Monday, November 30, 2009

Bats as birds

Earlier in this blog, I argued that modern anti-Biblical readers have been too hard on James Ussher--who, after all, put in quite a remarkable effort. Now, I'd like to argue that they've been too hard on the writer of Leviticus.

Leviticus 11:13-19:
These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

Hold up. The bat? Doesn't God know that bats aren't birds? Ha ha. This Judeo-Christian God is pretty ignorant of his own creations.

But I find the passage quite acceptable, on two related grounds. The first is purely translational. If the Hebrew word we translate as "bird" meant "all flying things bigger than an insect," bats would quite properly be included. (In a similar vein, the Greek word we translate as "hand" [χείρ] included the wrist. So most depictions of Christ's crucifixion show the nails through his palms, even though the Romans normally put the nails between the radius and the ulna, which could support more weight. Whether the wrist is actually part of the hand is a linguistic issue, not a biological one.)

I don't know Hebrew, and I don't know what the original text of Leviticus says. But regardless, I see nothing inherently wrong with having viewed bats as birds (or whales as fish*). In our post-Linnaean world, such categories seem decidedly strange. But historically people have categorized things in many ways for linguistic purposes. The resulting words are likely to serve their purposes as long as everyone agrees on their meanings.

By today's definitions, and for today's purposes, a bat is not a bird. A whale is not a fish. A wrist is not a hand. And a man is in truth an ape. But I won't criticize those who once had other definitions for other purposes. Questions of definition, like whether Pluto is a planet, are not questions of natural fact.

*Every translation I've seen of Jonah 1:17 says Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, not a whale. The story is often told with him being swallowed by a whale, however, and I can't see that it loses much from that.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Origin

One hundred fifty years ago today, a book was published called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by a British naturalist named Charles Darwin. It sold out on its publication date, and overnight, it changed the way we view our place in the universe.

I've often wondered how much difference it would have made if Darwin hadn't written this book--or, for that matter, if he had never come up with the theory. After all, he's hardly the only one who came up with a theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, the theory was first presented coherently as a joint paper by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, in 1858.

The situation with Wallace is especially interesting to me, because of the extreme coincidence. There are many cases in the history of science in which two people came up with nearly identical theories or discoveries at the same time, independently. But Wallace not only came up with the idea without Darwin's help, he sent a letter to Darwin explaining the idea and asking what he thought of it--not knowing that Darwin had already worked it out. What are the odds of that?

So could Wallace have pushed forth the theory as Darwin did? Coincidentally, I ran across Wallace's own answer last night, quoted in an essay by Thomas Henry Huxley:
I have felt all my life, and still feel, the most sincere satisfaction that Mr. Darwin had been at work long before me and that it was not left for me to attempt to write the 'Origin of Species.' I have long since measured my own strength, and know well that it would be quite unequal to that task.

It's hard for me to imagine anyone better suited to this essential task than Charles Darwin was. The world is different now because he wrote.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy Birthday, Universe!

The universe is now 6013 years old.

At least, that's true according to the calculations of James Ussher. Specifically, the universe was created at noon on October 23, 4004 B.C.

I first wrote about Ussher in 1988, as a freshman at Emporia State University. You can read the essay here. It's called "Does God Exist?" but it makes no effort to answer the question. Rather, it explores what happens when people try to answer it.

I take Ussher's research seriously: the mid-seventeenth century, James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland, figured out that the earth was created in 4004 B.C. As Ussher was a noted Bible scholar whose name carried weight, science had an obstacle to overcome for over three hundred years. The sensory evidence scientists used contradicted the religious evidence Christians used. Note that Ussher’s statement on the age of the earth was a theory, not a postulate. It was based on the Bible which in turn is based on the concept of God. Ussher’s theory is similar to scientific theories on the age of the earth, which are based on radiometric dating which is in turn based on sensory evidence that radiometric dating works.

So Ussher's work isn't better or worse than scientific approaches, just based on different assumptions (which are almost certainly flawed--but he didn't know that).

I'm not alone in respecting Ussher's work, even as I reject it. Stephen Jay Gould, in Eight Little Piggies, has a fascinating essay on the subject: "Fall in the House of Ussher."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Rhetoric of science v. rhetoric of technology

What is the essential difference between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology? The two disciplines are often lumped together, but in my view, they shouldn't be. Technology changes the way we communicate about facts. It changes our understanding of facts. It even changes the nature of the facts themselves. All of these points are essential to rhetoric.

I don't see how you can dispute the first point if you're reading this on my blog. With a click of a button, I can give millions of people access to my ideas. They may not choose to take advantage of this access, of course, but the principle remains. When PZ Myers posts something, it reaches people a lot more quickly and easily than if he were publishing it in a book. (And I might add that bound books are pretty impressive technology in their own right.) Perhaps more relevant as far as rhetoric is concerned, these people can reply much more easily than they could without technology, too. In effect, as my colleague Bethany Iverson has argued, the Internet is recreating the ancient interactive environments in which the principles of rhetoric were first developed, but it's doing so on a vastly larger scale.

