. Does that mean I don't love my father?" Confronted with the notion that his theory was not only intrusive and wrong-headed, but also so sexist it completely forgot about over half of the world's population, who are under immense cultural, and sometimes legal, coercion to change their names upon marriage, he struggled with the question for a moment, then, even though he knew it was wrong, stubbornly replied, "Yes."

He was then completely humiliated by the raucous, derisive laughter of the rest of his coworkers. If only the world would respond this way to religious absurdities!

It is exactly statements like Swinburne's, and the subsequent finger-wagging at Dawkins for being appalled by the profound heartlessness in the name of God by Swinburne, that proves Dawkins' point.*

The God Delusion is part biology lesson, part atheist rebuttal to common arguments for the existence of God, and part internet nerdery. Even though Dawkins is British, where religion is not running amok on the political stage to quite the extent that it is in the United States, it is still a minority belief, and, like furries, atheists tend to get together on the net to socialize. So a lot of The God Delusion consists of references to blogs (homeboy PZ Myers is namechecked at least three times), internet jokes made by atheists, atheist websites, and of course, his own website. I found this endearingly nerdy. Says the blogger.**

Anyway, you could edit out almost all the internet references and examples of religious harm and just leave in Dawkins' scientific explanations for what is commonly seen as evidence of God - the Irreducible Complexity theory and the Moral Guidance theory - and the book would be worth reading. When Dawkins lays out his scientific reasoning for kindness as an important evolutionary trait, it really shows how he earns his money - he's very, very good at explaining science to the general public. He makes the absence of God and the presence of scientific fact look miraculous and indescribably beautiful, and he really doesn't need atheism to sell atheism, if you know what I mean. His talent as a scientist and a teacher is vast enough that just his explanations of How Things Work are enough to make you want to leave Creationism behind.

For example, the bacterial flagellar motor is often cited by Creationists as proof of God. It is the only example in nature of a freely rotating axle, and what Creationists use as an example of "Irreducible Complexity," a complex creation that, if any part is removed, does not work.

The flagellar motor of bacteria is a prodigy of nature. It drives the only known example, outside human technology, of a freely rotating axle. Wheels for big animals would, I suspect, be genuine examples of irreducible complexity, and this is probably why they don't exist. How would the nerves and blood vessels get across the bearing? The flagellum is a thread-like propeller, with which the bacterium burrows its way through th water. I say 'burrows' rather than 'swims' because, on the bacterial scale of existence, a liquid such as water would not feel as a liquid feels to us. It would feel more like treacle, or jelly , or even sand, and the bacterium would seem to burrow or screw its way though the water rather than swim. Unlike the so-called flagellum of larger organisms like protozoans, the bacterial flagellum doesn't just wave about like a whip, or row like an oar. It has a true, freely rotating axle which turns continously inside a bearing, driven by a remarkable little molecular motor. At the molecular level, the motor uses essentially the same principle as muscle, but in free rotation rather than in intermittent contraction. It has been happily described as a tiny outboard motor (although by engineering standards- and unusually for a biological mechanism - it is a spectacularly inefficient one.)

Without a word of justification, explanation or amplification, [Creationist Michael] Behe simply proclaims the bacterial flagellar motor to be irreducibly complex. Since he offers no argument in favor of his assertion, we may begin by suspecting a failure of his imagination. He further alleges that specialist biological literature has ignored the problem. The falsehood of this allegation was massively and (to Behe) embarrassingly documented in the court of Judge John E. Jones in Pennsylvania in 2005, where Behe was testifying as an expert witness of behalf of a group of creationists who had tried to impose "intelligent design" creationism on the science curriculum of a local public school - a move of "breathtaking inanity", to quote Judge Jones - phrase and man surely destined for lasting fame. In fact, the key to demonstrating irreducible complexity is to show that none of the parts could have been useful on its own. They all needed to be in place before any of them could do any good (Behe's favorite analogy is a mousetrap.) In face, molecular biologists have no difficulty in finding parts functioning outside the whole, both for the flagellar motor and for Behe's other alleged examples if irriducible complexity. The point is well put by Kenneth Miller of Brown University, for my money the most persuasive nemesis of "intelligent design", not least because he is a devout Christian...In the case of the bacterial rotary engine, Miller calls our attention to a mechanism called the Type Three Secretory System or TTSS. The TTSS is not used for rotatory movement. It is one of several systems used by parasitic bacteria for pumping toxic substances through their cell walls to poison their host organism. On our human scale, we might think of pouring or squirting a liquid through a hole; but, once again, on the bacterial scale things look different. Each molecule of secrete substance is a large protein with a definite, three dimensiaonl structure of the same scale as the TTSS's own: more like a solid sculpture than a liquid. Each molecule is individually propelled through a carefully shaped mechanism, like an automated slot machine dispensing, say, toys or bottles, rather than a simple hole through which a substance might 'flow'. The goods-dipenser itself is made of a rather small number or protein molecules, each one comparable in size and complexity to the molecules being dispensed through it. Interestingly, these bacterial slot machines are often similar across bacteria that are not closely related. The genes for making them have probably been 'copied and pasted' from other bacteria: something that bacteria are remarkably adept at doing, and a fascinating topic in its own right...The protein molecules that form the structure of the TTSS are very similar to components of the flagellar motor. To the evolutionist it is clear that TTSS components were commandeered for a new, but not wholly unrelated, function when the flagellar motor evolved. Given that the TTSS is tugging molecules through itself, it is not surprising that it uses a rudimentary version of the principle used by the flagellar motor, which tugs the molecules of the axle round and round. Evidently, crucial components of the flagellar motor were already in place and working before the flagellar motor evolved. Commandeering existing mechanisms is an obvious way in which an apparently irreducibly complex piece of apparatus could climb Mount Improbable.

Okay, that was really long, I know, but it's so much more interesting than "God did it." When you really begin to seriously study something in nature as unique and fascinating as the bacterial flagellar motor, the more creationism begins to sound like "stop learning, stop thinking." And once you've started learning, it's an awful thing to be told to stop because God wants you to be stupid. Or, to be less inflammatory my own self: A thorough understanding of biology - who has considered the fact that bacteria don't swim through water, but rather push their way around water molecules? It really changes your perception of what's really going on - makes you realize that Creationists are not only fighting blind, but insisting that you do the same. To scientists such as Dawkins, who find such joy in finding out why things are the way they are, to be told not to probe further is infuriating. (Not to mention that if scientific puzzles are proof of God, what does it mean when those puzzles are solved? Is that the basis of the fear of "Darwinism?") One can hardly blame him for finding it difficult to keep a combative tone out of his writing in reaction to intelligent design proponents.

But that yearning for truth is the real danger of Dawkins to religious fundamentalists. The God Delusion makes that apple on the tree of knowledge look so damned delicious.

*The entire review is so full of the fear of offending the religious, coupled with an astonishing lack of understanding of evolution and science, that it's worth reading for its WTF? value alone.

**It's such a shame the paperback came out before one of the greatest internet nerd wars ever, the Expelled controversy, which sucked in both Dawkins and PZ Myers and gave joy to atheist internet nerds for weeks. I'll bet you a silver dollar as shiny as the book's cover that it will be inserted into subsequent reprintings.


The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
January, 2008 by Mariner Books
1st edition paperback, 464pp
ISBN: 0618918248

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