Thursday, November 15, 2007

God Spoke Life into Us?

In what may be one of the nuttier efforts to reconcile the theory of evolution with religion is offered to us in a book "The Language of God" written by a former atheist and DNA expert, one Francis Collins. I was made aware of this "theory" in a Columbus Dispatch article. I will be honest with you: I have not and never will read this book for the title alone is so phenomenally uninformed that it cannot be other than a total waste of time. Even, and maybe especially, if you are religious.

The notion that DNA is a language, let alone that it is God's language, is even crazier than references to the language of music or the language of art which I dealt with in an earlier blog. First, to claim that DNA is God's language presumes that there exist entities with whom He converses. One might claim that God is speaking to persons like Dr. Collins, people who try to map the genomes of various species or obtain the DNA profile of a specific individual, perhaps a criminal. There are two problems with this idea that come immediately to mind. The first is that there is no known language in which there exists only one entity who speaks the language with all others being restricted to "listening" to him/her/it. Does God ask questions using DNA code? If so, He isn't getting any answers. I believe it is fair to say that He does not issue requests or commands in DNA. Or make statements. The other problem with this notion is that humans have been around thousands of years but only recently have we begun doing genetic research into DNA. This means that all the Biblical persons who have said that they spoke to God would have to be lying since they couldn't have spoken or understood the so-called language of DNA.

Collins appeared in Columbus, Ohio before two groups of people along with some other speakers having a similar perspective. He and these others made claims about DNA which are totally mind-boggling. In fact, the claim that DNA is a language is itself incomprehensible. I am anything but a DNA expert but I think I can safely claim that there are no properties of DNA that are linguistic in character. There is no signaling system and that in itself blows up the idea that DNA is a language for all languages, even made up ones like Esperanto have some sort of signaling system.

Collins said that DNA is is "how God spoke life into you and me." We might call this the "Shazam!" theory of the creation of life. "Shazam!" is a magic word that, when uttered causes some change in the world. It was used by a wizard to turn Billy Batson into Captain Marvel. From then on, Billy could turn himself into the adult Captain Marvel simply by uttering this word whenever he needed to do heroic things. Note that I have to resort to a comic book to find an instance in which a use of language can cause a material change in the world. I cannot, for instance, say, "Shazam!" and cause the house to be clean or the lawn to be mown.

Another mind-boggling use of language in these talks came from one Jeffery McKee who claimed that "God's writing is in the sedimentary rocks..." Try to imagine how you would make sense out of this. Notice that the striations in sedimentary rocks bear no relationship to DNA. I believe that those trying to reconcile science and religion need to get on the same page. Does God write in DNA or in rock striations or floods or whatever is happening at any given time. The scary thing is that Dr. Collins is the director of the National Human Genome Institute. That is like making a creationist a President of the USA. Oh, we have done that in the last two Presidential elections.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Christian Right and Ostriches

Today, I read an op-ed piece claiming that abstinence programs have been ineffective. Duh! It takes a special kind of stupidity to believe that programs that teach abstinence will lead children to want to preserve their virginity until after marriage. Even more stupid is the belief that teaching abstinence instead of the use of birth control devices to help girls avoid becoming pregnant and the use of condoms in particular to thwart the transmission of STDs such as chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, hepatitis A, B, and C, syphilis, aids, and crabs, etc.

The specific kind of stupidity I am referring to is that which assumes that if you legislate against something, that something will not happen. When I was of college age, I got into an argument with an older guy I was working with at a summer job who was advocating that the alcohol prohibition laws in Oklahoma be kept. I asked him why and he replied that this was the only way to keep people from drinking alcohol. I told him I would bet him such-and-such amount of money that I could get a bootlegger to bring a fifth of bourbon to where we were were within a half hour. This was a bit of a bluff on my part since I had never used a bootlegger but I knew a guy who had and who I knew had his telephone number. I also reminded him that the Constitutional Amendment outlawing alcohol was a total failure.

A doctor and mother of a girl I was dating at the time told me that the police blamed prohibition laws in Oklahoma for the high incidence of public drunkenness. She said they believed that people in possession of a bottle of booze would drink the whole bottle so as not to risk being caught with a bottle with just enough alcohol left in it to support an arrest. When I was in Scotland in the summer of 1970, the laws governing the hours during which pubs could sell alcohol to two different periods, one being something like 11:00 a. m. to 2:00 p. m. and the other being something like 5:30 or 6:00 p. m. to 9:00 p. m. Bartenders would announce "last call" early enough that those who wanted to buy 2 or 3 pints at once could do so for the law governed not when pubs had to close, as in the USA, but when the sale of alcohol had to stop. So, many people, after several hours of drinking (often shots of hard alcohol combined with pints of beer) would then engage in a mini-binge before leaving for home. Alcoholism was a major problem in Scotland at the time, the principle being the same as in Oklahoma -- prohibition laws can lead some to greater, not less drunkenness.

Facts have never been much of a problem for the Christian Right for "the Bible told me so" used as a supporting argument always trumps real world facts in their minds. When I was in high school and my mind turned to girls, I had two great fears concerning engaging in sex. One was the fear that I would knock up some girl I had no desire to marry. The other was that I was afraid of getting syphilis, gonorrhea, and crabs. I didn't know about the other STDs. My fears concerning knocking up some "easy" girl who was not someone one would want to marry were based on the illegality of abortion, the social pressures on males to "do the right thing," and my embarrassment at buying condoms in a public place. Like any young man raised to be a Christian, I was, of course, taught that I should "save myself" for my wife, who would, of course, be "saving herself" for me. This teaching of abstinence was, of course, irrelevant to my concerns.

The landscape has changed. We have safe abortions now in most places so one does not have to marry someone just because they got knocked up. On the other hand, there are many more STDs than before. It seems to me that the most effective way to control unwanted pregnancies is to teach birth control and the most effective way to prevent transmission of STDs is to teach kids to use condoms, as well as sufficient information about STDs and the failure rate of condoms to scare the bejesus out of kids. Fear, as long as it is not over-done, is a great motivator.

As I mentioned, we have abortions that are safe if they are done early enough and by someone trained to do them (who will not use a coat hanger). But the Christian Right, engaging in still another instance of this special kind of stupidity -- belief that making something illegal that people want to have (booze, sex, and abortions being the main things) will prevent it. I don't know whether ostriches really hide their heads in the sand as a tactic for deterring predators but their "reasoning," if you will, is pretty much the same as that of the Christian Right in these three cases.

At the Republican convention in 2008, I suggest that they vote to replace the elephant with the ostrich as the symbol of the party for ostriches, better than elephants, symbolize their manner of thinking.

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