Google is one obvious part of a huge web of technology that changes the way we learn and think. What's the population of Massena, Iowa? You almost certainly don't know--but you might as well. You can look it up in seconds. Even if you're away from a computer, you can look up more things on a mobile device than you could have in the entire Library of Alexandria. This easy access to facts (and to nonfactual statements) makes it easier for writers to support their arguments, and easier for readers to challenge them. Are you really 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder in your home, if you own a gun? A quick Google search will allow you to check something that might otherwise have gone unquestioned.

None of what I've said so far is likely to be very controversial. My last claim, that technology changes the nature of facts themselves, may be more so. But what I mean by it is really quite simple. Although a purist might find this distinction overly simplistic, I think most scientists try to understand the world as unmodified by humanity. In some cases, they may manipulate their environment to study it. This is called experimentation, and it's intended to shed light on what things are like when they're not manipulated. In other cases, they may study the effects of humanity on the environment, as climate scientists do. In general, however, I stand by my statement.

Technology, however, does something quite different. It actively changes the environment--and therefore the facts about it. Computers, cell phones, roads, ballpoint pens, nuclear weapons ... all of these are products of technology. We couldn't study the rhetoric used by proponents of nuclear weapons if the weapons didn't exist in the first place.

There are other differences, as well, between the rhetoric of science and the rhetoric of technology, but excessive length is a rhetorical error I strive to avoid. The other points will have to wait for another day.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The data in the bacteria

Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth, devotes much of Chapter 5 to describing the work of Richard Lenski, who performs experiments on the evolution of bacteria. "Creationists hate it," Dawkins explains, because it shows evolution in action, and "it also undermines their central dogma of 'irreducible complexity'" (130-131).*

Creationist Andrew Schlafly asked Lenski to send his data. He agreed to. Then "Lenski went on to make the telling point that his best data are stored in frozen bacterial cultures, which anybody could, in principle, examine to verify his conclusions" (131).

Now this, to me, is a fascinating concept. The data are in the bacteria. The implication seems to be that Lenski's job, in writing his report, was merely to put on paper what already existed in nature. By extension, that may be viewed as the job of scientists in general. Language is a conduit between nature and mind. Read the words, and you know what's really out there.

Elsewhere in this blog, I've stated firmly that I do believe there is a Real World Out There. The Earth really is round (although not a perfect sphere), and bacteria really do evolve (and there are no qualifications for this statement).

At the same time, I'm skeptical of the implications I just mentioned. There are facts in nature, yes. In that sense, we can say that the data are in the bacteria. But even so simple an organism as a bacterium has a great deal of data in it. The choice of which data to emphasize is a rhetorical one. Not everyone will be working from the same concepts, so not everyone will choose the same data.

The conclusions are even more open to interpretation. I'm fairly certain that even if Schlafly were qualified to examine the cultures, he wouldn't come to the same conclusions Lenski did. One obvious response to this statement is that Schlafly's conclusions would be wrong. That misses my point, though: the same data can be interpreted by different people in different ways. It has no meaning until that meaning is created by humans. The moons of Jupiter, seen through Galileo's telescope, could as well be defects in the glass without the proper context.

Let me be clear. The moons of Jupiter were there long before Galileo--or any other human--was born. I am not claiming that the fact of their existence was created by humans. The knowledge of their existence, however, was.

Language, then, is not, and cannot be, simply a conduit between nature and mind. The most it can do is help lead to a shared understanding of our world. And I must say, that's quite enough to ask of it.

*Not all creationists emphasize irreducible complexity. It's mostly at the focus of the intelligent design theorists, led by Michael Behe, who does believe in a type of evolution--albeit one guided by a Designer. That doesn't deny the point Dawkins makes, though.

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Monday, October 19, 2009


After a long absence, I'm returning to this blog. Past entries have been very helpful to me, and I hope also to an occasional other reader.

Oddly, the blog has been useful to me even when I haven't been writing in it. I keep asking myself how I would write about this or that thought in my blog. On some sheet of paper somewhere, I have a list of topics I want to blog about, and on lots of little slips of paper scattered throughout my life, I have notes and the dates I came up with them. Some of them, unfortunately, are excessively cryptic. "Autorhetoric"? I have some ideas on what I might have been thinking when I wrote that one-word note to myself, but I'm not at all sure which of them is correct. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's enough that the note inspired several thoughts between its original writing on an old receipt and its current electronic version that you read here.

Will the blog be even more useful to me when I do write in it? Let's find out.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The God Particle

This book is brilliant.

Its humor is at the level of Dave Barry. Its clarity is at the level of Isaac Asimov. Its science is at the level you would expect from an author who won the Nobel Prize in physics (Leon Lederman).

I originally saw it in the university bookstore yesterday, and I almost bought it. Then I decided to check it out of the library instead. That decision made sense, but now that I've read most of it, I plan to buy it.

One thing I find especially interesting about it is the perspective of a real scientist on the history and philosophy of science. It's quite different from anything I've read that was written by a historian or philosopher of science. The history, especially, is exactly what Thomas Kuhn wrote to oppose: the view that each revolution simply adds to what has gone before.

My feeling is that people in science studies need to study more of what the scientists say--whether they end up agreeing with the scientists or not--and not quite as much of what historians, philosophers, and even rhetoricians of science say.